Even when virtual, there’s a vitality to the Gasparilla race scene

TAMPA — Fitz Koehler is a bundle of energy with a constant smile. It’s difficult

TAMPA — Fitz Koehler is a bundle of energy with a constant smile.

It’s difficult to miss her. She’s the bright blond in the bright blue jacket, sporting the greenish reflective sunglasses, holding the pink microphone at the starting and finish lines of this year’s Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic.

Koehler has officiated her fair share of running events since becoming a professional race announcer in 2014. But it wasn’t until this weekend that she voiced her first hybrid race.

The Distance Classic went virtual for the first time since the event started in 1978 due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Participants who registered online could run wherever they pleased, but race coordinators also set up a modified version of the course that runs along Bayshore Boulevard.

“I have to tip my hat to Susan Harmeling, the race director, for not giving up on her athletes and not leaving them to run alone in their neighborhoods,” Koehler said. “So the fact that we can all be together and there can be some sort of pomp and circumstance, and music, each other, (it’s great).”

Koehler, a Gainesville resident, typically would have called 15 races or so by this point in the year. Her count in 2021? Two, including the Distance Classic.

It’s been a “terrible” year, Koehler said. Yet her schedule flexibility allowed her to visit Tampa for the “iconic event.”

Koehler rotated between DJ’ing her 17-hour mixed music playlist and shouting out unscripted words of encouragement to runners and walkers by name — located under their bib number — as they made their way through the course.

“Runners, ready, set, go!” shouted Koehler, shaking a blue cowbell for extra effect. “Enjoy every step!”

The self-proclaimed “bossy blond at the starting line,” Koehler is a mini celebrity. Her job takes her to races across the country, including Los Angeles, Big Sur, Buffalo and Philadelphia.

“To be here means a lot to me and I think it means a lot to all these people,” said Koehler, a former professional kickboxer fitness consultant. “We’re all finally getting out and doing some things again. It feels so good.”

Here are more scenes from the weekend race:

‘Get ready for Betty!’

Even though Betty Ashley arrived on Bayshore Boulevard nearly an hour later than expected, she drew a large crowd.

One would have thought it was a scene out of Cheers, you know, that Boston-based bar where everyone knows your name.

That was Ashley on Saturday as the 99-year-old St. Petersburg resident, who turns 100 in June, walked the 5K with family members, including two of her children, Thelma Metzger, 66, and David Ashley, 57.

“It was a little hard to get here this morning,” Ashley said. “I was ready at 8 o’clock this morning, but my driver didn’t know where to go.”

As she walked toward the starting line, she stopped for photo ops with race volunteers and other runners who recognized her from photos and couldn’t resist documenting their experience with the local icon.

On her walk, she rotated between family members to help keep her balance. And she had plenty of other supporters in the field.

“Get ready for Betty!” runners shouted.

Heck, she even had a volunteer driving one of the organization’s golf carts behind her family just in case she needed a lift.

This year marks Betty’s 10th on the circuit. She has to keep moving. “Get up” is one of her mottos.

“Everything is so much fun,” she said.

Right run for the holiday

Mary Baum gave herself a Mother’s Day present this year: A run down her beloved Bayshore Boulevard in one of her all-time favorite races, the Distance Classic 15K.

She began her run about 5:30 Saturday morning, taking about one hour, 20 minutes to finish, a tame run for Baum, who described it as a “post pregnancy-type pace.”

That’s because Baum, 34, had her third child, Maggie, in December.

“I’m not ready to push it real hard just yet,” said Baum, who grew up in Tampa, ran for Plant High’s cross country team and went on to compete for UCF. “I’m steadily getting back into it.”

Which means training in the early mornings, then juggling a full-time job and three children, Maggie and sons Grant and Davis, who are 7 and 5 years old.

On Saturday, for instance, Baum — who trained into the eighth month of all her pregnancies — ended her race on Bayshore and promptly jumped in her car to take the kids to swimming lessons.

She said she wouldn’t change a thing, and one day will definitely be back to running marathons (she has finished 11, including Boston and New York) and half-marathons, which most definitely will include the Gasparilla version.

For now, she’s elated that the Distance Classic provided the official course to participants this weekend.

“This is a race that so many people, like me, look forward to every year,” Baum said. “It felt great to put on the Gasparilla bib and run down Bayshore. I think it’s something that made a lot of people feel better after the tough year we’ve had.

“Hopefully next year the race will be back to normal. That’s really something to look forward to.”

Runner’s best friend

Arlo looooves to run.

Every day, the 3-year-old, 70-pound Husky-Shepherd mix — barks and jumps around and asks his owners, Ali and Jess Hajiran, to take him for a run.

Every day, Ali and Jess oblige because if they don’t, Arlo will never burn off his relentless energy.

“One day we came home and Arlo got so excited that he jumped on the kitchen counter and when we walked in, there was Arlo, standing on the kitchen counter,” Jess said. “We thought, ‘How’d you get up there?’”

When Arlo turned 1, Ali and Jess went to their veterinarian. “What should we do? We can’t wear him out.”

The veterinarian said now that Arlo was basically full grown and his bones were strong, they could take him for runs, because, after all, he was bred to run. His breed, in fact, is known to pull sleds hundreds of miles through the ice and snow of the Iditarod race in Alaska.

Now Arlo runs several miles a day, and on weekends he runs up down Bayshore Boulevard with Ali and Jess and the Run Tampa fitness group.

Sunday, Arlo ran 13.1 miles with 33-year-old Ali and Jess in their first Distance Classic half-marathon.

No worries at all.

“We took it easy, stopping and making sure we had plenty of water for Arlo and us,” Ali said. “Arlo loved being out here on the course with the people.”

Did Arlo pull Jess and Ali along, or vice versa?

“Arlo always sets the pace and sometimes he pulls us like he’s pulling a sled,” Ali said. “Sometimes we’re the sled.”

A personal best

Michelle Delarosa hadn’t yet crossed the finish line when she broke down into tears.

Sobbing in race announcer Fitz Koehler’s embrace, Delarosa had reached an important personal milestone: finishing her first official 5K.

Delarosa, 29, weighed 265 pounds last March and wanted to be in a better place health-wise for her family. To date, she has lost 60 pounds, working for months to get to this point.

“It’s an indescribable feeling,” said Delarosa, of Temple Terrace. “It just feels like I broke through a roadblock that I couldn’t do before.”

When she started her journey, she couldn’t run for more than 30 seconds. She used Runkeeper, a GPS fitness tracking app, ahead of this year’s Distance Classic and trainers encouraged her to set a tangible goal of completing a race.

Since March, she has been running two or three times weekly as well as eating cleaner. She tried four 5K distances on her own — once a week — before the Distance Classic

“(It was important) to continue no matter how hard it was, no matter how long, out of breath, no matter how much I wanted to stop and quit, I just kept going,” she said.

Running in remembrance

He arrived Saturday morning on Bayshore Boulevard bedecked in pink and poignance.

Boyd Yesler, a retired clinical dentist from Sarasota, turned out for his 39th consecutive Distance Classic. Though hardly an avid runner (he has played competitive handball for more than a half-century), Yesler has endured frigidness, rain and suffocating humidity to continue his four-decade streak.

“Been through it all,” he said.

But a cloudless, surprisingly mild Saturday featured the toughest storm he has weathered along Bayshore Boulevard: Less than 11 months ago, Yesler, 70, lost 36-year-old daughter Sophie to what he chose to describe only as an “untimely death.”

“We’re running in memory of Sophie,” he said.

Yesler was joined by longtime partner (and fellow dentist) Jennifer Jaworski, 62, as well as his other daughter, 40-year-old Julia Yesler, and Sophie’s 14-year-old daughter, Chloe Yesler. Saturday’s race was Jennifer’s 25th Gasparilla, Julia’s ninth.

They wore matching, custom-designed pink tank tops with Sophie’s photo on the back. All ran the 15K course except for Chloe, who was participating in her first Gasparilla and did the 5K. Gasparilla executive director Susan Harmeling obliged the family by allowing Yesler to wear bib No. 83, giving Jaworski No. 11 and Julia No. 28.

Sophie’s birthdate: 11-28-83.

“It was a big success for the family,” Yesler said. “It helps with the grief.”

Can’t beat this support system

Her makeshift cheering section spanned the Eastern seaboard: parents from Jersey, brother from New York City, sister from Maryland.

All arrived on Bayshore Boulevard on a mild Saturday morning to watch 25-year-old Amy O’Connor fulfill a goal on which she embarked last fall.

“In September, I guess I just kind of said I wanted to run a half-marathon,” said O’Connor, a Tampa resident who grows medical cannabis. “I didn’t even know how long a half-marathon was. And then in January, I started to look for races, and luckily I live in Tampa so, I was like, ‘Let’s do it.’”

O’Connor’s quest converged with Mother’s Day weekend to inspire this family reunion, which culminated with a Sunday brunch. Her folks, Teresa and Michael DiPiazza of Ramsey, N.J., held up homemade signs as their daughter neared the finish area in the shadow of Tampa General Hospital. So did brother Lucas DiPiazza of New York City.

O’Connor’s husband, Brandon, monitored her progress along the sparsely populated thoroughfare, bereft of the bustle normally associated with this event. Sister Julia DiPiazza, who came in from just outside Washington D.C., held a scrolled-up prop, to make sure O’Connor’s achievement received the pageantry it merited.

“When (the race) turned virtual, we weren’t sure how big of a production it would be,” Julia said to her sibling, “so we made a finish line for you.”

Less hectic than her day job

Tampa General Hospital registered nurse Renee Nicker has been a volunteer at the Distance Classic for the past 16 years.

It didn’t take long for her to notice some stark differences from past years.

“It’s a cakewalk,” Nicker, 55, said. “I mean the volume, nobody’s here (like they typically are).”

In 2020, nurses stood along the fencing at the finish line handing out “goodie bags” to runners who were battling fatigue and the heat. The pandemic made for a sparser turnout this year.

TGH volunteers watched participants move past them without issue. Wheelchairs were at the ready, though, just in case someone needed a lift.

Regardless of the circumstances, Nicker enjoys the event.

“The staff and the camaraderie (are great),” said Nicker, who has worked at the hospital for 24 years. “We all work in the ER and it’s just a nice community event to bring everyone together.”

Have sneakers, will travel

Sarah Kreisman has made her trips to Tampa for Distance Classic weekend an annual vacation, usually meeting with friends between races. This year’s virtual format made it more of an adventure than usual.

Kreisman, 52, of San Diego always runs in the Ultra Challenge (15K and 5K on Saturday; half-marathon and 8K on Sunday).

“I think with everything that’s gone on (the race is) certainly as enjoyable as it can possibly be,” Kreisman said. “I really appreciate them putting on sort of a hybrid race and giving people a reason to come out other than just run solo. I’m impressed by that and I think for a virtual race, it doesn’t feel like a virtual race.”

Kreisman wasn’t sure what to truly expect when she arrived, but after running the course, she felt like the race came as advertised.

Kreisman’s running career spans 25 years, with the past 16 mostly focused on marathons. She enjoys the flexibility of being able to run anywhere, and combines the passion with her love of traveling.

“All I needed was a pair of sneakers and I’ve explored cities on foot,” she said. “(Running’s) a great way to see a city.”

The perfect fit

Every February, a group of folks from the Fit4Life health club in Haines City came to Tampa to run the Distance Classic half-marathon.

For nine years it was a date circled on the calendar: a goal, a celebration, a tradition.

“It was the race we used as motivation to get in shape,” said Fit4Life founder Darrin Fielder, a 54-year-old life-long Haines City resident. “We’ve accomplished so much through this race.”

When it was postponed this February, the Fit4Life group was upset, to say the least. And they were ecstatic when race organizers set up the half-marathon course for a virtual-type run this weekend.

“When we heard that, we were all in,” Fielder said. “There was no doubt we were coming.”

On Sunday, there they were, happy as could be after crossing the finish line with Gasparilla half-marathon bibs pinned to their shirts.

They had plenty of stories to tell.

“Before I started training with Fit4Life I couldn’t finish a quarter mile without stopping,” Linda Park said. “(Fielder) told me one day you’re going to finish a half-marathon. I thought, no way I can run that far. I mean I really couldn’t believe it.”

Park has now finished four Gasparilla half-marathons.

Standing nearby was Kimberly Lewis, a second-grade teacher who on Sunday finished her second half-marathon, running two hours faster than she did in her first one last year.

“I’ve lost 35 pounds and I feel so much better,” Lewis said. “After the first (half-marathon) I said, ‘I’m not doing this again’ because it was so hard. But then I stayed with it and here I am. It feels good to finish.”

Come next February, expect the Fit4Life crew to run once again — hopefully in better shape than ever.

“We look forward to it,” Fielder said. “We are so grateful that the course was here for us this year. It helped us reach some goals!”

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