There was a time when Ryan Hall would have had plenty of company running on Bayshore Boulevard in the Publix Super Markets Gasparilla Distance Classic 15-kilometer race. That was "back in the day," as many of the area's old-time runners like to say, when the world's best distance runners regularly made this event their first stop of the season.
But with elite-field prize money absent from the race for 10 years now, Hall, the American record-holder for the half marathon and a 2008 Olympian in the marathon, was completely alone for almost every stride of his 9.3-mile jaunt on Tampa's most famous stretch of pavement.
Hall won by more than a half mile Saturday, covering the course in 43 minutes, 26 seconds, and putting nearly four minutes between himself and runner-up Neil McDonagh, a former standout miler at Georgia Tech. Hall didn't win the small purse for locals only - two-time Gasparilla winner Elias Gonzalez of Tampa earned the $2,000 first-place check by taking third overall in 49:12 - but money was not Hall's motivation for competing here.
For Hall, the race was a tune-up for two major races this spring, a half marathon March 15 in Holland and the Boston Marathon on April 20. Considering he had not officially competed in a race since last summer's Beijing Games marathon, where he finished 10th, Hall was pleased to have cracked 44 minutes and averaged just under 4:40 per mile.
Sure, Hall was hoping to take a stab at Todd Williams' 14-year-old American record in the 15k. But running this fast without anyone pushing him - in a race in which the temperature had climbed above 70 well before he reached the finish line - was a good result to the 26-year-old Hall.
"I kind of enjoyed running out there on my own, running in front," Hall said. "A couple of weeks before the London Marathon, before my debut there, I ran much slower than I did today. Marathon training, it's kind of hit or misses at the races. Sometimes it's tough, but today was pretty solid."
As fast as Hall was Saturday, he was never really on or below pace to eclipse Williams' mark of 42:22, which averages out to just under 4:33 per mile. In fact, Hall's winning time Saturday isn't among Gasparilla's top 50 all-time performances (it wouldn't have cracked the top 14 places alone in 1994) and it didn't better the best time an American has run here, 42:50, by Winter Haven native and former Olympian Keith Brantly in 1989.
But displaying the near-perfect running mechanics Hall is noted for, he at least went for it. And he made the attempt virtually alone. He hit the first mile just off record pace in 4:36, split two miles a little closer to the target at 9:09 and came through three miles at 13:49. By then, however, Hall was already 10 seconds off pace.
Hall never looked fatigued at any point in the race, but he said he isn't training to be able to churn out miles faster than 4:35 on a consistent basis in a race this long.
"I could probably run a really good marathon right now," Hall said. "I could probably run 4:45 mile pace all day long, but then you start hitting sub-4:40, there's that fine line where my fitness isn't quite aimed at that, with Boston being the big picture."