TAMPA — It was hot, humid and extra intense Sunday morning in Tampa, because for the first time since 1997, a field of world class athletes ran down Bayshore Boulevard in a road race for prize money — this time in the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic half marathon.
Thousands came out to cheer the elite field, led by four-time Olympian Abdi Abdirahman, Ryan Vail, Bobby Curtis and Jeff Eggleston, who took off the starting line in downtown Tampa at 6 a.m., leading almost 6,000 competitors behind them.
Abdirahman led through most of the first 10 miles, but not by much. Periodically over the final few miles, Vail, Curtis and Eggleston surged before Vail ultimately broke free with about a mile remaining to take the victory and the $8,000 first-prize check.
Vail's time of 1 hour, 4 minutes, 6 seconds shattered the half marathon course record of 1:09:50 set last year by Babson Park's Jon Mott, who finished 13th on Sunday after winning Saturday's 15K race.
To get an idea of how fast Sunday's field was competing for $40,000 in prize money, consider that the first 11 runners beat last year's record time — despite the humid conditions.
“We all knew it was going to be warm so I think we kind of prepared for that,” said Vail, a 27-year-old from Washington. “I really made an effort to go out conservative because it was so warm. I wanted to stay comfortable through nine miles or so and then if I felt good I would go for it.
“I've messed up before in heat like this and really struggled in the second part of the race. Today at the end I had a lot of energy, so that was very encouraging.”
For Vail and most of the elite runners, Sunday's race was the first — or at least one of the first — serious events of the season.
“It's sort of a tuneup, a measuring stick,” said Vail, who hopes to peak for April's London Marathon. “This is a great way to get started.”
Abdirahman, 35, said he felt good, but maybe not quite 100 percent. After all, he is coming off a knee strain that sidelined for almost a month in December and he's put in some tough recent workouts, partly to gauge whether he's ready for a go at the Boston Marathon in April.
“I was a little leg tired,” Abdirahman said. “I didn't have that full punch. But I give full credit to (Vail) because he ran a great race today.”
Both Abdirahman and Vail said they would gladly return for another Publix Gasparilla half marathon in the future.
“The organization, the course support, the fans, the course, everything was outstanding,” Vail said. “Yes, it was hot, but you can't control the weather. It's just hit or miss this time of year. But I can see that if it was cool, this course could be very fast and very attractive to a lot of runners.”
Said Abdirahman: “This is my first time in Tampa, but I really like it, man. It's a nice course. I would really love to come back. It's flat. It's easy to run and everybody here has been so great.”