TAMPA — In the middle of thousands of runners, Sandi Lake holds up a white sign that says in bold black letters: PACE 11:00.
She waves to spectators on the sideline and encourages them to cheer, and, inevitably, they do what she suggests. It seems everyone trusts Lake, who at 65 is right on time, every time: 11 minutes a mile, no matter if it’s the 5K, 8K, 15K or half-marathon.
Lake — like all 12 of the official volunteer pacesetters at the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic weekend (from 7:30 mile pace to 13:30) — runs every race.
“It’s part of the deal to do all the races because you have to have people who are consistent in their pacing job,” said Lake, who paced her sixth Distance Classic weekend after pacesetters took the past two years off because of COVID-19 limitations. “It’s a tough challenge but it’s one we all love. We take pride in it.”
The company that books the pacers closely monitors their performance, which means they can’t come in too quickly or slowly.
For Lake, a St. Petersburg resident, the pacing serves as a training opportunity for a running hobby that started out of high school for fitness, led to road races, then about 20 years ago, to marathons.
Lake has now done dozens of marathons and is on the verge of completing the “big six,” which include New York, Boston, Chicago, London, Berlin and Tokyo.
Lake is headed to Tokyo after Gasparilla to grab her “sixth star,” which she said will be her last marathon ever.
“After that I want to do a half-marathon in every state,” she said. “You have to have goals, right?”
And continue pacing? Of course.
“I’m definitely going to keep up the pacing,” said Lake, whose pacing pace is about a minute behind her racing one. “I love giving back to a sport that has given me so much joy. I love everything about it. It’s so fulfilling.”
Here are a few other featured runners from Distance Classic weekend:
Blessed to be back in action
Jordan Schilit took off from the Gasparilla 5K starting line Saturday morning and led thousands of folks over the Brorein Street Bridge and down Bayshore Boulevard.
Schilit said he “loved and appreciated” every fire-breathing, teeth-grinding step of the way.
“It feels so great to run like that again,” said Schilit, a former running star at Jesuit High, class of 2009. “It’s been a tough journey.”
The serious trouble started in his colon during his days as an All-American at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. The malady was diagnosed as ulcerative colitis, and it was no less than devastating.
There was frightening blood in his bowels. Debilitating pain. Extreme weight loss. Somehow he ran through it, taking his personal-best time in the mile down to 4 minutes, 3 seconds, one of the best in the nation.
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He continued to train as a professional at the Oregon track club with hopes of making running a career. But at the age of 24, the ulcerative colitis — severely challenging his eating, training and mental stamina — sent him to the hospital and, for the next seven years, into relative running retirement.
He went on to coach at Middlebury College in Vermont from 2015-17 and at Emory in 2018 before taking a job as a senior staffing manager at Randstad.
Finally, in 2022, at the age of 31, Schilit had gained better control of his colitis with a mix of medicines and diet, and began training again.
It was admittedly “humble and brutal” at first, but steadily, carefully, he got back into form and ran faster and faster.
In the summer of 2022 he competed in the Maccabiah Games in Israel, an event that brings together thousands of the best Jewish athletes from around the world every four years.
One night during the games he had two of the greatest moments of his life: He proposed to his girlfriend (and she said “yes”) and he won the 10,000-meter race with a blazing final lap.
On Saturday, he was back at it again, leading through the first mile only to finish just behind 32-year-old Taylor McDowell, who won in 15 minutes, 44 seconds, six seconds ahead of Schilit.
“I really wanted to win (on Saturday), but some days are better than others,” said Schilit, who returned from his new home in Charlotte, N.C., to Tampa for the race. “The bottom line was that it felt great to be back out there competing and being near the front. And the good news is that I feel certain there are many more great races and things for me to look forward to.”
Next week, by the way, Schilit will make it official when he marries his fiancee, Ericka Rahman.
“Everything feels great right now,” Schilit said. “I feel blessed.”
Wife’s memory drives this ‘Fighter’
At 6 a.m. on Sunday morning the half-marathon began in downtown Tampa, and a sea of thoughts began swirling in the mind of Ryan de Jong.
Down Bayshore Boulevard in the middle of thousands of souls, he thought of the hundreds of road races he has run, including dozens during Gasparilla weekends. He thought of how, at the age of 43, he wants to do more to help more people, maybe even start a road race of his own.
And constantly in the back of his mind, he thought of Michelle, his wife who died on Valentine’s Day in 2016 from a brain tumor.
Bayshore Boulevard, after all, is where he and Michelle ran together.
“This is not just the Gasparilla road race course,” de Jong said. “This was our place to meet.”
The week after Michelle died, de Jong, at his wife’s request, ran the Gasparilla half-marathon, a race they had also planned to run together.
“I ended up running that Gasparilla half-marathon in 2016 full of rage and sadness, and fueled with all those emotions, I ran a personal-best time (1:44:20),” de Jong said. “Then time passed and I reflected, and in 2020 I came back with a different attitude. I said to myself that record can no longer stand.
“I said I need to run a new personal best, but I need to run it with the right attitude.”
He trained hard and he ran that race “smiling the entire time.”
“I talked to people and I soaked up every second of it. When I crossed the finish I had run a personal best (1:43:38) and I felt awesome. I felt so good because I ran it healthier. I ran happier. And that’s the message I want everyone to get.”
He doesn’t want people to simply try and run their fastest. He wants them to enjoy every second of the experience, and to appreciate the fact that they can push their bodies toward excellence.
“That’s how Michelle did it,” de Jong said. “She taught me that.”
In December, de Jong sold his interest in the insurance company he started 15 years ago, and has since been pondering what his next venture might be.
No doubt it will involve in some form his “Fighter Foundation,” which he started in 2016 after Michelle died. It was a movement that began organically in the sense that people, basically unsolicited, began donating money to him for brain cancer research in honor of Michelle.
Since then, under a more structured fundraising process, de Jong and the “Fighter Foundation” have raised close to $350,000 for research and scholarships for brain tumor survivors, thanks in part to an affiliation with the annual “Miles for Moffitt” run.
“And now I want to take it higher, help more people,” said de Jong, wearing his ‘Fighter’ T-shirt, which he dons for every race. “I am fueled by all of this.”
On Sunday, one of the myriad thoughts he had running down Bayshore Boulevard was how Michelle in the days following her diagnosis was worried more about her family’s feelings. In a letter, she wrote, “Something big is going to come out of this.” And she would often say, “There’s always hope.”
“That’s the attitude I want to pass on,” de Jong said. “So, yes, I’m going to do more. I’m just getting my thoughts in order.”
For more information on the Fighter Foundation, reach out to de Jong at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Community commitment to fitness
Some even ran as a family, such as the Parris trio: mom Samaria, 42, dad Dwayne, 48, and son Nikel, 10. On Sunday, Samaria finished the 8K in 1:13:22, while dad and son tied at 1:07:41.
“Our mission is simply to foster healthy brotherhoods and sisterhoods through running, jogging, walking or any other type of physical exercise,” said Dwayne, who also ran Saturday’s 5K in 33:03. “We want to get out together and get healthier together.”
The Parris family joined the Tampa organization about a year ago after living in New York, where the organizations are among the largest in the country. Dwayne said the Tampa groups number in the dozens with about 15 showing up every two weeks or so for a group run.
“Sometimes you want a community of runners who are like you,” said Dwayne, donning his Black Men Run T-shirt. “For us it has been nothing but a great experience.”
Samaria has arguably made the biggest strides, coming from “not running at all before a year ago to completing a half-marathon last November.”
“The Black Girls Run group helped me with a physical therapist, a run coach and a nutritionist,” she said. “It also helps because the members talk on social media about their training and trade different ideas on how to train better.”
Not all the members competed in the Distance Classic weekend because some were racing at events all over the state and country.
“There are so many opportunities for so many runners out there,” Dwayne said.
Keeping the city safer
The races elicit dozens of alter egos annually. Observe one or more Distance Classic races each year, and you’re bound to see participants bedecked in getups ranging from Chewbacca to Chiquita bananas.
But there was a crime-fighting context to the Batman and Robin attire worn Saturday by 40-year-old educators Stephen Gaymont and Sam Lubin.
Said Lubin, a teacher from Lawrenceville, Georgia, who doubled as Robin on this morning: “We’re super heroes.”
Or at the least, conscientious citizens.
Last year, the two were headed to the Gasparilla starting line before dawn when they encountered a solitary vehicle in a parking lot of one of the downtown Tampa buildings. As they passed by, another vehicle approached quickly.
“Out of that vehicle jumps like, four women, and they immediately pounce on that other car,” said Gaymont, assistant principal at Alta Vista Elementary in Haines City. “Somehow it’s unlocked, they drag out the driver and passenger — a male and female — and proceed to start beating up the male.”
The two quickly alerted a nearby police officer, who made tracks toward the altercation. The incident prompted both to participate as crusaders — caped ones, at that — this year. Complementing them were Gaymont’s two kids: 6-year-old Soren dressed as the Joker, and 8-year-old Chloe as Catwoman. His wife, Katherine, dressed as Harley Quinn, the Joker’s romantic sidekick.
“Since (that incident), we’ve been preparing the costumes,” Gaymont said. “Because we felt as if, in a small way, we helped protect the City of Tampa that day.”
Times staff writer Joey Knight contributed to this report.