When more than 5,000 men, women and children take off along Bayshore Boulevard this morning in the annual Gasparilla Distance Classic, only one will emerge the overall winner.
But there are dozens of races within this historic 15K, as elite runners of all backgrounds and occupations fight it out, step by step, for the title of age group champion.
"Every weekend there are battles in every age group that go unnoticed by the general public," said Joe Burgasser, coach of the St. Petersburg- based Forerunners Track Club. "Most of these races are out of sight, out of mind, known only to the competitors themselves and a small group of dedicated runners who follow these things."
Burgasser, a 74-year-old road-racing guru who was named the 2011 Age Group Runner of the Year by USA Track and Field, knows every top "masters" runner in Tampa Bay.
The message he spreads to the faithful few who train with him on Tuesday evenings at the St. Petersburg College track is simple:
"You don't have to be the first across the finish line to win.''
Fifties and fast
Lisa Valentine started running relatively late in life.
The 51-year-old mother of five knew that diabetes ran in her family. So when she was in her mid 30s, she decided that regular cardiovascular exercise was the only way she would beat the disease that took her mother's life at age 48.
"I joined a gym and started doing the Stairmaster," said Valentine, who lives in Tierra Verde. "But after a couple of weeks, I said to myself, there has to be something more than this."
A friend encouraged her to sign up for a local road race where she met Chuck McCann, whose 16-year-old son Hunter is now among the Tampa Bay area's top high school runners.
"He said if you want to improve, you have to join a running club," Valentine recalled. "It was the best thing I could have done."
Valentine started training with Burgasser. "I told him that I wanted to do the Disney Marathon and that I wanted to finish in less than three hours," she said.
She had only seven months to get ready. "But I loved the camaraderie. I loved running with other people," she said.
In January 1998, she accomplished her goal with a time of 2:59:22.
Fifteen years later, she is still competing, even though she's feeling her age.
"There is a slight decline every year," she said. "I don't recover as quickly in between races."
On Jan. 20, Valentine ran the Clearwater Marathon, finishing sixth overall and first among the women. She'll be on the starting line again this morning.
"Will I ever run a 2:47 marathon again? I don't know," she said. "But I refuse to admit that I am done. If your brain thinks you can, you can."
Forties and fit
Marty Slade never consider himself much of an athlete. He started running when he 42.
"I was just looking for a way to get in shape," said the contractor from Pass-a-Grille. "I wanted to lose some weight."
Now 47 and 40 pound lighter, he is an avid road racer and ready for the Boston Marathon.
"I've done dozens of 5Ks, 10Ks, half marathons and marathons," said Slade, who is also signed up for today's 15K. "But my age group is pretty tough … tougher than most."
"The guys my age have usually sent their kids off to college and are well-established in their careers," he continued. "So now they have time to train. They take it seriously."
While the top runners tend to be in their mid-20s, at last year's Gasparilla, 10 of the top 50 finishers were over 40, including 51-year-old Jeff Lessie of Tampa who came in 32nd overall with a time of 57:03.
"These are all seasoned runners," Slade said. "The competition is as good as it gets."
THIRTIES AND THIRSTY
Andrew Chandler ran in high school, but never took it seriously. "I was into other things," the 39-year-old laughed. "Most of my running was just for social purposes."
But a few years ago, Chandler, a database programmer, decided to get back into running. And he did so with a vengeance.
"When you first start out, there is always room to improve," he said. "So you keep track of your times, and try to do better, mostly racing against yourself."
Chandler, the father of two, has made quite a name for himself. He finished 21st in last year's Gasparilla 15K. At the Rock 'n' Roll St. Pete half marathon Feb. 10, Chandler came in second overall with a time of 1:15:04.
"The age groups really give people something to shoot for," he said. "First you just want to place … then you want to get third, then second, then win."
But despite his own recent success on the race course, Chandler keeps it all in perspective.
"No matter how awesome you think your time is, there is always somebody out there that is faster," he said. "I know I'll never be as fast as those guys who ran in college or as fast as the pros.
"There is some serious stratification out there," he added. "But for a weekend warrior ... I'm doing alright."
Terry Tomalin can be reached at [email protected]