ST. PETERSBURG — Tampa Bay area running phenom Christa Benton remembers the first time she raced head-to-head with Gabriela Traña, a 2008 Olympic marathon runner from Costa Rica.
The 2007 Walt Disney Marathon was the first foray into the 26.2-mile distance for Benton, who won a combined five state titles in cross country and track (3,200 meters) for Keswick Christian from 1998-2000. Benton led for much of that marathon, until Traña tracked her down in the last mile.
"At about mile 25.5 she just whizzes past me, and I was so weak, I could barely see straight," Benton said.
With the distance cut in half at Sunday's inaugural Women's Running magazine Women's Half Marathon, Benton didn't have to worry about anybody sneaking up behind her.
Benton, 25 of St. Petersburg assumed the lead from the outset and continually widened the gap between Traña and the rest of the field to win comfortably in a time of 1 hour, 20 minutes, 2 seconds.
Traña was second in 1:24:07.
"When I saw (Traña) at the start, I knew it should be a competitive race," said Benton, who is building up to run the Walt Disney Marathon in January. "I knew she had a really good chance if we were close at the finish line."
So Benton never let Traña get close.
Dressed in a Northside Christian tank top — she teaches elementary school music there and occasionally trains with the cross-country team — Benton blazed across the 13.1-mile course along the St. Petersburg waterfront and through downtown, picking up steam with every mile.
By the time Benton hit the 12-mile mark, she was well enough ahead that she could enjoy the course as it wound inside Tropicana Field and onto the stadium's artificial surface.
"That was a big surprise," she said. "I couldn't believe I was actually running on the field. That was so cool."
Traña, who placed 68th at the Beijing Olympics and is training for the 2012 Olympics in London, also enjoyed the brief respite from the heat inside the dome. "In Costa Rica, there aren't a lot of stadiums like that," Traña said. "It was amazing. I've only seen it on TV."
In third place was Tricia Brookover-Braun of Palm Harbor in 1:26:03.
Jackie Wachtel of New Port Richey won the 5K, run simultaneously with the half-marathon, in 18 minutes, 27 seconds.
Race organizer Dawna Stone, who publishes Women's Running, said between 4,700 and 5,000 runners participated, far exceeding the 3,000 she had hoped the first-year event could draw.
"We went well above our dream and kind of hit the ball out of the park, which we're really excited about," she said.
Stone estimated Sunday's race raised close to $1 million for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. She hopes to make it an annual event.
"A long as the city is going to have us, we will be here, the women will be here, and we'll be running every Sunday before Thanksgiving going forward," she said.