My distance running debut (beyond the high school track) – was on June 17, 1978 , at the Vestal XXK in Vestal, NY. The race organizers (Triple Cities Runner Club) and specifically Alan Jones, the Race Director at that time encouraged women to run distances previously frowned upon and it was an event where Kathrine Switzer — who famously ran the all-male Boston Marathon in 1967 — ran in 1971.
247 entrants paid the $2 registration fee to run in ’78 — 21 were ladies — and Alan tossed in an added incentive. The first 20 women finishers would win a ribbon. I couldn’t imagine any greater treasure, and 40 years later, I brought my ribbon — #17 — back to the Vestal XXK for a re-run. But first, I had to re-connect with Alan Jones, now 81 years old.
2018 is the 48th year anniversary of the Vestal XXK, and it is not a run for the faint of heart. The course is strenuous, with challenging hills along winding country roads departing the Vestal Senior Center (appropriate!) for just over 6 miles before returning back somewhere shy of the Pennsylvania line along Route 26.
Dan Dougherty, the Vestal XXK Race Director(RD) is on a 13 year tour at the helm with 4 years to go to match Alan’s (1st RD) and Fred Bostrom’s (2nd RD) record 17 years each. Alan still maintains the runner stats (times, paces), Fred volunteers on the course and Dan is the luckiest RD in town with this wealth of experience. Alan tells us all to “Go” at the start of the race, shares in some fine trivia (the event used to be a qualifier for Boston), and hands out awards under a large shady tree.
“That’s my handwriting,” Alan said, looking over the #17 ribbon, “I remember that,” he continued, and affirmed that the entry fee back then was a whopping $2. He then introduced me to the volunteers sitting at the sign-in desk, and there were many oohs and aaahs about that #17 ribbon, but I couldn’t help marveling at Alan. “You mean, you ran the event AND you ran the event?” I asked, and he smiled stating he “only” ran for 32 years and “only” directed the event for 17 years, and if it wasn’t “only” for that A-word (arthritis) he would still be running. With a twinkle in his eye, Alan proudly mentioned that there is an 74 year old man — Ron Slocum — running the course who had run all 48 Vestal XXK’s and it was clear that not much had changed about Alan since 1978. Still encouraging — men and women of all ages — to get out and run.
Moments before 8AM, we lined up behind the chalk “Start” line, and the camaraderie among runners is a testament to the Triple Cities-community finest. I stood next to my dear childhood friend, Tamar King, another runner and Binghamton native whom I’ve known since the age of 6. I met a lady from Scranton who had taken a few hours away from caring for her elderly parents, so she could run this event, and another who took up running in her 40’s so that she could stay in shape. I met a race-walker who said his fastest time on the course was a 1:30 something, and before I could ask him about his magic fuel-potion – he was off, and well ahead of me! By the time I reached the 6th mile, it was clear I had selectively forgotten about the hills that I ran 40 years ago. They were far bigger than I remembered, and my legs felt sloppy, but sure enough, just like 40 years ago — I could hear Alan’s words of encouragement and the smile he would flash for all of us, when we crossed the finish line. Then, I reached the Mile 8 water stop.
If there was a Cheers episode moment, this was it. “Is that Jane Wadsworth?” a kindly gent called out as I approached, holding a cup of water in his hand. No one has ever called out my name at a water stop, but before I could nod or make any sounds outside of heavy breathing he looked at the other volunteers and said, “it is! It’s Jane, she’s here,” and the other two ladies joined in with the chorus “Jane’s here!”. “Alan told us you were coming,” and I met Fred Bostrom. He handed me water and shook my hand. Despite the fact that I was well back of the pack, Fred made sure I felt like a winner. We chatted for several minutes — Fred has run in all but 3 of the 48 Vestal XXKs, and like Alan – was the Race Director for 17 years as well. When a back problem recently curtailed his running, he opted to volunteer at Mile 8. Gradually, my breathing returned to normal and I said “I probably should continue running.” and Fred agreed, though I was not really wanting to leave. We agreed to find each other at the finish. As I left that water station, I couldn’t help but think that Team Alan & the TCRC sure knew how to keep a runner encouraged.
At mile 9, I approached another hill and it was long and tall. I slowed, wondering how my memory had failed me for 40 years when a fellow runner by the name of Kevin appeared and said “let’s do this together”. Of course I had to try and keep up with him, and for the next mile or two, Kevin kept me going. Neither of us spoke — there was no extra energy for that — but this was the true spirit of runners at their finest and I couldn’t have been more grateful for that added motivational boost from Kevin.
As I approached the finish — a chalk line with the word “Finish” — I was met with a flood of emotion, to marvel at the influence of Alan Jones, who, to this day, has inspired more runners than he’ll ever know. As the 100 or so runners convened under the shady oak tree to relax and share running stories & more, I learned that many have made the Vestal XXK their annual pilgrimage. Some have run the event for 20 and 30 years in a row. I learned that Fred’s wife Rae Marie cheered and handed out water at mile#8. Rae Marie held the prized #19 ribbon from 1978 and all the more reason to return next year and meet her proper. I learned that Alan and Fred posted their best Vestal XXK times earning top 40&over podium spots in ’78 which proves it was a magical year, and while 74-year-old Ron was still out on the course, he would finish with the 48-years-running record.
The TRIO of past and present Race Directors and their team of volunteers welcomed me ‘home’ with a distinctly Triple Cities flair – and it is that, I will treasure most about my 40-year anniversary run.