Moving to Tampa Bay: How to plug into the running scene

Tampa Bay Area runners stride down Bayshore Boulevard in the wee hours of the morning, join full sun workouts at noon and push jog strollers in mama-centric packs. Weekends, they choose from a deep roster of races. Athletes of all abilities and proclivities are on the run here, where the definition of runner is becoming simultaneously more inclusive and more extreme.

When Susan Harmeling became race director of the Gasparilla Distance Classic 24 years ago, the public saw her event as competitive and unreachable, off limits to the casual exerciser. Now, first-timers and endurance specialists alike add the Classic to their calendar. South Tampa comes to a standstill for two days in February, the downtown filling with elite and everyday athletes tackling the half marathon, 15K, 5K, 8K or stroller roll. Hardware-happy competitors toe the line for multiple races.

“There are people out there who want to greatly exceed personal expectations, and we see our endurance challenges grow year after year,” Harmeling says. “At the same time, the social aspect of the sport is making it more accessible to everyone.”

Wearing out your running shoes

Zealous runners not content completing just one event enter the Michelob Ultra Challenge, which brings competitors to the starting line four times during the weekend. Still, even with its deep prize purse that supports the local elite running community and an American-only purse that attracts runners nationwide, the Gasparilla Distance Classic embraces the newbie. As a niche of athletes raise the stakes, another group is dipping the toes of their running shoes in the competitive waters.

Thank the “Mommy/Daddy running revolution,” which is in full swing here. The popularity of stroller racing is so high locally that the 2016 Gasparilla Classic roller 5K is capped for the first time at 15,000 participants. A running sector previously resigned to begging for a place in the back of the pack, family-friendly racing has taken off - and moms and dads are bringing their offspring along for the ride.

Christie Bruner witnesses the phenomena firsthand. Franchise owner of St. Petersburg’s Baby Boot Camp and member of Moms Run This Town, Bruner coaches workouts where strollers are part of the standard equipment and babies are welcome training partners. The participants are a downtown St. Petersburg staple, weaving their strollers through scenic waterfront paths.
“A lot of moms have crazy schedules and can’t make it to scheduled group runs,” says Bruner. Baby Boot Camp and Moms Run This Town make it easier to connect with other parents – specifically mothers - who have similar goals.”

She sees the excuse I can’t find a training partner as no longer valid. The Facebook group Moms Run This Town is updated daily by moms seeking training partners, advice and support. Throughout the last five years, Bruner says, she has seen momentum pick up for local “mother runners.” She envisions no slowdown in the future.

“It doesn’t hurt that exercisers in Downtown St. Petersburg see dolphins during their training runs near Coffee Pot Boulevard or meet at Vinoy Park and have plenty of sidewalk space for their strollers,” she says. “Once they do a stroller-friendly race or two and find some running buddies, they’re hooked.”

Getting hooked on running

Florida Gulf Beaches Race Director Chris Lauber believes it’s never been easier to get “hooked” on Bay Area running. Events here are accessible and friendly, he says, and generational races such as the Tampa Bay Times Turkey Trot ingrain the sport as family tradition. A focus on making events about fitness and fun doesn’t hurt, either.

During Lauber’s Florida Halloween Halfathon and 5K races, it’s not unheard of to see Elvis running through Ft. Desoto Park. Participants are encouraged to don costumes, and prizes are awarded for the fleetest of foot and the most creative. Categories include best hero, best villain and best celebrity, among others. Then there’s Running for Brews, a weekly training group that bills itself as “the most social running club in Tampa.” The thirsty squad ends training jaunts at establishments that offer craft beer specials. 

Of course, there’s that other chasm of the population that increasingly views “fun” as synonymous with endurance glory. For that set, Lauber created the Clearwater Distance Classic’s 50K Ultra event on a relatively flat course that welcomes personal best efforts. Held January 17, the Classic also features a marathon, half marathon, 5-miler and 5K walk.

“What really gets people into running and racing is realizing that running is more than just the competition,” Lauber says. It’s post-race parties, community, even fundraising.” 

An in-road to catching the “running bug” is philanthropic, he says, with more and more events serving as fundraisers. Annual races such as Miles for Moffitt give participants the opportunity to engage in healthy behavior while supporting a cause. Lauber nurtures the first-time racers as much as he can, operating an entry fee assistance program and assisting with nonprofit events.

“There’s a common bond runners have that doesn’t exist in any other sport,” he says. There’s space in this running community for the 5-minute miler, the ultra-marathoner, the true beginner and everyone in between.”

Training groups for Tampa Bay Area runnersUpcoming Tampa Bay Area races

Read more articles by Amy Hammond.

Amy Hammond is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida
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