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Elli Black, 11, takes over as Gasparilla’s youngest champion, winning the 8K

Mason Jones, a runner out of Florida Southern, is the men’s winner in his first Gasparilla Distance Classic race.
Elli Black, 11, crosses the finish line in first place in the women's division at the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic 8K.
Elli Black, 11, crosses the finish line in first place in the women's division at the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic 8K. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Published Feb. 23, 2020|Updated Feb. 23, 2020

TAMPA — With the finish line in sight, Elli Black felt her body telling her no.

But her mind and motivation told her something different as she picked up her pace for a first-place finish Sunday afternoon in the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic’s 8K.

Black had more than a first-place finish to celebrate after her time of 30 minutes, 57 seconds. She is now the youngest champion in Gasparilla’s racing history. It’s a milestone she said she’ll never forget.

“I feel pretty good (now),” Black huffed out after her victory. “I thought I was going to die at the finish line, but now I’m okay. Thinking about the end in sight (kept me going). I just kept on moving and going as fast as I could.”

Two years ago, Black placed seventh in the 8K here. Last year, she finished fifth. She wanted 2020 to finally be her year.

Related: Street smarts guide first-time Gasparilla half-marathon champ Nick Kaleel

“I was going for (first place),” she said. “I was really trying to break 32 minutes.”

Black said the cool weather was a huge help Sunday. She remembered the higher temperatures she had to run in over the past two years and was a bit relieved by this year’s conditions.

The Land O’ Lakes native is homeschooled but runs out of Cambridge Christian in Tampa. This was her first year running cross country with the Lancers. Now, she is gearing up for track season.

Cambridge Christian has now had two champions crowned at Gasparilla this year. Reed Legg won the men’s 5K on Saturday.

Related: Gasparilla Distance Classic: Find results here

Black placed third at state in cross country at the high school level in November and averages 20 miles per week for her normal training regimen. When she was just 4 years old, she started running. At 6, she started competing in races.

“I just love (running)," she said. “I was blessed with a God-given talent.”

Mason Jones, 21, of Titusville captures the men's 8K title at the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic on Sunday.
Mason Jones, 21, of Titusville captures the men's 8K title at the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic on Sunday. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Black beat the women’s runnerup, St. Petersburg’s Mary Beth Layfield, 37, by more than a minute. But before Black crossed the finish, 21-year-old Mason Jones claimed the men’s title in 25:19.

“I’m super happy,” Jones said in-between breaths after coming in ahead of 44-year-old Meb Keflezighi (27:03) of Tampa. “I’ve been in and out of sickness lately, so this race was to kind of see where I am, like a time trial, and I’m really glad with how it turned out.”

The Titusville native who competes for Florida Southern said Sunday’s time was just a minute more than his personal record (24:13), making his first Gasparilla race and the first-place finish all the more special.

Normally Jones runs 70 to 80 miles every week (at full health), but with his recent bout with the flu — among other ailments — he has cut back to 40 to 50 miles each week, slowly working his way back into things.

“My immune system is super weak,” he said. “Rehabilitation is a lot harder to recover from with all the miles.”

But despite his internal distractions, Jones knew he had the race as soon as he turned the bend on the home stretch. The time truck in front of the runners also helped Jones keep his spirits up.

“It was super fun,” he said. “The (weather conditions) were perfect.”

Saturday’s Gasparilla coverage

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Contact Mari Faiello at mfaiello@tampabay.com. Follow @faiello_mari.