Gasparilla Distance Classic: A day (or two) at the races

Roxie, an Australian shepherd, crosses the finish line in her racing boots Saturday morning at the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic 15K. Roxie is a service dog and a near constant companion of 37-year-old Tampa resident Desiree Rincon, an Army veteran. (Scott Purks, Special to the Times)
Roxie, an Australian shepherd, crosses the finish line in her racing boots Saturday morning at the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic 15K. Roxie is a service dog and a near constant companion of 37-year-old Tampa resident Desiree Rincon, an Army veteran. (Scott Purks, Special to the Times)
Published February 25
Updated February 25

Meet the various people who take in the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic race weekend, whether on the sidelines or pounding the pavement.

Woman's best friend

At about the one hour, 45-minute mark of Saturday's 15K, an Australian shepherd wearing a service vest and four tiny running shoes sprinted across the finish line on Bayshore Boulevard.

The dog's owner, Desiree Rincon, 37, was about a half-mile back. Roxie and Rincon — an Army veteran who suffers from seizures after a bout with gastric cancer — have run hundreds of races together in the five years they've been paired. But this time around, Roxie had a head start for the finish line.

"She's very well-versed, and she's very good, usually," Rincon said, after reuniting with Roxie upon her finish. "Something happened on the course. There was a girl out there who was blowing a vuvuzela, and it scared her. It got her startled, and she took off."

Rincon, an Orlando native, spent 12 years in the Army, with her last station at MacDill Air Force Base. In 2012 she was medically released after being diagnosed with gastric cancer, and months of surgeries and radiation followed.

The treatment caused her to develop hypoglycemia, which, in turn, began triggering frequent seizures. Rincon, who lives alone, was faced with the likelihood of losing her driver's license when a veteran affairs counselor got her connected with an organization that helps connect vets with service animals. Roxie was trained by Southeastern Guide Dogs to alert Rincon when she's about to have a seizure. Since being paired with Roxie, Rincon went from having them five to six times per day to just once every couple months.

And everywhere Rincon goes, Roxie follows. Including the race course.
Rincon is used to contacting race directors to secure Roxie's permission to run. Most are very accepting of the four-legged competitor, whose shoes help protect her paw pads from the hot Florida asphalt. Together, they've run races of all distances, their longest being a 33-mile ultra-marathon.

Rincon's love for Roxie is easily detectable. Her affinity for running, however, is a bit of a different story.

"I despise running," Rincon said with a smile. "I do it because I spent eight months bed-ridden when I was undergoing treatment. I told myself that if I ever got out of that bed, I was going to make it a point never to get back in it."

Kelly Parsons, Times correspondent

Rick Faber, 35, was almost impossible to miss in Saturday’s Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic 15K. Dressing up in a Deadpool costume pretty much ensures you’ll stand out. (Joey Knight, Times)

He's quite the character

On a sweat-inducing Saturday morning, Rick Faber decided to up the perspiration ante.

He arrived at the starting line of the 15K bedecked in a Spandex-like Deadpool costume, a skin-hugging ode to the Marvel Comics character.

"There's sweat in places you would not think there's sweat," the Orlando resident said.

For Faber, 35, it flows in smaller torrents these days. A teacher at Orlando's Oak Ridge High, his weight topped out at 365 pounds three years ago.

"My ex-wife told me how fat I was like, pretty much daily," he said.

So he began running in earnest, then in costume. So far in 2018, he has logged 186 miles. At the recent Walt Disney World Marathon (his first marathon), Faber dressed up as the Little Mermaid.

"I run in character and sing along, just kinda try to make it more fun," said Faber, who also planned to run in Sunday's half-marathon.

"And if I see somebody struggling I like to either throw 'em words of encouragement or just say something completely ridiculous just to make 'em laugh because running is hard … and every step is pain."

Joey Knight, Times staff writer

Colton Williams, a 7-year-old second-grader from Orlando, ran the 15K, 5K and 8K races over the Publix Gasparilla Race weekend with his aunt, Kimberly Williams. (Scott Purks, Special to the Times)

Just kids stuff

Colton Williams did something this weekend that the average citizen never does in a lifetime.

He ran a 15K and a 5K on Saturday, and an 8K on Sunday.

Many avid runners, however, might say, "What's the big deal? Lots of runners do that type of thing."

But many runners are not 7 years old.

"I'm enjoying it very much," said Williams, a second-grader from Orlando. "Everyone has been cheering for me."

None more so than his aunt, Kimberly Williams, who has been running around Orlando with her nephew ever since Colton was 1.

"I pushed him in a (running stroller) for a few years until one day when he was 3 or 4 he said, 'I want to get out and run,' " said Kimberly, who has no children of her own. "It's been a great thing for us to do together. I think it has brought us closer together and I am so grateful for that."

On Saturday, Kimberly, 30, ran alongside Colton from beginning to end, which translated to a simultaneous one hour, 49.18 second finish in the 15K and a 42:11 finish in the 5K.

On Sunday, Kimberly ran the half-marathon (finishing in 2:22:44), then joined Colton in the 8K, where they finished in 57:47.

Kimberly said Colton would have loved to also run the half-marathon, but age limitations prohibit 7-year-olds from running that distance, a rule that's just fine with her.

"He's only 7 and we don't want to do too much," Kimberly said. "This weekend is by far the most mileage he's ever done (7 miles a few weeks ago was the previous longest run). It's been a challenge, but it's been great. "

Colton said the goal is to "keep running and come back next year and run the Gasparilla races again."

Kimberly, who has run 16 marathons, said the goal is to keep it fun and interesting.

"I'm having fun," said Colton, who typically runs just a few miles a week. "I was a little tired after the 15K but it felt good."

Scott Purks, Times correspondent