Judi St. Hilaire's prerace strategy was to run in the shadow of favorite Lisa Weidenbach for the early miles of Saturday's Gasparilla Distance Classic, but it didn't turn out that way. After running through the first mile in 5:08 with a step lead, and staying together for the first three miles, Hilaire opened up a small but gradually increasing lead that she carried through to the Curtis Hixon Convention Center finish line in a winning time of 49:26 for the 15K race.
"I decided to press the pace a little at the three-mile water stop point," said Hilaire, 30, a native of Vermont now living in Fall River, Mass. "And when I sensed that Lisa was no longer there, right behind me, I was relieved and decided to just try to run an even pace but holding something in reserve for the last mile in case I was faced with a challenge."
For St. Hilaire, the No. 2-ranked woman runner in the world (behind last year's winner, Ingrid Kristiansen), according to Runner's World magazine, the win signals the beginning of another successful year on the road-race circuit.
"This was the biggest win of my career," said Hilaire, who broke the American record for 5-kilometers last year at Rochester, N.Y. "I've been training hard for Gasparilla _ 80 miles a week _ now I can savor it while I look forward to the Red Lobster race in Orlando."
For Weidenbach, a graduate of the University of Michigan now living in Washington state, the setback was not at all depressing. "I'm doing a lot of high mileage now in preparation for the London Marathon in April. I tried to stay with Judi, but my body just wasn't able to handle the pace in the high humidity."
Weidenbach set an American 15K record at last year's Gasparilla in 49:01 and later in the year improved on it with a 48:14 at the Cascade Run Off in Portland, Ore.
But in Saturday's heat and humidity, time was not as important as finish place or even survival.
St. Hilaire's winning time was the slowest here since 1979, when Gayle Olinek of Miami won in 53:17. The next year Grete Waitz of Norway set the world record in 48:01.
Waitz, who spends her winters in Gainesville, was one of several top runners unable to compete Saturday. She is injured. Ingrid Kristiansen is pregnant. Priscilla Welch of Great Britain came in for the race but pulled a muscle this week and didn't compete. And No. 2-seeded Auroa Cunha of Portugal couldn't get out of the country because of an airplane strike.
Six of the top seven seeded runners finished in the one-through-six positions, which says something for the ability of Bill Orr, the elite-runners coordinator, to predict the outcome of this race.
Following Weidenbach's second-place 50:29, was Sylvia Mosqueda of California, 50:41; Diane Brewer, Gainesville, 51:18; Kim Jones, Spokane, Wash., 51:33; and Tina Ljungberg, Sweden, 51:39.
Judy Mercon of Clearwater finished in 55:48 to win the prestigious Tampa Bay Cup, representing the top woman finisher from the seven-county Tampa Bay area.
Julie Isphording, a member of the U.S. Olympic marathon team in 1984, was beaming after her top-10 finish.
"I love this race," said Isphording, of Cincinnati. "But it's more than a race, it's an event. The course is beautiful, it's fast, well-marked and the people cheering along Bayshore Boulevard are great."