Tampa — Rob Mason has dedicated more than half of his life to running the Gasparilla Distance Classic.
The 64-year-old Lakeland resident first hit the streets back in 1978, when the legendary Bill Rodgers ran a 44:29 in the inaugural 15K.
Jimmy Carter was president. Laverne & Shirley was the top show on TV, and leisure suits were all the rage.
"I never wore tube socks," said Mason, who will run his 33rd consecutive Gasparilla this morning. "But I still have the moustache."
Like many Americans, Mason got into the sport after Frank Shorter won the gold medal in the marathon at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.
"Nobody really knew anything about running before that," said Mason, who writes a regular running column for the Ledger, a newspaper in Lakeland.
"After that, the sport really took off."
Mason was one of 1,476 people who turned out for the first 15K on Feb. 13, 1978.
"Like a lot of people, I started running to lose weight," he said. "But the thing that has kept me going all these years has been the races."
In addition to 32 Gasparillas, Mason has run 27 marathons.
"If you want to race, you have to train," he said. "I have had my injuries, but I have always kept the streak going."
So has Mike Shaver, another of six local runners who have participated in every Gasparilla since 1978.
"That first year, I was the last person across the starting line," said Shaver, 66. "I have started every one the same way, at the back of the pack."
Shaver has hit the starting line every year despite illness and injury.
One year, a few months before the race, he lost the feeling in his leg because of a tumor on his spine.
"I found a doctor who could operate," he said. "I almost missed it, but I didn't."
It wasn't until he had run his 20th Gasparilla that he gave any thought to his streak.
"It was just something we did every year," he said. "But now running Gasparilla is a tradition."
The 33 Club
Six runners are registered for their 33rd consecutive Gasparilla Distance Classic: Mason; Shaver; Lewis Harris, 72, of Palm Harbor; and Tampa residents Stuart Carrier, 60; George McConnell, 79; and Thomas Singletary, 68.
Bay area runners to watch in this year's 15K include:
• Austin Richmond, who finished second in 2008 in 47:50
• John Flor, who finished fourth in 2009 in 50:04
• Lee Stephens, who finished fifth in 2009 in 51:03
• Master's standout Joe Burgasser, who finished 109th in 2009 in 1:01:46
• Christa Benton, who finished first in 2009 in 54:42
• Laura Woznicki, who finished second in 56:02
• Heather Gollnick, who finished fourth in 2009 in 56:53
• Dana Parrot, who finished fifth in 2009 with a 57:10
Terry Tomalin can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8808.