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TURKEY TROT SWAP // William Garcia, 5, of Palm Harbor gets a bird's-eye view of the Turkey Trot mascot from atop stepfather Scott Lang's shoulders. (ran SE, LA, NT, CT)

Dror Vaknin thinks he got a gift. Mary Level-Menton set a record.

Amid the participants in the 18th running of the Times Turkey Trot, they emerged victorious in the 10-kilometer Trot on Thursday. But in truth, all of the 9,801 runners were the winners on a windy Thanksgiving morning _ even the 84-year-old man who was blown the wrong way and got lost on the course.

For the first time in four years, the turnout decreased, but it was still the second largest in the history of the race. In 1995, a record 10,217 runners showed up.

Nine bands, ranging from rock to bagpipes, performed as the runners passedduring another year of friendly racing.

Vaknin, a University of South Florida graduate and former assistant running coach who is now with Progressive Running, and Steve Wilson of Indiana traded the lead throughout the race and at times even chatted with each other.

Vaknin, however, pulled away from Wilson as the two neared the finish line at Clearwater High School's Jack White Stadium. Wilson, the fastest marathoner in the group, took a one-step lead as he made his final turn onto Arcturas, leading Vaknin to think Wilson was going to win.

"I think Steve let me win," Vaknin said. "He says he didn't."

Vaknin turned in a winning time of 31 minutes, 15 seconds, running against a strong head wind for much of the course. Vaknin, 28, won his second Times Turkey Trot in the fourth-slowest time since 1979. He also won in 1988 in 30:20.

"This is obviously a far cry from my win in '88," said Vaknin, who ran 2-mile time trials Monday. "My legs weren't with me."

It was a different story on the women's side as Level-Menton, of Coral Springs, won her third Trot and set the course record in 34:05. Level-Menton, 33, broke Lisa Vaill's 1995 time of 34:08.

"I thought I had a chance at the record because my fitness has been going good," Level-Menton said. "I just wish I had somebody to run with."

Level-Menton, whose next big race will be Gasparilla, said she is finally starting to see results three years after giving birth to her second daughter, Megan. She thought she could run a 35:50 but surprised herself.

"The funny thing about this race is there is no prize money; it's just a fun race," Level-Menton said.

So much fun that her husband, Tim, ran the Trot as well, and her oldest daughter, Sara, 6, walked the mile.

For the first mile of the Trot, seven runners emerged in the lead pack. Vaknin and USF assistant running coach Keith Batten, a Clearwater High School alumnus, paced each other. Paul Marmaro, Wilson and Eric Lipham, the assistant coach at Central Florida, were also in the front.

At the 2-mile mark, Wilson, 37, made the first move. He opened up a 20-yard lead and was four seconds ahead of Vaknin at the 3-mile mark. At the halfway point, Vaknin caught his friend, and the two ran neck-and-neck the rest of the way.

"We played a game of cat and mouse, but it was nothing major," Vaknin said. "The last two turns, I kicked like crazy because (Wilson) is twice as strong at the end."

The 5K Wingding also featured friendly rivalries, as former Seminole High School star Lou Snelling and former East Lake runner Kristin Savery each raced to victories. Savery won her second consecutive title, but there was also some excitement a little farther down the line in the day's most popular race, for which a record 4,874 turned out.

Alyson Fox of Tarpon Springs finished 21st and then turned around and won the 1-mile Gobbler. Clearwater Central Catholic sisters Ann and Kate Carson finished 10th and 29th, respectively, after helping their school to a fourth-place finish at the state meet Saturday. And Seminole High School sophomore Misty Harper was 30th.

The Largo High School girls cross country coach raced against eight of his runners. Mike Beck, a two-time Boston Marathon runner in the late '80s, finished in 20:28, just missing the top 100. He has run a 5K in 17 minutes, but he suffered two injuries in 1989 that cut back his training to 4 or 5 miles a day.

During the cross country season, he runs with his Packer girls and didn't want to let any of them finish before him.

"I beat my girls. That was my goal," Beck said.

Beck's son Brandon finished 10th, and his University of North Florida roommate, Javier Miranda, was 15th. So it was already a great day for coach Beck, but he put a different spin on the whole event.

Beck and his runners volunteered to help the West Florida Runners Club pick up trash after the races. It was a trade-off, because the club sponsored the Largo Invitational during the cross country season. Beck said this was the best-organized Times Turkey Trot he has been a part of.

"There was no popcorn this year," said Beck, referring to how hard it was to clean up. "Last year was a disaster."