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Christa Benton arrives early, finishes first at Gasparilla Distance Classic 15K

TAMPA — Until Saturday, the 32-year-old Gasparilla Distance Classic never had been staged as late as February's final day, meaning Christa Benton had to live with the biggest gaffe of her otherwise dazzling distance-running career for, oh, 55 weeks.

The defending women's champion entering the 2008 race, Benton badly miscalculated the starting time of the 15-kilometer event. As a result, she was forced to put her shoes on as she scurried to the starting line and run the entire 9.3 miles with her racing bib in her hand en route to an 11th-place finish.

"Actually, I laughed about it through the race, and I laughed about it after the race," Benton, 24, said Saturday. "It was just one of those things."

This year, she beat the sun to the starting line.

Then for the second time in three years, she beat the entire women's field.

On a partly sunny morning featuring a record number of pre-registrants and mild winds that dissipated as the race progressed, Benton coasted to the women's title in 54:42, 1:20 faster than Lakeland's Laura Woznicki.

The win earned the three-time state cross country champion at St. Petersburg's Keswick Christian $2,000.

"I had a lot of people at the school I teach at (St. Petersburg's Northside Christian) come up to me and tell me, 'How did you miss (last year's start)?' " said Benton, who teaches music to elementary school kids. "But it's … a learning lesson what happened. Now I'll probably always be early to the races."

Benton said she arrived "over an hour" before the race's 7:30 start, which might have been prudent considering the turnout.

About 14,000 runners had registered for Saturday's 15K and 5K races by 8 p.m. Friday, forcing officials to cancel race-day registration for the first time. A few hundred more were allowed in and received shirts and medals but weren't timed.

"I think the economy has been so down in the news that I think people were looking for an opportunity to come out and do something fun that felt good and uplifting and maybe do it as a family," said Susan Harmeling, the event's executive director. "It was a phenomenal day. That's the word we keep using."

For Elias Gonzalez, it also was a redemptive one. While Benton was arriving late last year, the former two-time men's 15K champ didn't show up at all.

Suffocated with the demands of the Spanish restaurant he owned in Tampa, Gonzalez, an Iraq War veteran who won the 15K in 2005 and 2006, bypassed last year's race. Hence the reason he knelt and wept Saturday when he crossed the finish line as the top local finisher — and third-place finisher overall — in 49:12.

"Sometimes, I get very emotional because I really like running this race, and last year … I had to spend a lot of time in the restaurant," said Gonzalez, who had to close La Tipica Columbiana on Waters Avenue when the economy tanked. "It just kept me away from the race. Taking a year off and coming back, I think, I did pretty well."

As the top local finisher (local being a full-time resident of Hernando, Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk or Sarasota County), Gonzalez, 32, also earned $2,000, which he said he'll use to "pay bills."

The top overall finisher — almost literally by a mile — was U.S. marathon champ and Beijing Olympian Ryan Hall, whose 43:26 was only 64 seconds off the 14-year-old American 15K record. Pensacola's Neil McDonagh (47:04) was second.

"Oh God, whenever I heard that (Hall) was in town, I just thought to myself, 'It's going to be him and our group,' " Gonzalez said. "He's a great runner. I didn't even try going out with him."

Christa Benton arrives early, finishes first at Gasparilla Distance Classic 15K 02/28/09 [Last modified: Saturday, February 28, 2009 10:29pm]
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