Slow? No problem! Join the crowd at April 20th Old Mill Run

By Friends & Neighbors April 12, 2013 02:00
Bateman in earlier, faster years at Old Mill

Bateman in earlier, faster years at Columbia’s Old Mill Run

Running was my religion 30 years ago, and I went to church a lot.

Once I put in 150 days without missing a run. At my obsession’s peak, I’d log 70 miles a week, pounding pavement in rain, wind and searing heat. I was a regular at Columbia’s 10,000-meter Old Mill Run, whose starting gun will sound for the 34th time on April 20.

I read our cult’s bible, Jim Fixx’s “Complete Book of Running,” from cover to cover and over and over. Confronted by nonbelievers, I’d pull out my dog-eared CBR, and cite chapter and verse that proved running indeed was the one true faith.

But I made a key mistake: Being born 30 years too soon.

My best Old Mill time, 37:01, in 1980 earned me a third-place medal in the 30-39 division. It was the only hardware I ever collected.

Had I been born in 1976 instead of 30 years earlier, medals, ribbons, trophies and plaques would cover the walls of our family room. My 37:01 would have won six out of the past 10 Old Mills. Last year, it would have brought me to the finish line nearly five minutes ahead of winner Brian Forbes.

Keep in mind that I was but an also-runner in the 1970s and 1980s. I’d see Old Mill winners like Don Moses, Bradley Brown and Ken Danz for a minute or two, then lose sight of them well before the one-mile mark.

So what of their stratospheric times?

Well, some records were made to broken, but apparently not the Old Mill’s.

Moses’ 32:12 men’s mark, set in 1984, is now 29 years old. And Laurie Crisp’s 35:16 women’s record, posted two years later, is 27.  Both record holders were out-of-towners who ran in the Old Mill once and never returned.

As the two champions advanced through middle age (Moses, of LA, is now 55 and Crisp, a San Diegan, is 52), some 8,000 Old Mill Runners have taken a crack at their marks. Only a handful have come within two minutes, and in the past decade none have orbited within the same competitive solar system.

Anyone who wins the Old Mill deserves plenty of credit, but the truth is this:  The runners who show up in Columbia every April are slower than they used to be. Much slower.

Consider this: Forbes’ winning  2012 time of 41:47 would have put him at fiftieth – behind 45 men and four women – in the 1988 Old Mill. Last year’s women’s winner Brianna Willis (49:19), would have  finished behind 26 female competitors in ’88, and trailed first-place finisher Patti Scott-Baier by more than 11 minutes. That’s enough time for a latte and a reasonably intimate chat at Starbucks.

So what’s going on here? Are we turning in to a nation of slugs, grafted to iPhones, tablets, recliners, memory-foam mattresses and drive-up windows?

Or are we smarter, saving our knees, hips and hamstrings for upper middle age and beyond? Maybe the 20-something athletes of today have seen too many of us Running Boom veterans sidelined by pulled muscles and worn joints.

Or perhaps community and camaraderie, always hallmarks of the Old Mill, have replaced the desire to kick some rival’s ass in the 10K’s home stretch.

Community and camaraderie, indeed, will be plentiful at Old Mill XXXIV, which also includes a two-miler and a pair of kids’ races (check to register, or do so on race day).  Runners of all ages will again gather on Columbia’s Main Street on April 20, renewing old acquaintances, making new ones, and again testing themselves against the scenic 6.2-mile course.

But testing themselves against Don Moses or Laurie Crisp? Not gonna happen.

First off, young bucks physically capable of busting those hoary records just aren’t showing. Of 68 runners in last year’s 10K, only eight were in the 19-29 division. More than half (37), in contrast, were over 40.

Secondly, turnouts are far lower today than they were in the ‘80s, when more than 400 runners would routinely line up for the 10K.

Yes, the Running Boom is over. Jim Fixx’s gospel – that running alone could overcome all manner of dietary, health, and perhaps even moral shortcomings – was torpedoed by the heart attack that killed him during a 1984 training run.

Yes, our guru’s death brought glee to couch potatoes nationwide. But it also sounded the Boom’s death knell, and within years Kenyans were winning top marathons and disaffected American runners were turning to cycling, swimming, walking or Twilight Zone TV marathons.

So how can the Old Mill again be competitive?

The answer may be crass, but it’s clear: cash. Offer five grand to anyone who breaks the records, and I guarantee that Moses’ and Crisp’s marks would go on immediate life support.

Want larger Old Mill turnouts? Offer Benjamins to age-division winners and hold a cash drawing that any finisher can win, and Columbia would have to widen Main Street to accommodate the throngs.  Lured by a heady blend of greed and glory, runners from throughout Northern California would answer the call.

Until that happens, however, the medals-only, run-for-the-fun-of-it, old-fashioned Old Mill is as good as it gets. And if you want to feel virtuous as well as healthy, know that race proceeds help fund Tuolumne County’s annual Community Christmas Eve Dinner.

But what of that big-money plan to lure California’s best young runners back to Columbia?

“Maybe we’ll do it next year, to celebrate the 35th Old Mill,” said race organizer Cathie Peacock,
waxing wistfully.   columns-of-columns

All she needs is a sugar daddy willing to pony up about $10,000.

Want to donate 10 grand to a good cause? Contact Peacock at (209) 586-4802. Want to just walk, run or race through scenic Columbia on a glorious Saturday morning? Register online at (search for event by the keywords Old Mill), or register on race day in downtown Columbia.

Chris Bateman, 66, is a journalist based in Sonora, California, where over the past 40 years he has covered everything under the Sierra Nevada sun.

Copyright 2013, Friends and Neighbors Magazine

By Friends & Neighbors April 12, 2013 02:00
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  1. al April 12, 18:20

    Chris: You had me laughing my butt off again with this column. Great piece of writing, as per usual. Who can argue with you that CASH IS KING? With the Benjamins, as you say, at the finish line, those records would fall.

  2. Mary April 15, 20:12

    Good one, CL. I know some young ones but they seem to be running for pain and distance (marathons, iron man races, 100 milers.) Were we the only ones dumb enuf to run for fun? Ah, the good old days.

  3. Darren Holman April 19, 19:58

    I am game to help make it fast again in 2014, I miss the glory days of the Old Mill.

  4. Jim Prunetti April 21, 22:38

    That shot of you “in earlier, faster years…..”: My guess is it’s the 1979 race; am I right?

  5. Brianna April 22, 06:33

    Chris, my humility has skyrocketed and I owe you for that. I thought 46 minutes this year was “all right”, but not absolutely deplorable. The thought of someone having a latte-and possibly finishing it-before I even hit the finish line is horrific:-) I need to buy some new kicks and start training with the big dogs it seems. I must say, however, that it is sad to see the number of serious runners diminish, as they encourage the rest of us “run for funners” to run a little bit harder. Hopefully my generation hasn’t ruined that competitive spirit. I would like to add, however, (just to defend those of us who are competing against such ridiculously incredible times) that the course is quite different and much more taxing. When I first started running in the Old Mill, the flat terrain was encouraging. Now, those ominous hills and lack of shade-filled straightaways prove much more daunting and tiring. Just a side note.

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