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There I was at 6 in the morning in shorts and T shirt, padding along the road that rims Niagara Falls on its Canaan side. The sun was rising over the Rainbow Bridge. Spray from the falls wet my brow and fogged my glasses, but where 12 hours before thousands had elbowed each other for gaping space only one or two now stood, and you suspected maybe they had not gone to bed. My wife and three children had. They slept blissfully in our motel as I ran on. What looked like a beaver skittered across my Path and plunged into some bushes toward the river's edge. Did he plan to dam the Niagara? "Give up!" I was tempted to shout after him. He might have flipped the same words back at me.
What was I, a 34-year-old man on his vacation, doing running along the rim of Niagara Falls? The answer may not satisfy you, but it did me then. I was getting ready for my New England summer. To the long-distance runner, and I am one, New England is Everest, Mecca, Kentucky Bluegrass. It's perhaps the single area of the country where one can maintain dignity running along the streets in shorts. Lodges, chambers of commerce and V.F.W. posts compete for athletes with so much enthusiasm that often you can hardly see the finish line for all the prizes and hardware Piled up around it. New England's summer is the horn of Plenty, the home of the free ham sandwich, the 25th-place medal for novices and the straggling long-distance runner coming over the last rise to happy cries of, "It's all downhill from here, Pops."
In planning our vacation last spring I had emphasized the picnic aspects to my wife, Rose. "After a race in New England, I told her, "you just don't go home. There's barbecues and bingo and fireworks. While I'm out on the course heaping glory on my slender shoulders you can give the kids pony rides." Then I dealt Rose the ace: awards, gleaming trophies, wristwatches, clocks, radios, tables laden with merchandise for all but the least talented. I quoted ecstatically from a New England running schedule.
"We'll travel first to Good Prizes," I announced, meaning a 10-mile handicap race in Salem, Mass. "Two days later it's Top Trophies. No telling where this will end."
"I have a good idea," Rose said.
With our children, Kevin, David and Laura, tied down in the back seat beneath a pile of coloring books, we had driven away from our Michigan City, Ind. home one Sunday morning in August. We planned a leisurely trip east via the Stratford, Ont. Shakespearean Festival, Niagara Falls and the homes of several friends. Driving through Hamilton, Ont., we stopped long enough to visit Ron Wallingford, who had placed two notches ahead of me in the 1964 Boston Marathon. "Ron's running 140 miles a week," his wife, Heather, informed us. Calculating quickly, I noted this bettered my mileage for the previous two months. It was pride and not insomnia that pushed me to the edge of Niagara Falls the following morning.
Two days later we had arrived in Salem, home of Hawthorne's House of the Seven Gables and a replica pilgrim village complete with ancient stocks. Stocks were used for punishment in colonial days. My own form of punishment would be to run 10 miles that evening in a road race sponsored by the Mack Park Association. I had called the sponsor shortly after arriving in town to confirm my entry. "Your family will enjoy the race," he informed me. "It's being held as part of a lawn potty." Immediately I had visions of small children, but it turned out "lawn potty" translates roughly into Midwesternese as "picnic."
The park where the race started and finished was crowded with bingo booths, goldfish bowls (you throw Ping-Pong balls into them) and milk cans which, when knocked over, committed you to ownership of a stuffed giraffe. A rock 'n' roll combo raised dust on the baseball infield; the three children rushed to ride the pony, and I walked more slowly to an open garage to dress for the race.
The place buzzed with the chatter of runners. An old friend, Tony Sapienza, was passing out entry blanks to a Sons of Italy race coming up later in the season. Officials shouted for runners to pick up their numbers. "You have 14 minutes' handicap," Handicapper Fred Brown told me. " Kelley and Buschman are behind you at 15." I was both pleased and insulted, happy with a full minute's head start on John Kelley and Ralph Buschman, but insulted that I was not rated with them. Buschman had been the first American to finish in the Boston Marathon earlier in the year. Kelley, of course, had been America's best long-distance runner for the last dozen years. He had not entered himself and, of course, would not show up, but Kelley (as I later discovered) is part of the planning of all New England road races. His name gets listed mysteriously on programs he has never even heard of. In New England you always run against the specter of John Kelley.
My handicap meant that the weakest runners would start first, and 14 minutes later I would be permitted to run. Between them and me were nearly 100 runners, but in a handicap race it is not the first off the line you worry about. You fear the unknowns with five- and 10-minute leads who have been practicing in secret at 2 in the morning.