Ashenfelter 8K Captured
BY WAYNE BAKER
Thanksgiving weekend offers runners a plethora of race choices, but Glen Ridge, NJ's Ashenfelter 8K is remarkable for several reasons. First, few, if any, other races are hosted by an Olympic gold medalist. Second, race director Dan Murphy's strong commitment to the runners makes this race a standout in several ways. Finally, the town government's support of the race is strong and deep. I believe these factors will make this race a "major" on the New Jersey calendar over the next few years.
Horace Ashenfelter, an FBI agent, won the steeplechase at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland, against a heavily favored Russian opponent, Vladimir Kazantsev. Since these were the early days of the cold war, newspapers loved the story about the FBI man "running down" a Russian.
Thanksgiving morning 2002 was cold and clear with early morning temperatures around 20 degrees. Moderate winds made it feel a little colder. As a result, most of the runners had ducked into the Glen Ridge Women's Club for shelter and made check-in a bit hectic.
After we lined up for the start, Race Director Murphy and Mayor Steven Plate each said a few words (very brief, in consideration of weather conditions) and handed the microphone to Ashenfelter. He asked, "Are you ready?" and we all shouted "yes." I think many of us had interpreted this as a bit of cheerleading and were surprised when Ashenfelter's next act was to lift the gun and fire. We were off.
The course is fairly flat with essentially an elongated "B" shape. Starting on Ridgewood Avenue near the Women's Club, the race went north for about a mile and a half, made two right turns to parallel itself back to just past the 3-mile point. It then made a right and left to pass the starting line at about 3½ miles. At about 4¼, two lefts have the course again paralleling itself. About a quarter-mile later, a left and right brought the racers back to Ridgewood Avenue for about 600 yards into the finish. This simple course, with long straightaways and few turns should make for fast races. Folding the race onto itself also makes this an excellent race for spectators since they can see the start, finish, and a point near the middle without moving.
Capturing the men's race was 31-year-old Terrance Armstrong, of Pompton Lakes, NJ, finishing in 25:45. The veteran edged out 19-year-old Joe Jacobs, of Bloomingdale, NJ, who finished in 25:49. On the women's side, in a race dominated by Masters, Catherine Borkowski, of Ringwood, NJ, finished in 30:07, comfortably beating Boonton, NJ's Janice Merra's 31:19 clocking. Another milestone marked here was 86-year-old Vincent Carnevale marking his 500th race since his 70th birthday.
In a postrace discussion with race director Dan Murphy, I asked about the unusual 8K distance. He said that as they were revamping the race three years ago, he was faced with a choice between 5 miles and 8K (about 4.96 miles) and chose the length based on logo considerations. The clean, simple A8K is a winner for clarity and conciseness, perhaps more race directors should look at decision making from a marketing point of view. Since the revamp, the race has grown from a 10K with about 200 participants to about 800 this year. Additional impetus for growth should come from the race being designated in 2003 as a USATF-NJ championship for both men and women.
Runners got some "excellent swag." Everyone received a long sleeve T-shirt made of technical fabric and a pair of gloves. The top 100 finishers received a commemorative mug (to be increased to top 100 men and top 100 women next year). Age-group winners received a commemorative jacket.
Interview with Ashenfelter
Following the 2002 Ashenfelter 8K, Horace Ashenfelter extended me the courtesy of spending a few minutes answering some questions. My notes were taken on paper and extensive paraphrasing has been the result.
Ashenfelter is a trim-looking man with silver hair. He moves with an easy grace belying his nearly 80 years. He was wearing a Penn State shirt and his ties to the school are still strong. In May 2001, Penn State named their indoor track after Ashenfelter. Both Horace and his brother, Bill, had attended Penn State University. Both represented the USA at the Olympics and both were national cross-country champions, Horace in 1955 and 1956 and Bill in 1951.
I asked Ashenfelter if he was aware that he and Bill were the only pair of brothers to have won the cross-country national championship. He was not surprised, although he did not seem to be aware of this.
I asked about his service during World War II and about his career. Ashenfelter told me that during the war, he was stationed stateside doing pilot training as an air gunnery instructor. He was an FBI agent until 1959, and then did sales and marketing work in the precious metals business for Engelhard and later for his own company.
During the 1950s, another FBI agent, Fred Wilt, was a top-level runner. I asked Ashenfelter if he had a relationship with Wilt. Ashenfelter responded: In the FBI, there was no involvement, but we were friends. We both competed for the New York Athletic Club. Wilt was basically a miler, while I was a two and three miler; so we generally did not compete against each other. Wilt helped open the door to the FBI for me. When the requirement that agents be either lawyers or accountants was being changed, I was out of work and Fred let me know about the change.
I had heard a story about Tom Fleming, winner of the 1973 and 1975 NY City Marathons, having, as a teenager, ridden his bicycle to visit Ashenfelter. I asked about his mentoring of Fleming. Ashenfelter was emphatic that he had not mentored Fleming. He did confirm the bicycle story and felt he may have inspired him. He said they were still somewhat friendly.
1. Terrance Armstrong 25:45
1. Catherine Borkowski 30:07