After reading about the Gasparilla Distance Classic in a book called The Runner's Bucket List, we knew we had to try the event's Michelob Ultra Challenge. The Challenge would allow us the opportunity to do two things: run farther in one weekend than we ever had before and earn boatloads of swag courtesy of Gasparilla. Participants of the Michelob Ultra Challenge received one shirt for each of the four events they registered for as well as a Michelob Ultra Challenge jacket. They also earned one finisher medal for every event completed and one extra medal for completing the Challenge. Runners had the option of choosing two "lighter" Challenges: the Bud Light Lime Challenge and Michelob Amber challenge, both of which involved less running than the Ultra, but were equally as generous with the swag.
The Gasparilla Distance Classic does not disappoint. In addition to the aforementioned swag, the post-race festivities literally supply runners with plastic bags so they can stock up on freebies like juices, granola bars, squeezable fruit snacks, and more. In addition, Tampa is a welcome break in February for anyone suffering in the cold weather of other parts of the country. It was 70 degrees by the time the last race finished on Sunday, making the rest of the day a warm treat for anyone grown accustomed to snow and freezing temperatures.
The event expo was held at the Tampa Bay Convention Center from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on the Friday before the 15K and 5K. Runners partaking in only Sunday's events (the half marathon and 8K) could visit the expo from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday. This expo was huge and had just about everything a runner might want, need, or impulsively buy: discount running gear, free samples of frozen Power Ice, energy shots, beet chips, and more. Florida Blue Cross Blue Shield was snapping free photos for runners in their photo booth, while the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were testing people's skills in the long jump, vertical jump, and more.
Beyond the vendors, runners first picked up their race bibs at one of more than a dozen pickup booths. From there participants could proceed to t-shirt pickup which was organized by event: 5K, 8K, 15K, half marathon and (fortunately), Challenges. At the Challenge booth, one volunteer grabbed all four race shirts for us, in addition to the Michelob Ultra Challenge jacket we earned simply by registering for all four events.
We HIGHLY recommend staying downtown for this event, and suspect that even if we lived in the area we'd still stay downtown, especially if participating in one of the Challenges. To be within easy walking distance of the start and finish lines, stay at the Westin Harbour Island, the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina, or Embassy Suites Downtown - Tampa Convention Center. As long as you are keeping at least a nine or ten minute pace per mile in all the events, you can make it back to one of these hotels to drop off your finisher medal, change into dry clothes, and refuel. Prices weren't awful, but you will pay to stay in a downtown, high-end hotel. We consider ourselves to be thrifty people, but the hotel was worth the investment.
The end of Tampa Bay where we stayed mystified us until we departed. For an area with a convention center and some large high-end hotels, dining options were hard to find. Fortunately, a local directed us to Cafe DuFrain, which we would have never found on our own. Unfortunately we did not listen and ate across the street at the Italian restaurant we thought would be better for carb loading. Both restaurants were pricey, and what our Italian restaurant charged us for the quality of food we received was practically robbery. We should have eaten at the eclectic cafe.
The following night we wandered out to where we could see a cruise ship docked, thinking we would stumble upon a greater variety of reasonably priced establishments to eat dinner. Luckily, Channelside (as the area is called) had a few more options (a few, but not a bunch!) We were super happy with Precinct Pizza and the $8 meatball and chicken parmigiana sandwiches we ordered. For anyone wanting a more traditional type of carb loading, pasta dishes were available here. The Zeppolies we ate for dessert apparently didn't impact our running for the worse the following day as we made it through all 30.4 miles of the Challenge.
Other options at Channelside included Hooters, Hablo Taco, and more.
Anyone not wanting to wander Tampa in search of food has the option of eating at the pre-race buffet at the Westin on both Friday and Saturday nights. We shied away from it initially because the $26.95 price tag scared us off. However, the pasta buffet would have been cheaper than our Italian restaurant mistake on Friday night.
All the courses for the Gasparilla Distance Classic took runners along Bayshore Blvd. which boasts of having the longest sidewalk in the world at 4.5 miles. The races are huge, so the roads were closed for us and we didn't spend any time on the aforementioned sidewalk. Bayshore runs right along Tampa Bay, affording runners a view of the water for most of the race. The half marathon was the only one to take runners onto Davis Island, though due to the race's 6 a.m. start and sunrise 45 minutes later, we didn't see much of the island.
Gatorade and water were available approximately every 1.5 miles. At around mile 9 of the half marathon runners were treated to Gatorade Energy Chews. Most aid stations also had one or two port-a-lets which were constantly in use during the race.
Fan support was at its best near the start and finish where hundreds of spectators were lined up waiting for finishing family members and friends. The most impressive people along the course were the volunteers, who provided the most support to runners throughout the race. Our favorites were the mime near the finish line who was silently cheering runners for hours, and the man at mile nine with the microphone who was equally as enthusiastic a cheerleader during the races the day before.
The finish area was a giant chute set up to encourage runners to keep moving toward its exit. 100 meters after the finish line, volunteers were passing out bottled water and Mylar blankets, and just after this there was a table stocked with cups of Gatorade. Shortly beyond the refreshment stand more volunteers were draping finisher medals around runners' necks so that they could pose for photos with pirates before exiting the chute.
Because all the races began and ended near the city's convention center, we assumed the indoor restrooms were available for use pre and post race. Port-a-lets were stationed at random en route to the race start, but there was never a whole herd of them, so the indoor facilities must have been available.
The post-race extravaganza began near the convention center where runners, plastic bags in hand, stocked up on freebies courtesy of race sponsor, Publix, and some other vendors. After filling a bag with flavored water, granola bars, squeezable fruit, real fruit, and some coupons, we returned to the Westin to unload before attending the official post-race party.
The real party was held at Cotanchobe Park which on Saturday seemed like a short walk from the hotel but on Sunday (after 30.4 miles of running) seemed like a longer walk. Each participant was given one free beer coupon, and it was in this area that runners could redeem it. Live music entertained the crowd in between awards presentations, which also featured random door prizes. Runners, be sure to bring your race bib to the post-race party. Door prizes were awarded to those holding up bibs in response to questions like, "Who came here from a place with snow on the ground?" We were lucky enough to win a $50 gift card to the Sports Authority after a generic "Hold up your bib for a prize!"
Also awarded just to those runners in the top 10% of their age groups were special mugs. Anyone who suspected a prize was due lined up at the mug tent where volunteers checked results on iPads. If you made the cut, a mug was yours.
Food options were limited at the party to purchasing from two food trucks. On Saturday, after two races and 12.4 miles, we were ravenous enough to purchase a breakfast bowl from Wicked Wich for $9.00 and devour it in minutes.
After enjoying the park's water view, some sunshine, and live music, we hobbled back to the Westin for a much needed nap to prepare us for the next day's 18 miles of running, and the party celebrating that accomplishment.
The Gasparilla Distance Classic is a race for the bucket list. There are many reasons to run any or all of the events during race weekend. Run it for the generous swag and freebies. Run it to be part of something big. Run it for a beautiful view of Tampa Bay. Whatever you do, be sure to take a moment to be awed by the organization that must go into planning an event of this magnitude.
- Stay at one of the aforementioned hotels, especially if participating in multiple events.
- Be prepared for cool to hot weather. Race start for us on Saturday was 42 degrees, but by Sunday's last race temps had risen to the lower 70's.
- You will be fighting crowds at the starting line of all the events. If you want a primo spot, arrive at the start early and stake out your position.