Going the Distance: My First Time Running the Gasparilla Distance Classic

By Jeff Atwell


Waiting in the staging area of the Gasparilla 8K, I’m a little surprised there are no runners dressed like pirates. I would expect that kind of reserve from the serious runners finishing the Gasparilla Half Marathon, but we’re in the 8K and there isn’t a single eye patch in the group.

As I get ready to start the 8k, I take a look around at the crowd of almost 3,000 eager to start the race- jumping up and down, stretching, chatting with new friends, as we wait for the half marathoners to finish, some of which will be running the 8k as part of the Michelob Ultra Challenge. The half marathon started at 6 a.m. taking all runners on a route through Davis Island, past New York Yankee Derick Jeter’s Spring Training house and along beautiful Bayshore Blvd.

With 9 a.m. closely approaching, the pace runners have arrived in the 8k staging area with their signs. The crowd begins to adjust accordingly, and I start to think back to what I have learned from my past 10k races (only two others, don’t get me wrong), which is to start with a faster group. If you’re a 10 minute miler like me, then start toward the back of the nines. Typically, you feel like your running in place for the first mile and there becomes more room as the pack opens up and the faster runners move along.  

It’s a few minutes until the race starts, so I decide to chat with a couple visiting from Austin, Texas. They ran the 15k yesterday and are doing the 8k and 5k this morning. We’re all first timers to Tampa Bay and have laid some common ground with our initial impressions: Food’s great. Tampa is bigger than we thought. Southern hospitality extends this far South. And what’s the deal with no one dressing like pirates for the 8k?

“Not even one puffy shirt,” he says.

“I’m going for it in the 5k,” she says. “I don’t even care!”

The music amps up and all of us face forward. The chatter stops. Runners get their last quad stretches in. The mass begins to move, the sun is reflecting off of the bay and Bayshore Blvd. is gorgeous. Five minutes in and we’re trotting through a cool old residential section lined with stylish old bungalows on one side—their residents cheering us on from the porches—and water on the other. What a great place to live.

About a mile in, I am drenched. I take the shirt they gave us in the goodie bag off, and notice a water station is in sight. I take a water break and walk through the misters. With music blasting along the route, I get my second wind and continue to run along the water.

About a mile and a half in, the leader of the race passes us in the opposite direction. He’s moving fast! The cheers for him swoop over the runners. A few seconds later, the leader of the women’s division passes us and gets an even louder cheer. Just the motivation I needed to help push me through the next half of the race.

As we make the turn, the woman with the 10- minute pace sign passes me. I am ready to kick it in full gear and finish this race. Heading down the straightaway, I look out at the water and start to invision myself crossing the finish line. Take a look back, and I notice the 11- minute pace setter making the turn. Too close for comfort.

I go inward. Look at the ground. Measure your strides. Measure my breaths. Shoulders relaxed. I exaggerate the arm pump down the final stretch, and the legs respond with a little more lift. The cheers as we approach the finish line are infectious. I straighten my hat. I make one last push to keep the 11-minute guy a respectable distance behind, and stride thru the line. 52:33.

It feels good to walk. It feels good to embrace Generation Me. I’m sure I finished in the bottom half of my age group, and they still put a medal around my neck!

The faster runners mingle in the staging area and have stopped sweating. I hope to look that happy in 10 minutes. I pass a live band tuning up and grab two bottles of water and a banana off the back of a tractor trailer full of bananas. As I get my bearings on the Hillsborough River bridge, I see a huge crowd gathered in the tunnel under the Tampa Convention Center. Shade! As I get closer, I see what all the fuss is about: post-race paella and Coke on ice. Maybe they’re giving out eye patches, too.