Thrill is gone for Kim Merritt
TAMPA — Bill Rodgers, the famous marathoner, won the inaugural Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic 15K in 1978. He'll compete in the event's 40th running Saturday.
But who won the first women's 15K? And where will she be Saturday?
The answers: Kim Merritt, and she'll be waiting tables at Bernie's.
Bernie's Hometown Pizzeria is in Racine, Wisc., Merritt's hometown. She works there part-time on weekends to go with her job at a factory that manufactures heat exchangers.
"I've been there 20 years," said Merritt, 61.
Merritt was 22 when she won the 1978 Gasparilla 15K with a time of 55 minutes, 40 seconds.
The winner of the 1975 New York City Marathon and the 1976 Boston Marathon, Merritt was once one of America's top long-distance runners.
Rodgers will be in Tampa to mark his 1978 Gasparilla win. Merritt won't be present. Gasparilla Distance Classic Association executive director Susan Harmeling said the Gasparilla race association reached out to Merritt for the 35th anniversary but didn't hear back.
"My number is still in the phone book," Merritt said.
Merritt said her competitive career ended about 30 years ago when she was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome. "When I got sick, I couldn't race anymore," she said. "I couldn't push myself. I was going to races, making money. It was my whole life. It was very hard."
She went through a divorce. She worked two jobs to support her two children. Her daughter, Kristin, went to Michigan State on a gymnastics scholarship. Her son, Kenny, ran on scholarship for the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, where his mother was an All-American.
Merritt lives alone. She runs six days a week, usually with one of her dogs. She has entered a few races over the years. "But racing isn't fun anymore," she said. "I still love running. I just don't like racing."
Martin Fennelly, Times Sports Columnist