13 August 2009

Gentlemen's Sport

Ours is a gentlemen’s sport. Sure, we sweat like pigs (metaphor of course, my daughter the pig fan points out that pigs don’t sweat). Sure, we get caked in mud on the trails. And even blood sometimes, too. But outside of the realm of big name competitors’ vocal rivalries, we’re kind, helpful, and gentile to others even as they’re thrashing us soundly. You won’t see that in a hockey game.

Yes, of course, this applies to the women as well. I’m not being sexist, there’s just no equivalent phrase I can think of that communicates the same connotation for the other gender.

Tonight’s case in point? The 4th Annual Chuck Martin 5K in Clinton, Massachusetts. I returned to this race tonight as an experienced veteran. Having run it once before isn’t a lot of experience, but it’s enough, considering last year’s event where my 3rd-place finish magically turned into a 2nd-place finish because the leader made a wrong turn and sadly came in 6th. Most of the race is on trails. Most of the turns are marshaled. Most, but not all.

As we gathered at the start with a good-sized crowd of nearly 200, there was plenty of chatter about precisely where the course went, it being pretty clear that most had no idea. When I volunteered that I not only knew the course but was there for last year’s game of Lose the Leader, I instantly became the man to follow. Now, I’m not really a mid-packer, I’m more of a front-of-the-mid-pack, back of the truly competitive, make a splash only in very small ponds or large puddle type of runner. Truth be told, I expected to be in the top 10%, but with my continuing recovery, not being back to last year’s level, sporting that aching and damaged foot, and so on, I certainly wouldn’t publicly hint that the crowd should follow me. But they did. It’s a weird sport.

Out the gate, the starting adrenaline rush kicked in and after perhaps 20-30 seconds with one other runner alongside, I was all alone. Huh? I’m not supposed to be alone up here. Perhaps a minute or so later – time is fluid in these events – a couple of youngsters arrived to keep me company, and the one guy who looked like a serious competitor in the pack proved that appearances aren’t deceiving and bolted out front. Ahh, that’s better.

And now comes the gentlemanly portion. After four tenths of a mile on the road, the course turns sharp left onto the trails and levees along the Wachusett Reservoir. At this turn, a local cop duly stood guard, assuring no runner road pizza events. And he did that well, but didn’t consider that the runner bolting toward him had no idea where he was going. And so our leader cruised right past Turn Number One.

If kindness and helpfulness were a random event in our sport, one runner might have alerted him to his error. But kindness and helpfulness aren’t random events among runners, they’re the rule. Ours is a gentlemen’s sport. Everybody jumped in to help. A cacophony of voices rang out – perhaps a half dozen – everyone within sight and shouting range, TURN LEFT! LEFT! LEFT!

It got better. By now I was running with a pair of youngsters, with a couple more behind us, while our leader quickly recovered from his error and again put space between himself and us more ordinary folk. And then he did it again.

While missing Turn Number One could be blamed on a complacent cop, missing Turn Number Two at about six tenths of a mile could only be chalked up to, well, perhaps a missed brain cycle? On approaching a set of barriers across the trail, clearly positioned to prevent passage, in front of which was a yellow plastic tape that gave a pretty obvious hint to turn right at the barriers and follow the tape, our Beloved Leader somehow ran right through the barriers and with each passing moment compounded his error by going deeper behind the Fence of No Return.

In any other sport, those behind him would see an opportunity. Let him go. Second goof. Our turn now. His loss.

Not in our sport. Again the choir sang. GET BACK HERE! TURN RIGHT! GET OUT FROM BEHIND THE FENCE!

And as if the Gods were giggling in mirth, it got even better. The rest of the leader pack thought itself so smart. They’d gone right before the barrier. They bolted up the levee. And to my shock, they started bolting right over the top, down the other side, headed toward the lake. Uh, that was Turn Number Three. And nobody else seemed to get it. Now it was my turn to scream. TURN RIGHT! ONTO THE DIKE! Seems I was indeed, as they hinted at the starting line, the only one truly with a clue as to where I was going.

This was getting ludicrous.

And so it was that at three quarters of a mile in, I found myself leading the race. Not really supposed to happen. Cool, though. Enjoy it while it lasts.

One could argue that there should have been course marshals at these points of confusion, but Turn Number One was manned (by the Complacent Cop), Turn Number Two was bloody obvious, And Turn Number Three, well, it wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the course probably didn’t plunge into the lake. But in any event, the point is that at each spot, everyone who had a clue helped out, even though the person they were helping was in the process of thrashing them soundly.

It’s a gentlemen’s sport.

Rest of the story… Our Beloved Leader again caught us after his latest mishap and retook the lead. I didn’t see any real way to stay with him, so focused on the runner who was sticking with me. At about 1.5 miles we were head to head on a wide levee. I decided to make a move, knowing it was early and risky, but he didn’t answer, and I had 2nd all to myself. Footsteps fade fast on the trails, and there was no crowd to give audible hints of the spacing behind me, so I had no idea if he would respond or others would surge. Nor did I want to look back. Nearing our emergence from the trails back onto the road, a sharper turn gave me an opportunity to glance back, and I saw no challengers. Two tenths from the finish I looked back anyway to avoid any surprises. Nobody home, smooth sailing.

For the second year in a row, I took 2nd, but this year the winner – Our Beloved Leader – was a youngster, so I scored the masters win, though in a time a full minute slower than last year. Most of that minute slowdown I attribute to just not being in the same shape as in the pre-surgery days, but then again, the entire field was slower, so it’s hard to tell. Frankly, it just doesn’t matter. It was a fun race, an eventful race, and a race that really showed off the best side of the nature of our sport.

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