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No. 1: Wear it with pride

There was something curious about the Gasparilla confirmation card he received in the mail last week.

He squinted at it through his glasses.

What did that say in the left-hand corner?

1 Sex=M Age=65 15K

Joe Burgasser

The curious part was the first number, which he knew after more than 20 years of running in the Gasparilla Distance Classic, is given to the defending champion.

Last year's winner was Ronnie Holassie.

Hmmmm.

As Burgasser would find out, Holassie decided not to defend, and Burgasser was being honored by race officials in one of the best ways he could ever imagine.

Suddenly that little No. 1 was huge.

"And I," Burgasser said, "was humbled.

"To think of all the incredible runners who have worn that No. 1. I mean we're talking about the best runners in the world: Rob De Castella, Grete Waitz and others like Phillimon Hanneck, Keith Brantly.

"And here I am, old Joe, wearing No. 1. It really means a lot."

Race director Susan Harmeling said she didn't look far when Holassie said he wasn't coming.

"Joe has been one of the best runners in this race for years and years," Harmeling said. "And he's not only a great runner, but he's a great coach and leader for thearea's running community. He has done so much it's hard to even imagine."

As a runner Burgasser has: had 27 consecutive years of sub 2-hour, 50-minute marathons; finished second three times and won his age-group (60-69) the past four years at the Boston Marathon; set the American record for all ages in 1975 for a 50-mile race (5 hours, 39 minutes, average 6:46 a mile); won the five-year age group bracket at Gasparilla at least once since he turned 40; and averaged a 95 mile a week training schedule last year.

As a coach Burgasser has: been president of the Forerunners Club since 1982, maintaining approximately 150 active paying members every year; recently trained the first- and second-place women's finishers at 2004 Disney marathon (Kim Donaldson, 42, and Mary Ann Protz, 47); guided the women's Forerunners members to four team titles in past seven years at the Boston Marathon; and trained the Hops Marathon women's champion in three of the event's four years.

Protz, for one, knows all this and enjoys revelling in it.

"Whatever he says you listen to because you respect him so much, and you know what an amazing runner he is," said Protz, who started with Burgasser in 1999 and recently ran a 2:56 marathon in Chicago. "He gives out workout schedules and tailors them to each individual.

"We all send him e-mails with these questions and he responds to all of them. I know he spends tons of time on the computer. He has to.

"He has absolutely taken me to another level. I don't know if I ever would have run a marathon if I hadn't started training with Joe. I also wouldn't have had personal bests at several distances last year (at age 46) if it wasn't for Joe.

"You feel like he's there for you every day, and he is."

Wednesday on a dark track at Tampa's Coleman Middle School, there he was again, coaching dozens of runners of all shapes, sizes and abilities, calling to them as they went round and round, puffing cold air into the night.

All of them, at one time or another, coming up to the 5-foot-11, 130-pound man with the clipboard.

No. 1. That would be Joe Burgasser.

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