TAMPA ― He jogged past nonagenarian status last summer without stopping. Since resuming a running lifestyle around the disco era, Joe Conrad has done 11 marathons and more than two-dozen sprint triathlons.
You’d sooner spot an aluminum shanty on Bayshore than see this retired orthopedic surgeon wearing anything but running shoes. In 40 or so years of navigating pavement and hills and volatile conditions, he has experienced victory, adulation, a little calamity, and even some national acclaim.
But never that surreal sensation felt by so many in his sport.
“Any time that I’ve gotten a (personal-best time), I’ve always felt like I was in a zone,” Conrad said. “I didn’t know what was going on, and I didn’t know until I crossed the finish line that I was going fast ... but I’ve never had this runner’s high.”
He might ― just might ― feel one Saturday morning.
If all goes as orchestrated, Conrad, 90, will cross the finish line of the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic 5K with close to 30 relatives. They include two of his four living biological children, all seven grandchildren, 11 great-grandchildren, and several spouses.
The oldest, of course, will be Conrad, a Brooklyn-born James Bond aficionado and Civil War buff called “Grandpa Joe” by his grandkids. The youngest will be an 18-month-old great-grandchild pushed along the course via stroller. One grandkid will come from as far as Raleigh, N.C.
“Chance of a lifetime,” said Rose Conrad Jackan, the youngest of Joe’s two daughters. “I don’t think too many people, when they look back on their life, are gonna be able to say that they had the opportunity to do this.”
Coordinating this mobile family reunion is Conrad’s second-oldest son John, a 63-year-old Hillsborough County criminal judge and frequent Gasparilla race partner with his dad. When it dawned on him Joe would be 90 at this year’s race, he decided to reach out to the rest of the family.
“We’re getting hopefully some shirts made that I think will be cool,” John said. “So we’ll be as a group, start the race and hopefully finish at the same time.”
The family’s affable patriarch says he couldn’t have scripted a more ideal setting for this convergence of generations: Gasparilla remains his favorite race.
“I’m just excited that I’ve got a chance to run with all of them,” said Joe, wearing maroon-and-white Asics running shoes with dark slacks and a blue button-down Polo shirt on this warm morning,
“I’ve enjoyed running with my son over all these years, but I’m getting tired of hearing him now say, ‘Dad, I’ll slow down and wait for you.’ At least I can handle it when my great-grandchildren say it, but not my son saying it to me.”
A runner’s life resumes
The seeds of Joe’s running life were planted around puberty. They just remained dormant for about three decades.
He ran as a high-schooler at Brooklyn Prep, where as a freshman he had a passing acquaintance with an upperclassman named Joe Paterno (“He was one of the few seniors that deigned to say hello to the freshmen,” Joe recalled). But he stopped after one season because it interfered with his studies.
An adulthood passed, during which Joe attended NYU and med school, married, moved his family to upstate New York, raised five kids and evolved into a respected ― and mildly eccentric ― authority in orthopedics.
“When he would be at the hospital making his rounds, all the other doctors would be wearing three-piece suits, and back in the ’70s he wore tennis shoes and a T-shirt,” said Rose, a 1978 Robinson graduate who resides just south of Atlanta.
“My older sister was kind of a hippie wannabe, and she made him some love beads and he would wear that.”
He said his return to running, around age 50, was borne more out of necessity than itch.
“I needed to do something because I was gaining weight,” said Joe, who now resides in Stuart with his longtime companion, Adeline. “Since 1979, I’ve been running pretty much, until I got involved with triathlons.”
Joe’s competitive zeal seems to intensify with each new birthday candle.
In 2009, he ranked second in the male 80-84 age group in the USA Triathlon national rankings. The USA Triathlon website indicates he did six sprint triathlons that year (generally a 440-yard swim, 10-12 miles on the bike and a 5K) with a best time of one hour, 18 minutes, 55 seconds.
In 2015, he ranked third in the male 85-over group. That same year, he won his age group (male 85-89) in the Gasparilla 5K (37:09). He also has run the Boston and New York City marathons, as well as marathons in Chicago, Montreal and Hawaii.
“He’s like a freak of nature,” Rose said.
His adventures along the way range from the humorous to the hairy.
Close (and comical) encounters
About 20 years ago, while doing a 5K with a running club, Joe tripped over an untied shoelace.
“Here I am, I’ve been running allegedly for 15, 20 years, and I don’t know enough to double-knot my shoelaces,” he recalled.
He was pushing 70 when he fractured his pelvis after losing control of his bike while going downhill. Even more frightening ― at least momentarily ― was an early-morning run near his Stuart home about a dozen years back. Joe was jogging toward the rising sun ― the same sun impairing the view of morning commuters ― when the rear-view mirror of a pickup clipped his arm.
“(The driver) stopped, and he comes over,” Joe said. “And as I get up and I’m scraping off (dirt) he looked at it and went, ‘Ah, you’re okay,’ and went back in his pickup and took off.”
Joe elicits a hearty laugh at the recollection. By contrast, pratfalls will be supplanted by poignance ― in bulk supply ― Saturday. He only regrets he won’t hear that timeless theme song from the 1980s Oscar-winning film Chariots of Fire, which always blared at the finish line when the race ended downtown on Ashley Drive years ago.
“I tell everybody the same thing, my only complaint is they don’t have that song anymore,” he said.
Instead, he’ll have to settle for the sound of squeaky stroller wheels, the gasps of encouragement from John and Rose as they try to keep up, the random cheers for Grandpa Joe from the youngest of his brood.
The soundtrack of his life.
Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic
All races are in Tampa. Races are capped, but registration is available at rungasparilla.com. Entry fees for each race vary.
15K: Starts 6:40 a.m. at Brorein and Franklin Streets
5K: Starts 9:15 a.m. at Brorein Street and Ashley Drive
Road closures (rolling from 2 a.m.-6 a.m.): E Brorein St. from S Jefferson St. to Bayshore Blvd.; W Platt St./Channelside Drive from S Parker St. to S Nebraska Ave.; Selmon Expressway eastbound Exit 6A Downtown West ramp to S Florida Ave.; Bayshore Blvd. from W Brorein St. to W Platt St.; S Ashley Drive between E Whiting St. and Channelside Drive; S Franklin St. between E Whiting St. and Water St.; S Florida Ave. between E Whiting St. and Water St.; E Whiting St. (westbound lane only) from S Florida Ave. to S Tampa Str.; S Morgan St. between E Brorein St. and Water St.; S Tampa St. from E Whiting St. to E Brorein St.; Bayshore Blvd. between W Platt St. and W Gandy Blvd.; W Gandy Blvd. between S Zion St. and Bayshore Blvd.
Half-marathon: Starts 6 a.m. at Little Bayshore Blvd. between Platt St. and Brorein St. for two-hour and under runners; Platt Street/Platt Street Bridge for 2-plus hour runners.
8K: Starts 9:15 a.m. at Bayshore Blvd. and Verne St.
Road closures (rolling from 3 a.m.-6 a.m.): Bayshore Blvd. between E Brorein St. and W Swann Ave.; W Platt St./Channelside Drive from S Plant Ave. to S Florida Ave.; S Franklin St. (southbound lane only) from E Whiting St. to E Brorein St.; S Franklin St. between Channelside Drive and Water St.; E Whiting St. (westbound land only) from S Florida Ave. to S Tampa St.; Bayshore Blvd. between W Swann Ave. and W Gandy Blvd.; S Plant Ave. between W Platt St. and NB Davis Island Bridge; NB Davis Island Bridge between S Plant Ave. and Davis Blvd.; Davis Blvd. between NB Davis Island Bridge and Arbor Place; Arbor Place between Davis Blvd. and Columbia Drive; Columbia Drive between Arbor Place and Barbados Ave.; Barbados Ave. between Columbia Drive and Channel Drive; Channel Drive between Barbados Ave. and S Davis Blvd.; S Davis Blvd. between Hudson Ave. and W Davis Blvd.; W Davis Blvd. between Davis Blvd. and S Davis Blvd.; Davis Blvd. between SB Davis Island bridge and W Davis Blvd.; SB Davis Island Bridge between Bayshore Blvd. and Davis Blvd.