By Joanna Harper
I just returned from San Diego where I had another memorable race, with a fun weekend thrown in; or was it the other way around?
Over the last few years, Team Red Lizard has been building up a strong cadre of master’s women, and we have had some notable successes in national cross country competitions, capped by our winning two team medals in last year’s club nationals. All of our team medals, however, have come in the friendly environment of the Pacific Northwest. This year I hoped we could change that.
I contacted all of the mature women who had previously run over hill and dale for our club, and I asked them if they had any interest in going to San Diego for the master’s cross country race or to Lexington for clubs. The overwhelming favorite choice was to go to San Diego, as it was closer, cheaper, a better travel destination, better weather, and two of our women have daughters living in the city. Even still, only four of these women eventually wound up making the trip.
This left us with somewhat of a dilemma that requires a little background information to understand. Master’s women’s cross country teams consist of three members, and are scored based on ten year age divisions. Women can run for team divisions less than their age, but not greater. With two of our women in their fifties and two in their sixties, we could all run in the fifty team race, but understandably, our sexagenarian women wanted to run for the title in their own age group.
And thus it happened that Jeannie Groesz contacted a sprinter friend of hers named Betty Schaefer, and asked if she would run. Betty had only raced longer than 800 twice in her life, and had never run a cross country race; but after some persuasion was convinced to go. It didn’t hurt that she would be in Palm Desert prior to the meet, and would have a relatively short drive to get there. Meanwhile Betsy Seth and I tried to get another runner to join us for a fifties team, but in the end could not find anyone willing to make the trip.
With Suzanne Ray and Jeanie heading up our sixty plus team we would have a very good chance of winning, even with a novice as the third runner. But it soon became clear that we would face some stiff competition. The Lake Merritt Joggers and Striders team out of the Oakland area had been cleaning up, in what the Pacific Association of USATF calls the super senior division, and they entered a team not long after we did. Their ace, Sharlet Gilbert had beaten Suzanne in the Twin Cities marathon twenty years earlier, and was backed up by solid runners Carmen Briones and Kate Stewart.
There was another connection between the clubs, as they also were bringing along two “younger” women who would run as individuals. One of these two women, Maria Briones (Carmen’s sister) and I would be battling for individual medals in the 55-59 age group. The other woman was named Jeannine Holmlund and she would be running in the 45-49 division.
Being an analytical person, I couldn’t help but make projections on the race outcome, and to follow my reasoning, one needs to understand cross country scoring. The finish places of each of the first three runners for every team are added together, and the team with the lowest total wins. Additionally, in master’s running, only those runners who belong to teams within a given age group are scored. Thus if Suzanne could beat Sharlot, and Jeannie could beat Carmen (both reasonable possibilities) then we could win, even though Kate would surely beat Betty by a few minutes. There was a third sixties team from the hometown San Diego track club, and while they weren’t in the running for the team title, the placing of their runners would also affect the outcome.
It was with this expectation of a tight battle that we converged upon San Diego, the day before the race. Betsy, Jeanie, Betty and I met at four o’clock to go over the course, which consisted of a one and half mile, figure eight loop that we would run twice. Suzanne was still en route, and wouldn’t arrive until the evening. The terrain consisted mostly of grass and dirt, but with some bark chips, and more pavement crossings than I would have preferred. The route was also fairly hilly, with one serious climb that we would hit at about one mile, and again at two and half miles.
As we were jogging along, four women asked us if we were running the course, and could they join us. Given their ages, and the fact that two of the four were similar looking Hispanic women, I guessed who they were, even before introductions confirmed my hypothesis. Just as our sixties star wasn’t there, neither was their ace, Sharlet. I ran much of the time with Kate, and she spoke of how amazing she thought Suzanne was.
I was staying at the race hotel with Jenny Newton, a fine runner from Missoula that I had met last year at Club Nationals in Seattle. Betty and her husband Don were also staying there, while the rest of our team was either staying with Suzanne’s daughter Mercy, or Betsy’s daughter Lisa. The Lake Merritt gals were also staying at our hotel, but did not have a car, so Don and I drove them back after our run. They seemed much impressed that we would go through any trouble to help a rival team. I joked that we were glad to take them to the hotel; however, if Sharlet had asked for ride, we’d drop her off in Tijuana. After a little reflection, I regretted the jest, as it might sound racist to Carmen and Maria.
The rest of the evening consisted of banalities such as showering, eating, picking up our numbers, and getting settled into our new spaces for the night. Jenny was clearly a very neat and organized person, and I hoped that it wouldn’t bother her that I was neither.
Race morning dawned clear and pleasant, but warmed up quickly as the sun rose. It is always fun to see plenty of familiar faces while warming up, and it’s also affirming to see so many older women preparing for a cross country race. As we got ready, we also cheered on Mercy in the accompanying open race. Mercy finished as the fifth woman in a race that was competitive enough that former NCAA champ, and pro runner, Angela Bizarri could only place second.
Soon enough the gun sent us on our way. At one point early on, I could see the leaders across the course; Sonja Friend-Uhl had a good margin over Grace Padilla, with Jenny at the head of a tight chase pack that was not threatening the two leaders. Farther back in the race, Sharlet was in front of Betsy, followed by Carmen and Maria running in tandem, and then came Suzanne, Jeannie and me, more or less together. Suzanne is a notoriously slow starter, but always picks off runners as a race goes on, so I wasn’t worried.
As we approached the tough hill, just past the mile point, Suzanne was gaining on Sharlet (and Betsy), while I had caught the Briones sisters, and I knew that Jeanie would be close behind. I passed both Carmen and Maria on the hill. I hoped that Jeanie was right behind me and would get them too.
On the second circuit Suzanne corralled Sharlet, but couldn’t pull away from her. Meanwhile, I was running out of steam, and a Latina in Lake Merritt colors went past me. At first I thought it was Maria, but I soon realized it was Carmen. That was bad news for our sixties team, although good news for my individual medal hopes.
At the finish, Sonja had widened her lead over Grace, and they finished well up on everyone else. A few gals passed Jenny, and she finished seventh overall and fifth in her age division. Sharlet and Suzanne came to the finish straight locked together, and sprinted for the line. Suzanne later commented that it couldn’t have been an attractive sight: two old ladies, one with no kick (herself) and one with a wild flailing kick (Sharlet). The wild kick beat the no kick, securing the individual sexagenarian win for Sharlet, and putting our team in a deep hole. Betsy crossed the line a few seconds later; then came Carmen, yours truly, Maria and Jeanie finishing in consecutive spots. At this point there was no doubt that the Lake Merritt gals would defeat us for the sixties title, unless disaster befell Kate. No such thing happened, and they earned a much deserved title.
During the cool down and award ceremonies that followed, all of us had plenty of chances to catch up with other runners we knew, and make some new acquaintances too. Silver was the lizard color of the day, as our sixties team, Suzanne and I all garnered medals of that hue.
Most of the money went to teams, as it should, but there was also age graded money to the first three individuals. Marie Louise, Melody Ann Schultz (both seventy one), and Sonja went 1,2,3 in that competition. Jeanie was 6th and Suzanne was 10th. Once again I wound up chauffeuring the Lake Merritt ladies back to the hotel, and once more they were appreciative. They said if I was ever in Oakland, I could find a place to stay.
Suzanne, Jeanie, Betsy and I stayed through Monday to soak up some sun and relax. Most of us went to the beach Saturday afternoon; I had a nice dinner with Jenny Saturday evening, and went for a great hike Sunday afternoon with Suzanne. I also had two lovely morning runs Sunday and Monday, at Torrey Pines and Mission Bay respectively.
I also confirmed a few Facebook friend requests, including Jeanine from Lake Merritt. After I accepted her request, she sent me a very nice message thanking me for our comradeship, competition, and transportation. She also said that she wished that she could see our team more often. Her thoughtful message was just one more reminder that more important things than medals and recognition are gained from travelling to these races.