FANFARE FOR THE COMMON MAN
So: What is the purpose of the existence of all the hundreds – if not thousands – of Turkey Trots across the country every Thanksgiving Day? I’ll tell you. It’s so people like with me, with merely above average speed, can go run a race in a place where everyone else present in your age group might be slower than you are. In short: It’s the only real chance I have all year to win a medal! Not a pat-on-the-back, “You Finished” medal, but a real, bonafide, you’re-a-winner-and-you-get-a-medal-to-show-it Medal. The competition is just a little thinner at most of those small town Trots. The events are maybe aimed more at getting people off the couch for the first time for some exercise as a family. This is a fantastic goal, of course, but it also has the delicious side effect of making me look like Usain Bolt for a day by comparison!
This was my third Thanksgiving Turkey Trot in a row. I still can’t win the whole race - not a chance. (I did mention that I'm just a little better than average, didn't I?) But the Age Group Awards are ripe for the plucking! I succeeded in ’06, taking home a 2nd place award (M30-39). That was the first time I’d ever placed in a foot race. Last year, in ’07, it didn’t work out as well. I finished 3rd in my division, but the event only handed out medals to the top two finishers. (Foiled!)
This year I’m back in Burgettstown, Pennsylvania, outside of Pittsburgh, where my sister lives with my brother-in-law. This is where I got my 2nd place medal two years ago, so I came in optimistic. My girlfriend drove out with me and my parents drove up from Georgia and we all joined my sister’s in-laws for the holiday feast later in the afternoon.
I didn’t come planning to run two years ago. I’d driven in on Wednesday night, with just my running reputation preceding me, and my brother-in-law asked me in the first 30 minutes, “So are you going to run the Turkey Trot in the morning?” What? A race? Here? Tomorrow? Well, heck yeah! Why not? I ran well. Not only did I place, I also turned in my 2nd fastest 5K to that point.
This year I got bad news before the race – my age group had been expanded from just 30 - 39 year-olds to 21 - 39 year-olds! Noooooooo! Apparently the folks staging the race had, after 15 years, clued in to the fact that both the 20s and 30s age groups always had just about 15 people in each (2 years ago, when I took second, there were only 8 of us – but, shhhh, don’t tell anybody.) SO, this year, for the first time, they had combined the two groups into one.
A quick peek at the ’07 race results showed me at least 4 people who would now be in my division that ran faster than I could, three of them with sub-20s. Uh-oh. No way I was gonna be breaking 20 minutes. Well, nothing to do but show up and run and see what might happen. Because I was really just running for the joy and the fun of it, right? (Nope. Not a chance. I wanted a MEDAL.)
THE TOWN O’ BURGETT
Burgettstown ain’t big – there’s a main road through town and an older road that runs just above it and winds through the businesses and homes there. The race route is a simple out and back that starts at the high school up on one of the hills that overlooks the town, runs down the hill on Bavington Road, then along the older road that parallels the SR, to the parking lot of the Family Dollar, and then doubles back on itself to finish back up at the high school.
The thing is, that hill the high school sits on top of? Not really just a "hill". It’s about a 500 foot rise in only 3/4th or maybe 2/3rd of a mile. What is that, like a 7% gradient? OH MY. And, of course, it starts out gentle and just gets steeper and steeper the closer you get to the finish line. Holy Crapioca! Of course, the start is great. It’s kind of like a box car derby; you just roll down the hill. Then at the end when you’re already on your last legs… Well, you get the picture.
SLIDIN’ & GLIDIN’
It was still frigidly frigid outside about an hour before race time, but by 9 am, the air had warmed a little in the sunlight. They blew the starter pistol right after 9, but they were so subtle about it that most of the runners would have missed it if I and a handful of others hadn’t started calling out to all the runners that the gun was about to go off.
There were just a few patches of ice on the high school driveway. A boy running just in front of me (12 years old?) stepped right into one, slid, lost his balance, tried to get it back, couldn’t find his feet, and finally went to the ground head and hands first. But he popped right back up again and kept going, and when I asked, he said, “I’m fine.”
I coasted down Bavington Road Hill, just trying to keep my feet under me as I went. Soon, my shins started throbbing from my feet pounding down the incline with such speed and force. My family was waiting for me on a side street near the bottom of the hill. They waved and cheered and snapped photos as I blew by.
Then it was down into the town along the (far gentler) rolling hills of Main Street. My eyes were watering a little in the cold air and I was running into the sun, so I almost missed the “1 mile” marker on a small, orange piece of poster board stapled to a telephone pole. I hit the split button on my watch and was not surprised to look down and see it say 6:30. That would be – yes – the fastest mile of my life. (I grant a major assist to the HILL.)
I figured I should just push as much as I could through the next mile and a quarter until I got back around to the foot of the Hill, and then we’d see what happened. I still felt pretty good, but I didn’t have a strong sense of how fast I was moving. I was, however, passing a number of people. Had been since we’d come down off the Hill in the first mile. People started slowing down, especially some of the younger runners. Mentally it was a good thing to focus on. Just trying to keep my turnover rate quick and strong, and catching and passing runners one by one.
We got to the turnaround at the Family Dollar and I grabbed a cup of water there at the only aid station on the course. I had a hint of a side stitch in the previous half mile, and I decided a sip of water couldn’t hurt. I didn’t notice the stitch again after that, so maybe it worked.
Out and backs can be cool because you get to see all the other runners coming and going, too. There weren’t that many runners in front of me, as it turned out. I still felt powerful and allowed myself to show off a bit as I ran past all the folks behind me. I focused on my form, kept my back straight, my head up, my hips centered, and my turnover rapid, strutting my way back by those behind me. I hit my split as I ran by the 2 Mile marker and looked down. This time I was genuinely surprised to see it say 6:48, a very fast 2nd mile for me. How ‘bout that? And over the rolling hills of downtown, too.
So, with just over a mile to go, the big obstacle I had left was Bavington Road Hill, but it wasn’t the only obstacle. I was on my way over a little rise just after the 2nd mile, and looked up to see the walkers coming over the hill toward me and spread across the entire road with no room for incoming runners – namely, me – to go by on the right. I kept thinking the teenagers in my way would notice me looming and stand aside, but I finally had to yell ahead at them to get out of my way. (They heeded my kindly advice.)
We had to cross back over the SR 18 to get to Bavington Road. The local police hadn’t just stopped traffic, they had pulled their squad cars across the highway and formed a roadblock. This is a relatively significant little local highway connecting a lot of towns on the far side of Pittsburgh. With all the walkers making their way slowly around the course and the runners already heading back up to the finish, it was going to be, I’d guess, a minimum of 45 minutes that the road was closed. I heard after the race that the traffic was backed up for miles. Oh, well! Happy Thanksgiving!
THE HE… uh, HILL
The runners in front of and behind me were pretty spread out at this point, but I was still catching and passing them. We started in up the Hill and I could see three high school boys ahead. I used each of them to pull me up the monster. Focus on one, reel him in, move past and turn focus to the next one.
I didn’t have the sense that anyone was moving up behind me, and I couldn’t see anyone but much younger males in front of me, so, my division place finish seemed pretty set. I could have eased off just a touch, but that 6:48 second mile split had really excited me. What kind of a finish time could I end up with? Could I possibly turn in a PR today? My previous best came at the Ravenswood Run in Chicago a year and a half ago, when I finished in 22:02. The first two miles had me in good position to better that time. Could I just hang on and push through this final, brutal uphill?
I caught the third kid and finally (finally!), and made the turn up into the BHS driveway. I really felt like my lungs were ready to explode. There was still a little bit of hill left to climb on the driveway before the elevation finally evened out. It seemed like I could barely walk up that last crest. I knew, logically, that I was moving better than that, but my lungs kept sending pessimistic memos. That last kid I’d caught dug in and tied onto me when I went past him, and when we could finally see the final straightaway, he moved back by me and led me into the finish chute. He was the only person who passed me in the whole race.
My family was waiting in the lot near the finish line to cheer me in, but all I could see for that last 80 yards was the official race clock waiting at the finish line. It read something just over 21 minutes when I first spied it, but the seconds were ticking by far too quickly. I tried to find some kind of finish kick, but found that I’d used it all up on Bavington Hill. Tick, tick, tick rolled the seconds ever closer to the 22 minute mark. I could barely think straight about anything else as I pushed across the line and hit the stop on my watch. “21:59” Well, that was good news, but highly unofficial.
I got in line in the chute behind the kid who’d come back on me and waited while the volunteers pulled the tag off my bib and gave me a little finish ticket that said “25”, my overall finish place. I shuffled my way over to where my family was standing and got my hugs. One of the race officials overheard me wondering aloud what my official time was and looked it up on his handheld counter using my finish place – “21:59”, he told me. Woohoo! So it was real: a new PR by 3 seconds and my first time ever breaking 22 minutes. Not too bad at all.
Now, I just needed to wait and see how I’d managed to place. My dad and I walked over to the posting boards and found the column for my division. Shortly after that the volunteers added two more bib tags to the two that were already up. But neither of the tags were mine. The overall finish places had been written on each tag with a Sharpie. The top tag read “11” and on the second was “15”, but the third tag that went up said “33”. Well that couldn’t have been right. If I was 25th, then my tag should be ahead of that tag and in 3rd place, right? Maybe I’d misunderstood what the Sharpie numbers were. I asked one of the men posting tags. “Yeah, that’s your overall finish placement,” he answered. So, yep, my tag should have been up there in 3rd place.
Did I mention how important the MEDAL was to me at this race? (Yes, yes, I’m a silly, silly man, but I need my glory in the few places that it’s available to me.)
Luckily, I had that little finish ticket that said “25” on it, so I got the volunteers’ attention and showed it to them, explaining my concern. They believed me without any exasperation, and one went back over to the finish line to look for my tag. When he came back he said it was gone, but the RD would be over in a minute, and I could show him my finish ticket. That would likely get everything straightened out. The RD is also the BHS cross country coach. He was very amicable and promised we’d clarify everything before the awards ceremony. Then they made a little note about my bib number on the leader board with a ball point pen. By this time, a lot of the participants were finishing their race, but the volunteers were having a difficult time collecting bib tags fast enough. A line had formed of runners and walkers waiting on the wrong side of the finish line to be allowed to cross and be recorded. The volunteers all, clearly, had bigger problems than mine to deal with, so I left them alone with a sincere “Thank You.”
My family and I strolled inside the gym and found some seats for ourselves on the bleachers. They didn’t make us all wait too long before they started handing out door prizes in the raffle. The majority of the prizes were food stuffs that had been cooked and prepared with the runners’ upcoming Thanksgiving dinners in mind. So, my mom was far more excited about me winning one than I was. I promised to let her come up to the table with me and pick out the dish she wanted if my number got called, but it didn’t.
When I saw the volunteers bringing the leader boards back inside, I knew that the award presentations would begin soon. So, I grabbed my bib and finisher ticket and walked over to where they were hooking up the computer with all the data in it, to talk to the RD again. I just felt like it would be easier to iron it all out before the names were called and the awards distributed. (After that it could be a little awkward – rearranging placements, taking a medal away from someone who it had already been handed to, or having to find an extra medal to give out, etc.) The RD didn’t really have any doubts, so he rewrote the top four names in my division with me in the 3rd slot. So, it was done. (Yea!) And when the final announcement was made I went back up one more time to be handed my medal at last. (Double Yea!).
My dad noted that the two guys who finished ahead of me were clearly far younger than I, and if the age division hadn’t been changed, I would have been first. But that’s OK, it’ll happen eventually. I’m already clearing my calendar for Thanksgiving Day 2028, so I can come back and win the 50 & Over division and take home a first place medal at last.