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2014 Gasparilla races will draw thousands; here are three that will inspire

TAMPA

For some people, finishing a race is a testament of strength. For others, it's fun with friends.

There may be as many reasons to run as runners. An expected 30,000 will line up Saturday and Sunday to run distances ranging from 5 kilometers to a half marathon in the 2014 Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic.

A few stand out among the crowd. Boyd Yesler is running his 32nd consecutive year at Gasparilla, and at 63, he isn't sure he can quit.

Parker Lyons, 10, will once again take part in the Gasparilla 5K, in memory of his late uncle, who died during the race 10 years ago.

And Colleen Kelly Alexander, 38, will run all four weekend races after coming back from an accident two years ago that nearly killed her.

Boyd Yesler

Yesler, 63, first heard about the Gasparilla Distance Classic in 1983 from a friend who lived in Temple Terrace. Yesler wasn't a runner and told his friend as much. But the friend was insistent.

Yesler, a dentist in Sarasota County, relented.

Maybe it'd be a good thing to do, Yesler remembers thinking.

He had played football in college and was competitive at handball. So he ran the 5K that year.

The next year, his friend told him they would do the 15K. Yesler, 33 then, told him he was crazy.

"I'm not a runner," he said.

But he figured the running might help condition him for handball. So he ran the 15K in 1984.

And every year since.

Some years, he scraped ice from his car window. Others were blistering hot — his preference. He ran through torrential storms, and one year paced a group of Marines, one carrying a flag. That was his fastest time, a little over an hour and a half. He has never run a race longer than 15K, or 9.3 miles.

While his mother was living, she would send him off to his annual race with fruit salad she made from her backyard grapefruit and orange trees. For zest to finish the run, she told him. He ate it just before running.

He thought about quitting in the 1990s, but his father, Milton Yesler, at 81, won a gold medal in the 100 meters at a senior games in Sarasota. The younger Yesler figured he had a reputation to uphold.

Yesler has kept almost all his race shirts and many medals. As they piled up, he worked to stay healthy before each race. Cameras caught him at the finish line every year except in 1986, when he must have slipped past them.

This year, he will run with his partner, Jennifer Jaworski, and his daughter, Julia Yesler, who is 33, for her first 15K. He likes to think he will pass the baton to her. A few years back, he had a partial knee replacement and figured his streak had come to an end. He isn't sure if it was insanity or tenacity, but he was there the next year. He says he can't seem to not do it.

Will he ever quit?

"It was my last two years ago," Yesler said.

Parker Lyons

Parker doesn't remember his uncle Jimmy, but he knows a lot about him.

Parker, 10, likes to tell people about Jimmy Hamilton and the heart attack that killed him a decade ago as he ran the Gasparilla 15K.

Parker was just 2 months old. His uncle had come up with the name Parker and had decorated his nephew's nursery with an antique police car theme from Pottery Barn. His uncle had given away his mother at her wedding to his father.

Hamilton, 34, had been in seemingly good health, and logged hundreds of miles running each year, mostly along Bayshore Boulevard. He was tall and fast, Parker said, and didn't eat at McDonald's, as Parker does.

In previous years, Hamilton's pace in the race had been 8 minutes 15 seconds per mile. But in 2004, he collapsed near the intersection of Barcelona and Bayshore. Other runners summoned emergency medical workers, who treated Hamilton before taking him to Tampa General Hospital. But it was too late.

Hamilton had a condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a thickening of the heart muscle. The condition is a leading cause of sudden cardiac death among young athletes. Death can be the only symptom.

A normal adult heart weighs 310 grams. Hamilton's weighed 490.

Because the condition is hereditary it was a signal to Hamilton's family to get their own hearts checked out.

Parker has seen the picture of his uncle's heart.

When he was in first grade at Deer Park Elementary, he raised money for Jump Rope for Heart. Parker set a goal of $1,001 and made it with a few dollars extra. He had gone on the school's morning show and told them he raised the money for his uncle, who died because his heart was too big.

The year after Hamilton died, family members and friends gathered at the spot where Hamilton collapsed to walk the last 2.3 miles of the race. His mother, Ciana Hamilton, said her son had always finished what he started. Hamilton's partner of 11 years, Tim Hill, wore the size 11 Saucony running shoes Hamilton had worn during the race.

The group started walking about 8:30 a.m. and finished in a tight pack at 9:22, the time Hamilton was pronounced dead.

Parker rode in a wagon wearing a T-shirt with his uncle's smiling face. Every year since then, Parker has finished the 5K. He plans to walk and run it this year.

Colleen Kelly Alexander

Alexander, 38, was riding her bike home from work in October 2011, when a 30-ton freight truck smashed into her, rolling over and dragging her. She was crushed and mangled from the abdomen down. Her pelvis and legs were broken. At the hospital, her heart stopped. Medics worked 20 minutes to resuscitate her. The next day, her heart stopped again, and again she was revived.

She remembers nothing from those first weeks. More than a month passed before she could breathe on her own. She didn't know if she would ever walk again.

Alexander had been training for her first marathon. As a child, her father owned a bike shop in Arizona and she learned to ride soon after learning to walk. She moved to Florida when she was in the fourth grade and she grew up in Ormond Beach. That's where she met her husband, Sean Alexander.

They started training for their first triathlon on Honeymoon Island.

"We decided to do our first triathlon right before our wedding to kick off the celebration of our lives together," Alexander said this week.

Before saying vows on Daytona Beach Shores, In Your Arms by Jon Foreman played. After saying I do, they walked off the beach where they grew up to Switchfoot's Dare You to Move.

These are staples that Alexander plays during training runs.

Ten months after the accident, she and a friend, Julia Andrews, did a 10-mile race. "I had my walker, we sped-walked the entire thing," Alexander said. She made up a term for the jog-walk pace: wogging.

It was her birthday.

Last year, Alexander did her first 70.3 Ironman triathlon.

Now, a little more than two years after the accident, Alexander has undergone 22 surgeries and has four to six more to go.

She will speak at the Tampa Convention Center at 5:30 p.m. today. The topic: The Heart of an Athlete, a life of perseverance and authenticity. She plans to donate half the money she earns from the speech to the Red Cross Tampa Chapter. Her medals will go to local heroes.

She feels a debt to those who kept her alive.

She and Sean will tackle the Michelob Ultra Challenge this weekend. On Saturday, they will run the 15K and 5K; on Sunday, the half marathon and 8K — 30 miles, her longest in two days to date.

Elisabeth Parker can be reached at eparker@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3431.

2014 Gasparilla races will draw thousands; here are three that will inspire 02/19/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 19, 2014 6:03pm]

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