By CHRIS BATEMAN
For The Union Democrat
The future of the venerable Old Mill Run was on gaudy display at the 34th edition of the Columbia State Historic Park race Saturday.
Fourteen-year-old Jackson McIlroy, the youngest Old Mill winner ever, overtook eventual runner-up Mike Morris, 31, at the 10K's halfway mark and cruised home in 41:15. Belleview School sixth-grader Ryan Dunlap, a 12-year-old, came in 30 seconds behind Morris to take third, crossing the line at 42:27.
Thirty-year-old Lia Jigour of Coulterville, a member of a Stanislaus National Forest Hotshot firefighting team, took the women's title with a time of 46:25.
At least as remarkable as the standout 10K performances of McIlroy and Dunlap, however, was that of another 12-year-old: Curtis Creek School seventh-grader Cassi Land became the first female to win the Old Mill's two-mile race, crossing the line with a time of 13:43 and edging runner-up Mike Boyer by more than 30 seconds.
Youth wasn't as much served at the 34th Old Mill as much as it served itself. The young medal winners were fit, trained and ready to win. All are members of the new Foothill Gold Running and Track Club, coached by former Sonora High and Cal Poly distance star Darren Holman and by Curtis Creek School PE teacher and track coach Paul McIlroy
Remember the names of these 2013 Old Mill stars, because they will likely be regulars on the race's leaderboard for years to come. The event's demographic has been tilting toward the gray of late, with well over half its entrants being 40-and-older and with those still-fit athletes taking many of the medals. But if Foothill Gold keeps attracting members, a new youth movement could sweep over the venerable Columbia race.
"What we'd like to do is get more runners involved in the sport at an early age," said Holman, whose club now includes nearly a dozen members and is looking for more (foothillgold.com.) "Withproven training methods, we'd like to get them ready for high school and college competition early."
The formula seems to be working: Jackson, a Curtis Creek eighth-grader paced himself with Holman until the 6.2-mile race's halfway mark was in sight. "OK, go get him!" said Holman, and Jackson lit out after Mike Morris, who at the time had a 100-yard lead. By the four-mile mark, when runners turned onto Columbia Airport's grass runway, Jackson had built a lead he would not relinquish.
"I had a 38:59 in Jamestown," said the young winner, who finished second to a college runner in the March race, "but this was a tougher course."
Now competing in 800, 1500 and 3000-meter races at Junior Olympic meets, Jackson began running in kindergarten, doing laps with his dad's PE classes. Although he hasn't ruled out running marathons, the versatile athlete may first take a crack at decathlon, a grueling medley of five track and field events.
Second-place finisher Morris, a veteran Tuolumne County runner, has a marathon on the more immediate horizon. Later this year, he and his family will journey to Peru, where he will compete in the Inca Trail Marathon, a High Andes 26.2-miler that ends in Macchu Picchu and at one point crosses a 14,000-foot pass.
No, Morris said, he wasn't surprised to see Jackson McIlroy fly by him at the Old Mill's halfway point. "That kid is amazing," said Morris. "I ran with him at the Jamestown run, and he's really good."
Third-place finisher Ryan Dunlap, although more than two years from graduation, is likely the best runner at Belleview School. "I really like cross-country," he said. "I like running on grass and paths and I like the distances."
But Saturday's performance shows that Ryan has no real trouble with pavement, which didn't surprise his mom. "Ryan came out of the womb ready to run," laughed Tricia Dunlap.
Women's winner Lia Jigour, a self-described "casual runner" who didn't even know what her time was a few minutes after crossing the finish line, had no highly-technical training secrets to share. "It must be climbing all those hills with the Stanislaus Hotshots," said Jigour, now looking forward to a summer of fighting fires throughout the west.
Two-mile winner Cassi Land, however, may have turned in the day's most impressive performance, whipping not only every other female, but every male in the race. And she effortlessly crossed the line, hardly breaking a sweat or gasping for a breath.
Also a top-finisher in last year's Old Mill two-mile, Cassi attributes her speed to running 800- and 1500-meter races in track meets. But if she moves up to the 10K distance as she gets old, Laurie Crisp's 27-year-old 10K record of 35:16 just might be in jeopardy.
And Don Moses' 29-year-old men's record of 32:12? "I'd like to take a crack at it," said Holman, now 37. "If I get myself back in shape, I just might have it in me. It would be great to bring the glory days of the Old Mill back."
Although much of this year's Old Mill gold went to grade-schoolers, older runners were not shut out.
Chris Smith, a 56-year-old computer programmer for Sonora's Front Porch Communications, blazed to a fourth-place overall finish and an age-division crown in the 10K, posting a rocket-fast 42:55. A former high school and community college track runner, Smith took years off the sport before hitting the pavement again a few years ago.
"I ran the race in Copperopolis at age 52, and kept on running," he said. "I completed the Boston Marathon last year and may return next year."
But 81-year-old Frank Oyung was the day's true ironman. More than an hour and 50 minutes after the starting gun sounded, the indomitable Grovelander crossed the line to the thunderous, appreciative applause of many of the 140 Old Mill participants who stuck around for the awards ceremony.
"It wasn't easy, but I got it done," grinned Oyung, probably echoing the sentiments of many a finisher.