In Italian, the name Cinquino means, roughly, “Little 5” and the little 5 that meant everything to me in high school was measured in minutes– as in the five minute mile. I had bumped up against the 5:00 barrier several times in my track career at Notre Dame High School in Batavia, NY. I had run the mile (as well as, exhaustingly, the half-mile and two-mile) since I was a freshman. Any runner born after 1970 won’t believe it now, but I ran track that year in sneakers like these. You can now get infant running shoes that have better cushioning than these. And those are for people who can’t even walk yet.
In 1977, I lost out for first place in the freshman mile Buffalo Catholic League championship when I kicked too early on the final lap and was blown away down the stretch, stumbling home in 5:11 in my first competitive mile. Surely over the next three years, I could cut off a few seconds a year and have my own private Roger Bannister moment by the time I was old enough to (legally) celebrate with a Genny Cream Ale.
Yet shaving off seconds proved harder to come by than I realized. By senior year, I still had not broken five minutes. But my training was going well and I was sure that in my final race, the 1980 Genesee Region County Meet, I would finally get under five.
I was feeling so strong in my training that, in the weekend leading up to the meet I drove my inherited 1971 Plymouth Valiant with a Slant 6 engine and a carburetor I had to wiggle open manually with a screwdriver, to a nearby city for the Diet Pepsi 10K. This was one of the first big national series of distance races that had ever been held in rural Western New York. Perfect tune up in the lag between my final dual meet and the upcoming county meet later that week.
And what a race I had. I still consider it one of the best tactical races I’ve ever executed. The field in my age group was small, but top-heavy. Curiously, none of the current high school runners in my league were there, but I did notice an elite runner who was back from college who was clearly going to win the whole race. There were a few other college age guys there and I had no idea what to expect from them. Then there was one of the top runners from the big city public school that (literally) was in an entirely different league from my small, low-budget Catholic school.
I knew of him from common friends and following his times in the newspaper. He had dropped off his track team for some reason but still looked to be a lock for second place. I eyeballed the rest of the crowd and surmised I had a shot at a coveted third place medal. A bronze from Diet Pepsi? Maybe not enough to warrant attention from a cheerleader (now, maybe if it was Tab or even Fresca, I’d have gotten somewhere). But the award might turn a head at my Student Officers meeting ( I was class Vice President) or National Honor Society (ranked 6th in my class, thank you very much).
As expected, the college ringer ran away with race. I never saw him after the first 1/2 mile. Then, another college guy who I hadn’t noticed before, followed him off into the horizon. The city runner likewise took off and left me to settle in near the front of the also rans. I knew the city runner was all that stood between me and a medal.
By the time we got about halfway, I could still see my big city rival ahead of me, but I was barely keeping up. I can still recall how alone we were. No spectators, no other runners, no traffic. It seemed like just him and me and telephone poles along the black pavement of the country road outside town. Whether he knew I was there, or gave me much thought, I’ll never know. What I do know is that the number of telephone poles between us started to shrink. Four, three, two poles separated us. Somewhere, Lech Walesa smiled, as the poles were now working in solidarity for me, with the hanging wire reeling him in like a Popeil Pocket Fisherman.
He first caught sight of me with a little over a mile to go. Then kept a steady glance as I drew near. I had no idea how this could be happening or whether he was just sandbagging me to kick his way home, but with about a half mile to go I finally convinced myself I was not going to fall in behind. Not even a Jimmy Carter boycott could keep me off that podium.
I pulled alongside him as the race entered the downtown area with only a few blocks to the finish line. The only time we ever spoke, he uttered the line that every middle of the pack, sub-elite runner dreams of hearing on the pinnacle of his racing career as I cruised by him to swipe the bronze, he said “Who ARE you?”
It was a question that I let him answer for himself when they called my name and placed the medal around my neck. But it is a question I ask again, today and every day that I take a moment to think.
Now this story does have a happy ending, but that won’t come for a while. You see, two days before the county meet, after my name had appeared in the paper listing my remarkable finish, my track coach got a call from the erstwhile commissioner of the track league, informing my coach that because I had run in a non-sanctioned road race against non-scholastic runners, I had to be DQ’d from the county meet.
My track coach called me into his office to tell me the news. He thanked me for my years of service to the team. Possibly the best road race of my life had cost me the chance at the one track goal I’d be targeting for four long years.
It didn’t hit me until much later– as in 32 years– what this meant.