TAMPA — Stephanie Bruce returned Sunday to defend her title at the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic half-marathon. She ran a blistering pace, shaving 50 seconds off her time from last year to finish well under the course record.
Still, it was not enough to maintain the record or her title.
Running by her side throughout the race was Sara Hall, a veteran distance runner. Hall surged ahead in the last 200 meters to win in one hour, 12 minutes, finishing one second ahead of Bruce.
"It was great to get into a good groove with Steph," said Hall, 34. "I was leading the first part, and she was pushing the second part. She was strong out there."
Hall, the wife of retired U.S. distance running star Ryan Hall, was running in the Gasparilla half-marathon for the first time. She came with impressive credentials, setting personal records in a half-marathon (1:09.37) and marathon (2:27.21) in European races this past fall.
Bruce, 34, had put together strong performances, too.
Her 2017 Gasparilla title was the first time she had run a half-marathon in two years and came a little more than a year after giving birth to her second child.
Bruce continued to amp up her training. The results showed. She finished third at the U.S. Cross Country Championships earlier this month.
Because of their penchant for posting fast times, it was widely assumed the two would have a shot at breaking the course record of 1:12.35 set three years ago by Jen Rhines, a three-time Olympian.
"I thought with this incredible field it would probably take that (a course record) to win," Hall said. "I also didn't know what 90 percent humidity would feel like, so you never know. I think the way we ran it was smart with both of us maximizing our time by running steady."
Hall used the Gasparilla half-marathon as a tuneup for the Boston Marathon on April 16. She has run in a series of races, from half-marathons to marathons, all while logging 120 miles a week.
The volume of miles is part of the preparation, mentally and physically.
"Part of the marathon buildup is you're running on tired legs," Hall said. "You have to always convince yourself there's more there. In a marathon, the first half tires you out and then you have to tell yourself there's another gear there."
From the start, Hall and Bruce clearly formed their own lead pack. But it was hard to determine the leader, with each trying to shake off the other. One runner would gain a slight advantage, only to see it disappear.
Hall pushed the pace early. Bruce came roaring back.
By the home stretch, they were nearly side-by-side. That's when Hall, a seven-time All-American at Stanford, leaned on her track experience to unleash a kick strong enough to move ahead and stay there in the final 200 meters.
"I just went into track mode at the end," Hall said. "I was a track runner for a long time, and it makes it exciting for the crowd to have such a close finish at the end."
By winning the 13.1-mile race, Hall received $8,000 (as did men's champ Elkanah Kibet) and automatically qualified for the PRRO Championship Race, also known as the Cherry Blossom Ten Mile, on April 8 in Washington DC.
But Hall has eyes trained far down the road.
"I like to run a series of half-marathons to get ready for a big race," Hall said. "I'll run the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships in Valencia, Spain, in about four weeks (March 24). Sometimes you feel good, sometimes you feel terrible. But the focus is definitely Boston."