TAMPA — For seven years at the end of the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic race weekend, a very special final 2 miles is run by a bunch of enthusiastic local children.
The group consists of 300 to 400 students in third to fifth grade from six to 10 YMCAs and elementary schools. The kids wear matching T-shirts bearing the name Florida Blue Kids Training Program, and a pair of new socks and new running shoes — all provided by Gasparilla race organizers and sponsorships.
When the group takes off running from the corner of Bayshore and Bay to Bay boulevards, it is a culmination of several months of consistent training from coaches and physical education teachers. When the kids cross the finish line, the moment is accompanied by a medal, loud cheers, hugs and a great sense of accomplishment.
“Our kids learned so much about fitness, nutrition, teamwork and what it takes to train for a race,” said Sulphur Springs YMCA senior program director Lukema Massey, who coached 17 students through the program and had the athletes for a sleepover at “Layla’s Community House” the night before Sunday’s race. “We had so many kids improve so much.”
For instance: On the first day of the program, Jarvis Robinson, 10, could barely do one lap around the track because he struggles with asthma. But on Sunday, there he was at the finish line with a medal around his neck and a big smile on his face.
“It was hard at first, but I learned that if you never give up, you can get there,” Robinson said. “You should never, ever give up.”
Originally, the program was born when Columbia Restaurant president Richard Gonzmart approached Gasparilla race director Susan Harmeling with the idea.
Harmeling took the idea and, well, ran with it.
“We started with the St. Peter Claver Catholic School, and we had such a great experience that it grew from there,” Harmeling said. “We wanted to promote running as a lifestyle to kids. We wanted to give something to the community. I think it’s working pretty well.”