Quite a pair in the Pear
Glendale's Gutierrez tunes up for world championships with her second victory in four years
Rosa Gutierrez had every reason to treat the Pear Blossom Run as small potatoes, given her stature as a national-level competitor.
But this was a full-meal deal to her.
Gutierrez cruised to victory in 57 minutes, 38 seconds, nearly 11/2 minutes ahead of O'Neil's time of 59:03.
Gutierrez was 31 seconds off of O'Neil's course-record time of 57:07 in 1995.
Rounding out the top five, Laura Lamena-Coll of Eugene was third in 1:01:29, Shannon Seater of Klamath Falls fourth in 1:05:11 and Sherry Erickson of Vancouver, Wash., fifth in 1:06:58.
Felicia Hazel of Ashland was the top Rogue Valley finisher, coming in sixth in 1:07:04.
This was the second time Gutierrez has defeated two-time defending champion O'Neil - far and away the Pear Blossom's most successful runner with eight career wins - in four years.
But that's hardly a disgrace when you consider the portfolio of Gutierrez, who also won in 1999.
She's been selected as one of five women to represent the United States in the half-marathon world championships May 5 in Brussels, Belgium, the continuation of a long career that seems to be picking up steam.
In November, she was the seventh fastest American woman and 19th overall in the New York City Marathon, qualifying her for the 2004 Olympic Trials.
As lofty as those feats are, she didn't pooh-pooh the Pear. She repeatedly mentioned her affection for the running fans of Southern Oregon and how important it was for her to give a credible accounting of herself.
The former Glendale High and University of Oregon star, long a friend and rival of O'Neil's, said she wants to give back to communities that have supported her throughout her career.
In fact, no sooner had she emerged from the finishing chute than she was exchanging e-mail addresses with folks who want her to speak to a civic group in Ashland.
"I can't say it enough," Gutierrez admitted. "As a runner, you have doubts and fears, and the support of the community is very important and encourages me to continue."
Gutierrez took a leave from her job as a junior high physical education teacher three years ago and moved back to Glendale to care for her mother and father. Her mother, Carmen, passed away seven months ago at age 75.
She's been training recently in Eugene with coach Mike Manley, and it paid off for her Saturday as she finished strong.
Coaching herself, Gutierrez said, she tended to overtrain, something not always conducive to good health for a runner of her age. With 8-mile tempo runs orchestrated by Manley, she's reined in her workouts a bit.
"I'm not in tip-top shape," she said, "but I'm getting there."
She and O'Neil, who was a prep star at Kennedy High in Mt. Angel, ran against each other in high school and with each other at the University of Oregon and in road races since.
The Pear Blossom starts at the courthouse, turns onto West Main Street, follows Jacksonville Highway to Hanley Road, then goes over Hanley Hill to the turnaround.
"I knew today would be tough," said Gutierrez. "I just wanted to focus in on her and what she was doing. I was going to tuck in behind her and see how things unfold."
O'Neil had the same idea.
"I ran just like I planned to," said the Canby runner. "I followed Rosa out there on the pace I originally wanted to run, and she just pulled away from me on the way back in.
"Rosa has better PRs (personal records) than me in the longer races, so I was not surprised at her strength."
The two women ran side-by-side for the first mile.
"Neither of us said anything," said Gutierrez, "but I had the sense no one wanted to take the lead."
They got behind a group of men for the next four miles. Gutierrez took control coming back up Hanley Hill and along the long stretch of Jacksonville Highway heading back to town.
"People were telling me, 'You're 200, 300 yards ahead,'" said Gutierrez. "That helped me tremendously. I didn't want to turn around. It helped me relax and stay focused and get into a rhythm."
Any thoughts of going for O'Neil's 7-year-old record dissipated early with a 5:48 opening mile.
"I thought about it before the race," said Gutierrez. "If Deanna and I had gone out hard and were on pace, it would have been worth it. But if we were off the pace at the beginning, then it was more important to win the race."
Victory was the main course, and she ate it up.