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It’s not always about a sprint to the finish

St. Petersburg’s Betty Ashley is 97 years young and just finished her eighth straight Gasparilla Distance Classic 5K.
Betty Ashley, 97, pauses before she crosses the finish line during the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic. (TAILYR IRVINE | Times)
Betty Ashley, 97, pauses before she crosses the finish line during the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic. (TAILYR IRVINE | Times)
Published Feb. 23, 2019

TAMPA — She did it again. Big, bad Betty Ashley of St. Petersburg won her age group in the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic 5K on Saturday. She won in a walk.

True, big, bad Betty is roughly 5 feet tall, with silver hair, almonds for eyes and a laugh that melts your heart. She looks as if she fell off a charm bracelet.

And it is just as true that Betty is also the only one in her age group, as she has been for the past eight years. Betty is 97.

Meet the champ.

“Age really is just a number,” she said.

If you want to know what Gasparilla is about, walk with Betty, who is listed as Gasparilla’s “most mature participant.” She’ll bring you to the finish line and teach you something along the way.

She was born in 1921. Her first presidential vote, in 1944, was for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Betty had eight children, but has outlived three of them. Every time she comes to Gasparilla, it feels like her own private party.

“All these people,” Betty said. “All shapes and sizes. It’s exciting. So many people, and they come from all over.”

Before Saturday's race, Betty Ashley shows off her 5K medal from a year ago while home in St. Petersburg. (DIRK SHADD | Times)
Before Saturday's race, Betty Ashley shows off her 5K medal from a year ago while home in St. Petersburg. (DIRK SHADD | Times)

Saturday, that included three of Betty’s children and 10 members of her family, some of whom came from as far away as Alaska to compete in the 5K with her.

And it most definitely includes Betty’s friend, Jim Oakley, whom she describes as her “Man-ager.” They’re sort of an item, have been for 10 years. They love bookstores, coffee shops, travel and ballroom dancing. Frankly, Betty is a bit of a cradle robber. Jim is only 74.

“The first time I met her was at exercise class,” Jim said. “She’s the best hugger in the world. We go to dance at the senior center and everyone lines up to hug her. Just look at her. She’s cute.”

“She is a very special lady,” said Susan, Betty’s oldest child, who is 70. She competed in the 5K, as did her sister Thelma and brother Carl. They’re all getting up there.

“I tell them I’m going to start looking for nursing homes for them,” Betty said with a twinkle.

Betty took up walking when she was 89. Jim, a marathoner before his heart attack 15 years ago, turned her on to Gasparilla. They usually do the annual Turkey Trot in Clearwater, too. Jim figures they walk every day anyway, usually at least 2 miles.

Betty has never looked back. Gasparilla is better for it. She is one of its pillars.

“She’s part of the fabric,” said Gasparilla Distance Classic executive director Susan Harmeling. “She’s so spry. For me, we want to make sure everybody has a good time, from the first person across the finish line to the last. But when you get down to it, Betty is an example of how this race impacts everybody, from an infant in a stroller to a 97 year old.”

Betty moved here in 1998 after losing her husband, Heber. She taught first and second graders for 20 years. For a time, she and her family lived above the funeral home they owned. Betty helped with the books, played hymns on the organ at visitations and even drove clients from the hospital morgue in a converted Ford Pinto. But being around all those dearly departeds never gave her pause.

“Oh, I’ve never given it a thought, dying. Why would I?” she said.

Betty has a brother in his 90s and a sister in her late 80s. She still drives (her Florida license describes her as a “safe driver”), owns a cell phone and is forever connecting on Facebook. She had an aunt on her mother’s side who lived to be 106, her Aunt Gertrude, Auntie Gert. Betty wouldn’t mind getting there. Her current plan is to walk Gasparilla in 2022, when she is 100.

“I can only try,” she said.

She eats a vegetable or salad with every meal. Jim says he has never seen Betty with so much as a cold, though Betty said that years ago she beat breast cancer. She listed her keys to longevity, you know, besides hitting the genetic power ball.

“You have to have something interesting to do, something to look forward to and you have to have somebody to love,” Betty said.

Betty Ashley waves to the crowd while walking the 5K on Saturday, her eighth straight year of competing at the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic. (TAILYR IRVINE | Times)
Betty Ashley waves to the crowd while walking the 5K on Saturday, her eighth straight year of competing at the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic. (TAILYR IRVINE | Times)

Race workers cheered Betty on after she began her walk in the final wave Saturday morning, the gray wave. Betty walked with her Jim and Jim’s son, Steve, and Steve’s wife, Angelica. At one point, Betty pulled ahead.

“Jim holds me back a little,” she whispered with another twinkle.

Odessa 17-year-old Isabelle Lightwood won the women’s 5K in 18 minutes, 3 seconds. Betty finished in about an hour and a half.

She made the race worth walking. She makes life worth living. Her family is convinced that if they can hear footsteps up there, Auntie Gert is hearing them. Betty is just such a sweet little …

I looked up. Betty was 400 feet in front of me, pulling away.

Guess someone had to be the rabbit.

Read more:

Related: Canadian Chris Balestrini wins Gasparilla 15K
Related: Becky Dunkel claims another Gasparilla Distance Classic crown

Contact Martin Fennelly at mfennelly@tampabay.com or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly