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An ocean no obstacle to runners

When a horn blows at 7:30 Saturday morning in Tampa, 12,000 people will begin running the Gasparilla Distance Classic.

At the same time, about 75 troops in the Persian Gulf will begin running in, well, the Gasparilla Distance Classic.

Gasparilla has come to Qatar.

Right down to the official race T-shirts, race bibs (with pins), volunteer shirts, bottled water, goodie bags and finishers' medals.

"Sure, we'd rather be running down Bayshore Boulevard," Air Force major and Qatar race organizer Holly Rawson said. "But we'll make the most of it out here."

"Out here" is the course set up at Central Command Headquarters, a smallish, fenced-in area 45 minutes from the city of Doha. The view consists of, as Rawson said, "Looking out at a lot of sand and occasional trucks flying by."

But running it anywhere else in Qatar was out of the question because women are supposed to be fully covered at all times.

"I don't think a bunch of people running around in shorts and tank tops and sports bras would go over too well," Rawson said.

So the Qatar version will be held on a 3-mile, U-shaped, dusty, concrete course at the base, home to about 600 troops, many of whom will cheer on the runners.

The goal is a little taste of home.

"A group of us (in Tampa) had been specifically training for months for Gasparilla, and then just before Thanksgiving I got sent here," said Rawson, who was transferred to MacDill Air Force Base over the summer. "It was a letdown not being able to run in it."

She got the idea to run the "Qatar Gasparilla Race" after hosting a Christmas run at the base. A few weeks ago she sent an e-mail to Gasparilla race director Susan Harmeling proposing the idea; the next thing Rawson knew, Harmeling was delivering hundreds of the official race items to Brig. Gen. Chip Diehl at MacDill headquarters.

Six troops are each taking a bag full of Gasparilla items to Qatar in the next couple of days.

"It felt sooo good to do this," Harmeling said. "I'm incredibly proud to bring a piece of the race and home to them. Everyone seems so appreciative."

When the gun fires on race day in Tampa, the plan is to have someone at the starting line in front of the Tampa Convention Center with a cell phone. That person will tell the race starter in Qatar to send off his group, which will be about 3:30 p.m. Qatar time.

When the races end _ both a 15K and 5K, just as in Tampa _ each runner in Qatar will have a participation medal draped around his neck.

"This will be great for everybody's spirits," said Rawson, who expects good weather Saturday, around 65 degrees. "We have one runner who said he had run nine consecutive Gasparilla races and he was upset he would miss this year.

"Well, he won't miss it now."