At 6 a.m. Saturday, while the city still was shrouded in darkness, the first shadowy forms of marathon runners trotted through Tampa streets.
By daybreak, they were streaming in. They poured from hundreds of cars, sporting T-shirts that boasted earlier running conquests: Sixth Eden Footchase, The Sunshine Skyway Run Into History. Today, they would add to their collections a souvenir shirt from the Gasparilla Distance Classic, part of the monthlong Gasparilla Festival.
With the prospect of a 15-kilometer course in front of them, under humid 70-degree conditions, they did what any good runners would do. They ran. They trotted the first kilometer of the course, up a steep bridge. The wheelchair racers sped down a sloping stretch of Platt Street.
"It helps," said runner Barbara Gilmartin, 23. Her cheeks were flushed; she huffed between words. "Really. You just run slowly."
By 8 a.m., as the wheelchair racers lined up for their competition, the crowd was restless. A few thousand sneakers tapped impatiently. An announcer warned those susceptible to heat stress to drop out. No one appeared to leave the crush of runners at the starting line.
Elizabeth and James Lilly came from Carbondale, Ill., to cheer their son James, 22. New to the wheelchair racing circuit, James had finished eighth in a Houston marathon and the Chicago Marathon.
A motorcycle siren sounded exactly at 8, and a blur of racers in sleek aluminum alloy chairs rolled past.
"Yeah, Jimmy," Mrs. Lilly called to No. 145. She grabbed his gear and motioned to her husband. "Now we have to hurry to the finish line."
For the Lillys, who expected their son to finish the course in 38 minutes, the wait was tense. Their son blew out two tires in practice runs Friday. Another flat would put him out of the race.
Almost 18 minutes into the wheelchair race, the racers' relatives began to line up along the finish line fence. Sallie Bridis held her Yorkshire terrier, Pumpkin, as she watched for her husband Ted, 46, of Miami.
"She's waiting for her daddy," Mrs. Bridis said. The dog looked bewildered by the noisy crowd.
By the 30-minute mark, Mrs. Lilly's nerves were beginning to show. She squinted down an empty stretch of Bayshore Boulevard for a glimpse of the racers. The police siren announced the approach of the leaders.
"Here they come, babe," she told her husband. She leaned far over the fence for a better look. "Man, I wish I could get out in the street."
At 34 minutes, too soon for Jimmy to appear, she spotted a flash of yellow. "He's coming now. I think I see him. No .
. that's green."
At 36 minutes: "C'mon baby, where are you?"
At 38:12, his predicted finish time, he rolled through the finish gate to his mother's cheers.
"Oh," she said, between her tears of happiness, "I'm exhausted."