Despite the heat and humidity at Saturday's Gasparilla Distance Classic, or maybe because of it, Pinellas runners fared well against the formidable competition the race attracts. Tom Swiersz, a St. Petersburg Junior College math instructor, ran his fastest 15-kilometer race _ 48 minutes 12 seconds _ to win the Tampa Bay Cup. His victory earned him a trip to the Cascade Run Off, another major 15K event held in June.
"Saturday's race was the highlight of my running career," said Swiersz. "I've never won anything like this _ a trip _ and the cup itself is special."
Swiersz went through the first mile in 5:02 and averaged 5:11 for the 9.3-mile distance. "I went out conservatively because of the heat. It paid off because I kept passing guys the rest of the way."
Among the luminaries Swiersz passed were Bay to Bay winner Declan Doyle of Ireland, USF track star Tom Tisell, and the nation's No.
1 ranked Masters runner, Bob Schlau of South Carolina.
Tampa Bay Cup: The women's winner of the seven-county Tampa Bay Cup was Judy Mercon of Clearwater, who ripped off a personal best 55:48 to capture 15th place overall.
Three other Pinellas women broke the one-hour mark. Eckerd College's Kim Fagen clocked 58:10; Leanne Larison of Clearwater was 58:40; and Kathleen Wheeler was 59:34 and 29th overall in the field of 1,500 women. Beth Farmer of Clearwater just missed with a 1:00:01. Sixth Pinellas woman finisher Yvonne Rodgers of Seminole successfully defended her Masters Cup title by finishing first over 40 from the Tampa Bay area, thereby earning a trip to Salt Lake City in May.
Florida Cup: Repeat winner Dror Vaknin (46:47) of USF won a trip to the Crescent City Classic in New Orleans. The women's winner was Karen Miles of Fort Myers in 56:41.
Florida Team Cup: The Forerunners of St. Petersburg had to settle for second place behind the Nike team of Florida. The Forerunners were led by Tom Swiersz, Chris Bloor (49:54) and Dan Clark (52:13). The team times were 2:30:02 and 2:33:24, respectively. In third place was Team Snake of Tampa in 2:36:45.
Corporate Cup: The men's championship went to Duke Power of Charlotte, N.C. The women's title went to NCNB bank. Mixed team was Tampa Electric. And masters team was Delta Airlines.
Age group highlights: Besides Boca Ciega's Dan Clark taking second in the 16-19 age group, Pinellas runners placed high in other groups as well. Among a large field of invited masters runners, Bill Calvin, 44, ran 53:36, second only to Barry Holcomb of Temple Terrace from the area. The 50-54 age division was swept by county runners Joe Burgasser, Rob Smith and Jim Larson. Pinellas women were even more successful in the age groups. In addition to Kim Fagen and Yvonne Rodgers winning theirs, there were these winners: Marjorie Schmidt, 14 and under; Sandra Johnson, 50-54; and Martha Pembroke, 70 and over. Vickey Imes was second, 45-49, as was Anne Trigg, 65-69.
Gasparilla 5K: The disadvantage of running the 3.1-mile event Saturday was that it started at 10:15 when the temperature was in the mid-80's. However, the shorter distance was just compensation as Bonnie Ramsdell of St. Petersburg, a member of Team Chicken, took second place among women in 17:51. The only Pinellas-connected man in the top-10 was Lakewood graduate Travis Grappo, a USF freshman, who was eighth in 15:36.
Elite runners: Women's winner Judi St. Hilaire, $10,000 richer for her efforts, will return to Florida for the Red Lobster Classic in Orlando on March 3 to challenge Liz McColgan's world record 30:38. Runner-up Lisa Weidenbach returns to Florida for the Jacksonville River Run 15 in March. Cathy O'Brien of Boston won there last year in 49:45. Bill Weidenbach, Lisa's husband, who ran for the University of Michigan, was 45th Saturday in 49:10.
Good samaritan award: During the Gasparilla race, former West Florida Y Runners Club president Skip Rogers noticed a runner ahead of him weaving as if he were overcome with the heat. Instead of just running past him, Rogers guided the man to the sidewalk and asked some spectators to contact the medical crew to attend to him.