Elli Black didn’t just win the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic 8K women’s race last month, she also set a major milestone — becoming the youngest winner in the event’s 40-plus year history, at just 11 years old.
The Land O’ Lakes youth clocked 30:57 in the 4.97-mile course to best more than 2,200 female participants in the popular annual race on Tampa’s Bayshore Boulevard. The second-place female finisher, St. Petersburg’s Mary Beth Layfield, 37, timed 32:23.
On becoming race champion and making history, Black said: “It’s a really big accomplishment and I’m really proud of myself, and I just know that I’ve been very blessed with a God-given talent, and I’m just really happy to be able to use it to the fullest.”
Previously, the event’s youngest winner was 13-year-old Ellie Pleune, who won the race in 2017, with a time of 31:13.
Black had good performances in previous years, too. She placed fifth and seventh female overall the prior two years, respectively.
Her goal this year was to win, of course, and to at least break 32 minutes. Besides just naturally growing stronger and upping her training of late, Black also credited the “perfect” weather conditions, compared to the past couple years when “it was really, really hot.”
The Gasparilla Race award isn’t Black’s only piece of distinguished hardware, and it surely won’t be her last.
The home-schooled sixth-grader recently completed her first year running on the Cambridge Christian high school cross-country team, where she collected All-State honors after winning an individual regional title and placing third overall at the FHSAA (Florida High School Athletic Association) Class 1A state girls’ cross-country championships. For the record, her 5K personal best sits at 18:19, set at December’s Jingle Bell Run in Tampa — a race she also won.
Black said her first year running high school cross-country “was actually really fun,” despite competing regularly against much older girls.
Said Black: “Like the girls on my team are basically all high schoolers, but they were really nice and most of the high school girls that I ran against were nice, so it was overall, a really nice experience.”
Black now has her eyes set on the high school track season, where she wants to eclipse the 11-minute mark in the 2-mile. Her current personal record sits at about 11:30.
She also has much bigger long-term goals in sight: “I do want to run in college, and my goal is to run in the 2024 Paris Olympics,” she said.
Cambridge Christian School distance coach Ray Friedman sees the immense potential.
“We may be looking at someone that may one day be on the Olympic stage,” Friedman said of Black, in a recent telephone interview. “I don’t say that lightly, I’m telling ya. She ain’t normal.”
Friedman noted Black’s running style resembles that of some of the world’s greatest runners that come from the East African country Kenya.
“It’s bizarre, but her body and her stride is very Kenyan-like, and I don’t say that flippantly,” the coach explained.
Friedman is no stranger to working with elite-level talents. He’s coached University of Florida distance runner Trevor Foley and Riverview High’s Alyssa Hendrix, the Gatorade State Runner of the Year who’s signed to North Carolina State University, among others. Friedman himself set multiple school records at Gaither High School and La Salle University, and went on to make to the U.S. Triathlon world team.
In the young runner, Friedman simply sees tools that can be molded into future greatness. Friedman observed, “She is extremely determined. She’s very disciplined, and of course, obviously very talented. She has the ‘it’ factor. You can’t learn it. It has to be born.”
Black got an early head start in the endurance sport, compared to most of her similarly aged peers.
Black first started running at just 4 years old, where she would accompany her parents on 1-mile or 2-mile jogs around their former Columbus, Ohio neighborhood. At 6 years old, she competed in her first 5K.
“We’ve always been active runners, so she would always want to run with us,” said Black’s mother, Jacqueline.
The passion for running has stuck with the youth ever since.
Today, Black runs roughly 25 miles per week. She generally runs five days a week, with a cross-training bike or swim workout mixed in, too.
“It’s just really fun,” Black said of running. “It just makes me really happy to be able to use one of my talents.”
Besides a dedicating training routine, Black comes from an athletic family background.
Her father was a Division I basketball player at Bowling Green State University who went on to play professionally overseas. Her mother played three sports in high school, though none of them track or cross-country.
“We’re obviously very proud of her,” Black’s mother said. “Everybody always tells us how special she is, and we know that’s more than just running. We’re very faith-based, and we know that God has given her this talent…so we’re just extremely proud of all of her accomplishments.”
Published March 4, 2020