We left from Batavia at 5:00 a.m. to run the Rockford 10k.The drive from Batavia takes about an hour. Of course, we did not anticipate that the entire exit ramp to I-39 into Rockford would be closed for repairs. Nor did we figure that the entire the south side of downtown Rockford would be blocked for construction.
So we tried to follow directions from the online traffic app we use, but to little use. The app lady kept telling us to turn down streets where six foot high barriers blocked our way.
And it was 6:20 a.m. The race started at 7:00.
At one point I spun the car around in a U-turn and spied a literal dirt road through the middle of an abandoned block south. It would take us to the street we wanted to reach. Sue protested, “No honey!” But I had spun the wheel around and was just about to go four-wheeling in my Subaru Outback when a groundhog emerged out of a city drain and trundled across our path. He was a sorry-looking beast with an ass that appeared to drag on the ground. It was pretty clear he’d been run over a few times in his recent history.
“Well, follow the groundhog,” she said.
And that made me laugh. A lot.
As it turned out, we turned the corner two blocks up and parked right next to the registration tent. It was a two-block jog up to the start and we had plenty of time to warm up.
That’s when I remembered the race was being staged by a company called Special Events Management. Their CEO is a guy named Hank Zemola. He and I go way back to the 1980s when he was starting his company and I was racing every other week. We’d often see each other and say hello. I don’t know that I ever won a race staged by his company, because they work big, putting on major events including city festivals as well as races. I walked by Hank and gave him a slap on the back. We smiled and said hello. Long acquaintances are always interesting.
At one point I was marketing manager for a big newspaper and culled together some money to sponsor a new cycling event in Elgin, Illinois. Hank’s company staged the race, which featured a road-style course as well as a criterium-based circuit for in-line skating. That was all the rage in the early 2000s. I don’t know what happened since. Perhaps there were so many crashes and so much road rash the sport was banned by Urgent Care centers.
In 2001 when we sponsored that race, I was not yet a serious cyclist but learned quite a bit about the sport. I thought the promotional value of bringing an event of that scale to a city reinventing itself was a nice proposition. Still, as an experiment, I brought my Trek 400 to the race and entered one of the cycling stages. Within four blocks I was dropped from the pack and rode the race alone. That was what you call a true learning experience.
Echoes of speed
It’s funny how so many memories can converge in one place. As I stood on the starting line for the start of the Rockford 10K, a young woman popped up next to me. I’d seen her warming up and turned to Sue and said, “That’s who will win the women’s race.” And I was right. Her name is Madeline Westoff, and she zipped to a 38:00 winning time in the women’s division. She runs for Butler University in Indiana.
The men’s winner in the 10K was a recent graduate of Loyola University in Chicago. Nicholas Miller ran 31:56 to break the course record formerly held by Ryan Giuliani. It was his first real road race after competing in track and cross country in college. I remember that feeling well. I was Nicholas Miller at one point in life, wondering whether my running ability was enough to get me into the Olympic Trials at some point. That was not to be, and the dreams of the sub-elite are often Quixotic. I wish the young man well.
Following the finish of both the 10k and Half Marathon, I noticed a runner sitting on a picnic table with his manager. The runner was Eliud Too, a Kenyan distance runner that had flown in the previous day to compete in the Half Marathon. He won easily and earned a $500 paycheck. Now he is scheduled to run in other events in North America. I talked with his trainer and manager, who shared the fact that Eliud had previously won the Dublin Marathon. “We called to ask if he could be admitted as an Elite runner, but they told me their field was full. So I said, ‘Well, is it okay if we buy an entry?’ And we didn’t hear back. So we entered, and Eluid won.” Something in me loves a story like that. The seeming underdog pulls out the victory.
Or a groundhog emerges from a city drain to act like an omen in finding your way to the start of the race on time. Life is full of strange fortunes and reminders of the person we once were, or the places we want to be. When all else fails, follow the groundhog.
As for our races, Sue nearly took third in her age group. I managed third in the Master’s category. The Rockford race course is absolutely beautiful. Flat and smooth. Follows the river up and back. We’ll be back next year for sure.
Like Groundhog Day.