Soundtrack of Gasparilla Distance Classic weekend? It’s a one-woman show

Soundtrack of Gasparilla Distance Classic weekend? It’s a one-woman show

When Fitz Koehler talks about the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic weekend, she doesn’t focus on the distances or the speeds. The self-described fitness innovator mentions the “energy, excitement, fun and camaraderie” of the races.

Those would be some of the same words to describe Koehler, who has been the aggressively happy, hugging woman announcing the Gasparilla races since 2021. With a pink microphone, blue cowbell, hours of motivating mixed-tape music and boundless energy, Koehler will start things off Saturday and Sunday and then shout out runners and walkers by name through the 15-kilometer, 5K, half-marathon, 8K and challenger events in downtown Tampa this weekend.

“The experience, energy, compassion and passion for what Fitz does,” Distance Classic executive director Susan C. Harmeling said, “and also, her passion for who the Gasparilla Distance Classic Association is, what we do and why, makes her the perfect voice for us.”

It is all of Koehler’s experiences that make her a perfect fit.

Besides being a professional race announcer, she has a master’s degree in exercise and sport sciences from the University of Florida. She began teaching fitness classes at a local gym at age 15 and has gone on to build her own brand, Fitzness International LLC. Through media, corporate speaking engagements and seminars, she says her mission is to help people add years to their life through fitness.

It’s a mission that helped save her life. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2019, Koehler, 49, of Gainesville said announcing races throughout her 16-month battle with the disease pulled her through.

“Things got really bad. I was in pretty awful shape. And I would say my main, most difficult side effect was that I was nonstop sick,” she said. “I lived with a violent stomach bug every day for a year and a half. And getting on those planes was really hard. Getting across the country was really hard.

“But even if I had slept on the hotel bathroom floor the night before a race, when I got up and got on those stages, every single thing that was wrong with me disappeared when I stepped on a stage surrounded by thousands of incredible people in order to serve those wonderful organizations. ... I was not sick. I was not tired. I was not suffering. I was just laser-focused on these people. And as long as I had an athlete out on the course, even if it was a 10-hour marathon day, I got to be full-force Fitz Koehler again.”

Koehler’s job as a professional race announcer, which she began in 2014, takes her to races across the country, including Los Angeles, Big Sur, Buffalo and Philadelphia.

But the party atmosphere in Tampa, among the runners wearing pirate costumes, is where Koehler has felt the most connected to a race.

“The joy. There is so much joy. I love that I get great pirate costumes. Gasparilla rents me these beautiful, beautiful costumes. But it’s just people showing up happy, and I make happy noise and then when they run by me waving and cheering and smiling, I absorb it all,” Koehler said.

“And our start lines are epic. They’re just so much fun and, I don’t know, I just love Gasparilla. It is an opportunity for people to let loose and really have a fun, silly, happy time with their entire family while going a distance.”

Koehler can’t wait to immerse herself in the Gasparilla community again. She begins at the health and fitness expo Friday, where she will do a book signing with former Olympian Meb Keflezighi. But most importantly, she will be on the prowl for information about the runners.

“I am on the hunt to get to know our athletes, because they’re the most interesting part of the race,” Koehler said. “So I get to know who’s there, who’s battling cancer, who lost 200 pounds, who is running in honor of their grandson that they lost or who’s trying to win the race. So when I stand on the microphone on race mornings, I’m able to talk about those people and really turn the spotlight on our athletes again.

“They’re the real stars of our show.”

And she is evangelical in her belief in not just fitness, but the Gasparilla community.

“If anyone wants to come and exclusively walk, they’re not only welcome, they are wanted,” Koehler said. “If people are going to do any race in their life, this is the one they should give a try. And I want them to know that if they spot me, the noisy, bossy blond, they should introduce themselves. Because I desperately want to meet each of them.

“And I do enjoy the hugs as well.”

Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic

Saturday-Sunday, downtown Tampa

Saturday: 15K, 6:45 a.m. (starts at Brorein and Franklin streets); 5K, 9:15 (starts at Brorein and Ashley streets)

Sunday: Half-marathon, 6 a.m. (starts at Platt Street and Bayshore Boulevard); 8K, 9:15 (starts at Bayshore Boulevard and Verne Street)

Health and Fitness Expo: Tampa Convention Center, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. today, 6 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday

More info: Registration, road closures (which start at 2 a.m. and end around 1 p.m. both race days) and more at