Among the nearly 5,000 participants in Saturday's Publix Super Markets Gasparilla Distance Classic 15-kilometer run were two icons of the sport, runners who arguably helped make races like this part of the community's fabric and history.
They're a little slower and older than their heyday, but 1984 Olympic marathon winner Joan Samuelson and four-time Boston and New York City marathon winner Bill Rodgers were still competitive and every bit as magnetic as they were when distance running was sometimes considered something for eccentrics or even "kooks."
Each came to Tampa from northern climes to compete in the annual event along Bayshore Boulevard and the sudden presence of the warmer weather that greeted the runners Saturday was not lost on these legends.
Considering their age - Samuelson is 53 while Rodgers is 63 - both performed impressively. In fact, Samuelson's time of 58 minutes, 4 seconds for the 15k distance was announced as a single age record. Impressive as that is, the time becomes even more remarkable when you realize that she ran in the unseasonably warm Livestrong half marathon in Austin, Texas, last weekend, where she finished 39th overall in 1:24.
With these marks, Samuelson has aspirations of qualifying for a mind-boggling eighth Olympic marathon trials. It's been more than 26 years since she won the inaugural women's Olympic Marathon in Los Angeles. True to her competitive and yet self-effacing nature, Samuelson was not pleased with her performance Saturday.
"I was hoping to run under 57 minutes," Samuelson said. "But it was warm, warmer than I had expected."
And then with a smile, she noted:
"I seem to have lost a minute somewhere out there, but I am not sure where. And wearing this (pointing to a long-sleeved purple shirt that distinguished her from the mostly singlet-wearing crowd) did not help."
Samuelson's time placed her eighth overall among female competitors and 62nd overall. And needless to say it was the best time in her age group (50-54).
A decade older than Samuelson, Rodgers crossed the finish line in 1:09:33. This netted him eighth in his age group (60-64) and 406th overall. "Boston Billy" also commented on the weather, and how sustaining the 7:20-per-mile pace he hoped to keep up for the 15k became difficult over the last half of the race as the temperature rose.
"I was where I wanted to be at halfway, at 34 (minutes) flat, but somehow lost some time over the last half," Rodgers said.
But the times these two running legends performed Saturday are mere anecdotes against the backdrop of the huge contributions to the sport - contributions that both are keenly aware of, yet also choose to see in the bigger picture. And maybe that is part of their greatness. Samuelson's accomplishments are legendary. Just one year after winning that first women's Olympic marathon in 1984, she came back to set an American record, winning the Chicago Marathon in 2:21:21. And then, in the last Olympic Marathon Trials, Samuelson ran a sub 2:50 - at age 50.
Rodgers accomplishments are also of epic proportions, including four victories in both the New York City Marathon and the fabled Boston Marathon. It is widely recognized that Rodgers' accomplishments in the 1970s helped create the running boom that spurred such festivals as Gasparilla.
As an Olympic gold medalist, Samuelson has an automatic entry into the trials. However, true to her never wanting anything handed to her, Samuelson noted, almost matter-of-factly, "Of course I can get an entry. But I wouldn't want to run unless I had earned a qualifier. And I would like to try to do that."
Rodgers believes that large races such as Gasparilla, which have become almost ritual-like and festival-like, play a huge role in sustaining his enjoyment of running. Reminded that he won the inaugural Gasparilla 15k in 44:29, Rodgers joked: "What did I run today - 69 minutes? I guess I have slowed up a bit. But I love it."
This affection for the sport and for the other participants was highlighted when a fellow super-masters competitor, Bill Riley, walked into the VIP tent where Rodgers was talking to the media. Almost immediately, Riley paid tribute to Rodgers.
"I owe my participation in the sport to Bill Rodgers, ever since meeting him in Falmouth (the Falmouth, Mass., road race) many years ago," Riley said. "If it weren't for him, I wouldn't be here running here today."