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Coronavirus couldn’t kick these Gasparilla runners to the curb

We found a pair of Gasparilla registrants still reeling from the effects of COVID-19.
Runners cross the starting line for the half-marathon race during the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic in Tampa, Florida on Feb. 23, 2020. This year's running weekend will feature virtual races, with the normal Bayshore Boulevard courses open only to registered runners Saturday and Sunday morning.
Runners cross the starting line for the half-marathon race during the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic in Tampa, Florida on Feb. 23, 2020. This year's running weekend will feature virtual races, with the normal Bayshore Boulevard courses open only to registered runners Saturday and Sunday morning. [ Times ]
Published May 6
Updated May 6

TAMPA — Unlike most of the previous Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic weekends, this year’s modified version likely will be steeped in humidity and irony.

A limited turnout could feature fortitude at full capacity.

A number of coronavirus conquerors — and some still recovering from the virus’ debilitating effects — will hit the Bayshore Boulevard course (accessible only to registered runners) to participate virtually in one of the event’s four distance races. Most of the typical Gasparilla amenities (fans, on-course DJs, goodies at the finish line) will be absent.

But for these people, it’s not about medals or music. It’s about hydrating, hitting the pavement and delivering a bodacious Bronx cheer to a scourge that previously sapped them of strength and vitality.

We tracked down a couple of these runners. Here are their stories.

Becky Coggins, Land O’Lakes

Land O'Lakes resident Becky Coggins (center), a 41-year-old nurse educator, has struggled to regain her running endurance since testing positive for COVID-19 last summer.
Land O'Lakes resident Becky Coggins (center), a 41-year-old nurse educator, has struggled to regain her running endurance since testing positive for COVID-19 last summer. [ Photo provided by Becky Coggins ]

The 41-year-old married mom of two had found her stride as a competitive runner.

As dawn broke on 2020, Becky Coggins already had completed three half-marathons, recording a personal-best effort (just shy of 2 hours, 15 minutes) at the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic in late February.

“I was definitely getting better,” said Coggins, a nurse educator. “It was the fastest that I had run a half-marathon.”

But just as she seemed to be hitting her peak, Coggins hit a wall. As spring segued to summer and the coronavirus raged, Coggins continued exercising in a makeshift home gym and running around her neighborhood — until suddenly she no longer could.

“I think I had just run two or three miles maybe the day before I didn’t feel good, or two days before,” Coggins recalled. “My time was fine, and then one day I was sitting at home and all of a sudden, I was just breathing really heavy.

“And I’m like, ‘What is going on? Something’s wrong.’”

The next day, she tested positive for COVID-19. In the 10 months since, Coggins has struggled mightily to regain her strength and sub-2:15 form. The recovery has been accompanied by inhalers, steroids and antibiotics. A non-smoker who never has been diagnosed with asthma, she still was failing pulmonary-function tests several weeks after testing positive.

“It has been a doozy,” she said.

But she’s forging onward with her running life, inhaler in tow.

She did a 15-kilometer run-walk around her house a couple of weeks ago, finishing in 1 hour, 50 minutes. This weekend, she’ll do the 8K along Bayshore Boulevard at the modified Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic, accompanied by a pair of running partners. Coggins harbors no delusions about matching her pre-COVID pace, acknowledging the frustration of trying to regain her old form.

“I would say just in the last two weeks, I was able to run a full mile without stopping, or at least had gotten up to a run-walk,” Coggins said. “But my heart rate shoots way up and ... I feel like I just can’t get enough air. So I’m definitely nowhere back to where I was.

“But I’ll get there.”

Bill Meadows, Tampa

Dr. Bill Meadows, 64, who works in medical aesthetics, plans to run the half-marathon at this weekend's Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic despite significant lingering effects from COVID-19.
Dr. Bill Meadows, 64, who works in medical aesthetics, plans to run the half-marathon at this weekend's Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic despite significant lingering effects from COVID-19. [ Photo provided by Bill Meadows ]

He has tried a smorgasbord of treatments during his five-month battle against the coronavirus, only to have his stalwart, 64-year-old body — like his options — become exhausted.

“I did a 7½-mile run on Sunday,” said Dr. Bill Meadows, part of a local medical aesthetics practice.

“And I was so sick (Monday) from having done that, that I took off at 2:30 and went home and went to sleep and didn’t wake up until 7:15 (Tuesday) morning — on a morning I should be at the pool swimming with my swim team. It’s been horrible.”

A dad of five who ran track a couple of years at Brigham Young University, Meadows plans to complete the Gasparilla half-marathon along Bayshore this weekend. To be sure, his symptoms persist.

So does his defiant spirit.

“I was able to crank out 7½ (miles) on Sunday, so I’m just hoping if I can get in, like, seven to 10 before having to stop and walk, I’ll claim that as a victory,” said Meadows, who has completed nine Half-Ironman triathlons (1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride, 13.1-mile run) and has run nearly a dozen Gasparilla half-marathons.

“I’m just hoping to finish.”

Meadows’ life began going haywire on Dec. 22, when a patient in his west Tampa office began mocking Meadows and his staff for wearing masks and calling COVID-19 a “hoax.”

“And of course, I had to be about 2 feet away for 25 minutes to do what is called an intense pulse laser to her face,” Meadows said. “And that was her last asymptomatic day; she became symptomatic the next day.”

A couple of days after Christmas, Meadows woke up with a fever, body aches, chills, brain fog, no taste, no smell and severe diarrhea. He also developed periodic tremors that impaired his ability to provide injections to patients.

Since then, he has been treated with vitamin supplements, exosome injections, monoclonal antibodies and steroids. Yet to this day, some of the symptoms persist, and his strength remains mostly sapped.

“I’ve been trying to keep up my running, but I’m getting in five to 10 miles a week where I used to do 25 to 30,” Meadows said. “And my cycling has dropped down to almost zero. I’ve done three 25-mile rides and one 35-mile ride, where I used to ride 125 miles a week.”

Yet people with Ironman attached to their name don’t apply the brake handles so easily.

“Even if I have to walk across the finish line,” Meadows said, “I don’t care.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls

Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic

This year’s races (5K, 8K, 15K, half-marathon) will be run virtually, with no official electronic timekeeper. Parts of Bayshore Boulevard will be open to registered runners Saturday and Sunday from 5 a.m.-11:45 a.m. (the city will close Bayshore Boulevard from Platt Street south to Gandy Boulevard during this time). Race organizers have outlined suggested course routes, which can be found on the “Race Info” link at rungasparilla.com.

On the course: There will be no traditional aid stations along Bayshore, and runners are responsible for their own hydration. Tampa General Hospital will provide a fully equipped medical facility staffed with a team of emergency-room medical professionals.

Timing yourself: While no official times will be recorded, runners may time themselves and upload their own results into the official Gasparilla database. To learn how, check out this video.

Expo still on: The annual 8 On Your Side Health & Fitness Expo will be held at the Tampa Convention Center Friday (9 a.m to 8 p.m.) and Saturday (6 a.m. to 3 p.m.). The expo is free and open to the public, though face coverings are required and physical distancing will be enforced. Registered runners may pick up their race packets (which includes a virtual race number and T-shirt) at the expo.