For the first time since 1997, the Gasparilla Distance Classic is offering prize money. Not a huge amount, but prize money nonetheless: $2,250 for men's and women's winners in Sunday's marathon and $1,000 to winners of today's 15K.
Race director Susan Harmeling said she hopes to steadily increase the prize money over the next few years, especially in the marathon.
"We're doing everything right with the marathon except we're not attracting as much national attention as we'd like," Harmeling said. "So we're going to try to increase the prize money so the national media will write about us. If the top athletes are running in it, then all the top magazines will write about it. And from that, we should attract more runners in general.
"When we first offered the prize money in the 15K (started in the early 1980s and increased to $10,000 for winners), the race really took off. Now the 15K is established (averaging more than 10,000 participants). We want to do the same thing with the marathon."
The goal is to get the marathon participation to 5,000 by 2005. Last year, partly because of the poor date (the first weekend after the new year), the marathon attracted about 1,500.
"You can't shut down all those roads for that long for 1,500 people," Harmeling said. "So we need more participation, and if we don't get it, then there won't be any more marathons.
"I do think we'll get those participation numbers up. We're definitely heading in the right direction."
The good news for local competitors this year is the prize money isn't enough to attract the world-class athletes.
On the men's side, the runners with a chance to earn some cash include: Elias Gonzalez, 27 (Tampa); Steve Mandel, 38 (Tampa); Muchipawa Mazano, 30 (Tampa); Keith Sawayda, 40 (Clearwater); Robert Skaggs, 37 (Tampa); Tony Teats, 27 (Odessa) and Dror Vaknin, 36 (Tampa).
The women's favorites: Judy Maguire, 45 (Clearwater); Christy Phillips, 41 (St. Petersburg); Lara Shaw, 31 (Tampa); Sandra Shelton, 34 (St. Petersburg); Vicki Sturm, 33 (Clearwater); Lisa Valentine, 42 (Tierra Verde) and Martha Vidal, 32 (Tampa).
"I know the locals are very excited about having a little money to compete for, so that's great," Harmeling said. "But we're planning on increasing the prize money much more over the next few years."
MORE, MORE, MORE: The change in date appears to have made all the difference in participation numbers.
The 2003 races were held during the first weekend after the new year because of scheduling conflicts with the Tampa Convention Center, home to the fitness expo and race headquarters. As a result, the 15K and 5K combined participation was down to about 10,000.
This year, participation will exceed a combined 12,000 and 3,000 for Sunday's marathon.
TEAM USA: If you think you see a logo of a Gasparilla runner wearing military fatigues, well, you're not seeing things.
The fatigue motif is part of a new competition called Operation Outback within the 15K.
The new team division involves only American military, both active and retired. Teams will consist of five runners with the top-three finishers used for scoring.
Winners will be awarded in open male and female runners, mixed and masters male and female runners.
FREE ENTERTAINMENT: After today's races, three bands, the Mike MacArthur Group, Johnny G. Lyons Band and Daniel Lee Martin, will put on a free concert next to the St. Pete Times Forum.
The bands will play from 3-7.
_ SCOTT PURKS
Hops Marathon By Tampa Bay
WHEN: Sunday, 6 a.m. start (wheelchairs start at 5:55).
WHERE: Downtown Tampa.
REGISTRATION: Late registration will be available at race headquarters, the Tampa Convention Center, East Hall, from 10-8 today and beginning 6 a.m. Saturday. The marathon costs $75 and the half-marathon $45.
The closing schedule Sunday:
3:30 a.m. _ Bayshore Boulevard from Swann to Channelside Drive; streets surrounding the Tampa Convention Center, including Franklin, Brorein, Ice Palace Drive and Florida Avenue; 5:30 a.m. _ Davis Islands; Meridian Street between Channelside Drive and Twiggs Street; Twiggs Street between Meridian Street and Morgan Street; Morgan Street between Twiggs Street and Channelside Drive; Bayshore Boulevard north of Gandy Boulevard; Nuccio Parkway from Nebraska Avenue to Palm Avenue; Palm Avenue from Nuccio Parkway to 20th Street; 7 a.m. _ Bayshore Boulevard south of Gandy Boulevard to Northpointe Lane, including Interbay Boulevard and Ballast Point.
Streets will reopen:
6:30 a.m. _ Ingress and egress off of Davis Islands for general traffic permitted; 8:30 a.m. _ all of Davis Islands; 10 a.m. _ Channelside Drive, Meridian Street, Twiggs Street, Nebraska Avenue, Nuccio Parkway, Palm Avenue, Morgan Street and Brorein Street; 11:30 a.m. _ Southbound lanes of Bayshore Boulevard north of Gandy Boulevard; Noon _ Northbound lanes of Bayshore Boulevard from Northpointe Lane through finish line.
_ Gasparilla Distance Classic Association, Inc.