TAMPA — Jeremy Criscione would have happily accepted completing Saturday's 34th annual Gasparilla Distance Classic 15-kilometer race in the middle of the pack as long as the trade-off was no further damage to his oft-injured body.
Where he finished seemed insignificant, given the prior 10 months of rehab just to regain his fitness to able to compete.
Criscione, a cross country and track runner for Florida whose eligibility with the Gators expired last year, suffered a stress reaction in his leg in May that sidelined him for most of the summer. Then, five months later, he pulled his groin in the second workout back from the injury.
Saturday's 15K was Criscione's first competitive race in almost a year. It was merely going to be a test run.
He passed, with room to spare.
The 23-year-old Bartow resident pulled away from Andrew Letherby in Mile 6 of the 9.3-mile race and ran unchallenged to the finish to win in 46 minutes, 22 seconds.
"I still have a long way to go until I'm completely back from injury," Criscione said. "I feel great; it's just getting in shape. (The 15K) was a little bit of a stretch. We didn't know how much it was going to take out of me being so soon. But I'm happy."
Letherby, 37, of Clearwater trailed Criscione by 43 seconds, taking second in 47:05.
Austin Richmond, last year's 15K champion, ran 30 seconds behind his winning pace for third in 47:19.
Criscione and Letherby broke ahead of the field around the 3-mile mark and ran nearly step-for-step until Mile 6, when Criscione made his move and the challenger couldn't keep up.
"I didn't know what pace felt like because I haven't done any real extended pace work," Criscione said. "I was just kind of out there feeling out for a little bit."
Despite his limited training for the 15K, Criscione widened the gap over Letherby over the final 3 miles.
"I didn't know if I was going to be ready in time for this," Criscione said. "Just came into it with an open mind to see how I could do. … I'm glad to be back racing."
Briana Whaley's race was almost a carbon copy of the one she ran last year to win the women's 15K. The 32-year-old Clearwater resident crossed the finish with the same time of 54:05.
She also came away with the same result: the women's championship.
Whaley outkicked Apollo Beach resident and former Academy of the Holy Names runner Sara Petrick for the second year in a row, this time by 54 seconds. Whaley even started breaking away from Petrick at about the same place (Mile 7) on the Bayshore Boulevard course.
"I think last year (Whaley) was leading and just kind of took off," Petrick said. "This year I was in the lead, and then she came up behind me and passed me with about a 5K left. … I couldn't answer the call."
Whaley, who competed for Virginia Commonwealth University, was unsure how she would perform with the field gunning for her title.
"Usually if I win a race, I never get to go back because it's so far away," Whaley said. "So there was a lot of pressure coming back this time. The returning champion, I've never had to deal with that before."
Because Criscione and Whaley are both local runners, they each earned $2,000 in prize money for their victories.
The men's 5K also crowned a repeat winner as Brooksville's Ben Martucci broke the tape in 14:53. Martucci, 22, set a personal record by five seconds. A year ago, he ran 15:02 here.
"No one went out with me. I figured that was going to happen, so I had to run all by myself," said Martucci, a former standout at Hernando High and current senior track and cross country runner at Florida Southern. "But you got to do what you got to do."
James Osborne, a 22-year-old Lutz resident who competed in high school for Jesuit, was second in the 5K (15:30). Osborne and Martucci used to compete on the high school circuit but hadn't run head-to-head in about four years.
"He was my rival back in high school," Martucci said. "He always beat me by a few seconds."
The 5K female champion still attends high school. Kari Grippo, a 14-year-old freshman at Gulf, held the lead virtually from start to finish to win in her first appearance at the Gasparilla 5K.
"I had a really big lead the first 1.5 miles, and then one of the girls from (Florida State) kind of came up on me and she only got about (a foot) ahead of me," Grippo said. "But then I heard people saying, 'You got to go. You got to go.' And I heard everyone saying, 'First female.' And that kind of pumped me up to finish all the way through."
Grippo, a Hudson resident, grabbed the lead for good 2 miles in to win in 18:11. The 2010 winner, 21-year-old Bree McArdle of Tallahassee, was second in 18:16.
"I was actually going for top-10 female because I heard this is a really prestigious kind of race," Grippo said. "I'm ecstatic that I got first place."