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Drama at start, no drama at end

Lightning flashed in an ink-black sky and cold rain swept the corner of Brorein Street and Florida Avenue.

Gasparilla Distance Classic race director Susan Harmeling, bundled in a red warmup suit against the pelting drops, had a cell phone on her ear and city officials huddled up. Nearly 3,000 runners, "Ooooh"-ing at the thunder, twitched behind the starting line.

It was 5:30 a.m., 30 minutes from the scheduled start of the Bank of America Marathon.

"And we were seriously thinking about canceling the race because of the lightning," Harmeling said. "It was quite a tense situation."

At least two Russian runners, Oleg Strijakov and Firaya Sultanova-Zhdanova, were wondering what the fuss was about.

"This weather is nothing to us," Strijakov said. "In Russia it is much worse almost all the time."

Much to Strijakov's and Sultanova-Zhdanova's relief, Harmeling, after thorough consultation with meteorologists and city officials, delayed the start only an hour.

If they had canceled, Strijakov and Sultanova-Zhdanova wouldn't have run off with the men's and women's overall and Masters (40 and over) titles, a feat that paid them each $10,500, money they almost desperately need.

"This is how I make my living (competing for Masters paydays, which aren't that numerous)," the 42-year-old Strijakov said through interpreter and running agent Tatyana Pozdnyakova. "I had to fly back to Russia (today). I had to run this race."

Besides the drama before the start, and a cramped hamstring at Mile 24 (that required stopping and a quick massage), it ended up being a fairly easy day for Strijakov, who also won the Masters title last year and placed second overall.

Strijakov's time over the 26.2 mile course (2 hours, 26 minutes, 34 seconds) wasn't as good as last year's 2:19:06, a difference he blamed on the wind.

"Still, I felt good and never felt much pressure," said Strijakov, who like Sultanova-Zhdanova was paid $8,000 for the Masters finish and $2,500 for winning overall. "I felt like I was going to win all the way."

The second-place finisher, 31-year-old high school teacher Ted Callinan of Philadelphia, had other ideas, especially after taking the lead through the first 12 miles and running alongside Strijakov through 14, before, he said, "I had to make a pit stop."

The restroom break, which he said he has never before taken during a race, pushed him back a few minutes, or more than he could make up.

"People were yelling along the way that (Strijakov) was tiring up ahead and saying that I needed to "Go, go, go,' " Callinan said. "But the problem was I was getting pretty tired myself.

"It was tough with the wind, which got pretty stiff a few times, but that wasn't it either. I just couldn't catch him."

About 15 minutes behind was 44-year-old Sultanova-Zhdanova, with no other woman in sight. And though her finishing time of 2:41:26 wasn't as fast as the 2:38 course-record time she set last year, it was nearly seven minutes ahead of the next woman, 45-year-old Tatiana Titova.

"I felt good today but there are many (concrete roads) on this course that make my legs sore," Sultanova-Zhdanova said. "I am used to running on (softer asphalt) roads.

"But it is okay, I am a strong woman."

Sultanova-Zhdanova adds this paycheck to $16,000 she earned last month at the Houston marathon. Her next race is Boston, which might be her last chance this year at a big paycheck.