Larry Smart, dripping with sweat, takes a big swig from a plastic bottle of water and savors the run he just won.
“It was pretty nice,” says Smart, 43, an actuarial at Wellcare. “Flat, open road. It was different.”
Different from any 5K race ever run in Tampa. Smart came in first place in today’s inaugural Tampa International Airport 5K Runway Fun Run, an event that turned the west runway into a racecourse.
It was a charity event to raise money for the United Way, says airport chief executive Joe Lopano, standing at the finish line.
“This was a huge success,” he says as the last stragglers trickled in about an hour after the run began.
Turning a busy airport into a road race venue was no small task, says Kari Goetz, the airport’s director of marketing. There were consultations with the Federal Aviation Administration and the Transportation Safety Administration, she says. Many contingency plans were arranged.
“What if the runway suddenly needed to be used for an emergency landing?” was one such scenario that had to be considered, Goetz says. Security was another concern, evidenced by the many Tampa International Airport and TSA officers on hand, some with bomb-sniffing dogs and others on a rooftop, watching the crowd.
And then there was the not-so-simple task of organizing any race.
“We had a good problem today,” says Goetz. “We sold out and had to turn away walkups. “We learned a lot about running a race. A lot.”
Each participant paid $30, with the money going to the United Way
Before the race, Jay and Wendy Rutherford of Weeki Wachee limber up, each with a big smile.
“I want to take off like a plane,” says Wendy Rutherford, 43, a children’s librarian at the Pasco County Library. “I have always loved planes. It will be cool to run alongside them.”
A few feet away, Riley Owen also expresses excitement.
“I have always wanted to do a 5K,” says Owen, who has a pretty good excuse for never before participating in one. He is only 6 years old.
Like the Rutherfords, he, too, is eager to run on a runway.
“It’s cool,” he says. “I love planes. I have a book about military airplanes in the car.”
The runners weren’t the only ones compelled by the race venue.
“This is definitely different,” says Dror Vaknin, a University of Tampa track coach who served as the race director.
Smart says the run was far more pleasant than his last organized running experience.
“I was up in Boston, about four blocks from the finish line, and I heard a muffled thud,” says Smart. “A friend called from his hotel room and said he was looking out the window and could see limbs and blood. And then there were helicopters and ambulances.”
Joe Beimfohr knows about explosions and limbs and blood. On July 5, 2005, he was an Army staff sergeant on patrol in Baqubah, Iraq, when an improvised explosive device went off. It killed the man in front of him.
“I took the brunt of the rest of the blast,” says Beimfohr, who lost both his legs.
Now 35, with arms like tree trunks, Beimfohr is a world-renowned wheelchair athlete, finishing on this day just four minutes off Smart’s mark of 15:04.
“This is a C-class race,” he says, explaining that as a dedicated triathlete, it is a warm-up for more grueling contests.
But it wasn’t the distance that made this special, says Beimfohr.
“It was cool. I stopped a couple of times and took some pictures,” he says. “Now I have a point of reference for the next time I fly. Yeah, I raced on that runway.”
Beimfohr says he won’t participate in the 33rd National Veterans Wheelchair Games coming to Tampa July 13-18, which will bring hundreds of athletes to town.
“I am saving my energy for the hardest hand-cyling race in the world, a six-day, 267-mile race in Alaska,” he says.