1. Sports

Forty years without missing a single Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic

George McConnell, 86, of Tampa poses for a portrait at his home in Tampa, Fla. ahead of the 40th anniversary of the Gasparilla Distance Classic on Wednesday, February 15, 2017.   Seven men have participated in every race weekend, including George McConnell.
George McConnell, 86, of Tampa poses for a portrait at his home in Tampa, Fla. ahead of the 40th anniversary of the Gasparilla Distance Classic on Wednesday, February 15, 2017. Seven men have participated in every race weekend, including George McConnell.
Published Feb. 16, 2017

TAMPA — Their tiny fraternity includes former postal workers and power lifters. They'll arrive at the starting line from north Tampa and North Carolina, Palm Harbor and Polk County. There's a Colombian, and an octogenarian. Some have great-grandchildren.

All have great mettle.

That may be the closest common denominator linking the seven men who have competed in all 39 previous Publix Gasparilla Distance Classics.

The law of averages simply doesn't allow one to annually pound the south Tampa pavement for two-fifths of a century with neither incident nor infirmity. At some point, nearly every Gasparilla lifer has been forced to overcome serious adversity — physical or even personal — to maintain his respective streak.

Here are their stories of conquest as they prepare for their 40th Gasparilla go-round (Yep, all are registered.)

Stuart "Stu" Carrier, 67 (Kernersville, N.C.)

Profession: Associate professor and director of Advanced Professional Programs, National Louis University (College of Education)

Personal: Married, one daughter, one grandson

An Air Force veteran, Carrier was running the 15K one year in the early '80s (he thinks it was 1982) when he noticed an asymmetry in his gait.

"My left-right balance was off," Carrier recalled. "So I got checked out by a doctor, Jack Maniscalco at St. Joseph's, and learned I had a brain tumor."

The benign tumor was removed shortly after the race. In '83, he was back at the starting line with a renewed Gasparilla appreciation that hasn't dissipated with the decades. In fact, Carrier — who recently moved from Chicago — has flown in specifically for Gasparilla the past three years. He is registered for this year's 5K.

"If I hadn't done a protracted run and noticed I had this asymmetrical balance issue, I'm not sure they would've uncovered it as early as they did," he said. "Gasparilla is kind of legendary in my family for being the prompt that helped me notice something was wrong."

Lewis Harris, 79 (Palm Harbor)

Profession: Retired architectural draftsman

Personal: Married, three kids, four grandchildren, one great-grandchild

In February 1990, roughly three months after the death of his first wife, Harris chose to run his 13th consecutive Gasparilla. Today, his voice still cracks when he recalls that bittersweet morning when he sweated and sobbed nearly all 15 kilometers.

"I've remarried since, but that was my toughest one," he said.

Ranking a close second was the 2001 race, approximately six months after Harris was diagnosed with prostate cancer. "The doctor wouldn't let me run for two months, so I was really out of shape," he said.

After 30 consecutive years in the 15K, Harris now runs the 5K. To help commemorate his Gasparilla loyalty, his second wife Margaret — with the help of a professional seamstress — formed a quilt out of T-shirts from the first 35 Gasparilla races.

Rob Mason, 71, (Lakeland)

Profession: Retired support-facility superintendent, Walt Disney World; Lakeland Ledger correspondent and swan photographer

Personal: Single (with a "significant other"), two daughters, first grandchild due in March

One year in the early '80s, Mason's back spasms were so profound, he could barely make it down the aisle of his factory, where he was working as a mold-and-model maker.

With little hope of completing the 15K, he found a 5K participant and swapped numbers — and races — with him. "He had the best 5K he'd ever run," Mason said with a chuckle.

The back problems were temporary; Mason has run the 15K in 37 of the previous 39 years. Last year, at 70, he did the 5K on Saturday and the half-marathon Sunday.

Of the seven lifers, he remains the most conspicuous. On race day, Mason will wear a striped shirt featuring a skull and the phrase "Run or Die." Accessories include arm socks that resemble tattoos and "Pirates of the Caribbean" socks he got at Disney.

George McConnell, 86 (Tampa)

Profession: Retired postal worker, radio engineer

Personal: Married, four kids, five grandchildren, five great-grandchildren

Leave it to the oldest of this fraternity to never suffer any serious injury or illness. In fact, McConnell, who will participate in the 5K, has competed in more than 700 races.

"And I've always finished 'em all. I've never not finished one," McConnell said from the living room of the 2,500-square-foot Town 'n' Country house he built himself. "I worry about this one. But I do walk 2 miles every morning, five days a week."

Not that adversity has totally bypassed the McConnell clan. His son, Bobby, lost the lower part of his right leg (after a series of infections) five years ago and wears a prosthesis. Yet he'll be among roughly 40 McConnell "kinfolks" who will run next weekend.

That group includes George, Bobby, Bobby's three younger sisters, all five of George and Joyce McConnell's grandchildren, and four of their five great-grandkids.

Gus Mejia, 78 (Tampa)

Profession: Retired systems engineer, GTE/Verizon

Personal: Married, two sons, one grandson

Mejia was making coffee in his Palma Ceia kitchen one late-summer morning in 1992 when he suddenly lost feeling in the left side of his body and collapsed. His wife Deyanira heard the commotion and called 911.

"That was in August when I got the stroke," said Mejia, who was rushed to nearby Tampa General Hospital.

"You just keep exercising. I thought I wasn't going to make it (to run in the '93 Gasparilla), and many people at the company say, 'Gus, why don't you rest and don't do the race.' So I decided, let's do it. I got a pretty good time that year, like 82 minutes."

Since then, Mejia's son, Gustavo Jr., has run with his dad at each Gasparilla. They'll again do the 15K, which the elder Mejia has done every year despite seven surgeries to his left knee.

"I'm scared for this one, because this (knee) is getting too painful," said Mejia, a native of Bogota, Colombia. "But I mean, if I have to walk the whole thing I will do it."

Mike Shaver, 73 (Riverview)

Profession: Retired, GTE Data Services

Personal: Married, two sons, two grandchildren

An avid kayaker and former power lifter, Shaver underwent back surgery shortly before Christmas around two decades ago, jeopardizing his hopes of doing the Disney Marathon (the ensuing January) and Gasparilla (February).

"It was kind of an emergency. I had a tumor wrapped around my spine," he said. "I recovered enough, I didn't do Disney but I was able to do Gasparilla again."

Today, Shaver, Mejia and Tom Singletary are the only three who have competed in the 15K every year.

"That kind of keeps me going," Shaver said. "I have a goal every year (to complete it). I could be like, 'Wow, it's hot, it's 90 degrees out there and the humidity's terrible,' but I'm gonna go out there and get that run-walk in."

Tom Singletary, 75 (Tampa)

Profession: Personal-injury attorney

Despite extensive efforts, we failed to reach the most reclusive member of this group. Singletary was one of only two lifers (Carrier, who lives out of state, was the other) who didn't attend the recent Gasparilla "kick-off luncheon" at the Columbia Restaurant.

Even Shaver — one of Singletary's best friends — left him a message on our behalf. No response.

"You won't talk to him," Shaver said. "He's a great guy, I've known him for years. We've done New York (marathon) together, Boston, all kinds of things. … He's not anti-social, (anonymity) is just his thing."

Contact Joey Knight at Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.


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