TAMPA — Austin Richmond knows he shouldn't line up for the 15K race at Saturday's Gasparilla Distance Classic. The 27-year-old runner from Babson Park is recovering from a marathon Sunday in Jacksonville.
"I know every coach in the world will tell me I'm crazy," said Richmond, who won the 15K in 2010. "But Gasparilla only comes around once a year. It is the race. I hate to miss it."
Richmond and other elite athletes who live in the seven-county Tampa Bay area call the 9.3-mile run the "money race." In order to win a portion of the $10,000 purse, a runner must reside full time in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Polk, Hernando, Manatee or Sarasota counties.
"We don't have a lot of money races in our area," said Richmond, who works part time as bank teller while he pursues a professional running career. "You make the most of these races when they come along."
Richmond, who was born and raised in Clewiston, settled in Babson Park after attending Webber International University. Polk County has developed a reputation as a great place to run cross country and has produced many fine runners, including last year's Gasparilla 15K champion, Jeremy Criscione of Bartow, and the runnerup, Lakeland's Jay Lumpkins.
Criscione and Lumpkins are not expected to compete this year, which leaves the $2,000 first-place prize open for Richmond (who finished third in 2012 with a time of 48 minutes, 11 seconds) or local favorite Jonathan Mott (a standout at St. Petersburg's Northeast High who recently received a graduate degree from Webber in sports management).
"That is all that I have been thinking about for the past 20 weeks," said Mott, 26. "I feel like I am in a lot better shape than I was last year and think that I have a pretty good shot at winning it this year."
Mott — who just picked up his first major sponsor, running shoe company New Balance — said Gasparilla gives emerging runners such as himself a chance to prove themselves in front of a large audience.
"It is great exposure," he said. "And the locals-only prize money keeps people from out of town from coming in just to win the purse."
Elias Gonzalez — a 36-year-old Tampa resident who has won the 15K twice and holds the Gasparilla Half Marathon course record, 1 hours, 11 minutes, 9 seconds — also praised the format.
"The money should stay here in the local economy," said Gonzalez, who plans to run the 13.1-mile race this year even though it has no purse. "If you give it to somebody from out of town, they will spend it out of town."
Sara Petrick, last year's top female finisher in the 15K, said the prize money keeps local athletes motivated. "It makes the race a lot of fun," said the 26-year-old, who ran for the University of Florida. "And there aren't a lot of 15Ks around, so if you want to race that distance, this is your big chance."
Petrick, who finished 23rd overall with a time of 54:49, is a Tampa native who went to the Academy of the Holy Names (which sits on the Bayshore Boulevard race course in Tampa). She is a favorite again this year.
"Know the course well," she said. "I've run it many times."
Heather Butcher, a 40-year-old triathlon coach from Northport, is also looking to place in the money. "I just want to be faster than last year," said Butcher, who turned in a 2012 time of 57:20. "The money is a nice little incentive."