Ron Marinucci: September, 2014 Column

Ron Marinucci: September, 2014 Column

It was, as the great New York Yankee catcher Yogi Berra once famously said, "Deja vu all over again"; Well, at least it was for me.

“It” was the Great Pizza Challenge, a 5K run and walk held in Flint on a Thursday evening. The Challenge has been a fixture of the Riverbend Striders’ summer series of runs for a long time, especially drawing families with little runners eager for the post-race treat—pizza! This year almost 400 showed up on a sunny, but warm and humid evening; all in all, it was as good as could be expected for an August run in Michigan.

Before the run, I asked race director John Gault how many Pizza Challenges there have been. He chuckled, “Oh, I don’t know. There’ve been a lot [of them].” He considered for a few seconds before adding with another grin, “But I think I have an entry form from the ‘80s around somewhere.”

Deja vu for me centered around my grandson, Michael. In an effort to get him moving a little more than he does, about a month before I suggested that we run the Pizza Challenge. To my welcome surprise, he was interested, particularly the pizza part. I mentioned it a few times and a week later he said, “Sure,” when I asked if I should send in our entry forms.

Shame on me because it’s a great evening race, but my last Great Pizza Challenge was about 15 or 16 years ago, maybe longer. I ran it several years with my younger son, Matt, who was then 13 or 14 years old. From out of nowhere, Matt asked me if he could run, not the Pizza Challenge, but the Crim with me—the ten mile! Whoa! Like Michael with this 5K, I was pretty sure Matt had little idea of what running so far meant.

I suggested a bit of training, which Matt did. I included a couple of shorter races to build up to the Crim. One was the Pizza Challenge, which became a family affair. Karen came up with us to Flint to watch, as did visiting Aunt Dolly (Matt’s godmother) and Uncle Chet. Everyone was excited when, for the first but not the last time, Matt whupped his old man. I remember that when we came to the final turn, he sprinted past me on the last straightaway to beat me by several yards. No, I didn’t let him win. While the other family members celebrated and ribbed me, I feigned disappointment. But I’m sure my real feelings of pride were evident.

In fact, on Matt’s recent return home for a few days from Las Vegas (his home), we reminisced a bit about our Pizza Challenges. And, of course, what he remembered most was—the pizza!

Now, all these years later, I get to do it again—run the Pizza Challenge with my grandson! I’m a very lucky man. Although I played two varsity sports in college, I’ve always maintained, in absolute truth, that I have had greater satisfaction watching and even coaching my sons in their sports. And now, at my advanced age, I get to do it—coach—all over again with my grandkids.

In the past few years, the teams I helped coach sometimes didn’t win many games. The other coaches, dads not grandpas, were a little disheartened. In things that matter, I am very competitive. But these other coaches needed a pep talk. (I wonder if that makes me an elder statesman?) “Are the kids having fun out here?” I asked them. That is, were they eager to come to practices and games, smiling when they come and smiling when they leave? “Are they learning [whatever game whose season it was]?” “Do they listen and do what they are taught, at least try to do it?” The answers from the dads were in the affirmative. “Then what’s the problem?” I’d ask farther. “You’re out here coaching your kids. What would you rather be doing?” I reminded them of how lucky they were, to be with their own kids and to emphasize their good luck I always told them, “And I’m getting to do it again, to coach with my grandkids.” I think every time I made this little speech it did the trick, lifting the other coaches’ spirits.

And now, it’s the Pizza Challenge all over again.

Michael didn’t train much. We walked several times and he was on Grandma;s treadmill a few times, walking and running up to three miles. He and I went out on half a dozen or so bike rids, from six to nine miles.

More than once he asked, “How far is 5K?” “Three miles” sounded a lot easier/shorter than 5K, at least to him. He was confident, but not overly so. “I can do that,” as he pointed to the length of this bike rides.

The week of the run he asked, “How many times around my [junior high school] gym is three miles?” Not really knowing the size of his gym, not with the seats pulled in, I guessed, “about 75 laps.” “Oh,” he replied, having done 30 or so in timed tests in gym class. Despite the outward bravado, some doubt crept into his conversation.

On the drive up to Flint, Michael peppered me with questions? “Where do we run? On the street? What about the traffic? Will a gun start us?”

We parked and headed into the Flint YMCA to get our race bibs. We ran into my running buddy Bob Drapal. He had come up to run the Pizza Challenge with his grandson, Joey, and son-in-law, Jeff Doran. In fact, it was a family affair. In attendance were Grandma Mary, Mom Laura, Sister Ali (“She’s the runner in the family,” stated Grandma.), and brothers Zach and Sean. It was ten-year old Joey’s second 5K run and he finished under ten minutes a mile.

Hurrying into the YMCA gym, we picked up our race bibs, pinned them to our tee shirts, and checked out a course map. It looked to me like the same course as 15 years ago. The start and finish were a block down the street, right where I remembered they had been when the old International Studies Center had been the race headquarters. Runners ran a loop, much of it along the Flint River. There was a bike path that accompanied some of the course, but the entire race was on the streets, marshaled by officers from the Flint and University of Michigan-Flint police departments. It was about as flat as a pancake, with no hills at all, a perfect first 5K.

We pinned on our bibs; Michael did his own after I showed him where to place it. He asked if he could wear his new Pizza Challenge tee shirt in the race, but I nixed that with an officious, “No, you can’t run in today’s race with today’s race shirt.” I have a thing about that, irrational as it might be. “You can wear it in next year’s race.” I’m not sure he understood, but it was good that he was excited about his tee shirt.

We made our potty breaks and headed out to the start. Michael asked about my watch. Oops! I had forgotten it in the car. Who was nervous? I ran back to get it and on we went.

At the start, I reminded Michael that we were going out slowly, to save energy, and that we would likely later pass some of those runners who darted past us at first. He nodded. We chatted for the first mile. I pointed out the U of M-Flint campus (He’s a big U of M fan, despite Uncle Matt being an MSU grad.) and explained the difference between the Flint and Ann Arbor campuses. We noted where the course joined the Flint River.

The weather cooperated. Although temperatures were in the low 80s, there was a hint of a breeze and the sun dipped behind clouds much of the time. One time, heading west, the sun slipped out, right in our faces. “I do not like it when we look into the sun,” Michael said. I laughed, knowing Michael’s habit of eschewing contractions. Fortunately, we had to squint for just a quarter mile or so before turning out of the glare.
Just after a mile, we took our first planned walking break, well, at least it was my plan. Just 150 steps I told him and Michael counted them. When he got to 140, he counted down, “10, 9, 8,…1. Let’s go.”

There was a water stop near the halfway point, which we planned to use. “Can I take two cups?” he asked. Yes and I made him walk through the stop to drink each. Near two miles we threw in another walk break, but I don’t think it was 150 steps this time. That was our last scheduled break, although he did develop a brief side stitch a little farther into the race. “Is my side supposed to hurt?” We ran through it, stretching our arms and breathing more deeply, and there were no recurrences.

Now, finally, he asked, “How far have we gone?” and seemed a bit disappointed to hear, “almost a mile.” A bit later it was, “How much farther?” I replied that it was a bit up the road and we had to make a turn to the finish line. When a slight curve in the road appeared he anxiously asked, “Is that the turn?” Again, he seemed disappointed when I told him that wasn’t it.

But it wasn’t too long when a couple of squad cars, flashers blazing, marked that final turn to the finish. Michael saw them from a ways off. “Is that the turn?” There was a bit of relief that it was. “Can we walk?” I said we could, but only for a short while and before the turn. “We don’t want to walk in front of the finish-line crowd,” I told him. He nodded as if he realized what I was saying.

This last turn, years ago, was where Matt turned on his youthful jets and outsprinted (Well, I never could sprint.) me. I told Michael about this and, almost jokingly, asked him if he was going to sprint to the finish. I really didn’t think much about it, figuring he was pretty much done in; it was a throw-away line.

We made the last turn and he asked, “Is that the farmers’ market?” He recognized it from the start and picked up his pace, running hard to the finish. I didn’t try to match his sprint and, honestly, don’t know if I could have. I was more than content to watch him finish—and finish hard!

At the finish line, Michael stretched out on the grass for a bit. We were met there by the Drapals and Dorans, Joey having finished a bit in front of us, as we kept him in our sights most of the way. After congratulations all around, Michael and I headed to the important thing—pizza!

We each grabbed our allotted two pieces, although I seem to remember eating just a couple of the end crusts. “It’s good,” said Michael. What about the race? “It was fun,” he admitted. For his part, Grandpa was impressed with Michael’s effort and determination—he finished the whole race as planned.

We had to rush home for a weekend camping trip, but I was left with some great new memories to add to my old great memories.