Gasparilla Distance Classic notebook: Former Olympian Joan Benoit wins age group

Joan Benoit, the 1984 Olympic marathon gold medalist, finishes the 15K in 1:02:01.
Joan Benoit, the 1984 Olympic marathon gold medalist, finishes the 15K in 1:02:01.
Published Feb. 26, 2017

TAMPA — Among the thousands of participants on Day 1 of the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic, one name on the stat sheet easily stood out from the rest Saturday: Joan Benoit.

Benoit, an Olympic gold medalist in the 1984 women's marathon and two-time Boston Marathon winner, competed in both the 15K and 5K races and plans to run the half-marathon today.

Even at age 59, Benoit showed she can still go stride for stride with the best of them. She finished atop the female grand master chart in the 15K at 1:02:01 and was 17th overall in the 5K in 20:44.

Benoit is participating this weekend for the race's 40th anniversary and as part of the Treasured Chest Challenge, in which runners first compete in the DONNA marathon in Jacksonville, then the Gasparilla races back-to-back to raise money for breast cancer awareness.

"It's all about the challenge and it's all about staying fit," Benoit said. "It's all about celebrating 40 years of one of the best races in the country. You have around 10 races that have been around for 35-40 years and this is high on the list."

Benoit, who still races around the country and has competed in the Distance Classic three times, estimates she runs between 50 and 75 miles per week. And she doesn't plan on stopping any time soon.

"I used to tell people it was my coffee substitute, but now I drink coffee," she said, smiling.

"And I didn't have my coffee this morning, so I would have been at least a minute faster."

Repeat performance

For the second straight year, Tampa Catholic boys basketball coach Don Dziagwa pulled off a rather remarkable feat: In the span of 15 hours, he guided his team to a region final victory and ran the 15K.

Last year, Dziagwa ran the 15K in the morning, then traveled to West Palm Beach and defeated Oxbridge Academy 59-58 on a last-second shot.

This year, Dziagwa, 62, changed it up a little, defeating Oxbridge 78-70 Friday night at home, only to wake up before the crack of dawn Saturday.

Dziagwa was going to do everything possible to compete in both events. After all, he's been coaching at TC 35 years, just a tad longer than he's been running the 15K with his best buddy Joe Hartnett, 55.

"We have pressure on us now to never miss running another one of these races," Dziagwa said. "We simply cannot miss the race!"

The next stop for Dziagwa and the Crusaders (24-5) is the Class 5A state semifinals on Wednesday at 4 p.m. against the Villages inside the Lakeland Center.

By the way, Dziagwa and Hartnett — who started Saturday at their usual place in the very back of the pack, and finished, as always, side by side — broke the finish line in 1:52:38, good for 4,007th place.

Rodgers' return

Legendary runner Bill Rodgers, who arguably is the greatest long-distance male runner in American history, made a nifty return to the 15K.

Rodgers' first lap around Tampa came in the Classic's first year, 1978, when he won in 44 minutes, 29 seconds.

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Almost exactly 40 years later, Rodgers, 69, came back for a trip down Tampa memory lane, finishing in a most respectable 1:13:36 (433rd overall).

"I knew I wanted to run (the 40th annual Gasparilla Distance Classic)," said Rodgers, who between 1975 and 1980 won the Boston and New York Marathons four times each. "So I started training a little harder with some of my buddies, some of 'em who are doing Boston (Marathon).

"Most of them are younger than me, they're 61 or something, and some of them are pretty dog-eat-dog runners. … But I had to train hard for this, as hard as I could. I've been a road runner for 50 years. … It meant a lot to me to come back, a lot of fun. The weather was tough, but I tried to run as smart as I could."

Team George

One of the oldest participants in Saturday's Gasparilla Distance Classic — 86-year-old George McConnell — also had one of the largest group of pacers, 46 members from his family.

"They keep me going!" said McConnell, who is one of only seven people to run every Gasparilla Distance Classic.

To find McConnell running Saturday would have been pretty difficult because the 46 pacers surrounding him wore the same T-shirt with "TEAM GEORGE" written across the front.

McConnell was happy because he finished the 5K in 58 minutes, 18 seconds, just two seconds behind last year's time.

"And I'm a year older!" McConnell said.

By the numbers

6,500 Registered 15K runners.

13,604 Registered 5K runners.

1,476 Participants in the event's first year, 1978.


There were several notable performances by some of the youngest and oldest participants Saturday.

In the 15K female division, Katie Bulso of Apollo Beach won the 10-and-under title in one hour, 37 minutes. Judith Baizan, a 91-year old from Tampa, topped the 90-and-over category at 2:48:41.

Sun City Center's Bob Ranta, 84, was the oldest-finishing male in the 15K at 02:15:47.

In the 5K, Zachary Wilson of Dover was first among the 10U boys with a final time of 19:48. Tampa's Madeleine Gear paced the 10U girls' group in 21:13.

The day's oldest finisher was 95-year-old Betty Ashley of St. Petersburg, who completed the 5K in 1:25:31 with an average mile pace of 27:29.