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Halvorsen an up-front kind of person

John Halvorsen always looks forward to his mid-February trip to Tampa, because once he gets here he never has to look back.

Every year about now, it seems he takes to the streets and leads a running tour of nearly 12,000 folks down Bayshore Boulevard. For the two-time defending Gasparilla Distance Classic champion, it's getting to be monotonous fun.

He has run twice and won twice.

In Saturday's 15th annual running of the 15-kilometer Gasparilla (8:15 a.m.), Halvorsen will go for the "three-peat," attempting to become the first to win three men's titles. If he does so, he'll match the accomplishment of fellow Norwegian Grete Waitz, an overall six-time women's winner who had 15K victories in 1980-82.

"It's been a good race to me," said Halvorsen, who reluctantly accepts billing as race favorite. "But it's sort of funny. I've won other races twice in a row, but the third time out I've always finished second. Hopefully, that's about to change."

Summing up his Gasparilla success, Halvorsen, 25, shrugs at his shot at history. Questions regarding memories of his runaway 22-second victory in 1990 or his U.S.-best 15K time (43:14) in the 1991 race elicit little response. Instead, Halvorsen recalls snapshots from his unobstructed view of Tampa's skyline.

"I just remember you run down the boulevard (Bayshore), and you see downtown, and you see downtown, and it seems like it never gets any closer," said Halvorsen, a business student at the University of Ottawa. "Then all of a sudden, it's there.

"But it's really just another race for me. Sure, I'd like to do it in Tampa again. I've run well there before. I don't know why I'm that good down there. I guess I'm just familiar with Gasparilla. This year it's another strong field. Just as strong as last year. But it's really the first big race of the year, so you don't know who's on or not. I just hope I am."

For Halvorsen, another good showing at Gasparilla would be a springboard to his first big goal of the year _ success at the World Cross-Country Championships in Boston in late March. At April's Mount Sac Relays in California, he will be a strong bet to qualify a second time for Norway's Olympic track team (he finished 16th at 10,000 meters in 1988).

"We've tried to throw as much competition at John as we could," said Gasparilla elite runner coordinator Bill Orr, noting that every men's winner since 1986 is entered this year. "This is just as strong and diverse a men's field as we've ever had."

Joining Halvorsen, other runners of renown committed to the men's field include Americans Steve Spence (second last year), and Keith Brantly (the 1989 winner), Marti Ten Kate of the Netherlands (the world's No.

3-ranked road racer), Ireland's John Treacy (first in 1986) and Mexico's Marcos Barreto, owner of the course record (42:37 in 1988) and one of the two other two-time winners besides Halvorsen.

The women's field is nowhere near as strong as 1991, thanks to a conflict with last month's U.S. Olympic marathon trials at the Houston Marathon. Overall, the field is missing several of last year's top-10 finishers, including winner Jill Hunter of England. Five of those top 10 _ Americans Cathy O'Brien, Francie Larrieu Smith, Kim Jones, Lesley Lehane and Maria Trujillo _ skipped Gasparilla to concentrate on the Olympic marathon trials.

Judi St. Hilaire, ranked 10th in the world, will be the highest-rated American woman at Gasparilla. St. Hilaire won Gasparilla in 1990 and finished third last year. Other top women include San Francisco's Lynn Nelson, Portugal's Aurora Cunha, and Wilma Van Onna of the Netherlands.

Another change this year involves the course layout, which returns to Bayshore Boulevard for both the outbound and inbound segments. Due to construction on Bayshore last year, the course included a portion of the Crosstown Expressway. There will be a split start this year _ women at Morgan and Cumberland, and men at Brorein and Franklin. The finish line is at the Bayshore Boulevard Marina, at the foot of the Platt Street Bridge.

Winners of the men's and women's 15K races get $10,000.

Race facts

Saturday starting times: 15K wheelchair division _ 8:05 a.m.; 15K runners _ 8:15 a.m.; 5K runners _ 10:30 a.m.

TV: 8 a.m., Ch. 8.

Late registration: Today, noon-9 p.m. and Saturday, 7-8 a.m. (15K) and 8:15-10:15 a.m. (5K), Tampa Convention Center, ballrooms B and C. No wheelchair late entries today or Saturday. For information or to enter, call 229-7866 in Tampa.

Late registration cost: $20 (15K and 5K).

Directions: To reach the Tampa Convention Center and parking areas downtown, take Exit 25 off I-275. Allow an additional 15 minutes to get from Tampa Convention Center/parking to the start line.

Number pickup: 15K _ Today, noon-9 p.m., or Saturday, beginning at 7 a.m., Tampa Convention Center; 5K _ Today, noon-9 p.m., or Saturday, beginning at 8:30 a.m., Tampa Convention Center.

Awards ceremony: Noon, in front of the Tampa Convention Center along the Hillsborough River.

Results by phone: Available 24 hours a day, beginning at 6 p.m. Saturday. Call 1-900-740-3939. Charge is $2 per minute.

Purse: 15K men's and women's winners receive $10,000 each. The men's and women's masters winners (40 and older) receive $1,000 each, and the wheelchair champs collect $2,300 each. Total purse is $55,100.

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