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Pinellas runners make marks in Gasparilla Classic

The Gasparilla Distance Classic was a banner day for Pinellas runners from the elite to the not-so-fleet.

From Tom Swiersz of St. Petersburg, who finished first among county residents (and 56th overall) in 49 minutes, 13 seconds, to 83-year-old Charlie Espy of Dunedin, who was the 1,100th Pinellas finisher, determined runners found their pace and the finish line at America's foremost 15-kilometer road race.

In all, there were 1,113 Pinellas finishers among the 7,200 participants. The accompanying 5K run drew approximately 6,200 runners and joggers.

Swiersz, a veteran marathoner at age 34, shook off a couple of emerging distance runners during the early miles. Keith Sawayda of Clearwater tried to hang with him on the way out Bayshore Boulevard. And Forerunners teammate Marc Moseley was nipping on Sawayda's heels.

At the point on the course where the men and women merge, Swiersz found himself running alongside women's leader Elana Meyer of South Africa.

"She started to make a move at 2 miles," said Swiersz, who teaches math at St. Petersburg Junior College. "I said to myself that I can't go that fast and she just kept going. I was hoping for a little faster time but I faltered coming back into the wind. Maybe I just didn't have the mental toughness to battle it."

The early pace of Sawayda and Moseley took its toll as ever-patient Ray Wunderlich gradually closed on them after the Gandy Boulevard turnaround point.

At 8.5 miles he slipped past Moseley and zeroed in on Sawayda. Just past the 9-mile mark, Wunderlich overhauled Sawayda.

"I didn't want to go all-out during the early miles," said Wunderlich, 32, who teaches wellness at SPJC. "I ran two marathons within six days in January (Disney and the Coca-Cola in Chile) and I'm still recovering. But it's ironic. For years I've tried to win the Tampa Bay Cup, without success, and this year, when I'm recovering, I finally win it."

Because he's a previous winner, Swiersz was ineligible for the cup (which goes to the top men, women and masters finishers from the area) and an all-expenses paid trip to the Azalea Trail Run in Mobile, Ala., on March 26.

The same restriction affected Royston Dillon, 43, of St. Petersburg. He was the first masters division finisher from the bay area, Florida and the United States, running 52:23, but since he won the trip last year, he had to defer to Lou Villarosa of Tampa, who finished 1:10 behind him.

In the women's division, revised official results elevated Judy Mercon to first place in the Peoples Gas Florida Cup standings. The pride of the Dianetics Running Team originally was ruled out because she had an elite number as an invited runner. Mercon, 35, finished 16th overall in 54:50. Wilma Van Onna of the Netherlands, ranked by Runner's World as No. 5 woman in 1993, was just one place ahead.

But it was another Pinellas runner, not Van Onna, that Mercon keyed on during the race.

"I saw Bonnie Ramsdell (of South Pasadena) at the start and we talked about running the early miles together at about a 5:45 pace," Mercon said. "But she went out a little faster than that and I just tried to keep her in sight. I thought I'd catch her at 6 miles, but waited until 7 to pull even. I was fighting the onset of a side ache those closing miles and didn't want to push any harder than I had to."

Just as in last year's Bay-to-Bay race where Mercon prevailed over Ramsdell by 10 seconds, she maintained her margin this time by a mere nine seconds.

Ramsdell's effort led the GTE Fitness Center's mixed team into second place in the corporate cup standings. The Barnett Bank team won by a cumulative 16 seconds.

Behind Ramsdell (a St. Petersburg Catholic graduate) came Mary Whitlock (Tarpon Springs High graduate) in 57:41 and Mary Dougherty (Northeast High and University of Florida) in 58:58.

Age group highlights: In addition to Dillon finishing first among American masters men, area coach Joe Burgasser won the 55-59 age division.

Peter Scott of Clearwater ran 56:24 for second place in the 50-54 division. His wife, Janice, took third in the Nike Masters Cup (bay area) competition in 1:03:44. That cup and a trip to the Azalea Run went to Cathie Schmidt of Pinellas Park.

In the women's 45-49 division, Vickey Imes of St. Petersburg Beach placed second in 1:06:07.

Gasparilla 5K highlights: Erin Giesa, 13, a seventh-grader at Safety Harbor Middle School, improved from eighth place last year to second among women on Saturday. Her time was 19:11.

A mild disaster befell the 5K front-runner, Nikko Rankissoon of Largo. He tripped over a manhole cover just past the 1-mile mark while leading. He went down and finished 16th on a sprained ankle.

Elsewhere: At the Blue Angel Marathon in Pensacola on Saturday, Admiral Farragut English teacher Matt Lameyer ran his first 26.2-miler in 2:48:20, finishing 17th.

Coming up: The Strawberry Classic 10K will be held Saturday at 8 a.m. in Plant City. Race-day registration ($15) starts at 6:30. Call 832-4026.

The Jacksonville River Run on March 12 is the 15K national championship. A chartered bus for bay area participants has 12 openings. Call 855-0142 for details.

The 5K Run for the Pennant is Dunedin is set for March 12 also. Steve and Kim Langevin will defend their titles. Call 733-4151.