TAMPA — Jonathon Mott got up Saturday morning hoping he didn't have to work too hard to win the $2,000 prize that goes to the top local finisher in the Gasparilla Distance Classic 15K.
"But halfway through the first mile I looked over and saw this guy right there with me," Mott explained. "So I asked what he was hoping to run and when he said 47:30, I knew it was going to be a tough one."
Rafal Matuszczak, a 19-year-old cross country runner from Saint Leo University, literally stayed on Mott's heels for the first 6 miles of the 9.1-mile race up and down Bayshore Boulevard.
Two or three times, Matuszczak even got a step on Mott, a 27-year-old former Northeast High School standout who went on to run at Webber International University. But in each case Mott kicked hard and reeled him back in.
"To be quite honest, I was shocked," Mott said. "I had no idea who this guy was or what he could do."
But in the end, Mott's 100-mile-plus weekly training regimen paid big dividends. Around Mile 6, after a water stop, Mott picked up the pace and Matuszczak could not win back the lost ground.
Mott, who has his sights set on qualifying for the U.S. Olympic team, finished first in 48 minutes, 44 seconds, about six minutes slower than the record set in 1994 by former Olympian Phillimon Hanneck of Zimbabwe.
The victory was long coming for Mott, who has seen his times improve steadily in recent years. He finished second in 2013 behind his training partner and former Webber teammate Austin Richmond, then returned to Tampa the next day on a lark to win the men's half-marathon.
"I was hoping that I didn't have to run harder than a 50:00 to win," Mott said. "I wanted to save a little something for (today's) half."
Matuszczak, however, had other plans. Hailing from Wschowa, Poland, he was a virtual unknown in local racing circles before Saturday. Veteran running writers and race officials searched on their smartphones to try to identify the speedster when it looked like he might pose a serious challenge to Mott, the favorite.
According to the college's sports information website, the freshman placed first in the Polish Youth Cross Country Championships in 2011 and also ran in the European Cross Country Championships.
Born in Glogow, Poland, Matuszczak wrote in his cross country biography that he "believes his best asset to the team is his perseverance." And persevere he did, finishing in 49:06, more than a minute ahead of the third-place runner, 22-year-old Michael Poole of Tampa.
Several times during the foggy, humid run, Mott tried to shake Matuszczak. "I kept surging," Mott said. "But he never broke."
Then, about two-thirds of the way through the race, Matuszczak reached for a cup at a water stop and Mott kept running. The two or three steps he gained quickly turned into 10. "Then, around Mile 7 I surged again just to seal the deal," Mott said.
After the race, Mott waited for Matuszczak to finish and said "great race." The Saint Leo student nodded, then kept running down the chute.
"Maybe he didn't know that he was supposed to stick around and talk to the press," race director Susan Harmeling said.
Mott, who set the Gasparilla Half Marathon record of 1:09:50 in 2013, will be back again today, hoping to win the $2,000 purse set aside for the top local finisher. But he will have his work cut out for him.
A $30,000 purse, the first since 1997, has brought in more than a dozen elite athletes, including former U.S. Olympic Team member Abdi Abdirahman.
"I always feel better the second day," said Mott, who has some experience running back-to-back races. "My plan is to just find a spot at the back of the lead pack and just try to hang on."
In the women's field, Sara Petrick, a 27-year-old from Tampa and the 15K winner from 2012, finished first with an unofficial time of 55:49.