I Cannot Tell A Lie
Article by: Michael SelmanReproduced with permission of the author
Here in the United States, February is the month of Presidents Day. When I was growing up, we used to have two days off from school in February. We celebrated Lincoln's birthday on the 12th, and Washington's birthday on the 22nd. Somewhere along the way, the two birthdays were merged together, and moved to a Monday, and, now, we don't get it off anyway, so it's really easy to forget what we're celebrating altogether.
The stories I remember about both of these to great leaders alluded around their honesty. We learned about how "Honest Abe" walked the marathon distance to return a book to the library, lest anyone might think he stole it. George, as the story is told, confessed to chopping down the cherry tree, while still a tot, which, in a twisted sort of way, leads me to this month's article/confession.
I cannot tell a lie. I am shamelessly a a vulture runner, or, as my friend "George" prefers to call it, a cherry picker. Whatever you call the art form, it defines the question of how far someone is willing to go in order to pick up a piece of running hardware. We're not necessarily talking distance, although that may be part of the equation. We're referring to unabashed extremes. Us cherry pickers will do just about anything to legitimately place in a road race. We may travel hundreds of miles to find a secluded, low key race because we already know our main competition is running somewhere else. We may run a race that offers awards several deep, instead of the traditional three deep, thus increasing our odds. We may choose a race due to the demographics of the area. That's precisely how I won my first ever award, and I didn't even know it at the time.
My work has involved quite a bit of travel in the past. One such road trip took me down to Tampa for a couple of weeks one February. Since I had to stay over for a weekend, I decided to visit my aunt and uncle who live in West Palm Beach, about four hours away. I also resolved to run a five mile road race at John Prince Park while I was there.
I had been fighting a stomach virus the whole week before, and was not at top strength for the race. In addition, it was 82 degrees at race time, a far cry from the teens I had left behind at home. I barely averaged a 7:30 pace for the race, which was run simultaneously with a half marathon. There were tons of people ahead of me, and what seemed like only a selected few stragglers behind me. I left the race disgusted at my performance and didn't even give it a second thought.
Two months later, while looking over a regional running magazine, I noticed the race results listed under the Florida section. I had won my age group. How could this be, I wondered? It was about the worst race of my life, and everyone else seemed to be ahead of me. Then I thought of something. West Palm Beach is basically a retirement community. All those people who had kicked my butt were probably in their 70s and 80s. There were hardly any people in my age group. I had finally picked a cherry, and hadn't even stayed around long enough to enjoy the sweetness of the fruit.
It wasn't too long before I had picked another cherry, and again, I couldn't bask in the glory. It was in another five mile race, this time at Carolina Beach, NC. In this race, they presented hand carved, wooden pelican awards based on the number of people in each age group. I had a much better race than the one in Florida, clocking 34:25. Awards went seven deep in my age group, and my time was good enough to place me eighth. To add insult to injury, I stepped in some dog poop not three minutes after my mother had warned me about it. I listen to her more often now than I used to.
She called me the next week to say they had decided to go eight deep in my age group, and she would pick up my award for me. "No" I thought. "Lets get everyone who was at the race back there, so they could all applaud as I accept my eighth place pelican." She picked up my prized pelican, put it in the trunk of her car, and promptly closed the door on it's head. Now, a headless pelican adorns my den. Two cherries, and, still, no adulation. I had not yet refined my cherry picking skills.
I was finally handed my first award the following spring at a handicap race. That January, a cross country race had been scheduled. It poured rain for three solid days leading up to the race, and as a result, very few people showed up. There were tons of T-shirts left over, so a race was created to get rid of them. The format of the race went like this. In order to enter, you had to figure what your average 5K time was for the year before, and enter that information on the application. The start of the race was staggered, so the slowest people started first, and the fastest ones started last. In theory, if everyone ran their average time from the year before, we would all finish at the exact same time. Awards went to the first 25 overall finishers. There were 28 people entered. I came in 24th. We all applauded each other as the awards were handed out. Finally, I was there to receive my hard earned award.
My cherry picking skills have become quite refined over the last year or so. I actually place about a quarter of the time now. My crowning jewel came on the first Saturday of May, 1995. I was still living in my two bedroom corporate apartment at the time, and a guy from El Paso had been here on business and was staying in the other bedroom. He kind of looked and acted like Curly from the Three Stooges.
There were about a dozen races to chose from that day, including four on the Grand Prix Circuit. I looked them all over carefully. After a lot of soul searching, I decided on the 5K Run for Education in Buchanan, about a two hour trip from home. Awards were only two deep, and the age groups were kind of strange, so I figured maybe a lot of people would choose one of the other races to run that day. Mr. El Paso thought I was crazy leaving the house at 5 in the morning just to run a race, but my gamble paid off. I took second age group award in the 36-40 year age group. (I told you the age groups were weird.)
I came back to my apartment proudly displaying my award. Curly just looked at me in amazement. "You just wasted you time." he said. "You got up early for nothing. While you were gone, there was a race that went right past our apartment." I just smiled. I knew at that moment that I had perfected the art of cherry picking.
A while later, I was recounting this story to my friend "George", the Cherry Picking King, seeking his approval and adulation. He just looked at me and sadly shook his head. "Son," he said. "You missed the boat on that one. Not only did I run that race and win my age group. Immediately after that, I hopped in my van, drove to Cedertown, ran another race, and won my age group there, too. Two cherries in two hours. You still have a lot to learn about cherry picking."
I cannot tell a lie. I am a cherry picker. But George, you chopped down the tree.
Michael Selman Roads Scholar Atlanta Georgia USAMichael Selman is a freelance writer who has appeared in publications and web sites throughout the world, including Runner's World, Footnotes, and CoolRunning.