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Changing Seasons/Scoring Goals


The Kingston Fair Street 5k is advertised as a “flat and fast course” with the added advantages of being held in mid-November, when temperatures should be optimum, and at lunchtime, when some of us have finally got our adrenalin going for the day.

These attributes all worked in my favor yesterday, Sunday November 19, and enabled me finally, after five solid years of trying, to break the 20 minute barrier for a 5k. I’ve had a few close calls over this time, including some summer races in Prospect Park when the extreme heat and humidity took that all-important 20 seconds away from me, and a week-day race in downtown Manhattan when I clocked 19:50, only to learn the next morning that the NY Road Runners Club, hosts of the biggest Marathon in the world
, had mis-marked the course, falling 1/10th of a mile short of the 3.1 miles that equate 5 kilometers.

Through all this time, I’ve been getting older and, theoretically, slower. But I’ve also been getting more serious about this running game, with each of my five Marathons faster that the previous, while scoring a couple of PRs on the shorter races over this current calendar year. And whereas I raced in New York City primarily as training (or qualifying) for the Marathons, never really socializing with anyone or particularly enjoying the courses, I’ve been eagerly anticipating every event in the Catsksills, surprising myself by rising early so many weekend mornings, or taking a drive on weekday evenings, to race round lakes, over mountains, up and down trails, through villages and up and down the occasional big old town like Kingston.

In comparison to the New York City races, the races up here provide much smaller fields but, and maybe for that very reason, are much more competitive in nature. There are some seriously fit and fast people up here, a regular number of whom routinely leave me in the dust no matter how hard I try to keep up. Inevitably, over the course of a year’s regular competing, I’ve made good race-day friends with a number of runners right around my pace, and as much as we run against our own personal times, there’s a degree of good-natured satisfaction at finishing a few seconds ahead of each other on any given week.

I have to credit a couple of these friends for getting me over the finish line in time yesterday. I set off alongside Dan, who’s in my age group, who’s a touch faster than me most races, who knows the course well, and who reckoned to run an even 20-minute 5k. We ran fast together for the first mile but then he told me he wasn’t “feeling it” today and that I shouldn’t use him for pace. It was around that moment that Pat, a rabbit-like 55-year old with a silver beard, overtook me. Pat was a champion runner in his youth and is beyond my measure most occasions, but I knew I had to keep up with him if I wanted to meet my goal. The last half-mile was a tough one, even in such perfect conditions and on the flat streets of uptown Kingston, but the prospect of failing once more – and on the final race of the season – kept me going. When I checked my watch on the final corner, it said 19:37, Pat was fifty yards ahead of me, I couldn’t see the finish line and I thought I was doomed. A painful sprint later, the finish clock finally came into sight, but the second hand was blocked by trees; all I could see was 19:5x. I gave everything I had in the hope that it wasn’t already too late. It wasn’t: the clock came clearly into view with about six seconds to spare. I crossed the line in 19:56. Dan finished one place and five seconds behind me, thrilled for me that I’d gone ahead and got the better of him this one time to meet my goal.

In the grand scheme of things, this stuff is entirely irrelevant. A few seconds here and there doesn’t mean much in life and I’d be the first to stress that I run primarily to stay fit, and race as much for the camaraderie as for the competition. Indeed, yesterday as almost every race this year, I wasn’t even third in my age group; there’s a demographic bulge in these weekend races of males in their 40s and 50s and many of these regulars are full minutes ahead of me whatever the course or distance.

But that’s okay. The Fair Street 5k was the last run of the season. Now, apart from the temptation of the come-all Thanksgiving Day morning races that are common across America, it’s time to go back to jogging while waiting for snow to work its way down the mountains. The tips of the Catskills – those above 3,000 feet – were all sprinkled a delicate white this weekend as if with flour. The temperatures have dropped, and the snow-making machines on Hunter are finally at work, struggling (probably in vain) to meet the intended annual opening of Thanksgiving Weekend. Deer-hunting season also started this week, and on the drive home from Kingston, I found myself behind a pick-up truck on the back mountain road with a freshly-killed carcass for cargo. At the top of the painstakingly steep hill, there was a DEC Police roadblock waiting for us; I thought for a moment they were enforcing the road’s closing date of November 1 (widely ignorred this year because the main route up the mountain, Rte 23A, has been closed for repairs, in addition to which the weather has stayed thus far unseasonably warm). But then the hunters were pulled off for an inspection and I was waved ahead. Contrary to outside beliefs, hunting in the Catskill Forest Preserve is not quite as easy as buying a rifle from the local gas station and heading off into the woods to bag a bear or two; licenses and permits are required and the pick-up truckers ahead of me were in big trouble if they didn’t have theirs.

Me, I don’t feel the need to jump straight on the skis and you know I have no intention of shooting animals for sport. I’m looking forward to a few weeks off from competition and exertion, and maybe even a couple of weekends where I can be free with the wine over dinner knowing I have no need to get up early the next morning and compete, except to let Campbell thrash me once again on FIFA 2006. When I give thanks later this week, it will be to health and happiness – and the personal satisfaction of achieving a long-resistant goal before age finally rendered it impossible.

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