"Oh come on coach," said Caleb Mitchell when I suggested that he and I should race at a comparatively longer distance. "I can beat you without training."
"You've done it now," I growled back at him.
Caleb and I go back a long way. I remember watching him run at the Kids Classic Race in Joplin when he was 9 years old and thinking that he was a natural middle distance runner. No surprise that eight years later, he torched John Williams, of East Newton, in a classic match race at the Patriot Invitational, setting a Southwest school record at 800 meters with his 1:58.91 victory.
Entering his sophomore year at Central Methodist, Caleb is still one of those natural athletes who just catches your eye. Burl Mitchell and I had a discussion about Caleb's best sport, and I chimed in with the opinion that his best sport is whatever one he is performing at that time.
So I was not surprised when Caleb casually asked if he could run with me some this summer, and that conversation led to the exchange which started this article.
I picked the Freedom Run of the Ozarks Half Marathon for our competition for several reasons. Becky Lowrance, the race director, is a Missouri record holder at 50K -- that's 31 miles for you old schoolers -- and I was confident she would host a quality event. The race course was the trail at Table Rock Dam State Park, so there would be no safety issues with traffic. This event benefited the Table Rock Freedom Center, a residential recovery center for women. Finally, the July 2 date would give Caleb reasonable time to train for the 13.1-mile distance.
On race day, I was surprised at the tremendous turnout for the event. But then I found out that all three races -- 5K, 10K and the half marathon -- would start simultaneously on the barely 10-foot wide trail.
I dragged Caleb with me to a front position on the starting line and told him, "We've got to get out fast, so we don't get buried in this crowd."
When Lowrance blew the starting whistle, we blew off the starting line to avoid the sea of humanity. With my Garmin GPS screaming its pace alerts, we rolled through a suicidal half mile before settling down to our seven-minute mile race pace.
Caleb ran side by side with me, trusting my pace knowledge, as we churned up and down the roller coaster hills. Early on, I could tell we would not challenge for the top two spots, and the goal became to finish third and fourth -- with me in third, of course.
One major difference between road racing and track and cross country -- time is more important than place. Because road races attract people from a variety of age groups and ability levels, knowing and maintaining the correct pace is vital to individual success. Most of the upper-level runners live by their watches early in the race, and then evaluate the runners in their proximity to identify possible prey in the late going.
Between the 10- and 11-mile marks, Erik Hamilton overtook us and charged into third place. I used every downhill in the final two miles to catch back up but couldn't hold on. I found the finish line in 1:32:48, over two minutes ahead of my planned 1:35.
I thanked Lowrance for placing the finish line at the peak of the biggest hill on the course. She laughed.
Caleb struggled in the final hilly section and settled for fifth overall. He developed a healthy respect for us old Masters runners along the way. Three of the four guys ahead of him were over 40, and I am 55. His experience taught him a valuable lesson -- there is no substitute for long runs when preparing for a long race.
But make no mistake, the young man ran an excellent race. In his very first attempt at the half marathon distance, he won the men's 20-24 age group and finished a very respectable fifth overall in 1:35:52.
In the 5K race, Josie Stubblefield, of Cassville, achieved a new personal record while winning the women's 45-49 age group and finished 30th overall with her 28:45 effort.
In the Firecracker 5K at Rogers, Ark., on Monday, July 4, Cord and Kayle Leonhardt, of Seligman, competed in a field of over 140 runners. He finished seventh in the men's 40-44 division with a time of 25:54.9. She placed ninth in the women's 45-49 division, running 34:47.6.