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Thursday, May 24, 2018
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Gasparilla staff, volunteers go extra mile for runners

TAMPA - When Susan Harmeling tells people what she does for a living, she said some people are surprised when they find out she is race director for the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic.

"They will ask, 'That is a full-time job?' " Harmeling said. "People don't understand the resources required to do what we do."

Shepherding more than 24,000 runners through the streets of Tampa in four races over two days is difficult enough. When combined with the charitable efforts of the Gasparilla Distance Classic Association, it is easy to see why this is a year-round job.

"People are amazed with what we are able to accomplish," Harmeling said. "We donated $280,000 to charity last year (which included the Boys and Girls Club, Girls Incorporated of Pinellas and Friends of Tampa Recreation)."

This is the 22nd year Harmeling has been involved with the race. Despite not being a huge runner herself, she started out as the event coordinator for the Health and Fitness Expo. Harmeling was promoted to race director in 1993 after a nationwide search.

"I didn't know enough at the time to be frightened of the position," Harmeling said.

Harmeling doesn't do it by herself. She has a handful of paid staff members who she relies on year round, such as Jeremy Lautzenhiser.

Lautzenhiser started working with Harmeling while running cross country and track at the University of Tampa. After graduating in 2010, Lautzenhiser moved to Chicago, where his wife, Amber, was attending medical school.

Harmeling knew she wanted to keep Lautzenhiser aboard, so he comes to Tampa weeks before the race to help with operations and digital aspects.

"It speaks volumes to how we feel about him. He brings an enthusiasm about the sport and his youth is incredible," Harmeling said.

In addition to the paid staff, more than 1,500 volunteers are involved.

Greg Holden is in his 25th year with the race and helps lead registration and with the Fitness Expo. He said it takes a lot to ensure that everything is in place for race weekend.

Holden said there is also a small sense of pressure to get it right since race weekend for many runners begins with his crew.

"It's all about the mood of the runners. The expo, registration, etc. All that is part of the race experience. There is pressure to get it right," Holden said.

After runners process with Holden and run the race, they are greeted by Sue Foster and her crew of workers at the finish line. In her 16th year with the race, Foster said she has seen all kinds of conditions.

"We've had rain, heat, cold, etc. You're in Florida, you never know what you are going to get," Foster said.

No matter how tough the conditions, Foster said she keeps coming out so she can see everyone finish.

"To see the joy on the runners' faces (as they finish) makes everything worth it," Foster said.

With another race weekend to soon start planning for, Harmeling knows quick thinking and improvising are good attributes to have. Last year, for instance, a squirrel chewed through the main water line for Tampa and forced additional support from Zephryhills water to ensure there was enough for everyone.

Harmeling said they also ran out of finisher medals for the 8K race last year and had to mail them to runners.

Even with a very loyal group of runners who come back to Gasparilla year in and year out, Harmeling is not one to rest on her laurels. She has high goals for herself and for the race and wants Gasparilla to continue to grow as the premier road race in the Tampa Bay area.

"If one person walks away feeling like they are not taken care of, I feel like I failed," Harmeling said.

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