Despite an injury that would sideline most participants, Briana Whaley of Clearwater fought through nagging pain to win the Publix Super Markets Gasparilla Distance Classic 15-kilometer run in 54 minutes, 5 seconds.
It was her third attempt at running a race of this distance.
Whaley, 31, suffered tears in her left posterior tibial tendon during the 2008 U.S. Olympic marathon trials. The tendon is responsible for maintaining the arch of the foot, but thanks to physical therapy and favorable conditions during Saturday's race, Whaley was able to push through the discomfort en route to the first-place finish.
"My feet were on fire, and I just started praying," Whaley said. "About the third mile, it really started burning."
Whaley, who is more experienced in longer distances, stuck to her game plan and pulled away from the rest of the group at about mile 5.
"It's just learning to handle the pressure and believing in myself," Whaley said. "That's what I did today, and that's why I'm so proud of myself."
Whaley, who also finished first in the Miracle Mile 15k in Orlando, received special inspiration from someone who is close to her.
Ellie, Whaley's 5-year-old daughter, had some good advice for her mom before Saturday's race.
"(Ellie) told me to find the spirit of running," Whaley said with a smile. "And whatever that is, I guess I found it."
The original plan was for Whaley to run the Gasparilla Marathon when the Virginia native moved to Florida nearly five months ago. But another injury forced the new resident to run a shorter event.
"I got a stress fracture in my left tibia," Whaley said. "If I can just stay healthy, I would like to qualify for the (Olympic marathon) trials again."
Whaley, who was a long-distance runner for Virginia Commonwealth University, has five marathons under her belt, including the trials, and finished 10th in the 2007 Philadelphia Marathon.
Former University of Florida standout Sara Petrick of Apollo Beach was second in Saturday's 15k. It was the first time the area native, now a graduate student at South Florida, had participated in the event since she was a teenager, but her familiarity with the course helped her to a personal-best time of 54:40.
"I went to the Academy of the Holy Names, which is actually on Bayshore Boulevard," said Petrick, 23. "So I used to run here all the time in high school."
And even though Petrick was a track star in high school and college, her performance Saturday surprised her.
"I really wasn't expecting to do as well as I did today," Petrick said. "But that also helps motivate you, as an underdog, just going out there and being really impressed with how you're doing. It really helps boost your performance."
The results are so encouraging that Petrick plans to continue racing in upcoming events, such as a half marathon or even a step further.
"I'm thinking about qualifying for the (Olympic) trials in the marathon, but I've never done a marathon before," Petrick said. "But based on my times now, it is possible.
"I've got to build my endurance and put in some more track work, but it's doable."
Christa Benton of St. Petersburg, a three-time Gasparilla 15k champion, was third in 54:47.