Coming to the midpoint of last Saturday's Gasparilla 15-km. race, where the course turned upon itself and headed back toward downtown Tampa, Grete Waitz of Norway knew she had won. "My legs felt tired," she would say later, "but that was from all the hard training I've been doing, with little rest. I didn't think I'd get the record [the world road-racing mark of 48:01 she had set in the same race in 1980], so all I wanted as I approached the turning point was to see the leading men in the race coming back past us."
Looking across the grass divider she saw four male runners still in contention. Leading the group, as he had done much of the way, was Jose Joao DaSilva of Brazil, representing the São Paulo Futebol Clube, where he's a kids' track coach. Right behind him were Adrian Leek of Wales and East Tennessee State, Greg Meyer of Holliston, Mass. and Michael Musyoki of Kenya and UTEP.
These four had left behind a field so accomplished that one of its number, Herb Lindsay, the best all-around U.S. road racer last year, called it "the deepest race I've ever run." Lindsay, in need of training after recovering from a bug he picked up in Brazil in January, would finish 12th. Ric Rojas of Boulder, Colo., the defending Gasparilla champion and world road-racing record holder for 15 km. at 43:12, and Craig Virgin of Lebanon, Ill., the U.S. 10,000-meter record holder, were also losing ground. The reason was basic. After a modestly paced start in deference to the morning's 70° temperature and near 100% humidity, DaSilva, Leek, Musyoki and Meyer had hit the mile posts—15 km. is 9.3 miles—in 4:31, 4:30, 4:34 and 4:39 and showed no sign of further slowing.
They now had an 18-second cushion on the 4:38-per-mile pace they needed to break Rojas' record. The course is dead flat. To their right lay the pungent tidal flats of Hillsborough Bay. To the left, beyond the colorful stream of their 5,000 pursuers, stood stately palms and a quiet residential neighborhood. A scattering of spectators politely cheered them on.
February 15, 1982
Somehow this wasn't what one had been led to expect from Gasparilla. In addition to the road race, the festival of that name encompasses parades, bed races, business leaders taking over the town in the garb of pirates and, according to heavily promoted legend, bacchanalia. "Our own Gasparilla," said the Editor's Page of Tampa Magazine, "the celebration of a (probably fictitious) 18th Century buccaneer, fits right into the noble tradition of madness, heavy-duty intoxication, public posturing and daring sexual escapades." The editor's only lament seemed to be that more of Tampa's citizens don't take part, but even in the dark hours of the morning, runners arriving extra early for the 8:30 a.m. start glimpsed the occasional pirate haunting the docks. "What do you make of that?" Rojas had said half seriously. "Is the region such a repressed society that it has to sanction wild outbursts, even has to fabricate excuses for them, or face internal decay?"
"It's just a different culture," said Lindsay. "I mean, the front page of the Tampa Times had a picture of a high-diving mule at the State Fair."
But out past the halfway point, few runners felt much like celebrating. The air, though perfectly comfortable for passive observers, could absorb no sweat and so could cool no hard-working bodies. The aid stations began to exert a compelling attraction. "I'm not practiced at taking drinks," said Wendy Smith, the British women's cross-country champion. "I ran down a whole row of people knocking cups from their hands before I got one, and when I tried to drink I ended up throwing the water in my face."
But the sun, the one factor that could have forced the leaders to slow, stayed behind a cloud. DaSilva, judging his opponents, thought he had the most to fear from Meyer. "He's the most experienced, the fastest athlete," DaSilva said. Indeed, Meyer, a Boston University student, had run a 4:02 mile on the Harvard indoor track a week earlier. Meyer, in turn, felt that if anyone was in control of the situation, it was Musyoki. The Kenyan was running his first 15-km. race, but he had splendid credentials on either side of the distance, owning the world's fastest road performance at 10,000 meters (27:55) and one of the fastest at the half-marathon (1:02:07).
Past six miles in 27:36, a 4:36-mile pace, the top four were still locked together, but back through the field gaps began to open. "The course lends itself to breaking down mentally in the middle," said Rich Castro of Boulder, Colo. "The city seems so far away...and it's not getting any closer." There was a time in the late '60s when the bay flanking the runners was so polluted that if a fish somehow jumped, it was problematic whether it could get back below the surface. The water isn't nearly that bad now, but the eutrophic air in some places, as Waitz said, "made me want to stop and be sick." With that and the rising temperature, she miscalculated. "The split at seven miles seemed to mean that I wouldn't come near the record," she said, "so I eased off."
At almost the same spot, the pace of Musyoki and Meyer dropped DaSilva, though Leek hung tight. Meyer's only hope seemed to be that Musyoki would have so much confidence in his finish that he would let Meyer, a good kicker, stay close. But Musyoki was never in danger of that sort of error. He likes to be clearly out front, and after eight miles he "put on a little hard pace," as he said, and drew away from Leek and Meyer.
Musyoki ran on to win in 43:08, four seconds better than Rojas' world best. Meyer passed Leek to take second in an American record 43:11. Of course, these road-racing records are of limited significance. That some road races are run over mountains and some beside flat bays makes courses incomparable. The only legitimate comparison is with previous course records. And that happened to be exactly what Waitz was interested in.
"I ought to go back to school," she said, once she had finished in 48:25, the third-best time ever run by a woman. "If I hadn't mistakenly thought I had no chance, I might have made a good try at breaking 48." She went on to say that her goal this year was to do well in the European track championships in late summer, so records in February weren't of the highest priority. "But one thing seems clearer than ever," she said, "and that is, all the records will only be broken by women who have developed their speed on the track." As proof, she turned to the second-placer, Smith, who had run 49:01 and is a fine track racer. (In 1980 she ran a 4:32 mile; in 1981, a half-mile in 2:03.8.) "Well, it's just common sense," said Smith. "If you have to go through the first mile in five minutes and your PR is 4:55, you're going to be a bit uncomfortable."
Musyoki's comfort never seemed in doubt. "No, I felt good. I liked the course, it being flat all the way," he said. Musyoki, 25, has a couple of years of study left before he'll get his degree in business administration at UTEP, though his athletic eligibility has run out. He was the 1981 NCAA cross-country runner-up to teammate Matthews Motshwarateu of Botswana. Also on that team were Gabriel Kamau of Kenya and Gidamis Shahanga of Tanzania. "They are at other races this weekend," said Musyoki. "Indoors." Here Musyoki, a temperate man, permitted himself a great white smile of enthusiasm. "You know, if they had all been here, it really would've been a hell of a race."
At the end, the race ceremonies did slide toward the revelry Gasparilla is allegedly known for. The parades began. The hotels began filling up with booming conventioneers. Departing the postrace banquet, a group of runners met tipsy pirates in the streets. "Now two days of pure party!" howled one. It brought back the memory of what Meyer had said the evening before, a remark that now seemed to capture the difference between athletes and pirates. "The only way to the party," he had said, not at all ruefully, "is through the race."