The hardest part of Sunday's Gasparilla Marathon for defending champion Ronnie Holassie won't be the sprint to the finish. It will be making it to the starting line.
"This has been a rough week for me," said the 37-year-old Hollywood, Fla., resident. "I have got a lot on my mind."
Three weeks ago, Holassie, who competed in the 1996 and 2000 Summer Olympics for his native Trinidad and Tobago, injured his Achilles' tendon. Then he had the flu. And this week, his 17-month-old son had surgery to relieve pressure on his brain because his skull wasn't forming properly.
"They took the bandage off today, and that is when it hit me how serious it all is," he said Wednesday night while driving to the hospital. "I haven't been able to focus on anything but him."
Holassie said his son, Jeremiah, is a future Gasparilla participant: "He is small, but he doesn't walk; he runs everywhere. He definitely has the bug."
At last year's Gasparilla Marathon, Holassie finished nearly 17 minutes in front of his nearest competitor. His time of 2 hours, 22 minutes, 23 seconds, a per-mile pace of 5 minutes, 25.9 seconds, was 15 seconds slower than his 2007 effort. He finished fourth that year and 12 hours later was hospitalized with a kidney stone.
"I had been feeling real good this past year," he said. "I enjoy running now more than I ever did."
Holassie said he believes he is at the perfect age for the marathon.
"When I was young, I ran a good 5K and 10K," he said. "But as you age, you add distance. Now when I run, I feel so good and confident."
But Holassie said it has been difficult at times keeping up his 80-miles-a-week training regimen. From 1996 to 2001 he did nothing but run full time. Since then, he has operated a mobile auto-detailing business.
"I am on my feet all day," he said. "It is hard for me to put the same effort into training as somebody, for example, who may work in an office."
Holassie said he is struggling to get his head straight and prepared for Sunday. "My son was going to come and watch me run, but now he can't," he said. "I have family coming in as well. Somebody needs to stay with him while I go to Tampa."
Holassie won't be the only past winner in Sunday's race. Melanie Peters, whose 2008 winning women's time of 2:46:45 earned her a spot in the Olympic trials, is scheduled to run.
Peters, a 25-year-old St. Petersburg resident who last year had run the Disney marathon one month before Gasparilla, established a pace of more than 61/2 minutes per mile, beating the Olympic qualifying mark by more than 13 seconds.
This year's Gasparilla Distance Classic race weekend is expected to set a record for attendance. Preregistration numbers for the 15 kilometer, 5K, marathon, half-marathon and marathon relay have surpassed those of the previous 31 years.
As of Thursday, 17,300 runners had signed up, and another 2,500 to 3,000 were expected to sign up at the Health & Fitness Expo today at the Tampa Convention Center.
Ryan Hall, 26, who won last year's Olympic trials marathon and finished 10th in Beijing, registered for Saturday's 15K and is expected to challenge the U.S. record of 42:22 set by Todd Williams in 1995. St. Petersburg's Joe Burgasser, a running coach, will try to break the American 70-plus age group time of 1:01:50 set in 1987.