Keeping pace with the Fitch Cross Country Team

While I biked at a comfortable pace in Old Mystic last Sunday, a pair of hard-core cyclists pulled alongside me, glanced right and grinned with surprised recognition.

"Hey, Steve!" one of the riders called out.

"Kim!" I replied, spiking my cadence to keep up.

This was Kim Murphy, formerly a star runner on the Fitch High School cross-country team. Riding with him was Walt Blanker, another top harrier on the past state championship team.

Decades ago, as a young reporter who had recently moved to southeastern Connecticut, I started training with the team at the invitation of the coach, Johnny Kelley, the late-great Boston Marathon champ and two-time Olympian. I had met Johnny through a fellow reporter, and after discovering we shared a reverence for Thoreau and Dylan, as well as a disdain for Nixon, the two of us became good friends.

Every day after class Kim, Walt and the rest of the team would gallop over trails on 10-mile training runs from the school atop Fort Hill in Groton, through Haley Farm, and around Bluff Point and back. During the final, punishing, uphill mile I invariably watched the fast kids and Kell, still in amazing shape well into his 40s, slowly pull away.

Anyway, I still bump into Kim and Walt from time to time so it wasn't all that unusual to encounter them on bikes.

But for me, last Sunday's outing was no ordinary ride — it was the third and final leg of my annual birthday extravaganza. Loyal readers may recall I began this ritual at age 25, when I decided to run a mile for each year.

Every birthday since then I've tacked on another mile, and when I hit 30, Johnny accompanied me over the entire course — a joyous celebration.

In subsequent years, realizing I couldn't comfortably keep up this one-track regimen indefinitely, I broke up the miles with kayaking and cycling (though upon reaching the half-century mark I did run the entire 50 miles).

Now it's time to cue "The Twilight Zone" theme song.

During last year's bicycle leg of my self-styled triathlon I had a chance encounter with another rider: Wayne Jacob. Wayne had been another top runner on that same Fitch cross-country team. Come on, what are the odds that so many paths would converge on the same date, years later?

Wayne wound up cycling with me then the last 25 miles, but I wasn't about to try tagging along for such a distance with Kim and Walt on Sunday — they were rocketing along on the home stretch of a 42-miler, and I was only an hour into a somewhat longer ride. Plus, I had already run five miles and paddled five. I needed to conserve my strength.

Truth be told, I don't think I could have hung with Kim and Walt for too long. I drafted off them for a short distance and then called out, "You guys go ahead. I'll catch up with you another time."

Watching them slowly pull away took me back to those days so many years ago.

I recalled, though, no matter how wasted I felt during that tough climb back to Fitch, a sense of elation always swept over me at the end. Distance runners and cyclists are familiar with this Hitting Yourself Repeatedly on the Head with a Hammer Syndrome — named because it feels so good when you stop.

This euphoria finally arrived Sunday afternoon a few hours after my encounter with Kim and Walt, when I rolled up my driveway, squeezed the brakes and climbed exultantly off the bike.

OK, I told myself. I'm good for another 365 days.



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