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Forget it, brotha. These sistas bring Hulkamania to Gasparilla race weekend

On the scene: The people who compete, and volunteer, make the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic a weekend to remember.
From left, Natalie Dyrli, 44, and sister Jessica Campbell, 43, - also known as the Hulk Hogan sisters - give a fabulous professional wrestling pose to the cheering crowd while crossing the finish line in the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic half-marathon Sunday morning. [SCOTT PURKS  |  Special to the Times]
From left, Natalie Dyrli, 44, and sister Jessica Campbell, 43, - also known as the Hulk Hogan sisters - give a fabulous professional wrestling pose to the cheering crowd while crossing the finish line in the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic half-marathon Sunday morning. [SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times]

TAMPA — You could hear them growling to the cheering crowd 50 yards from the finish line Sunday morning: “AHHHHH! … EAT YOUR VITAMINS! … ARRRRGH!”

They emerged from the pack of runners into the sunlight: glowing yellow with red bandanas, yellow sunglasses, shiny gold professional wrestling belts, yellow shoes, gold flowing wigs, bushy gold mustaches (held on with rubber bands) and red HULKAMANIA printed across their chests.

It still took a little while to get to the finish because the Hulk Hogan sisters had to take an avalanche of selfies with fans.

When they did finally cross the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic half-marathon finish in 2 hours, 42 minutes, 45 seconds, they unleashed the ultimate flexing, pointing and growling.

The sisters — Tampa’s Jessica Campbell, 43, and Bermuda’s Natalie Dyrli, 44 — had once again arrived: “ARRRRRRGH!”

“Our voices are more tired than our legs,” Dyrli said.

Related: For this mother-daughter running duo, it’s all about the look on race day

Ultimately, the sisters, and this is not to be underestimated, absolutely love Gasparilla weekend, costumes and all.

The past six years, they have been mermaids, sexy school girls, old ladies, sailor girls (complete with life preservers), and of course, pirates, costumes they donned while running Saturday’s 15K.

But the love runs much deeper: Campbell’s birthday is Feb. 21, a date that falls either on or near the Gasparilla weekend every year.

“So running this race in the costumes is how we celebrate her birthday,” Dyrli said. “Which is extra great because we don’t really get to see each other the rest of the year, and we do love each other a lot.”

But there’s even more: Dyrli met her fiancee, Tim Price, at the Gasparilla race’s after-party in 2014 when she was wearing the sexy school girl outfit. Two weeks ago, Price, who now lives in Bermuda with Dyrli, finally popped the big question.

Price, by the way, is a super-talented runner who competed this year in all four Gasparilla races — the 15K, 5K, half-marathon and 8K.

“He’s the hottest man at this race,” Dyrli said.

Related: Megan Curham’s latest Florida conquest? The Gasparilla half-marathon

As for choosing the Hulk Hogan outfit, Campbell said it was a no-brainer.

“Every Saturday morning when we were little girls (in Long Island, N.Y.) we would wake up and watch professional wrestling and we got so into it,” said Campbell, who shared a room with her sister. “We thought it was real and we would cry when a wrestler we liked got beat. We loved Hulk Hogan, and of course Hogan is a Tampa local icon. So it was perfect to choose this costume.”

Next year? Who knows?

“All I know is this costume will be tough to top,” said Dyrli, who like her sister never took off her mustache. “But we will try."

A daunting debut

U.S. Army Master Sergeant George Vera competes using his wheelchair cycle in the half-marathon. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

Five years ago, George Vera was fighting off an insurgent attack to secure his base in Afghanistan. The U.S. Army Master Sergeant’s best friend died in the gunfire.

Vera went to check underneath two vehicles when he was shot four times — twice in his left leg and twice in his back. His spine shattered, paralyzing him below the waist. He went to Germany then to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

After about three months of being unconscious, Vera awoke to a new life. He no longer could run half-marathons. Still, Vera, 42, wanted to be an athlete.

So he took up wheelchair racing. Vera has competed in the Invictus Games twice and is now a co-captain. He also has raced in the Warrior Games.

Related: Elli Black, 11, takes over as Gasparilla’s youngest champion, winning the 8K

On Sunday, Vera participated in the Gasparilla half-marathon for the first time. His debut did not go exactly as planned.

Vera’s global positioning system (GPS) failed during the race.

“I don’t know if it was my best performance, but it was certainly my most challenging,” said Vera, who lives in Land O’Lakes. “I had no one up there with me once my GPS went out so I was just trying to motorcycle with the Tampa Police Department the whole time.”

Vera kept pushing. He finished in 52 minutes, 26 seconds as the lone wheelchair participant.

His next race might be more difficult: the Skyway 10K next Sunday in St. Petersburg. No problem.

Vera has conquered that one, too. Last year, he finished second.

A mom on the go

Paige Howard, 32, poses with daughter Hope, 16 months old, and son Jackson, 3, moments after finishing third in the half-marathon Sunday morning, which is even more impressive considering Howard is four months pregnant. [SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times]

Paige Howard is still running really fast, which is pretty amazing considering how fast her family is growing.

Three years ago, between running 60 miles a week and winning local races, Howard had her first baby, Jackson. Less than two years later — after winning the 2018 Gasparilla 15K while two months pregnant — she gave birth to Hope.

Guess what? On Sunday morning, at four months pregnant, the 32-year-old Howard was sprinting down Bayshore Boulevard, ultimately finishing third in the Gasparilla half marathon in one hour, 23 minutes, 23 seconds.

No worries. Well, almost no worries.

“I was a little nervous with being four months pregnant,” said Howard, who is still running 50 to 60 miles a week. “I was making sure to listen to my body like my doctor said. Everything continued feeling fine. I feel good now.”

Related: Gasparilla 5K is a true family affair for 90-year-old Joe Conrad

Which is a little different than she felt during the first three months of this pregnancy, which involved a good deal of morning sickness. Fortunately for Howard, who was one the state’s best distance runners while competing for East Bay and the University of Tampa, she has running to fall back on.

“Running helps me take away the stress and decompress,” said Howard, a Tampa resident who works in her family’s durable medical equipment business. “When I’m running, it’s me time. Running is good therapy.”

For Howard, future goals include running a marathon, a distance she has never tried, and, well, having another baby or two.

“We want a big family,” Howard said with a grin.

Standing nearby, husband Jon Howard raised his eyebrows.

“There might be more in the future,” Jon said. “We’ll just have to see how it goes.”

A cure for what ails you

Tampa General Hospital nurse Kaleigh Bassett stands by with a vomit bag, just in case, as runners finish the half-marathon. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]

As runners finished their races, Kaleigh Bassett stood to the side, offering each one a green, plastic “goodie bag.”

No, Bassett wasn’t handing out promotional items or swag. The registered trauma nurse from Tampa General Hospital was handing out something much more practical: a vomit bag.

Bassett got her fair share of confused looks, while some chuckled at the gift. One runner even told Bassett the bag would have come in handy earlier; instead, those “goodies” were left somewhere on the race route.

Bassett was among 12 volunteers from Tampa General at Sunday’s Distance Classic. The hospital has been staffing the event for 38 years.

“I think it’s really important (to be out here),” said Erica Bader, an RN who oversees TGH’s community events. “We save a lot of people. I’ve sent a lot of patients to the cath lab (examination room to monitor any heart abnormalities) directly from here.”

Bassett, 33, said nurses are always eager to sign up. “It’s fun and it’s exciting,” she said. “It also gets you out of the ER with a little different clientele.”

Related: Street smarts guide first-time Gasparilla half-marathon champ Nick Kaleel

She said part of her job onsite is to identify the runners who may need help immediately (such as going to the emergency room). On Sunday morning, the injury load was pretty light (two broken hips, both coming from spectators and not the runners themselves), Bassett said.

“We have a lot of people that come through here with heart issues and they’re trying to do races,” said fellow ER nurse Danielle Mitchem, 35. “We’re trying to make sure they’re not in dire need right after the race.”

Bassett and Mitchem agreed that muscle weakness and vomiting are the most frequent cases following a half-marathon. Trips and falls also occur regularly post-race. With this weekend’s cooler temperatures, they have seen more shortness of breath and muscle fatigue among runners.

“I think the muscles seize up,” Bassett said, “because they’re nice and warm now, but when they stop, that cold weather hits them.”

In previous Gasparilla events, Bassett and Mitchem remembered lots of people passing out because of the heat. It got to the point where it was difficult to keep up with the patients because people were dropping all over, Mitchem said.

But no matter the conditions or symptoms, Bassett, Mitchem and their fellow nurses will be standing by.

Likely with bag in hand.

A sequel for the Marthey siblings

For the second year in a row, a quintet of Ohio-born siblings, four of whom still reside in their home state, competed in the Gasparilla 5K. Left to right: Jim Marthey, Pat Frye, Renee Brenner, Mary Fetzer, Linda Heinz. [Photo provided by Linda Heinz]

Sibling rivalry wasn’t sufficient. The Marthey kids of north-central Ohio wanted to test their legs in a large race, to see how they truly stacked up in their respective age groups.

So last year, five of them — ranging in age from 56 to 69 — competed in the Gasparilla 5K, and loved it. On Saturday, the whole quintet competed again.

“When you run in a small race you think, ‘Yeah, I was first, second or third, but who was I competing against in my own age group?’” said 70-year-old Seffner resident Linda Heinz, the oldest of the siblings. “So you come here and you’re thinking, ‘Okay, there’s 200 people in just my age group.’”

The five — who have 14 kids and dozens of grandchildren among them — were raised with four other siblings in the farm country of Wayne County, Ohio. Two are deceased, and two others still work and couldn’t make the trip to Tampa.

Related: Relationship goals met in the Gasparilla Distance Classic 5K

“We didn’t live on a farm, but there were farms all around us,” Heinz said. “It was just a beautiful place to grow up. Absolutely gorgeous.”

The family’s racing itch started with 66-year-old Renee Brenner, who has been running for roughly 14 years. She ultimately got siblings Mary Fetzer (age 57), Jim Marthey (64) and Pat Frye (68) into the sport. Heinz, the only one of the five who doesn’t still reside in Ohio, was the final convert.

“They did a lot of runs all around Ohio,” Heinz said. “And I said, ‘Well if you’re gonna have a real race, you guys need to come to Florida.’”

Saturday marked the return engagement. Four of the five also ran in Sunday’s 8K.

Staff writers Joey Knight, Bob Putnam and Mari Faiello contributed to this report.

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