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Ihle's personal best more than enough to rule women's 10K

It wasn't a marathon, but it might as well have been for Kris Ihle.

Ihle, the winner of the 14th Annual Deseret News/Granite Furniture Women's 10K, considers herself more of a track specialist than a long-distance street runner. Competing in the 3,000 meters and 5,000 meters is more her style - not the 10,000 meters, which she faced Thursday. But that didn't stop her from setting a personal best with a time of 31:41, easily outdistancing her nearest competitor, Ludmilla Petrova - the Russian standout who finished second at 32:11 and was a 10K finalist at the 1996 Olympics. Ihle also shattered her previous personal best of 33:09."This was like a marathon for me," said Ihle, a 28-year-old PhD student in psychology at the University of Wisconsin and a resident of Oak Creek, Wis. "My strategy was to run as fast as I could from beginning to end."

In victory, Ihle pocketed the $2,500 in prize money and managed to defeat formidable challengers in Petrova and Olga Appell, who finished third (32:25) and is the course record holder.

"I looked at this as a race against myself rather than against the others," said Ihle. Which is fitting, since for most of the race, it looked like she was in a class by herself. Ihle (pronounced E-lee) simply made it look easy. And she could scarcely believe her domination of the field. "I was very surprised," she said. "It got lonely out there."

At the one-mile mark of the 6.3-mile course, Ihle and Petrova were running neck-and-neck. By the two-mile point, Ihle opened up a 100-meter lead and cruised the rest of the way.

Ihle had run only a handful of 10K's in her life and this race was her first 10K this year. Though not considered a favorite going into the event, it's not like she came out of nowhere. Ihle, after all, was a 10K finalist in the 1996 Olympic Trials and will compete in the USA World University Games in August. She was optimistic about her chances on Thursday.

"I knew I was one of the stronger runners out there," she said. "But I also knew I was one of the most unknown. I didn't go to bed thinking I was a shoe-in. I had nightmares that I would miss the gun start."

In order to adjust to Utah's extreme altitude, Ihle spent the last two weeks training in Frisco, Colo., with her coach, Lyle Knudson, a former track coach at the University of Florida and Utah State.

"She ran a gutty race and to win it like that, running away from the pack was just amazing," said Knudson. "She is a relatively inexperienced road runner. It's a tremendous credit to her to do this well against great international competition. It's amazing that she broke away like that from a world-class runner.

"I've got a lot of confidence in her," Knudson continued. "Nothing she does ever surprises me, but this was an incredible performance."

Two weeks ago at the Utica 15K in New York, Ihle finished sixth and was defeated handily by Petrova, who came in first. This time, Ihle said, she benefited from the downhill stretches in the Salt Lake course, which concluded at Liberty Park. "I was fortunate it was downhill. I think that contributed to my fast time," she said.

There was a time in her life, though, that running seemed like nothing but an uphill battle. So she quit. From the winter of 1991 until June 1995, disappointed and frustrated with herself, she basically left the sport. "I became a couch potato," she said. During that period, she also completed her master's degree.

"She had high aspirations, but she wasn't accomplishing them," said Knudson of Ihle's hiatus from running.

In the summer of '95, she decided to make a comeback. Knudson, who had recruited her to the University of Florida years earlier, had lost touch with Ihle until he ran into her at the Olympic Trials. Ihle had a different coach then, but Knudson said her of her outstanding performance at the Trials, "She did that on her own."

The Deseret News 10K marked Ihle's first trip ever to Utah, and she loved the support she received along the route. "I felt a great community spirit here," she said. "They really helped me. To see them lined up, six-people deep was awesome. I know this is a special day, but I couldn't believe how spirited they were. This was a great celebration for the people of Salt Lake."

So did Ihle use her extensive psychology background and knowledge to her competitive advantage? "Just the constant denial that I was running 10,000 meters," she said.