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Chasing a dream

Published Sep. 2, 2005

The first 3-mile run wasn't pretty.

The 8-miler ended after 6. The term "dead meat" came to mind.

Funny thing about milestone birthdays _ 30, 40, 50 _ how they inspire people to set steep goals and meet personal challenges.

For Zephyrhills City Manager Steve Spina, a former smoker, casual drinker and sometimes runner, the big 5-0 loomed large in the spring. Determined to defy the whispers in his head about getting o--, Spina dug up one of his longtime ambitions: running a marathon.

The day the lottery opened, he added his name to the long list of people hoping to compete in the New York City Marathon.

A few weeks later, Spina learned he was in today's race. No turning back.

Spina, who stands 6 feet tall with broad shoulders and long legs, made his first foray onto the pavement June 30, shortly after he returned from a research trip to Finland. His biggest concerns were humidity and laying off the chocolate.

He has been running off and on since 1990. He ran a 5-kilometer race in December of that year, when he was still smoking more than a pack a day of Marlboro Lights.

He smoked his "last" on July 2, 1991, though he still sneaks one every now and then.

Or, he used to.

"It's helped me clean up my act a little," Spina said earlier this summer, while deep in his training and far beyond the luxury of an occasional menthol.

For weeks now, he has been waking up at 5 a.m. three mornings a week to log 3 or 5 miles with running partner Tim Linville. On Saturdays, they meet a group in Temple Terrace for long runs of 18, 20 and 22 miles. Those days, the alarm goes off at 3 a.m.

"I'm amazed that I get up," Spina said. "That's been truly amazing. I'm not a morning person usually. But I kind of enjoy it."

After those runs in and around Silver Oaks, where Spina lives with his wife, Judy, he gets back to the silent house and takes a dip in the pool, reads the newspaper and has a cup of coffee.

The peaceful mornings offer small pleasures. The sunrise. Cardinals perched on tree branches.

"You get little treats like that," he said. "Plus, you're outside."

Now and then, he hits the road in the middle of the day.

"Sometimes I'll run at lunch because things have been stressful," he said. "You come back, you're refreshed. It helps."

July 30 was a bombshell. The reason: Jerry Freeman, the city's police chief of only nine months. Spina asked for his resignation and was prepared to fire him.

But Freeman was popular with the rank and file. He wore a black patrol uniform and let everyone call him Jerry.

The fallout came.

Spina found refuge in his Saucony sneakers, size 13.

"Since some of the strife here _ just the constant upheaval, the variety of criticism _ some of it kind of knocked me for a little bit of a loop," he said.

Running gave him an escape from the controversy. It also gave him a chance to work it out in his mind.

"Sometimes it helps you weigh things," he said. "Sometimes if you're running with a buddy, you talk about it."

A Nike television commercial featuring a woman running rings true with Spina, given the events of the summer. The catch line says, "Who says you can't run away from your problems?"

He is quick to list the many benefits he has enjoyed during training. A better ability to focus, a healthier lifestyle and weight loss, although he is surprised to have shed only 10 pounds.

"It's been such a great thing," he said. "It's helped me focus _ on running, what I'm eating, what I'm drinking, what I'm not drinking. It's been a lot more than just running down the road."

The weather forecast for New York City today is a low of 56, a high of 69. That's warmer than normal for the race. Even so, race directors recommend runners bring old sweat shirts and pants for the chilly bus ride to the starting line on Staten Island.

At 10:15 a.m., the gun will sound, and Spina will set off with 30,000 other runners (including Linville). He'll be the one in runner's shorts and a Florida Gators T-shirt he bought on the Gainesville campus last week.

He'll hoof across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which "shakes from the pounding of 60,000 feet," according to race literature. He'll make his way through Brooklyn, accepting water from one or two of the 12,000 volunteers along the route. Spina carries no extras when he runs _ not a set of headphones, his watch, his wedding ring.

The course winds through the streets of Queens and across the Queensborough Bridge. Once on Manhattan Island, Spina will head north, up First Avenue for miles 16 through 20. He'll jog through Harlem, make a loop through the Bronx and turn south again back through Harlem before entering Central Park at Fifth Avenue and 190th Street.

For his 50th birthday on July 3, Spina's two sisters gave him tickets to the U.S. Open tennis championship. Spina grew up in Peekskill, N.Y., about 30 miles from Manhattan. While in town in August, he went running in the park, getting his feet and legs familiar with New York's storied green space.

The place of his father's birth, near Lexington Avenue and 118th Street, isn't on the route.

The long journey of 26.2 miles ends at Central Park West. Spina's goal: to make it in 4 hours and 30 minutes.

"I'm not out there to beat the clock," he said.

His wife will have to watch for him on television from Zephyrhills. After a recent fall that broke her leg and arm, she had to bow out of the trip. Spina will stay at the Milford Plaza, not far from the finish line. He'll spend one night with his niece in her tiny Manhattan studio.

On Tuesday, it's back to Zephyrhills, then City Hall. Spina has a new police chief to meet; he hired Russell Barnes for the job the night before he left for New York.

Any lingering anxiety about getting old is diminished, he said.

"Turning 50 started to be traumatic," he said. "It hasn't stayed traumatic. It's amazing to be worried about turning 50 and then realizing you're in the best shape of your life."

Thinking back to the skinny 20-year-old chain smoker he once was lessens the pain. So does the ease with which he now cruises through 10-mile runs, when 3 miles used to suck the wind from his chest.