My First Win 

By: Peter Donato
I was driving this winter, again, from Toronto to Florida on my usual January getaway to see family and continue making business inroads with my sports marketing company.   It’s necessary to drive when you have bikes, roller blades, tennis racquets, the dog Jefferson…loads of stuff.  Always too much stuff, the border guards surely think I am never coming back.  Like six pairs of shorts when only one get worn everyday, and then I arrive at my sister’s house near Orlando and find many items of clothing left behind from the last visit.
Driving the same route each year, I whiz through Virginia and North Carolina to get as far south as possible on the first day, and as soon as you pass thru Charlotte on Interstate 77 you’re immediately in South Carolina, and the first exit is Fort Mill.  It’s 2:00 am and I can practically smell the distinctive, warm Florida swamp air that greets travellers when you connect to I-95 just before Georgia.  In my case the windows are down to clear out the foul smell from yet another dog fart!

I start to think back many years ago, 1999, when I entered and actually won my first 10km race here of all places, Fort Mill…ah…the memories….suddenly, the cold, crisp air blasting in the car not only wakes Jefferson up but the dreaded sights of red and blue flashing lights in my rear view mirror bring my mind back onto the highway.  Rats.  Speeding ticket for sure, now the second time I am fastest around in Fort Mill….but I have to go back 13 years to where this story started.

October 1999, Toronto, another season of early morning races, evening training sessions, too many bagels and bananas.  My coach and I have been working to get me that elusive Personal Best or PB road race result, something I finally gave up years ago after turning 40.  (The 2nd running boom had not yet started, 75% or more of the runners are still male, there is no online registration and the internet is still a luxury to the few techies and nerds paying attention.  Google was just invented!)   The race in question is the Compugen 10km, renamed and relocated now to the Toronto Zoo, Toronto’s last, fast 10km.  It was  to be my season ending run, a new PB in the sub 34:00 range as per my goals.  It was a race of firsts on several levels.
My mother and sister came to watch, I was addicted to running, became very skinny and so they probably felt sorry for me.  Maybe they thought I was going to win?  Turns out it was the first and only run my mother ever attended, and I can’t blame her.

It was cold and brutal, and I was in no mood to talk much after the race ended when I unceremoniously bonked halfway and stumbled across the finish line well slower than planned.  “Peter….congratulations” was probably what she said to her only son who has tried soccer, tennis, golf and now running to fuel that competitive inner demon.   I was so serious I don’t even recall much of a conversation with them as I huffed and puffed to gain back my lost breath.  Plus I certainly went out for a post-run cool down, leaving them alone again to ask why are runners so weird anyway?

In fact, since I was a new runner and willing to try ANYTHING to set a PB.   I believe this race involved yet another nutrition experiment, this time with caffeine.  I was not a coffee drinker at the time, but I literally read dozens of running and training books and tried EVERYTHING to gain that edge.  Like the newbies today in our sport who wear these compression socks up to the knee, or take the vitamin-of-the-month for maximum nutrition effect, I was open minded to say the least.  I recently read about caffeine and sports performance benefits, so before this race I bought two, large, Kenyan Blend coffee in the morning before the race.   Seriously, why not?  I drank them miserably in the car on the trek south on the 404 from Markham, plugging my nose certainly, thinking how can anyone stand this crap?   

It’s the year 2012 now and I am on my 3rd coffee as I write this article….

Could those two coffees caused my upset stomach?

That evening, bummed out that my season ending race was a disaster, I called my eldest sister in North Carolina.   Susanne was married and  lived in Concorde, North Carolina, perfectly situated near the Basketball Triangle of Duke, NC State and UNC, where I became an NCAA basketball fan.  I also figured it was my last chance at a fair weather race since Toronto at the time had nothing to offer.   “Susanne, can you search for a race in 6 weeks time, a 10km, somewhere within an hr’s drive of you….’

Next phone call, Aeroplan, to cash in some points, so desperate was I that I took the option of flying on points from Toronto – Dallas – Charlotte, NC, and the same on the return…not exactly direct but a free trip!  My sister gets back to me, a 10km race in a place I never heard of, but she says only 20-30 minutes from her place.  Perfect, I book this without planning and then told my coach my Plan B to end the year right.

Coach:   South Carolina, for a PB?’s hilly down there….famous last words…

Over hill and dale….
Excited about the season continuing, I keep training like a madman, while most of my running friends finish their marathons and half marathons that month and put their feet up, down time after a long season of training and racing.  Not me. Speed Work indoors at York University, long runs through Sunny Brooke Park, hill training in Hoggs Hollow.  No junk food, hold off on that second beer on Saturday evenings, no couch surfing each evening while munching on salty snacks.  It’s a military-style existence when you are hell-bent on watching those extra pounds that can mean the difference between  a 33:50 or 34:05 time.   I did however enjoy beautiful, crisp fall weather in my single-minded, focused pursuit of Plan B, Mission USA….here I come.
My trip weekend arrives and I actually took advantage of the circuitous route to the Carolina’s.  In Dallas on the way down, I have a six hour layover between flights, so I head to downtown to grab dinner and then wandered over to the intersection of Houston and Elm.  In case you forgot, it’s the famous intersection where John F. Kennedy took his last turn in the motorcade as U.S. President.  I was a political science junkie through school and became a huge admirer of this Presidency, so it was eerie and serene as I walked from the restaurant to the bottom of the 6th Floor Depository.  I had goosebumps on top of goosebumps, and will never forget that quiet moment to myself as I read the plaque on the building and stared down at the grassy knoll, untouched and unaltered after all these years.

The return swing through Dallas four days later was a little more upbeat, my first Dallas Cowboys Football game!   Monday nite even, what a blast.

Back to the race though!

Fast-forward….race morning, it’s FREEZING.  In fact, colder than the race day six weeks earlier back in Toronto, when I could blame coffee, my mother and cool temperatures on poor racing performance!  Bad news but what can you do, it’s the one thing as a runner you can never control, everything else for me was perfect.  My monthly build up, race taper, energy levels, mood, no winter fat has found it’s way around my mid-section.   My sister shouts words of encouragement as I head out the door to find this place called Fort Mill, “bring back a trophy Uncle Peter!”   She seriously said this, did she realize I was barely top 50 in my last race?

As I drive south I can see frost on the ground, can you believe my luck, a rare cold snap blows through town, the entire Eastern seaboard has been blanketed by this freak, ill-timed weather especially if you’re a runner hoping for a 7-8 degree morning. Lucky for me I am CANADIAN and brought a toque and gloves just in case.  More good luck greets me at the race site, many of the fast runners could be signed up for the half-marathon which started simultaneously with the 10km, a tune-up for the Raleigh Marathon in four weeks time.   My game face is on, you would think it was the Olympic Trials, but no one here travelled so far like I did, and I don’t think anyone could have been so serious in their training the past 30 days.   It’s actually fun travelling far away to a race, even just a short distance like this one for a marathoner like me trying to get a little faster before taking on the 26.2 mile distance once more.  I had failed several times breaking 2:50 in the marathon so Coach Peter Pimm, a former National Team coach with impressive credentials, suggested I lower my short distance race times for a few years.

I start getting ready, arriving an hour early allows for much planning and preparation, sometimes too much!  My wind wanders….should I switch to the half-marathon instead?   Is that guy over there the favourite?    Must be the pre-race nerves, silly me, stick to the Plan, Peter.    I can’t believe I travelled so far for this 10km, it’s the middle of nowhere actually, Fort Mill might as well be Fort York 75 years ago…. it’s like taking a few steps back in time….

Is everyone staring at me?   Are they wondering if I am the favourite?  I actually like being anonymous sometimes, running under the radar as they say.  I am the only Canadian here for sure, but this is no tourist visit people, I am here on BUSINESS!   So I focus on my pre-race, 45 minute warm up.  15 minute light jog, stretches, strides, all the while enjoying the stares from a few fellow skinny runners.   “Who is that guy?” they must be wondering…”and why are his legs so white?”

Everyone is called to the start line, it’s only 250-300 altogether as I suspect this cold weather kept many home snuggled under their warm sheets.  Looking to my left and right, I see that I am the only runner wearing a toque and gloves, advantage to me.  I have no idea what the race route is but we’re told to follow the Police Cruiser up ahead.  The sun is shining but it’s close to zero degrees for sure, we can all see our breath as collectively we create a shroud of white mist in front of the standing pack.  BLAM goes the gun, I take off excitedly in that first mile, and quickly realize a few things.  Firstly, it’s straight uphill, mile #1, a foreboding of things to come.   I can hear my coach laughing 1500 km’s away in Canada.

Secondly, within 2-3 minutes my pace puts me at the front, and I mean, the FRONT!   It’s just a Police Cruiser ahead of me, with flashing lights, and I keep looking back certain we have gone off course.  The pack behind me seems to be settling into a comfortable pace and no one is chasing me.  I keep looking back, like something is wrong, unfamiliar territory….sweet…I am in First Place!

We keep heading uphill, near the end of Mile One we turn left and I guess the half-marathon distance runners go straight, now it’s just me and the Police Cruiser and I am still leading!  First time ever, so of course my heart race is BEATING through my chest, the cold weather is no longer a concern as the heat of battle drives up my internal temperature.  I seem to be sweating profusely despite the near freezing temperature, so I think I toss the hat and gloves as a result.  I still can’t recall too many memories and details of this race, it’s been so many years, too many miles and too many races in between to count.   But I will never forget the fear mixed with excitement of being the pursued rather than the pursuer, and wonder how can these Elite Athletes take this pressure all the time?

We are probably half way when I realize, after yet another rolling hill, that my elusive season-ending PB will remain elusive.  Oh well….there’s always another race further south like Florida a few months from now!   But who cares I might just WIN this thing, imagine that.   We’re in the countryside of a typical, rural, Southern USA small town, mostly farms or low lying, single level homes with a Pick Up Truck or two in the driveway.  And something else common to these parts besides rifles, chewing tobacco and badly needed paint jobs on the houses.  Dogs.   The good feeling of being first quickly fades as I hear two sounds I will never forget.  Firstly, heavy breathing down my neck. My pursuers have caught me, one or two I think but they are now steps behind me and probably licking their chops as my frenetic early, rookie fast pace has caught up with me.  Secondly….BARKING at every corner as these lonely canines have little throughout their day to get much excited about.  More barking, louder, and we realize that some of these dogs are free to roam and leave their long driveways!  Literally my heart has leapt from my chest, not one but TWO pursuers on my heels…..and four legs!  Try running full-out and there’s Fido nipping at your heels.

Heel boy, heel….
Thankfully I had less fat on my legs or the dog ran out of rope….but that actually helped my pace so now heavy breather #1 is no longer within earshot, and I think I can pull this off.   Maybe he had to stop to ward off the dog?

The last mile was all a blur, I do, in fact hang on for the win, my first of just four official first place finishes as a runner.  My first and LAST time at a race in Fort Mill, S.C. and when I get called up to accept first place I think I was the first Canuck to ever attend the Springbank Road Races.   My prize was a cool, engraved Crystal Bowl, a perfect souvenir that can be used as a Salad or Fruit Bowl I imagine.   When I get back to my sisters’ it was proudly displayed on her mantle, and funnily enough her early morning prophecy was correct.  

So that’s the end of the story?   Well, no, I decide to bring the Bowl back to Canada, rather than have her keep it till she drives herself for a visit home, as soon as Christmas which is three weeks away!   Heck, it’s my first ever win, I need to show this off as quickly as possible.  So we pack it up safely in a small box, and use all sorts of cushioning, padded items to protect the glass.

Remember now, I have an in-direct flight home, but this little box survives Charlotte to Dallas, an overnight, all-niter after the Cowboys football game, another flight to Toronto, and since I ran out of money an airport transfer on some bus to York Mills Subway station, then a TTC bus just a few more miles to my street in leafy, mid-town Yonge and Eglinton.   I am juggling a suitcase or two, probably something to eat and drink, and the box.  I step off the bus, my house is 500 yards away….guess what drops onto the ground?