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Folks in the back of the pack are winners too

Published Oct. 6, 2005

Through tragedy and good times, Paul Suter has discovered the secrets to a long life of happiness: Eat well, think young and participate in Florida's largest running event every year.

"I'm trying to do like other survivors," said Suter, 79, who brought up the rear in Saturday's Gasparilla Distance Classic. "I've been through Pearl Harbor and Normandy, and every year I hope to survive this race, too."

For 10 years Suter, a Brandon resident, has participated in the 15-kilometer (9.3 miles) course that winds along Bayshore Boulevard. He was never a threat to place first or even in the top 5,000, but that doesn't keep him from coming to enjoy the thrill of racing alongside runners from all over the world.

"I come for the camaraderie," he said. "When you get to be my age, all you see is old people. I get so tired of old people who don't want to do anything, so it gives me the go-power when I come out here and see active people."

Suter, a retired Pinellas County bank examiner, trains for the event by following a strict regimen of early morning runs and by participating in other local races. He isn't alone in his desire to participate in the race with the goal of not winning or setting a personal best, but simply finishing.

"The tradition and achievement is what makes even the last place runners come back every year," said Gasparilla race director Susan Harmeling. "Imagine how you would feel if you ran nine miles. It takes a lot for people to do this, and everyone who finishes should feel proud."

Darius Bakunas, 56, and his son, Kenny, 25, ran together in the race for the fifth year. They prepare for the event all year and usually finish somewhere in the middle of the pack.

"This race is for the people who don't train enough to run in marathons," Darius said. "It's a desirable race to run because there are a lot of prestigious runners here, and everyone participating has one objective."

This year's Gasparilla Distance Classic attracted about 13,400 runners and wheelchair athletes _ more than last year. There also was a 5-kilometer (3.1 miles) race for runners who favored shorter distances.

Kathy Bricker and Gail Duerst ran in the 5-kilometer, after cheering on their husbands who participated in the 15-kilometer run.

"There's nothing like Gasparilla," said Duerst, who came to the event from Sarasota for the ninth year. "We come to watch all the professional runners. Then we relax, listen to the music and drink beer."

Suter already is planning his strategy for next year: concentrate on running instead of inspecting his surroundings.

"I keep watching to see how the other runners are coming along, and then I fall behind," Suter said. "There's a lot of people older than me here that I haven't even caught up with yet. But give me a couple of years, and I'll catch them."