22 July 2015


Consider the lowly asterisk. One of only two characters that have been bestowed the Sainthood of its very own telephone key. It’s a graphic that has largely lost its identity in the smartphone era, being known to most of the current generation as merely ‘star’. And of all the commonly used symbols in our life, it’s probably the one that almost nobody draws accurately; for that matter, few even agree on how many points it should have.

But oh, it’s power. This diminutive glyph has the power to destroy what people have worked a lifetime to achieve. Roger Maris never got over his asterisk. As the man who finally, after thirty-four years, broke Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record, he found his achievement demeaned with an asterisk. Growing up as a baseball fan (in Upstate New York, so pardon my not being a Red Sox fan back then, but at least I followed the Mets and despised the Yankees even then), I always remembered that asterisk after Maris’ name. Yeah, he broke the record, but he did it in the recently lengthened season, whereas The Babe had eight fewer games in which to set his mark. So slather that man’s reputation with something worse than a scarlet letter! Give him an asterisk!

Well, I got my own asterisk last month, along with twenty-some of my Greater Boston Track Club teammates, at a rather unusual and significantly enjoyable event, the Somerville Road Runners Club Challenge Cup Marathon Relay. We earned our asterisk fair and square, and we’re proud of it. Of course, the race officials just called it a disqualification, but we’re OK with that. To us, it’s a glorious asterisk.

This one fell into my favorite category of races: accidental events. Or call it a pop-up, unplanned, and therefore unable to generate great angst in the lead-up, since you don’t have much time to think about it. And besides, if you didn’t know you were racing it just a few days before, would it really matter if you tanked anyway? No pressure, just fun, let’s go out and test the wheels.

Now, most of my accidental events have at least been on the radar screen, just waiting for the opportunity to jump in to arise. Consider that first Martha’s Vineyard, or last year’s Lynn Woods, both races I knew about before the last minute chances to toss my shoes in the ring. But this one? Never heard of it. And considering the nature of the beast, twenty-six legs of a mile each (save the first one which included the extra point two), it was an event for which I was ill-prepared at best. What, me, race a mile? It’s been three and a half years since the last time I did that. It’s not something I remotely train for. The potential for comic outcomes was vast.

Yeah, let’s go for it.

The call went out a mere three and a half days before the gun went off. Our intrepid team organizer took on the audacious task of assembling a team of twenty six in a mere three days. Merely thinking he could pull this off at all pretty much defines the word chutzpah. And impressively, he did pull it off. Mostly.

Pulling together the twenty-four runners that he did in that period of time is nothing to shake a stick at. And being a couple short wasn’t really a problem, since the rules allowed for two to run a pair of legs (though the repeat offenders were supposed to have been the slowest on the team, which would have put Old Relic here, running in the midst of the gaggle of Young Hip and Fast GBTC speedsters, at serious risk of having to experience twice the agonizing fun). But we fell down on our female count, where the rules said we needed at least eight to run at least ten legs, but came up a few short at only five. As a result, we knew going in that our efforts wouldn’t count. We decided we didn’t care (which also meant we didn’t care who ran the double legs, which mercifully saved my legs!). We’d run it anyways, just for the fun of it. After all, shouldn’t this all be just about the fun of it?

We ran it, we smoked it, and we wiped the other teams off the track. And indeed, it didn’t count. Yeah, so what?

The irony of course, is that had we had our full complement of fast women, I and my fellow masters would probably have slid off the roster in favor of the younger faster guys. There was no rule requiring a certain number of antiques on the team (hmm, suggestion for race organizers for next year?). So perhaps an asterisk was the best I could get. I’ll take it and be proud to be associated with the team that earned it.

As for the race, though I had only three days to think about it, I conveniently had the chance to hit the track the morning after signing up. It’d been so long since racing on any track, I frankly had no idea whether to attack this in road racing shoes, or the odd red slipper-like featherweight things I’d picked up recently and wasn’t sure what to do with, or dive in head first and strap on those track spikes I bought years ago when I barely tasted the indoor track scene. A couple of shoe changes later, it was pretty clear that my aged gait wasn’t going to take to the spikes in three days flat. I settled on the red monster slippers. Likewise, I wasn’t at all sure how to prepare for racing a mile, knowing that my warm-up requirements have gotten longer and longer, and that I don’t hit full speed until about number three or four of any track interval, and that with twenty teams shuffling twenty-six runners, there’d be no space on the track for those kind of warm-up shenanigans. When race day came, I found myself leaving the stadium over and over, trying to simulate leg-loosening repeats over a series of mini-warm-ups. I can’t say I was anywhere ready by the time my nineteenth leg rolled around.

Meanwhile, our GBTC Speedy Young Turks and Fast Sleek Women were embarrassingly running up the score on the rest of the teams. I knew that in the end, nothing would matter, but teamed with guys running four-twenties and thirties, and ladies smoking low fives, I had to at least strive for respectability. Besides, we’d been promised a barbeque by Coach Tom if we beat his youthful marathon best of two nineteen. Never mind the unattainable win, we wanted the burgers. I targeted five and a half as an attainable – and mostly unembarrassing – goal.

Snap, it was over. Accustomed to marathons, firmly of the belief that a five-K is way too short and fast for my tastes, the mile barely registered. Click, a lap, a little quicker than desired but of no concern, just back it off a hair. Click, the second lap, a little too slow, noticing that by leg nineteen, runners of all abilities spread into an almost uniform paste over the track offered utterly nobody to key on. Click, the third, always the toughest lap of a mile repeat in a workout and no different here, yet a second quicker than the previous, in good shape. Click, the last one, solid, closing with pleasingly even first-half-second-half splits, and as a bonus beating my target by a few seconds. Hey, I’m just getting warmed up. It’s over?

I knew that I simply hadn’t known how to race that distance, and that given some practice, I’d probably slice quite a bit off my result, but coulda’ shoulda’ was meaningless, and the order of the day was just to soak it up and enjoy. To my amusement, I later found myself having run the fourth fastest of the nearly fifty fifty-plus men’s legs, not that the distinction would get me a cup of tea at Dunkin’s. But to even greater amusement, I savored the moment with a bunch of our teammates accumulated on the track to root on our last man as he closed out our odyssey out at the two hour, thirteen and a half minute mark. Three things were obvious: we’d earned our burgers, we’d bettered the next team by enough (six minutes, it turned out) that had we swapped five of our men’s legs for more women’s legs we’d likely still have won it, and that despite having just teamed for what we thought was a pretty respectable time, we knew that most respectable Kenyans would have kicked our butts entirely on their own. That kind of put what they do in perspective.

In the end, twenty-two teams found spots in the results, followed by a twenty-third, emblazoned with a prominent DQ rather than a place rank. But in my book, DQ is for ice-cream cones and Blizzards. We took it as an asterisk: what we did, but what was – and had rightly to be – taken away. Roger Maris, we feel your joy, and we feel your pain.

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