On certain Friday afternoons in summer, it seems like half the cars in Boston head South to the Cape, half head North to New Hampshire and Maine, and half head West to the Berkshires, all of them clogging the arteries out of town, leaving the city as quiet as a school playground on the first day of summer vacation. At least that’s the way it felt to me last Friday, as I made my way slowly Northward on Route 128, bound for Lynn, of all places, and the first annual Lynn Parks and Recreation Department Summer 4 x 1-Mile Relay.
It wasn’t that I was worried about being late. I had left my office a little before 5:00 for a race that wasn’t scheduled to start until 7:00. Even in the heavy Friday traffic, it would take less than an hour from Burlington, assuming I didn’t get lost. My teammates were presumably already on their way — they had planned to meet at 4:30 in Lexington, so they were probably through the congestion by now. No, any agitation I felt was a mix of typical race anxiety combined with the novelty of the relay aspect and not wanting to let me team down.
It was an unusual choice, this relay, but it had seemed like a good idea when Terry, Kevin and I had kicked it around a couple of weeks earlier. For one thing, there was no entry fee, and for another, we could enter right up until race day. For another thing, Friday turned out to be a good day to do something hard. For about a month, Terry had been using Fridays to get in a hill or tempo workout, so the idea of a race on that night fit right in to his plans. finally, the three of us had all raced a mile at the beginning of June, so the distance didn’t seem too out-of-sync with recent training. There was the matter of finding a fourth runner, but on Tuesday night, Amory agreed to join us, and we were all set.
The biggest challenge, it would turn out, was dealing with the logistics of getting to Lynn. After lots of emails, it was decided that Terry, Kevin, and Amory would rendezvous in Lexington at 4:30 and carpool; meanwhile I would go solo from my office in Burlington. The plan depended (as so much does) on having understanding spouses, who would suffer us spending hours getting to and from some random race at the end of a long week, as well as arriving home late after it was all over.
Although it was a long way to go to run a mile, the truth is, there were a lot of things about this event that I found attractive. First and foremost was the chance to run on a team with my buddies; second, there was the chance to race on an outdoor track, something that I love but rarely get around to doing in the summer; third, it was a 4 x 1-Mile relay, an event that I’ve watched several times a coach, but never run myself; and fourth, there was the attraction of Lynn, itself, nearby but entirely unfamiliar.
Of course, there is the nursery rhyme that Boston-area infants hear before they can walk:
Trot, trot to Boston
Trot, trot to Lynn
Trot, trot to Newburyport
But don’t fall in!
And the rude poem — some residents of Lynn would call it a taunt — that everyone knows, even if they don’t know where they heard it:
Lynn, Lynn, city of sin
You never come out the way you came in
Ask for water they give you gin
The good people of Lynn resent this, of course, and from time to time try to refurbish their image. According to Wikipedia, In 1997, city solicitor Michael Barry proposed renaming the city to Ocean Park, prompting a new rhyme:
Ocean Park, Ocean Park
Don’t go out there after dark…
The proposal failed to pass.
I arrived around 6:00 pm and pulled into the parking lot behind the stands at Manning Field. There were only a handful of cars in the lot, and one or two folks who looked like they were there to run. I got out of the car, and changed quickly into my CSU colors. At this point, an older gentleman who seemed to be a local came up to me and observed that he had just seen four other folks from my club. For a moment I forgot that Kevin’s wife Mariani had also come along to watch and support us, and I wondered who my teammates had found to replace me. The older fellow turned out to be the race director. He seemed happy to see me, but I resisted the urge to ask him how many teams had entered. I guessed it wasn’t very many.
Inside the stadium, I found my buddies sitting in the stands. We compared notes on the traffic we had encountered, speculated on the competition, and passed the time until it was time to warm up.
We jogged a couple of miles on the track, and then split up again to use the bathrooms, or switch shoes, or do drills and strides. In the time we had been warming up, several other teams had arrived, so it looked like it would be a decent race after all. There were a couple of very young-looking high school teams, a serious looking team from the Somerville Road Runners, and some older groups.
I forgot to mention that Manning Field where we were running is right next to Fraser Field, a small baseball field with stands behind home plate and up the first and third base lines. Fraser Field is the home park of the minor minor league North Shore Navigators, and they happened to have a home game on Friday night. There didn’t seem to be a lot of people in the stands, but the stadium’s PA system boomed out a non-stop series of cheerful music numbers, culminating in John Fogerty’s “Centerfield” (“Put me in coach, I’m ready to play…today…“) just before the game got underway. It felt apt, somehow, to hear that song as we got ready to pass the baton around the track.
With dark clouds hovering just East of the stadium, the race director gathered the runners from 19 teams near the finish line to give last-minute instructions. I was happy to see that even though it was a 400-meter track, there were marks for the start and finish of each of the 1 mile legs. (Since 1 mile is ~1609.24 meters, this meant that the start of the race was 37 meters from the finish line.) Kevin lined up on the very outside, and after a few moments, the starter fired the gun, and the race was underway.
Kevin would say later that he held back to much, but he actually ran fairly even splits, perhaps giving a little bit too much respect to the high school kids who, of course, went out fast and then faded. In any case, Kevin moved patiently through the pack, and had taken over second place by the time he passed off to Amory. Up front, the Somerville team had opened a sizable gap on everyone else, but since they were an open men’s team and we were a co-ed master’s team, we ignored them.
On the second leg, Amory had the disadvantage of running all four laps without anyone to pace or chase. In spite of her pre-race nervousness about her mile fitness, she ran extremely even and successful splits, and when she handed off to me, she had lengthened our lead over third place to about 10-15 seconds.
I took the baton from Amory and tried to find a good pace, but couldn’t figure out how hard to run. By this point, there were flashes of lightning in the sky to the Southeast, and the wind had picked up considerably on the backstretch. I tried to push, but felt like I was stuck in a not-very-fast gear. The baton felt awkward in my hand. After a couple of laps, I had a sudden thought that with 800 to go, I ought to be hurting a lot more than I was. I tried to accelerate, but my body didn’t seem to know how. Third lap down, and into the fourth lap and the backstretch and I was picking it up a bit, but I also became aware of footsteps closing in on me. It was one of the high school teams, and I realized I was going to get caught. Cursing my slow early pace, I tried to pick it up again, but the youngster blew by me on the final turn, and although I limited the damage, I was at least a couple of seconds behind him when I passed off to Terry.
Terry did an admirable job keeping the race close, trailing the high school stud in second for three laps without either one of them gaining or losing more than a second. Terry kicked hard in the final lap, but the kid had saved something and wouldn’t be caught. Terry had, at least, made the kid work for it.
So we were third overall, including first masters team and first co-ed team. We cooled down together, hearing thunder rumbling not too far away. There there was a little awards ceremony under the stands at which the race director mis-pronounced virtually every name, and at which we received our blue ribbons for our age group win.
It had taken hours to get there, and would take another hour to get home. Each of us had run for around five minutes. Kevin remarked about this, and I mused on athletes who travel many hours to get to a meet where they run for 12 seconds, or take three long jumps (all fouls), and that’s it. Track and field is a strange sport, sometimes.
But on my drive home, a gritty route chosen for me by my GPS, I mused on how much fun it had been.
It’s hard for middle-aged adults to spend so much time on such a frivolous activity without checking our watches and wondering whether we shouldn’t be doing something more productive. That’s the curse of middle age, of always having something that seems more important to be doing. It seems to me it’s the privilege of youth not to be always worrying about wasting time. Having so much of it ahead of them, teenagers like the one who blew my doors off in the race delight in wasting time, it’s one of the chief pleasures of being young.
But spending the better part of an afternoon and evening on this goofy race was really fun. Warming up and competing with Kevin, Amory, and Terry was really fun. To paraphrase Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, it is the time that we waste with our running buddies that makes our running buddies so important to us. We had made it to the race, we had competed well, and we hadn’t been struck by lightning. I looked down and noticed that 69-cent blue ribbon sitting there on the car seat beside me.
It had been a good night.