The smile was as sure as the sunrise over Davis Islands. Without fail, Rob Mason wore it every year, along with his garish running attire, at the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic.
For more than three decades, longtime executive director Susan Harmeling banked on it to boost her spirits before, during and after those frenetic race weekends. Though sweat often accompanied the smile, Mason annually delivered.
“He loved Gasparilla,” said Harmeling, who has presided over the race since 1993. “And it was clear that he did.”
One of only five individuals to compete in every Gasparilla Distance Classic since the event’s inception in 1978, Mason died Thursday at a Lakeland hospice facility after a brief battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 77.
This past February, he competed in the 5-kilometer Gasparilla race, finishing in 14th place (38 minutes, 10 seconds) in the men’s 75-79 age division. An avid runner more than half his life, Mason competed in marathons in no fewer than eight different countries and remained an indefatigable advocate for the sport as a longtime running correspondent for The Ledger in Lakeland.
The Ledger indicated he logged 79,679 miles as a runner between 1977 and 2023.
“What always floors me about Rob is his ability to not only compete in a road race, but also sit down immediately afterwards and write a story about it, often a first-person piece, which really immerses his readers in the event,” former longtime Tampa Tribune running reporter Bill Ward said.
“But to me, the most impressive thing about Rob is that he has such a strong connection to the running community in the Lakeland area. So many runners know him and connect with him on such a personal level.”
A retired support-facility superintendent at Walt Disney World, Mason annually stood out among the thousands of Gasparilla runners who converged on downtown Tampa’s southern fringe for the annual race along Bayshore Boulevard. His attire for a recent Gasparilla included a striped shirt featuring a skull and the phrase “Run or Die.” Accessories included arm socks that resembled tattoos and “Pirates of the Caribbean” socks he got at Disney.
“There were three things that I could count on every year. The first one was seeing Rob and Linda’s smiling faces that came into the (Gasparilla) kickoff luncheon (at the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City),” Harmeling said, referring to Mason and longtime companion Linda Snavely.
“And then on race day on Saturday, for 31 years, Rob was one of the first people I saw in the timing tent because he would always come in with that sweet smile and want the times of all the Lakeland runners so that he could write something about it in The Ledger. And then at the partners (post-race) celebration, that smile was always there.”
Mason is survived by Snavely, two daughters and two grandchildren.