Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The Kelley/Ocean Beach Race

On Saturday morning I ran the John J. Kelley Ocean Beach 11.6-mile race in New London for the first time in many years. When I started to fill a notebook with my thoughts, the word count too fast exploded into the thousands. I’m not sure I’ll ever finish that essay, though I hope I will. At any rate, here’s the condensed version.

The Kelley race, 44 years old, is a little known national road-race classic, still no-entry-fee after all these years. What’s more, all runners get free admission (normally $16) to Ocean Beach Park with its sparkling beach on eastern Long Island Sound. And after the race, free soft drinks and clam chowder, not to mention a cooling dip in the calm Sound waters. I won the race a few times in the 1960s and 70s, when lots of good New England and New York runners came down to enjoy a day at the shore, but then moved to PA.

Before the start on Saturday morning, Kelley, who grew up in New London and still lives in nearby Mystic, made a brief but impassioned plea that his name be moved to second-billing, behind that of his wife Jess Kelley, who passed away three years ago. It seems likely to be adopted by the race committee, who loved Jess as much as any of us. After her death, I wrote a quick essay for the New London Day. For some reason, it’s at this web page.

In the old days, the Kelley race started at noon, like every other race on the New England road scene, and I remember racing it on days when the temp was literally higher than 100 degrees. Now we start earlier, and the horrid heat and humidity from the middle of last week had departed. It wasn’t a bad day for road running, and I decided to run at a comfortable 70 percent effort.

At three miles, we passed Patti Dillon and Tom Fleming manning a water stop. Patti, who now lives and runs in New London, was jumping up and down (as usual). Tom was quieter, back in the area for the first time since he won this race in 1973. Later in the day, Patti and Dan Dillon would host a backyard party at their place, where Dan talked happily about his strong 9th place raceday effort, behind a gaggle of teens and twenty-somethings, and Patti waxed on about a recent 150 mile training week, and Tom shook his head and muttered, “A hundred a fifty miles, what’s that about?” and remembered a year when he ran 2:14+ at Boston at 179 pounds. “I was just coming off an injury. I wasn’t fit at all, and I still ran 2:14.”

A mile later we passed the home where Jan Merrill grew up and often handed us water cups with the rest of her family. Anyone remember Merrill? She and the family weren’t there this year.

Then came the mile where I once looked in Norm Higgins's face—we were side by side far in front of everyone else, and running way too fast IMHO—and realized he was in a trance. His body was thrashing wildly, but his eyes were white and unfocused. I wanted none of this madness, so I backed off, and he beat me, even though I was young and fast at 24 and he was old and gray at like 35 or something. It was one of the more startling performances I’ve ever seen.

We passed the building where I had my first editorial job, where I ran to work with my clothes in a backpack, then filled a bucket of water, and poured it over my head in the woods out back. We passed the apartment where I lived after my Peace Corps days in El Salvador. One morning at 7 am, six months after my then-wife and I returned from El Salvador, the doorbell rang. It was two of the kids from Salvador, now illegal aliens in the U.S., wanting me to help them out somehow. That’s a really, really long tangent.

We passed the house near the 10-mile mark where I lived for five or six years, where my 3 year old daughter, dressed in coveralls and cute as a spring flower blossom, handed me a cup of water in midrace in 1983. It splashed everywhere. A newspaper photographer caught the moment, and it became my favorite personal running photo.

She’s waiting for me again, now 25, still with a water cup in her hand. I deliberately splash the water into the air, as a friend takes our picture. I hope it comes out and looks exactly the same, sorta, only different, from that photo of 23 years ago.

Things change, after all. But I try to keep the changes as minimal as possible. Returning to run the Kelley race seems to help.


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