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Strong, wily effort wins for Meyer

Elana Meyer of South Africa, the women's prerace favorite at the Gasparilla Distance Classic, didn't disappoint herself or the people who expected her to win her first road race in the United States.

But the 27-year-old Olympic silver medalist didn't rely on just her legs to get to the finish line of the 15-kilometer course in first place with a time of 48 minutes, 11 seconds, the fastest since Liz McColgan set the course record (47:43) in 1988. She ran a smart race, tucking in the middle of a lead group of women during the early miles then, on the return trip into the wind, getting behind a solidly built male runner.

"I thought the pace would be faster at the start," Meyer said, "so I decided to move out and see who would come with me."

At 2 miles Meyer was with a crowd consisting of defending champion Carmen de Oliveira of Brazil; Ann Marie Letko of New Jersey; Lisa Ondieki, last year's runner-up; Annette Peters of Oregon; Colleen DeReuck of South Africa; and Hungary's Karolina Szabo. Gainesville's Laura Mykytok, who led briefly going over the Platt Street Bridge, was close behind. The lead group covered the second mile in a cluster in 5:01 after a tentative first mile in 5:07.

As Meyer lengthened her stride with the aid of a gentle tailwind, only de Oliveira elected to give chase. A second group formed at the 3-mile mark reduced to American favorite Letko, Ondieki and DeReuck.

Meyer glanced over her shoulder at every opportunity nearing the turnaround point as if in anticipation of someone closing on her.

"I kept checking on who was behind me just to make sure," Meyer said. "I felt my pace was slowing down during the second half of the race and I didn't want to get caught unexpectedly. This was my first race this year and only my third road race outside South Africa so I wasn't sure. I knew the field was strong and expected a close race.

"Overall, I'm very happy with my race this early in the season. I wasn't particularly concerned with my time. I ran to win and it turned out to be quite easy for me. The running conditions were perfect."

While Meyer was cruising to the finish line wearing a smile and waving occasionally to the fans who cheered her along Bayshore Boulevard, Letko and de Oliveira were in a monumental struggle for the silver medal. They jockeyed back and forth until the 9-mile-mark when the defending champion put on a burst that left the American in her wake.

De Oliveira took second in 48:38 _ faster than her winning time of 49:03 last year _ and Letko finished 5 seconds back in 48:43.

"It was a mental thing with me at the end," said Letko, 24, ranked No.

3 in the world by Running Times. "I had a mental lapse at the end and let her get away. But I'm real happy with my race and feel I've set myself up for a good year."

Mykytok, who at 6 feet stands out in a pack, hung on for seventh place with a time of 49:54.

Judy Mercon of Clearwater was the first bay-area finisher in a personal-record 54:50, but was ineligible for the Florida Cup as a previous winner. That award went to Kimberly Bruce of Sarasota while Bonnie Ramsdell of South Pasadena was declared winner of the Florida Cup. Mykytok won the Florida Cup last year so she was ineligible to repeat. Both Cup winners receive trips to next month's Azalea Trail 10K in Mobile, Ala.

Cathie Schmidt of Pinellas Park and the Forerunners Club won the Nike Masters Cup as the first finisher 40 and over from a seven-county area. She finished in 59:35 for seventh in that division and 37th overall.

Louise Fairfax of Australia averaged 6:03 per mile to capture masters honors in a time of 56:24.