Tampa’s Becky Howarth starts fast, finishes first in women’s 15k

Photo By: Douglas R. Clifford [Tampa Bay Times]

Article from Tampa Bay Times by Terry Tomalin, Times Outdoor/Fitness Editor

TAMPA — Not too hot, not too cool, with the wind barely visible on Tampa Bay. Becky Howarth felt the conditions were just right for a win at Saturday’s Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic 15K.

“I went out a little fast and found myself on my own for most of it,” said Howarth, a former college runner who now lives in Tampa. “For the first few miles my legs hurt but after I got over that, I was good to go.”

Howarth, who grew up in England but emigrated to the United States to attend Butler University in Indianapolis, averaged 5 minutes, 52 seconds a mile in an easy victory in the women’s race.

“It always feels good to win a local race,” said the 27-year-old. “This is really special to me.”

Howarth’s time of 54:47 was significantly faster than her second-place 56:07 finish from 2015. “It was a great course,” she said.

Howarth, who works as an actuary, said that while pleased with her performance, she had a faster 9.3-mile split at a half-marathon in January: “You just never know … every race is different.”

Saturday’s field was missing some of Gasparilla’s biggest names. Megan Goethals, the 22-year-old who last year delivered the fastest winning time in more than a decade, did not race. Sara Petrick, the winner in 2014 and 2012, and Briana Whaley, the women’s champion in 2013, 2011 and 2010, were also absent.

But Jacki Wachtel, a math teacher from Pasco County, finished a strong second with a time of 56:56. The 36-year-old, one of the bay area’s most consistent elite female runners, took nearly two minutes off her seventh-place time from 2015.

“I had some really strong runners around me,” she said. “They helped power me through.”

Wachtel, a member of the Suncoast Striders Walking & Running Club, said she has a group of friends, all serious runners, who call themselves “The Herd.”

“At a race like this, that is what it is all about,” said the mother of two. “You want to do well, but you want your friends to have good races, too.”

Wachtel averaged 6:06 per mile, a tad slower than she had wished. “I was hoping to break 56 minutes,” she said. “Maybe next year.”

Hannah Brickse, a 27-year-old from Bradenton, finished third at 59:30 followed by Tierra Verde’s Christina Noordstar, a former top triathlete turned distance runner, in 59:45. Noordstar, 39, used Saturday’s 15K as a tuneup for today’s half-marathon.

“I have got to save a little bit,” she said. “Two races in two days is hard to do.”

Rounding out the top five was two-time Gasparilla champion Christa (Benton) Stephens of St. Petersburg, who finished first in 2007 and 2009. The 32-year-old’s time of 59:49 was off her Gasparilla best of 54:27, but she is getting back into top racing shape after taking time off to start a family.

Other top local finishers include Brittany Pierce, 31, of Clearwater in seventh (1:00:34); Carol Hollenbeck, 49, of St. Petersburg in eighth (1:02:30); Jolene Abanses, 40, of Lutz in ninth (1:02:55); and Meredith Mikell, 33, of St. Petersburg in 10th (1:03:07).

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