Make no mistake, Valdenor Dos Santos was hot to trot in Saturday's 15th annual Gasparilla Distance Classic.
Itching to run after a fever knocked him off his feet three weeks ago, the 22-year-old Brazilian smoked the Gasparilla 15K field in 43 minutes, 10 seconds, besting second-place John Treacy of Ireland by five seconds.
In the women's 15K (9.3 miles), Wilma van Onna of the Netherlands used a strong finishing kick to win in 49:11, quelling a challenge from 1990 winner Judi St. Hilaire (49:18) of Fall River, Mass.
Dos Santos, a native of Sao Paulo, finished third here a year ago in 43:32, trailing winner John Halvorsen by 18 seconds. This time, they exchanged places, with third-place Halvorsen falling eight seconds shy of becoming the first man to win three Gasparilla titles.
Saturday's early morning weather was clear and warm for the estimated 12,500 competitors, with temperatures quickly reaching the 70s. The high humidity didn't seem to faze the men's leaders, but a slight head wind on the outward half of the course's Bayshore Boulevard portion discouraged many from taking the point.
A late entry because of recent illness, Dos Santos claimed the biggest win of his career in impressive fashion. Breaking from a front-running pack of about six runners just before the 10K mark, Dos Santos opened a 20-second lead at the 8-mile marker, then fended off a mild challenge from Treacy down the stretch.
"I usually race a lot, but three weeks ago I was with fever in bed for four days," Dos Santos said through an interpreter. "This is my first race since. Last year before this race, I had already raced three times the previous weeks."
Dos Santos, a contender for Brazil's Olympic team at 10,000 meters, prepped for the Gasparilla intensely last week, running 20 sprints of 400 yards each day. The speed work convinced him his strength and form had returned after his illness.
As it turned out, Dos Santos had a tougher time fighting off his fever than he did any opponent Saturday. His only worry was whether he began his race-turning move too soon.
"I believe I left at the 10K mark a little too fast, because when I came to 12K my legs were getting tired," said Dos Santos, who received a $10,000 winner's check for his effort.
For Treacy (43:15), who won Gasparilla in 1986 in 42:59, the pivotal moment came when a tiring Dos Santos proved capable of hanging on at the 8-mile mark.
"I thought I had him at that stage, but he held on very well," Treacy said. "He ran a very brave race. If I had gone with him at (10K), I wouldn't have been able to hold it, and I knew that. So I let him go and kind of fought my way back into it again. I was fifth when he moved, and all I could do was work hard over the last 5K."
One of four former men's winners in the field, Treacy lauded the assembled talent in what amounted to a very exclusive Olympic-year warmup.
"I think it was probably one of the greatest fields ever assembled in American road racing. It really was," he said. "It was like a who's who in road racing today. I'm happy. I ran terrible here last year (44:17). I wanted to come back and run a good race, and I'm happy with the run."
Equally encouraged by his showing was Halvorsen. Despite missing the "three-peat," just as two-time winners Mike McLeod (1984-85) and Marcos Barreto (1987-88) did, the 25-year-old Norwegian ran just three seconds slower than his 1991 winning time of 43:14.
"I'm pleased because I was sick last (summer), and after that my whole season wasn't very good," he said. "But now I'm back at least running and feeling strong again. I was a little tight in my hamstrings, because I did weights on them Tuesday. I guess I did a little too much.
"But it seems like I'm on track again. I was trying (to catch Dos Santos). It wasn't like I was holding back or anything. You want to try and stay with anybody that takes the lead in this kind of race, because it's flat. You know if someone pulls away from you and you can't hold it, it's going to be hard to catch him unless that person really dies."
In the race's first 7 miles, lead changes were plentiful. Besides the top three finishers, others who ran with the lead pack for most of the race's first two-thirds included Ed Eyestone (fourth in 43:20) of Layton, Utah; 1989 winner Keith Brantly (43:40) of Gainesville; and the Mexican contingent of Alejandro Cruz (43:23), Jesus Herrera (43:27), Juan Quintanilla (43:34) and Barreto (44:27).
Last year's runner-up, Steve Spence of Chambersburg, Pa., finished 14th in 43:46.
"It was a big pack (going out)," Halvorsen said. "There was a head wind, and it made a big difference. A few times I went up on the front lines, and I noticed that running against the wind was harder on you. Then coming back it was just so hot. There was like no wind on you. It was just steaming."
For Dos Santos, headed for April's world cross-country championships in Boston, the rise in temperature was welcomed.
"The (weather) was perfect for me," he said. "In Brazil right now, it's hotter than this."