By Chris Bateman

For The Union Democrat

You don’t have to be a world-class athlete to win a rousing round of applause at the Old Mill Run, which sprinted from the starting line the 40th time Saturday,

Just ask 55-year-old Steve Jones, who doesn’t look anything like a medal-winning runner. But there he was in Columbia State Historic Park, amid clapping and hooting throngs, accepting the third-place medal in the men’s 50-59 division.

With a somewhat leisurely time of 1 hour, 24 minutes and 16 seconds.

“It’s a miracle, I know,” said Jones of the honor.

“Add it to your trophy case,” grinned Race Director Dave Urquhart, handing over the medal. “It’ll be the only thing in the case,” laughed Jones.

His Old Mill performance was just the latest chapter in a story that began two years ago. “I had become badly overweight, nearly 300 pounds, and knew I had to do something,” said Jones, a semi-truck driver from Twain Harte. “So I began training for a triathlon.”

He dropped 40 pounds and last September went to Santa Cruz and completed a half-ironman (1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride, half-marathon run) in just over eight hours. “That was huge,” said Jones.

But then an injured Achilles sidelined him for six months. “So the Old Mill is the start of my new comeback,” said Jones, who ran at 275 pounds Saturday. “And I intend to be back next year, and do better yet.”

Then came Gini Seibert and Pirrko Dyer, who again proved that some of the most thrilling finishes come long after the top runners cross the lines.

Seibert, 73, started running with the legendary Eddie Zoma Club in the 1980s, ran a bunch of Old Mills, completed eight marathons, and never quit. The retired Sonora merchant and artist (Pottery Plus, Out of Hand) still runs three or four times a week, cross-country skis and is goes to fitness classes at Columbia College.

“The hills were tough today,” admitted Seibert, who finished in an hour and 10 minutes. “Up and down and up and down, but I got them all done. And, yes, I’ll do it again next year.”

Then, nearly 30 minutes later, 85-year-old Pirkko Dyer crossed the line. And, as she has been in many races over the past several years, the retired educator was the oldest runner to finish.

“But I’m not a runner,” insisted Dyer, who finished her Old Mill in an hour and 37 minutes. “I’m a walker. I walk three to five days a week, and am also in college fitness classes with my husband.”

So, walking pace not withstanding, she finished second to Gini Seibert in the race’s 70 & Over division.

But lifetime achievement awards, the Saturday crowd in Columbia would no doubt agree, might have been more fitting for these two remarkable women.

So went the 40th Old Mill, where it seemed every finisher had a story.