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Breaking from the pack // Lisa Weidenbach is favorite at Gasparilla

TAMPA - Lisa Weidenbach, breathing heavily and wearing the classic contorted expression of an exhausted runner, glanced over at Ingrid Kristiansen and smiled knowingly. Although Weidenbach wasn't swift enough to collar Kristiansen during last year's Gasparilla Distance Classic, she realized she was gaining ground on the world's finest female road racer. Her gutty second-place finish and an American record were proof.

"I'm grateful to be that close," Weidenbach said after that race, in which she finished 47 seconds behind Kristiansen. "She is the world-record holder, but I am closing the gap."

And how.

A year later, Weidenbach has roared to the forefront of road racing and is considered the one to catch in Saturday's Gasparilla, the 15K race along the bayshore and through the streets of downtown Tampa.

"It all started for me in Tampa," Weidenbach said in a recent telephone interview from her Issaquah, Wash., home. "After running a 49:01, I didn't expect to run much faster the rest of the year. But I ran faster twice."

Weidenbach, 28, won six races in 1989, breaking the American record she set here with a smashing performance (48:23) in the Cascade Run Off in Portland, Ore., in June.

Her winning time in the Old Style/Chicago Marathon - 2:28:15 - was the fastest marathon by an American woman since 1985, according to The Athletics Congress.

She's currently ranked No. 3 by Runner's World magazine, behind Kristiansen, who's pregnant and isn't racing, and Judi St. Hilaire. But St. Hilaire is apparently better suited for shorter races, setting an American record for the 5K (15:25).

"I started doing little things," Weidenbach said of last year's success. "I made smarter choices and really refined my training program. For so long, I didn't really know what I was doing. Oh sure, I'd train, but I had no focus."

Last year, she began to more carefully monitor her diet and reduce the intensity of her daily romps. In her nine-day training cycle, she runs hard three times, runs on the track once, interval-trains once and runs a near-marathon distance once. The other three days are less intense, with short runs in the morning and evening.

That regimen allowed her to increase the recovery time between workouts, promoting health and happiness. She also started listening more attentively to her body.

"If something was wrong with my knee, I took the day off," she said. "Before, I would have run through it. When you're fresh out of college and start racing, you make some bad choices. It really takes a couple of years to know what's best for you."

It actually took Weidenbach a little longer. Maybe because she was a fish out of water when she decided to pursue road racing.

Weidenbach was a competitive swimmer through high school and as a freshman at the University of Michigan. But the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Games in Moscow squashed her Olympic aspirations.

So, instead of making a splash for her country and herself, she spent that summer in Wyoming - as far away from water as she could get - and began jogging to stay fit.

But a funny thing happened on her way back to the U of M pool in the fall.

"I really liked running and once I knew the freedom of running, I couldn't go back to swimming," she said. "I wasn't motivated."

She stuck with running, ran in her first marathon in 1983 and then won the Boston Marathon in 1985. Yet she couldn't seem to stay on a consistent level.

Weidenbach gradually improved and enjoyed more success in 1988, winning the Chicago Marathon en route to earning more money ($95,000) than any other road racer - male or female - that year.

Yet she remained in the pack, chasing the best. Then came 1989 when Weidenbach found her best stride.

"Gasparilla was my first race and I was a little apprehensive," Weidenbach said. "I had taken November, December and January off. You never push as hard in a workout as you do in a race. You don't have that race-face."

She had it that day, finishing comfortably ahead of Nancy Tinari and Ruth Partridge. But Weidenbach doesn't think she should be considered an overwhelming favorite Saturday.

Unlike the past when one runner, such as Grete Waitz or Kristiansen, was "light-years ahead," she said it's now crowded at the front. In fact, she expects Hilaire, Aurora Cunha and Kim Jones all to run well.

"I'm not at the top yet, but I like to dream about it," she said. "I look at Ingrid and Grete and respect what they've accomplished and I know how hard they worked to do it.

"Last year was great for me. I'm real grateful. I just hope I can keep on going strong in '90."