TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — The year was 1978; the movies “Grease” and “Animal House” were in theaters, “Three’s Company” was on television, and the first runners in the Gasparilla Distance Classic laced up and headed down Bayshore Boulevard.
“The first one was on a Monday. It was the only one on a Monday, and the parade was the same day,” recalled Lakeland’s Rob Mason. Mason is one of seven runners who have lined up and run the Gasparilla Distance Classic every year, and all seven will be there for the 40th running this year.
Overseeing those seven and the other 32,000-plus runners is Susan Harmeling. She’s been the race director for 25 years.
“I like to say, other than having my son, that was the best day of my life,” she said.
Harmeling was working as an event coordinator at the Tampa Convention Center when she was chosen to lead Tampa’s signature road race.
While she says she has never been a runner, she views this as a positive.
“I was a blank slate. I didn’t come in with any preconceived notions about running and about runners and how to take care of them. That allowed me to learn the Gasparilla way of doing things,” recalled Harmeling.
Since she took over in 1992, she and her team has helped expand the event into nationally-known weekend festival of races, runners and rewards. Runner’s World magazine even put the race on the its “Bucket List: 9 Destination Half Marathons.”
Harmeling and her team enter in each participant’s information into the system. She remains proud of that individual attention.
“When I stand out there on race morning and I look at all those people out there, I know we have worked tireless to make sure that every single one of them, the fastest one, the one that crosses the finish line last, we’ve worked so hard to make sure that they have a good time,” said Harmeling.
When the gun sounds on this historic 40th running of the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic, Harmeling and her team will already be working on the 41st.
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