I’m not a particularly good runner. Many people assume I can run well because I write novels that include some distance running, but that logic is a bit skewed. If being able to effectively write about performing a task was the same as actually being able to do it well, history would be full of authors with some troubling skill sets. Fyodor Dostoevsky would have been walking around Russia murdering people with an axe (although escaping detection would not have been his strong suit), Vince Flynn would have been taking trips abroad to kill terrorists, before heading back to his quiet home in Minnesota. And while Stephen King might normally be a hoot at birthday parties, the whole conjuring up Pennywise the clown thing would be a big downer for the kids.
So while I can run further and faster than some people, I’ve always been a middle-of-the-pack guy regardless of if I was running a marathon or a 5K. But my mediocrity didn’t stop me from fantasizing about taking home one particular prize. While some runners have dreams about winning races and taking home prize money, I never have. The elite runners out there shoot for endorsement deals that will help finance their pulse-racing habit, but not I. No, no, no. For years I pursued something less celebrated, yet nearly impossible to obtain. My white whale was not a marathon victory. It was the always-elusive age group medal.
You see, in most races the top three finishers in a gender-separated age group win a medal. It’s a nice way to allow runners close to the same age and gender to compete against each other. Several years ago, when I first got involved with the sport of distance running, I realized I would probably never have a shot at winning one of these medals for any distance longer than a 10K (6.2 miles). Then, I trained for speed, ran a few 10K races, and decided I would probably never have a shot at winning one of these medals for any distance longer than a 5K (3.1 miles). Then, after a few poor showings, I finished 6th in my age group at a mid-sized 5K race. With a new dose of confidence, my brain said, “Game on!” I had decided I was going to win a 5K age group medal.
I signed up for more races and did all I could to become a speeding bullet on the charity 5K circuit. I lost weight, I ate better, and I bought new shoes that just HAD to make me faster. I was invested in this pursuit. Not only that, but I had recently turned 35 years-old, which means I was now on the younger side of the 35-39 year-old age group. The stars were aligning… until they weren’t.
I showed up to race after race and the gods of middle-age/middle-distance running conspired against me. Some race organizers, who must have seen that I was certain to dominate, fixed the races by allowing too many other people my age to enter. By doing this, they intentionally lowered my odds of getting a medal. While they didn’t technically break any rules by allowing these individuals to compete, I think it’s obvious that the fix was in. In spite of this, I ran a series of races around Pittsburgh and repeatedly fell between 4th and 6th in the men’s 30-39 age group. In one race, I achieved a personal record (PR) and still managed to come in 4th. To make matters worse, I was nearly beaten across the line by a 4’10”, 12 year-old girl named Mandy. I should have demanded she be drug tested after the race, but I let it go.
Some race organizers took a different route in plotting against me by placing large hills on the course. Many of the hills were steep and made me tired. I didn’t like that. Other organizers, expanded the five-year age group categories into ridiculous ten-year spans, meaning I was now competing with all of those between the ages of 30-49. Lunacy! I tried to ignore their animosity toward me, but again finished just outside the top three in these races. With all of these race organizers (who acted as if they didn’t know who I was) working against me, I decided it was time to take the show on the road. I decided the war would be won in Cincinnati.
This time, I did my research. The course was flat, the entry numbers low, and the age group narrow. The weather that morning was going to be perfect and my mind was right. I woke up early and just knew it was going to be my day. There was no doubt in my mind that 22-25 minutes after that starting pistol fired, I was going to be one of the few age group medal winners. I laced up my shoes, grabbed my gear, and headed out toward my destiny.
As I lined up for the start, I was determined to put on a show that the 17 roaring spectators standing in the parking lot of the Coney Island Amusement Park would remember for hours. In the seconds before the start of the race, I put on my Full Metal Jacket war face and then I went to work. 22 minutes and 16 seconds later, I flashed across the finish line having left it all out on the course. During that final stretch, I had actually been able to count the male runners, of varying ages, ahead of me. There had been eight. Only eight. When the results were posted, I stared at the printout taped to the wall of a trailer. Of the eight men who had been ahead of me, three were in my age group. I had run my second best 5K time ever and finished 4th in my age group – again. That was in dark year of 2012.
Fast forward to April 2013. I was no longer “fast” and had all but given up my quest for the average runner’s Lost Ark. I was promoting my new book by helping to sponsor a local 5K race north of Pittsburgh. I decided to run the race, but I knew I wouldn’t be very fast. For the previous week, the weather had been unseasonably warm for April, meaning the turnout for the race would likely be huge. This meant I would end up buried in my age group, which for this race was the Grand Canyon expanse of 30-39. Even a top ten age group finish was unlikely.
I awoke early the morning of the race and opened the blinds on a window. My eyes widened at what lay before me. It was snow. Not just snow… a LOT of snow. It looked like a freak’n spring blizzard and the white stuff was still tumbling out of the sky. I stared in disbelief and wondered if the race would be cancelled. After sliding my car like a bobsled to the local park where the race was to be held, I learned they were going to go through with the 5K. However, the herd had been thinned by the unexpected snow and only a scattering of runners milled about in the minutes leading up to the designated start time. Most of those who had entered had opted to stay in bed and let the nutcases run the race.
The April 2013 5K course as I remember it.
I’m not a particularly good runner. I think I mentioned that. On that snowy day in April 2013, I still wasn’t a particularly good runner. But, on that day I showed up and I competed. I plodded through a 24+ minute finish and tried not to freeze while waiting for the awards to be announced. A copy of my first novel was being awarded as a one of the prizes, and I was supposed to stick around and sign it for the winner. Then they called my name, but not to come up and sign the book. They called me up to accept an age group medal. My frozen hand took the medal and I draped it over my chilled neck. I turned to the seven or eight people who remained and I proudly sported the gleaming circle engraved with a giant “2” in the center. That’s right. For that one day in April, I was deemed to be Number 2 and I shoved aside the numerous bathroom jokes that flew through my mind. I had my medal.
Throughout this journey, I learned three things:
- Measuring your own performance against others is often a losing battle. There are too many variables that are out of your control. There is nothing wrong with competing against others, as long as you keep it in perspective.
- The way you ultimately “win” is by continuing to show up even when others may think you are crazy.
- Even when you think you are at your very best in a race, there is likely some 12 year-old girl who thinks you look pretty silly as you panic to beat her across the line. And you know what? She’s probably right.
Have you ever won and age group medal? Do you want to?
J.J. Hensley is the author of RESOLVE, which is set against the backdrop of the Pittsburgh Marathon, and Measure Twice. He is a former police officer and former Special Agent with the U.S. Secret Service.
RESOLVE has been named a finalist for Best First Novel by the International Thriller Writers organization.
RESOLVE was named one of the Best Books of 2013 by Suspense Magazine.