By Rich Stiller
I won my first race in 1977, and I’m not talking about some backwater fun run put on by the local PTA. This was a big event. Well, okay, maybe medium sized. In any case there were close to a thousand runners spread out between the 5 and 10k.
Both races started at the same time. Unless you squinted really closely at another runner’s number, you couldn’t tell who was running which race. I signed up for the 5k, a one loop course. The 10k runners went on and repeated the same loop. Simple Simon, I thought to myself.
When the gun smoked, a small pack of a dozen runners quickly distinguished themselves from the rest of the field. I was at the back of that pack. As we ran along, two runners gradually moved ahead of everyone else. One by one the trailing group fell off and after a mile and a half I was alone in third place. Not knowing if these two guys were in the 5 or 10k, I decided to see if I could close on them. I threw in one long sustained surge and suddenly found myself five yards behind them. One more mini-surge at the two mile point brought me up even.
I looked over and almost choked. I saw Brian Maxwell and Ron Wayne, two of the best runners in California. They were both world ranked marathoners. Maxwell would later go on to found PowerBar.
What in the hell was I doing up them?
Maxwell, like me, was garrulous. He asked me my name, mid-race mind you, and introduced both himself and Wayne. He made it plain right up front that they were running the longer race at tempo pace. Since they were both 28-29 minute 10k guys, I figured as much. After all we were on pace for a low 32 minute 10k. I admitted that I was aiming for the 5k.
As we ran along Brian glanced back. “No runners close by, Speedy,” he announced. “I think the 5k is yours.”
Strangely, even though I was on PR pace, as long as I ran with them my effort felt like a hard tempo run and not a race. I knew I was racing but I simply did not want to breathe like a rabid dog in their presence. I must have done a good job of it because afterwards Maxwell told me that I sounded like I could go a lot faster. Maybe I could have, but I was grooved in the moment, enjoying my time with the big boys. Enjoying the journey to winning my first race.
As we came by the end of the first loop I waved good-bye and angled into the chute.
I had won! My time was 16:08.
I cooled down coming back to the finish in time to see Maxwell and Wayne win the 10k in the low 32:00s.
At the trophy ceremony, I was awarded 5th place. I had failed to read the fine print on the entry form. The race director was using a new method for tabulating finishing times. Age grading. Ugh. What was that? I sucked it up, kept my mouth shut, and vowed never to run this race again.
Two years later I received a flyer for the race in my mailbox. I looked at the entry form. I liked the course but not the handicapping. There was a phone number on the form. I called the race director. I straight out asked him if the race was going to be age graded.
“Oh, no!” he said. “That didn’t go over very big. Also we’re only having a 5k.”
I signed up. I wanted to break 16:00 on that course. No hobnobbing with the greats this time around. So, I came back and ran the race I swore never to enter again.
Once again, a thousand runners showed up. Once again, I went out with the leaders. The pack was big, but one by one the competition dropped off the pace and by halfway it was just me and two college runners. As we approached the finish I downshifted and nipped them both. My time was 15:46. They both clocked 15:47.
This time I had clearly won.
As I walked down the chute people working the race congratulated me. The race director came over to shake my sweaty hand. I explained to him that I wouldn’t be at the awards ceremony but that a friend would pick up my trophy. That night a local TV channel showed a clip of me winning. They mentioned my name. The next day at work I’m mobbed.
A week later I rendezvoused with my friend. He handed me the trophy…for…third place. “I thought you said you won,” he said.
When the results came out the two college runners were shown tying for the victory at 15:37 and I was shown in third at 15:46.
I called the race director. “Uh, sorry,” he stammered. To his credit, he sent me a new trophy. It’s nice, but the engraving didn’t mention my place. Yet, officially in the results, I’m forever relegated to third place. Of all the medals and trophies I won over the years, it’s the only one I still have. It reminds me that sometimes you win, but someone else gets the credit.
Sometimes the cheetah makes the kill, but the lion comes over and takes it away. It’s a good life lesson, I guess. I never won a big race outright again. Ω
Rich Stiller has been running and racing since 1968. This article originally appeared in the Nov/Dec issue (#29) of Level Renner. Not a subscriber? Click here to easily get on the list so you get your free copy when it comes out!