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Teen starts fast, then the veterans take control

Published Feb. 4, 2008

Rarely are 5K races won or lost in the first half mile.

Not that Lee Stephens of Tampa and Grace Van de Grift of Valrico were competing in the same division. Still, Van de Grift, 13, dictated the early pace at Saturday's Strawberry Classic in Temple Terrace and Stephens, 26, was merely trying to win the men's division.

Stephens, a former track and cross country standout at Florida Southern, went on to win comfortably in 16:20. Van de Grift was reeled in just after the mile mark by Jacki Wachtel of Tarpon Springs for the women's title.

"I just went there for a workout in training shoes," Wachtel said. "I've got three big races coming up - Bay to Bay, the Iron Girl on April 1 and Boston on April 16."

Stephens said he could have run faster but wasn't pressed.

"I was pressed big time in last month's Gasparilla 15K," he said. That's where he finished 14th in 50:19. Last year he was seventh in 50:16. He has run the distance in the mid-49 minute range.

"I just didn't do enough speed work getting ready for Gasparilla," Stephens added. "But I'm training daily with Ed Parrot, who has run 15:15 for 5K, and that's what I need to do for optimum fitness. Sometimes I'm asked whether quality or quantity (in training) is more important. I always say both."

The March 18 Bay to Bay 12K across St. Petersburg is Stephens' next big race. He won handily last year in 40:48.

"That is a big race for me in more ways than one," Stephens added. "It has a big field, a quality field and a fast course virtually straight across the city with few turns. The one other thing we hope for is the wind at our back."

MORE STRAWBERRY CLASSIC: Dan French, 44, of Brooksville, won (36:03) the concurrent 10K event. St. Petersburg's Melanie Peters, fresh off a 2:58 marathon in Miami last month, captured the women's title in an unofficial time of 36:43. Official results were not available from race organizers. Check for deeper results.

INTERNATIONAL COMPETITION: St. Petersburg's Christa Benton has taken her game to a higher level - beyond her five state high school titles for Keswick Christian, all-America status in cross country at USF and competing in last year's USATF national cross country championships in New York.

Last weekend Benton was invited to represent the United States in the North America, Central America, Caribbean Championships in Clermont. It was a 6K cross country meet on a hilly course with rough terrain. Benton placed fourth (23:51) for the second-place American senior women's team, earning a coveted silver medal. Canada, led by Malindi Elmore (20:41), won the team title. Jamaica and Puerto Rico, the other countries to field women's teams, finished third and fourth, respectively.

"I remember when I was 13 I prayed that one day I would have an opportunity to run for my country," Benton said in an e-mail response.

"It was such a bold request I never told anyone at all. Then Wednesday, my coach (Lance Lipham) called me and told me about it. My mind linked back to my audacious prayer as a kid. ...God hears and answers prayers."

Coach Fred Finke of the American team said Benton demonstrated tremendous courage during the race.

"During the second loop on the tough Clermont course Christa was locked in a tight battle with a girl from Jamaica," Finke said. "We were behind in points at the time. Tragedy struck as Christa stepped in a hole and went down and rolled. She got up and not only finished, but caught the two girls in front of her, enabling the USA to edge out Jamaica by three points for the silver medal."

If Benton had failed to finish, the USA team would have been disqualified for lack of a full complement of scorers.

YBOR CITY: Two St. Petersburg runners were the big winners at Friday night's Run for Shelter 5K. David Meri took the men's title in 18:48 on a winding course and Leslie Beauchamp (20:38) prevailed among women. Beth Wonicker-Cook of Palm Harbor and Gavin Hawken of St. Petersburg both finished 11th for second best among Pinellas runners.

HARVEY'S FESTIVAL RUN: The popular 5K along St. Petersburg's waterfront is set for April 13 at 6:30 p.m. Entry forms are available at or by calling the Festival of States office at 321-9888. Feet First Running Store in St. Petersburg will have entry forms starting March 26.