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Tampa Bay runners dominate Florida Finest team at Disney Marathon

Pyrotechnics light the predawn sky at last year’s Walt Disney World Marathon. Sunday’s full, 26.2-mile marathon weaves its way through the amusement park and caps a full weekend of running as there are also 5K and half-marathon events.

MATT STROSHANE | Special to the Times

Pyrotechnics light the predawn sky at last year’s Walt Disney World Marathon. Sunday’s full, 26.2-mile marathon weaves its way through the amusement park and caps a full weekend of running as there are also 5K and half-marathon events.

The Walt Disney World Marathon attracts the best runners in the state. The top 10, dubbed "Florida's Finest," get free entries, hotel rooms, meals and tickets to the Magic Kingdom.

This year, the squad is dominated by athletes from the Tampa Bay area. Is it coincidence? Or has the bay area become a breeding ground for distance runners?

"We have a great training group here," said Tampa's Lee Stephens, one of six area runners on the Florida Finest team. "I think that when you run with fast runners, you can't help but get faster. Everybody works harder."

Stephens, 28, who manages the Running Center on N Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa, runs regularly with Florida Finest teammates Dana Parrot and Terri Rejimbal. They will be among the 45,000 expected to compete in this weekend's events, which include a 5K and half-marathon.

"I've never run a marathon before," Stephens said. "But I got in based on my 5K and 10K times. I try to run at least 50 races a year."

Stephens, who ran for USF before transferring to Florida Southern in Lakeland, has won more than 100 races in the past four years.

Stephens' shop is ground zero for the area road racing scene. Rejimbal, who at 40 just moved into the Master ranks, credits the camaraderie and good weather for the abundance of top runners.

"We can train year-round," she said. "We don't have any hills, but the humidity makes up for it. It always makes you faster when you run other places."

But Stephens' girlfriend and last year's Disney Marathon winner, Melanie Peters, thinks it is all a big coincidence.

"We all landed here by luck," said the 25-year-old St. Petersburg resident. "I don't think there is anything special about this area that draws great runners."

Perhaps, but it was the area's water that drew the Michigan native to Tampa Bay. "I'm getting my master's degree in marine science at USF," Peters said.

Because she won last year's race, Peters received an automatic invitation to defend her title. She plans to run the half-marathon Saturday and the 26.2 miles Sunday.

"They take your two times and average them out," she said. "I had a bad car accident in August, and I am still recovering. I didn't think I could be competitive, so I am looking at this as a chance to train."

In addition to Rejimbal and Parrot, the Florida Finest team includes St. Petersburg resident Christa Benton, the only runner in USF history to earn NCAA Division I All-America status in cross country. Benton, 24, finished at the top of the pack at last year's Boston Marathon in 2 hours, 51 minutes.

Scheduled to join Benton at the starting line is Clearwater's Keith Sawayda, a 45-year-old master's runner who won the Gasparilla Distance Classic 10 years ago and is still one of Pinellas County's top-rated runners.

St. Petersburg's Denise Skinner, 53, is Florida's Finest women's Grandmaster representative.

"I walked the Turkey Trot in 1989 and decided that I wanted to run that thing," she said. "The next year, I ran it and a marathon, too."

Skinner completed the Boston Marathon in 2005 then retired from distance events for a while.

"But I caught the marathon bug again last year and decided why not," she said. "I'll never be the fastest, but I always finish."

FAST FACTS

Disney Marathon Weekend

Friday: 7 a.m., 5K run

Saturday: 5:50 a.m., half-marathon

Sunday: 5:50 a.m., marathon

Tampa Bay runners dominate Florida Finest team at Disney Marathon 01/07/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 7, 2009 10:50pm]

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