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Defending champion turns back challenge

Shoulder to shoulder, Tampa's Elias Gonzalez and Jacksonville's Paul McRae sprinted down Bayshore Boulevard, more than 3,000 wannabes huffing in an endless string behind.

Seven miles into the 9.3-mile Gasparilla Distance Classic, McRae, 32, gasped to Gonzalez, "Stay here, I'm not going to pull away."

Gonzalez, 29, stared ahead, thinking, "He sounds tired, but is he trying to play with my head?"

Gonzalez surged.

McRae surged with him.

Back and forth it went, McRae seeming to tighten a little more, but . . .

"Not giving in," Gonzalez said. "A couple of times his feet got tangled with mine, which was a sign to me that he was tiring. When he tripped up, he'd say, "Sorry, sorry.'

"I said nothing. I never say anything because when you speak, the level of your breathing can give away how tired you are."

With 500 yards remaining Gonzalez made a surge McRae couldn't handle. Gonzalez, wearing tag No. 1 as the defending champion, crossed the line in 48 minutes, 39 seconds, nine seconds ahead of McRae.

"I had never seen (McRae) before today, but he was a great competitor," said Gonzalez, a former University of Tampa runner who works for Brinks and serves in the National Guard. "It was a great race right down to the end. And right at the end I had to give it everything I possibly had.

"I had to work very, very hard to win this race."

The women's race wasn't so dramatic with Tallahassee's Vicky Gill taking the lead within the first few strides and literally never looking back.

"That's the way I like to run," said Gill, beaming because it was her first race in more than four months after recovering from stress fractures in both legs and chronic fatigue.

"I try to run as well as I can and always look ahead. And today, thankfully, I ran well."

So well, in fact, she finished in 53:47, more than 2 minutes ahead of St. Petersburg's Maria Ghizzoni.

"I never knew if any women were near me," Gill, 25, said. "More than anything I was just happy to feel good through the whole race. Today was a test. I guess you could say I passed."

Gill's doubts were based on months of never running run hard for more than six or seven miles at a time, less than her normal training schedule, which she said was the reason for her problems.

"I was putting in 100 to 110 miles a week," said Gill, who recently finished her eligibility at Florida State.

"I was doing it because I just love to run. I love it!"

The plan was to train for a marathon until the troubles slowed her down.

"I was so tired all the time," she said. "I'd sleep for 12 hours and get up and then still be tired. Then when I trained my legs would hurt. It was tough to slow down but I had to.

"Now, I feel great."

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