How often have I finished a local race in second or third place and lamented that a fast guy or two happened to show up that day? As an experienced (read: older) runner, I don’t expect to win – heck, a top-few finish in any race is worthy happiness – but in a small local race where the possibility, however remote, exists, it’s a nice thought. Or at least snag the masters’ crown. And even though last fall, after five years of trying, I finally did notch that win, it’s still a recurring theme.
Now, a big race is another matter. Dream on. We’re just talking about the home-town events. And getting beat by the young ‘uns is to be expected too; coming out on top of the old guys’ rankings is enough of a thrill. And if I lose it to a local guy, that’s life, we hang out, chit-chat, and know we’ll see each other again at some future race. It’s a friendly crowd.
No, the annoying cases are when the guy who shows up to take the crown is an out-of-town ringer who just happens to drop in on your home-town race, spoils the party, and walks away with some honor that coulda’ shoulda’ woulda’ been yours (remember this posting?). Well, this time it was my turn to play the spoiler. No, I didn’t win, but I did snag the top of the masters’ podium, deprived the locals of a bit of hardware, and even met a new friend in the process. Score…
Set the scene: Business trip to New Jersey, the nice part (really, there are lots of nice parts), looking at four days of sitting in a room getting educated. Read, four days of desperately trying to keep my eyes open. This isn’t a condemnation of the speakers, who did a great job. It’s the physical reality of my body, which, when not engaged, shuts down in fifteen minutes flat. Sometimes I think that everyone else is wide awake and it’s only me and it must be some horrible disease that will kill me next week. Probably I’m just not noticing the others dozing as well.
I always make a point of getting my runs in while traveling, but I’d never done the ‘seek out a local weekday race’ thing before. But coming off the Reading FORR 5K a couple weeks back and having decided that I need more short races to sharpen my speed, I figured an evening dash would be just the thing to further that goal and shake out a day’s kinks from sitting all day long.
Travel Monday, sit, sit, and sit, and by Thursday I’d downright need a race, so a race I found in a little town called Mt. Tabor. That was the target, till I discovered that our agenda of having to sit, sit, sit (and we did not like it one little bit, he said, channeling Seuss), was to extend into the dark hours Thursday night. Rapid reassessment, a little more web hunting, and thus emerged alternate target, the Tuesday night Branchburg Recreation National Night Out 5K in, not surprisingly, Branchburg, New Jersey. A mere sixteen miles from the office and a seven fifteen PM start. Piece of cake.
Yah, but this is New Jersey, where traffic aspires to hither-to unknown dimensions. So it wasn’t a piece of cake, but I made it, and found myself in a place I’d never heard of, with people I’d never met, at an event that was really about getting the locals out – nearly three hundred locals of which a glance at the results hints that fewer than fifty came from more than a town away. I wasn’t just the outsider, I was, even better, the conspicuous outside, sporting as usual my club jersey. Of course nobody had a clue where the Highland City Striders came from, and nobody asked. The excitement for this race was the cross-country preview, with the local youngsters lined up to duke it out in a pre-season test. I’d noticed that from looking at last year’s results and looked forward to have a bunch of fast kids to push me.
And it was, in short, a lovely night. Hot again, yes, but a lovely course through a lovely park with a lovely trail section, shady, soft underfoot, with a bunch of fun twists and turns – glad I jogged it ahead of time so as to avoid bouncing off various trees – and even a lovely cross-country start, dashing across a field from the wide starting line, a few curses emitted here and there when the golf cart we were chasing led us slightly astray of the path off the field, but still, just plain evocative of the word lovely, enhanced by a large and enthusiastic cheering section.
As expected, there were a lot of fast kids. As hoped, I didn’t see any fast old farts, but I wasn’t about to look back to verify that. Just keep swimming. Most importantly, there were enough fast kids that once the field settled in, there was always someone to target. In fact, I’d say that the field depth was just right. Too many and it’s meaningless to pick ‘em off. Too few and it’s unrealistic to catch the next one, way far out front. This crowd was just right. Constant motivation. Double motivation, in fact, as it’s sweeter when you can pick off the seventeen-year-olds, and at least a half dozen fell over the last two miles.
At the two mile split I knew it was a decent night. How decent I couldn’t then – or now – say, since this wasn’t a course that would pass the USATF White Glove Test. Plenty of undelimited inside turns. Virtually unmeasureable trail sections. But no worries. Call it close enough. Call it happiness crossing the line a quarter-minute faster than the last one two weeks back, which had been my fastest in years. Maybe it was short, who cares. Eighth of nearly three hundred, and took the masters by a wide margin. Cooler, the scoring company included a “PLP” – Performance Level Percentage – rating in the results, a computation that scales your time to your exact age. I’d seen this concept before on an individual basis, but not included in the general results so you could compare yourself to everyone else of any age. Smoked them kiddies. Sweet.
Now, the funny thing is that I wasn’t the only spoiler. I was the old fart spoiler, but there was another, the young spoiler, or shoulda-been spoiler, Dan from Minnesota, posted to Jersey for a summer internship, and in a weird twist, we finished a mere seconds apart. After knocking off the half-dozen kids, he was next in my crosshairs before we ran out of runway. Figure the irony that of three hundred local runners, the two from afar finished three seconds apart. And he too should have deprived the locals of some hardware in his twenty-something age group but for an administrative error that cruelly deprived him of said medal. Ah well, he took it well, no biggie.
We figured all this out in the post-chute chit-chat, and to my amusement I found he was planning on Thursday night to hit Mt. Tabor, my original target. It would have been sweet not to have had those meetings. Three seconds apart on Tuesday called for a rematch on Thursday, but sadly, not to be. The rematch will have to wait till Dan nails his Boston qualifier, which I’m confident he will, or I find myself in Minnesota, hey, you never know.
And then? While my co-workers were (probably) out drinking in the bars, shoulda’-been spoiler Dan and I hung out on in Branchburg, New Jersey on National Night Out, downed cheap and tasty burgers whipped up for charity, enjoyed a summer night while the town selectmen battled the town cops on the softball field, and swapped running stories. What more could one ask for in life?