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By David Monti

(c) 2009 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved

USA half-marathon record holder Ryan Hall will open his 2009 season by running the 32nd annual Gasparilla Distance Classic 15-K in Tampa, Fla., on Saturday, Feb. 28, race organizers confirmed today.

"We feel like a gift was dropped into our lap," said race director Susan Harmeling in a telephone interview.

  Harmeling said that she found out about Hall's interest in the race when elite athlete coordinator Bill Orr forwarded an e-mail from Hall's manager, Ray Flynn.  Since the 15-K only has prize money for regional athletes, the inquiry came as quite a surprise.

"Of course, I was very excited when I saw it," she said of the e-mail message.  "He (Orr) thought it was a prank."

Hall, 26, who is training for the Boston Marathon on April 20, will use the Gasparilla race to test his fitness and perhaps set a personal best, according to his coach, Terrence Mahon.

"We wanted to look for some new and different challenges for Ryan in the beginning of 2009," explained Mahon in an e-mail message.  "The Gasparilla 15-K was always a great race for world class athletes in the past and the course has produced many fast times.  We thought that this would be a perfect first race to start off Ryan's season."

Indeed, the event used to attract an international field of top athletes until the race took the decision after the 1998 edition to sharpen it's focus as a community run which raises funds for local charities.  Prior to that time, champions included stars like Jon Brown, Josephat Machuka, Phillimon Hanneck, Lornah Kiplagat, Elana Meyer, and Tegla Loroupe.  Hanneck set the course record of 42:35 in 1994, a mark which is only a little slower than Todd Williams's USA record of 42:22 set at the Gate River Run in Jacksonville in 1995.  Hall could definitely challenge either of those marks.

"He is fit, and if weather allows he will look to run a personal best time," said Mahon.  "We are hoping that this will be a springboard to both his upcoming race against Haile (in the City-Pier-City Half-Marathon in The Hague next month) and the Boston Marathon.  These are all challenges that Ryan has wanted to pursue over the past two years and now it is coming together for him."

Hall agrees.  "I'm just kind of kicking off the season to test my fitness," he said speaking on his mobile phone from Mammoth Lakes, Calif., where he trains.  "I'm curious to see where I'm at.  I've got some big races coming up."

Although Hall's 15-K personal best is a solid 44:01, he ran much faster over that distance when he set his USA half-marathon record of 59:43 in Houston in 2007.  There, he passed the 15-K mark in 42:21, one second under Williams's record.  However, that en route time wasn't acceptable for record purposes because the 15-K mark wasn't certified, and only a single chip time was taken at that point.

Like the race in Houston, Hall will be running alone in Tampa, something the 2:06 marathoner is very comfortable with.

"He'll start with everyone else," said Harmeling, "(but) we'll have a special lead vehicle just for him."

PHOTO: Ryan Hall at the start of the Flora London Marathon from PhotoRun.net



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