TAMPA — The 9.3-mile run along Bayshore Boulevard can be fast and easy, or slow and hard.
"It all depends on the weather," said defending Gasparilla Distance Classic champion Jeremy Criscione. "If the wind is blowing, it can be brutal."
The Distance Classic, now in its 35th year, has a reputation for being a road racer's dream. The course is straight up and back along one of Tampa Bay's most scenic drives. There are no hills, turns or other obstacles to confuse and confound a runner.
"The heat can be a problem," said Criscione, 24, who ran for the Florida Gators and is now pursuing a master's degree in construction management. "It is especially tough on runners who come in from other areas."
The Bartow native hopes to just stay with the leaders for the first few miles, a strategy that served him well last year when he pulled away from Andrew Letherby at the 6-mile mark, then ran unchallenged to win in 46 minutes, 22 seconds.
But Criscione said that anything can happen on race day. "You just have to get out there and see how it feels," he said. "I'm coming off the Olympic Trials. I ran my first marathon. I don't know what my fitness level will be until I start running."
Criscione, who ran cross country, indoor and outdoor track during his years in Gainesville, suffered from a host of injuries before last year's victory.
"I am feeling good," he said. "I hope to run faster than last year."
Bill Rodgers, a former Olympian and winner of the Boston and New York marathons, set the inaugural course record of 44 minutes, 29 seconds in 1978.
"This has always been a fast course," said Rodgers, 64, who plans to compete this year. "But these days I am more around the 69-minute mark."
Rodgers said he will start Saturday's race with eight runners who have raced in all 34 Gasparilla Distance Classics: Stuart Carrier, Ken Clark, Lewis Harris, Rob Mason, Gus Mejia, George McConnell, Mike Shaver and Tom Singletary.
"I came down to show my support for these guys," he said. "That is an amazing feat, running a race 34 times."
Rodgers, who won 22 marathons during his career, said he is amazed how his sport has changed in 35 years.
"There are more women and kids running than ever before," he said. "It seems like every major city has a major road race. Participation numbers are exploding. It is great to see."
Joan Benoit Samuelson, who began her career running track in high school in the town of Cape Elizabeth, Maine, and then went on to win the Boston Marathon in 1979 and 1983 (breaking the world record), will be in the women's field. Samuelson is probably best known for the gold medal she won in the first women's marathon at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984.
Criscione and other top runners (like Ryan Ripley, Lee Stephens and James Osborne) who live in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Polk, Hernando, Manatee or Sarasota counties on a full-time basis are eligible for the local prize purse, which will be awarded to the top five finishers. First place is worth $2,000.
Top local women to watch include Christa Stephens, Sara Petrick, Kristin Proach Tenaglia and Briana Whaley, who is recovering from an injury.