Running With the ’Lopes: Fast Times Indeed
By Doug Carroll
Let me tell you what it’s like to be 54 years old and running in a footrace with highly trained college athletes.
It’s like riding a bicycle in the Indianapolis 500. It’s like being a cinnamon roll in a health-food store. It’s both a megadose of humility and a profound statement on the irreversibility of the aging process.
A few weeks ago, GCU’s cross country coach, Kim Sims, mentioned that recreational runners could enter the Oct. 9 GCU Invitational meet in Tempe for a measly 10 bucks. Kim knew that I consider myself a runner — please, don’t ever say jogger — and I might be interested.I was. There are precious few opportunities for Walter Mittys like me to participate alongside Antelope athletes. For 10 dollars, I could be in the same eight-kilometer (five-mile) race with guys cranking out five-minute miles. Awesome.
Russ Pennell never would be allowed to put me in a basketball game, nor would he ever want to, but here I was, being invited to run in a GCU cross country meet by our team’s coach.
My enthusiasm wasn’t shared by all.
“I’m not sure this is such a good idea,” cautioned one of my best friends, a former cross country runner. “They’ll be back in the dorms, watching TV, before you even finish.”
In more than 20 years of running, I’ve entered dozens of road races and have completed a marathon and a few half-marathons. Always, my goals were modest:
- Don’t get passed by elderly men wearing black socks.
- Don’t get passed by mothers pushing baby strollers.
- Don’t finish last.
The first two of these have long since gone by the wayside. But going into last Saturday’s meet at Evelyn Hallman Park, near Papago Park, I had yet to bring up the rear. My record was perfect.
Imagine my concern, then, when I showed up to the race and laid eyes on a few dozen lean, college-age greyhounds — without a middle-age slowpoke in sight. As far as I could tell, I would be the only non-collegian.
Clearly, Goal No. 3 was in jeopardy, and I began fashioning some excuses in my mind: Distance was too long; distance was too short; midmorning sun was too intense; pulled a muscle; got food poisoning the night before; didn’t hydrate adequately; still traumatized by massive hailstorm that hit campus (never mind that I wasn’t on campus when it happened).
On the starting line, I stuck out like Paris Hilton at Chapel. Sophomore Nate Corrigan, one of GCU’s runners, took pity on me and said, “Hey, I’m not too fast. I’ll run with you.”
“Well, I’ll be running nine-minute miles — if I’m lucky,” I told him.
“OK, then maybe not,” Nate said, moving away as if I had a contagious illness.
The horn went off, and so did the rest of the field. I mean, they were outta there, stirring up a cloud of dust the way the Roadrunner did in the old cartoons. There would be no catching even the slowest of them. (Whoever that guy happened to be, he could go on a cheeseburger diet for the rest of his life and still beat me.)
After a mile, the only sounds were my labored breathing and the crunching of gravel by the wheels of the golf cart following the last runner.
Then a strange thing happened between the second and third miles. With the rest of the field clean out of sight and no course marshals to direct me, I inadvertently made a wrong turn, trimming at least a mile off the route.
Suddenly, I was ahead of runners I had never passed — and thoroughly embarrassed by this development. I wasn’t going to finish last this way, but I also had not run the course correctly. They had done so, and I would be seen as a cheat.
“It’s not what it looks like!” I called out to Kim Sims as I approached the finish line ahead of several other runners. “I’m actually in last place!”
“Just take another lap around the pond!” she said, probably wondering why she ever told me about the race in the first place.
I veered off and did as I was told — proving that I am indeed coachable — and still finished ahead of a few runners. But if I had been competing for one of the teams in the meet, I would have been disqualified for my shortcut and subjected to a public shaming or worse.
Athletic Director Keith Baker congratulated me at the finish, thinking I had scored a moral victory for the over-the-hill set, but I knew the truth and could think only of the runners behind me, beaten by a fraud more than twice as old as they were. I just wanted to go home with my wife, who seemed a little too amused by what had transpired.
Instead, I stuck around for a bit. Runners of all shades, sizes and schools were enjoying the afterglow of their morning’s work, socializing as athletes do. When the competition is over, walls come down and bonds are formed. The easy camaraderie is something to behold, and it’s life-affirming. It’s the very best of college athletics.
That scene was a keeper, even if the race itself wasn’t. But let the record show that I didn’t get passed by anyone in black socks or pushing a baby stroller.
In fact, it dawned on me that when you’re in last place the entire way, running all by your lonesome, you don’t get passed at all.
Contact Doug Carroll at 639.8011 or at email@example.com.