TAMPA — For Christina Welsh, it wasn’t so much about the preparation as the vibe. The slight St. Petersburg resident came across the finish line of Sunday’s Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic half-marathon well ahead of the rest of the women’s field to defend her 2022 title.
“It was really good,” Welsh said of her race. “A lot of competitive local people were out yesterday, so I led from the start today; I didn’t really see a ton of other women around me.”
Welsh, 26, finished in 1 hour, 21 minutes, 14 seconds. That was more than three minutes ahead of second-place finisher Paige Howard, 35 of Tampa (1:24:57).
The win came on the heels of Welsh winning Saturday’s Gasparilla 15K. The New Jersey native, who ran competitively at Stockton University, has won the 15K here two straight years.
“I just really liked the local running community. It was great,” said Welsh, a USF graduate student in Marine biology. “It was kind of like my hometown. The biggest one in the area. And a lot of the running community comes out for it. Like the Outta Pocket Track Club, I run with them sometimes. It’s just fun to come and see everybody at the finish line and everything.
“I live over in St. Pete, so this is kind of the biggest event in my area for the community.”
Outside of Tampa Bay, however, Welsh is also competing at the highest level.
“I’m running the Olympic trials, which is in February of 2024 (in Orlando). That’s my next big goal,” she said.
Welsh ran a personal-best of 2:33 in the Houston Marathon, which qualified her for the 2024 U.S. Olympic team marathon trials. Her training will also include the Tartan Ottawa International Marathon in May
“The marathon trials are my main event, so this is good preparation,” Welsh said of running back-to-back races in less than 24 hours. “I just really like (Gasparilla). It’s a fun event.”
For Howard, a former University of Tampa standout, running is a chance for the mother of four to have some personal time.
“Running is just kind of my like mental therapy and my one time alone from all these crazy kids,” said Howard with a laugh as she nursed 4-month-old son Jordan with her family around her in a VIP tent just past the finish line.
“It’s fun. I love Gasparilla. We run right by our house; my whole family gets into it.”
In fact, one of her children was kind of actually in a Gasparilla race.
Howard was pregnant with daughter Hope when she won the 2018 15K. Sunday, the soon-to-be 4-year-old was one of the family members waiting at the finish line.
Howard, a former East Bay High runner, went into Sunday’s race just hoping to finish in the top 10, but once she got out onto the course, which was cooled by an early-morning fog, she challenged herself.
“I would have been happy with top 10, I mean, I just had a baby,” Howard said nodding to Jordan. “But then when I was out there and I was like, ‘If I can give birth less than four months ago, I could easily run this race.’ So I felt pretty good. I’m really happy with my finish.”