Franklin Park was made even more beautiful this past weekend thanks to the hundreds of runners from all parts of the Northeast who flocked there to race the Mayor’s Cup. The weather was cool, the humidity low, and the energy phenomenal. I arrived just before the 10 and under kids 1.1 mile race took place and stood entranced by the explosive sprints of over 130 boys and girls as they flew across the starting field after the gun went off. I have no idea who won, but it made me happy to see so many healthy, active kids cruising along a cross-country course together. One hundred and fifty 11 and 12 year-olds followed them and over eighty-five 13 and 14 year olds ran the same 1.1 mile course. Then came the Franklin Park 5k. Derly, a new member of Forest Hills Runners, and I ran this race and, from what I can tell, everyone enjoyed it thoroughly - I’m still questioning myself, but it’s becoming clearer by the minute that the race was a good one. Though I can’t give you a play-by-play of anyone else’s race, I will say that I ran a PB for a 5k cross-country race while wearing a Forest Hills Runners shirt and managed to come in 18th overall! I had a lot of fun, ran the race without pushing myself too hard since I’m still dealing with an achilles injury, and managed to pick off eight runners over the course of the race by slowly speeding up with each mile. The Franklin Park 5k is really a wonderful course, comprised of three distinct loops of the park, only one hill, and some beautiful wilderness trails. I hope I’ll be able to run the course as a Saturday run sometime soon.
Then came the championship races and I can give you a little play-by-play here because I was watching these races quite closely. First came the women’s 5k championships and when the gun went off it looked like the women were running in slow motion through the sloggy, mucky ground that all the runners before them had churned up on the big starting field, but when they entered the chute and took the first hard right towards Schoolboy stadium, it was clear that they were flying. The lead pack came through the first mile in 5:22 - a mass of women close behind. The second mile took them up Bear Cage Hill, a steep, serpentine path that reaches a peak for only a second before turning down a rocky decline that heads back towards the main field. The hill slowed the women only a touch, the lead pack heading through two miles at around 11:00. I have no idea where the three mile mark resided, but when the women came out of the wilderness and began the large loop of the main, starting field there was only one woman in contention for the crown. Lauren Centrowitz finished the course in 17:10, her Pacers teammate, Erin Koch her closest competitor at 17:27. Though she ran extremely well, her annihilation of the every other runner didn’t make for an all-too-interesting finish.
The men’s race, on the other hand, was one of the best I have ever witnessed and it made me wonder why cross-country hasn’t taken over as the sport of choice for the masses. The men’s championship 8k was better than most Superbowl’s I’ve watched in the past 10 years - partially thanks to the guts of Ruben Sança, an honorary FHR runner, having run with us on several Saturdays and grown up in Dorchester.
When the gun went off for the men’s championship race, even the muck of the starting field couldn’t slow the runners. The men headed into the shoot at 800 speed, mud splashing everywhere. At the one mile mark, Ruben Sança was in the lead, coming through the first mile in 4:34, with no separation from the pack. Over 100 runners followed through the first mile in sub-5:00 pace, all of them looking relaxed. By two miles, after a loop up and over Bear Cage Hill, most of the men behind the lead pack no longer looked healthy, though Ruben Sança, still in the lead, looked completely relaxed with a group of six runners around him as he came through two miles in around 9:30. Coming out of the wilderness and heading back across the field, the race was clearly between seven runners: Ruben Sança, Harbert Okuti, Steve Hallinen, Jeff Shirmer, Dan Chenoweth, Timothy Ritchie, and, tucked in the middle of the group, David Nightingale. The group disappeared up Bear Cage Hill and nothing changed as they headed towards the wilderness for the last time, but when they came out of the wilderness and approached the four mile marker, the runners began to make moves.
Ritchie had been dropped in the wilderness and the lead pack was now made up of Okuti, Hallinen, Shirmer, Chenoweth, and Nightingale, with Sança a step behind, his stride lengthening to keep pace. The lead pack went through four miles in 19 minutes flat, headed across the field, and then turned up Bear Cage Hill. Five or perhaps six men were vying for the title as they headed into the darkness. Only when they came streaming down the hill and out into light of the field with 700 meters to race did we begin to sense how things would turn out, though the race was still wide open for Okuti, Hallinen, Shirmer, and Nightingale. All four were bunched up as they ran perpendicular to the finishing straight, seemingly at a dead sprint, Chenoweth, Sança, and Ritchie struggling after them.
I had sprinted across the field myself to watch them come around the backstop and head into the final straightaway and I made it just in time to see Nightingale burst from the pack, his arms wild and his eyes wide with the pain and the joy of the final push towards the finish. His white singlet flashed in the sunlight as he tore towards the finish line. Though the fight for second place was intense - Schirmer, Hallinan, and Okuti all coming across the line in 23:48 - no one came close to Nightingale’s 23:46. It was an amazing and intensely fought race with an incredible runner winning in the end, but it was also clear that if Sança hadn’t pushed the pace from beginning to end, it wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting or nearly as fast. He finished in 23:56 - a personal record and a great time. I look forward to seeing this race again next year. It’s races like these that make me love running. I’m glad I was there to witness it and hope FHR can get more runners out to events like the Mayor’s Cup in the future.