By Chris Bateman

Event details

What:

The 40th Old Mill Run 10K race, along with a two-mile walk, a two-mile run and two kids’ races.

Where:

Main Street, Columbia State Historic Park, rain or shine.

When:

Saturday, April 20. Mini Mill Run (ages 6 and under) begins at 8:30 a.m. and Mill Run (ages 7- 10) at 8:40, both in front of the Fallon Hotel. 10K, two-mile walk and two-mile run all begin at 9 in downtown Columbia.

Registration:

Online registration at itsyourrace.com, open through Wednesday, April 17, $20 includes T-shirt. Race-day registration, $25 with T-shirt, begins at 7:15 at the state park.

Running was my religion 35 years ago, and I went to church a lot.

Once I put in 150 days without missing a run. At my obsession’s peak, I’d log 70 miles a week, pounding pavement in rain, wind and searing heat. I was a regular at Columbia’s 10,000-meter Old Mill Run, whose starting gun will sound for the 40th time on April 20.

I read our cult’s bible, Jim Fixx’s “Complete Book of Running,” from cover to cover and over and over. Confronted by nonbelievers, I’d pull out my dog-eared CBR, and cite chapter and verse that proved running indeed was the one true faith.

But I made one key mistake: Being born 40 years too soon.

My best Old Mill time, 37:01 in 1980, earned me a third-place medal in the 30-39 division. It was the only hardware I ever collected.

Had I been born in 1986 instead of ’46, medals, ribbons, trophies and plaques would cover the walls of my office. My 37:01 would have won nine out of the past 15 Old Mills. But last year, it would have been tight: My best time would have brought me to the finish line just six seconds ahead of 2018 winner Adin Dibble, a Curtis Creek eighth-grader.

Keep in mind that I was but an also-runner in the late ‘70s and ‘80s. I’d see Old Mill winners like Don Moses, Bradley Brown or Ken Danz for a minute or two, then lose sight of them well before the one-mile mark.

So what of their stratospheric times?

Made not to be broken?

Well, many records were made to broken, but apparently not the Old Mill’s.

Moses’ 32:12 men’s mark, set in 1984, is now 35 years old. And Laurie Crisp’s 35:16 women’s record, posted two years later, is 33. Both records are not only Old Mill bests, but the best times ever recorded in any Tuolumne County 10K.

Both record-holders were out-of-towners who ran here once and never returned.

As the two champions become senior citizens (Moses, of Castaic, is now 60. Crisp, of El Cajon, is 58), some 8,000 Old Mill Runners have taken a crack at their marks. Only a handful have come within two minutes, and in the past two decades, none have orbited within the same competitive solar system.

Anyone who wins the Old Mill deserves plenty of credit, but the truth is this: The runners who show up in Columbia every April are slower than they used to be. Much slower.

Consider this: Dibble’s winning 2018 time of 37:06 would have put him at fourteenth – behind 13 males and women’s champ Sharlet Gilbert – in the 1984 Old Mill. Last year’s women’s winner Sarah Butcher (51:55), would have finished 248th overall and 30th among female competitors in ’84. She would have trailed Gilbert by more than 15 minutes. That’s enough time for a latte and a reasonably intimate chat at Starbucks.

So what’s going on here? Are we turning into a nation of slugs, grafted to iPhones, tablets, recliners, memory-foam mattresses and drive-up windows?

Or are we smarter, saving our knees, hips and hamstrings for upper middle age and beyond? Maybe the 20-something athletes of today have seen too many of us Running Boom veterans sidelined by pulled muscles and worn joints.

Or perhaps community and camaraderie, always hallmarks of the Old Mill, have replaced the desire to kick some rival’s ass in the 10K’s home stretch.

Community and camaraderie, indeed, will be plentiful at Old Mill XL, which also includes a two-mile walk and run, as well as a pair of kids’ races. Runners of all ages will again gather on Columbia’s Main Street on April 20, renewing old acquaintances, making new ones, and again testing themselves against the scenic 6.2-mile course.

But testing themselves against Don Moses or Laurie Crisp? History says it’s not gonna happen.

First off, young bucks physically capable of busting those hoary records just aren’t showing. Of 60 runners in last year’s 10K, only five were in the 19-29 division. More than half, in contrast, were over 40.

Secondly, Old Mill turnouts are on the rise, but they’re still far lower today than they were in the early and mid-80s. Then nearly 400 runners from near and far routinely lined up for the 10K.

Yes, the Running Boom is over. Jim Fixx’s gospel – that running alone could overcome all manner of dietary, health, and perhaps even moral shortcomings – was torpedoed by the heart attack that killed him during a 1984 training run.

Yes, our guru’s death brought glee to couch potatoes nationwide. But it also sounded the Boom’s death knell, and within years Kenyans were winning top marathons and disaffected American runners were turning to cycling, swimming, walking or Law and Order TV marathons.

So how can the Old Mill again be competitive?

Yes, and 15-year-old Adin Dibble could have a hand in it. He is only becoming faster as a high school runner, and could someday challenge Moses’ mark.

The long-term answer, however, may be crass – but it’s clear: Cash.

Offer five grand to anyone who breaks the records, and I guarantee that Moses’ and Crisp’s marks would go on immediate life support.

Well, we Old Mill organizers can’t afford green that long, but for the first time the men’s and women’s winners will each win a $250 prize. And if either breaks Moses’ or Crisp’s record, he or she will collect an additional $250 – for a total haul of $500 for about 35 minutes of very hard work.

I can already hear the idealists carping about a loss of innocence, the triumph of the almighty buck and the sad departure of “running for running’s sake.”

Well, I have news: That train left the station in the early 1970s, when the Olympics opened its doors to paid athletes. And now it bothers few that elite distance runners can bag tens of thousands of dollars with wins Boston, New York, Chicago and other major marathons, and that track athletes collect appearance fees and sponsorships worth thousands.

“Yep, yes, cash prizes are a good idea,” agrees Old Mill women’s record holder Crisp, who’s now Laurie Clare and is a chemistry instructor and lecturer at San Diego State. “People will find out about it and they’ll come up.”

She ought to know: Crisp collected thousands of dollars in race purses during the late 1980s, including a $4,000 prize for her 11th place finish in the 1988 Olympic Trials Marathon and $6,000 more for her 7th place finish at the New York Marathon the same year.

Whether our just-announced cash prizes will bring flocks of elite runners to Columbia for 40th Old Mill is unclear. Whether its longstanding records will fall as a result is even more uncertain.

But it just might make things interesting. And, as rider of the pace bike for April 20’s race, I’m going to step up my training. I just might have to ride a bit faster to stay ahead of the lead runners this year.

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