TAMPA — Initially, Tampa's Paige Howard was a little reticent about joining the pre-dawn throng at the starting line of Saturday's Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic 15K.
On a morning when temperatures began in the mid-60s and climbed, Howard's concerns weren't so much steeped in the external conditions but the internal ones.
A 30-year-old mom of a toddler, Howard is nearly two months' pregnant with her second child.
"I was a little nervous about it," Howard said, "and just knew I'd listen to my body."
Today, she has an additional $2,000 for her soon-to-be daunting diaper budget.
A former East Bay High and University of Tampa runner, Howard overtook fellow mom Jacki Wachtel shortly after the race's turnaround on Gandy Boulevard en route to the women's title. Howard finished in 57:14.56, about 42 seconds ahead of Wachtel.
Another mom, 34-year-old Christa Stephens of St. Petersburg, was third (58:56.11). Stephens, who won five state distance-running titles as Christa Benton at Keswick Christian, is a former two-time 15K champ.
"I'm really happy," said Howard, who finished 14th at the 2005 Class 4A state meet as Paige Williams. "I have a 17-month-old (son), so I never knew that it would pan out after having a kid, but apparently pretty well."
Pacing herself prudently at the outset on an unseasonably toasty morning (by February standards), Howard found herself closely trailing Wachtel at the turnaround.
Her late surge Saturday along Bayshore Boulevard — where she runs almost daily — stood in glaring contrast to her prep career, when she periodically started too fast and tapered off. Instead, it was the 38-year-old Wachtel, longtime cross country coach at Pasco-Hernando State College, who struggled to maintain her initial pace.
"I didn't have that much lead, and even though I'm 38 and have a lot of experience, I made a rookie mistake and I went out too hard," said Wachtel, mother of 6- and 8-year-olds.
"So I knew coming down the home stretch that (Howard) might come up on me. She passed me pretty strongly before Mile 6. … Twenty-one years ago I won the 5K as a high school senior, so to finish second in the 15K, that's a good day."
Wachtel's strategic glitch resulted in a glorious benediction to Howard's competitive career — at least for now. She said she'll take a break from running competitively.
"I was trying to train for this," said Howard, employed in the paramedical-services industry. "So I guess it worked out."