By CHRIS BATEMAN
The Old Mill Run’s renewal Saturday takes me back to the race’s beginnings some four decades ago.
Back then, attracting women was my motivation.
I was overweight and under-athletic. I thought I might be witty, but females never got close enough to find out.
So I read the Jim Fixx’s “Complete Book of Running,” yanked on my Keds and cutoffs, and hit the road. Finally I had found a sport that required more sweat than style.
But the opposite sex still didn’t give me a second look. So I decided I’d run in a 10K race to showcase my trimmed-down frame.
But back in 1978, Tuolumne County had no 10Ks. No problem: I called Roger Scott, a former Union Democrat sports editor who had become Tuolumne County’s recreation director.
“If you put on this race, my boss will pay for it,” I told him, not at all sure I could deliver on the promise.
But Scott said yes, and so did Democrat publisher Harvey McGee, whom I assured that hundreds of runners – many of them would-be advertisers or subscribers– would show up.
Harvey not only bought this suspect bill of goods, but insisted the race be free to all. Now the pressure was on: I had to sell a free run.
With unceasing hype and hoopla, I described our Columbia 10K as a “distance classic” before a single runner had signed up. If he could turn back the clock, I claimed, Pheidippedes would choose the Old Mill Run over his 490 BC run from Marathon to Athens.
Instead of dying at the finish line, I pointed out, the legendary Athenian soldier would get a free can of Bud courtesy of The Union Democrat. (Yes, in the 1970s Columbia State Park had no problem with a beer giveaway).
As the Old Mill neared, I cranked out stories on fat runners turned thin, slow runners turned fast, old runners, young runners and runners in between.
I arm-twisted County Historian Carlo DeFerrari into writing piece on the history of our course, which included a hideaway used by Joaquin Murrieta. Then there was my guide to “The Dogs of the Old Mill,” warning of “woofers,” “growlers,” “yappers,” and “long and low trouble in the form of an outspoken dachshund.”
Still, I suggested, signing up for the race was akin to a dip in the Fountain of Lourdes. It would cure what ails you – no matter what that might be.
So did this barely bridled bloviation work? Well, 263 runners turned out for the first Old Mill.
And did women flock to me after I crossed the finish line 10 minutes after the leaders? Well, no. Not really. In fact, not at all.
But I had an ice-cold beer, endorphins coursing through my veins and a certain euphoria about our first 10K being such a success.
Even my boss was convinced: “The joy of running, like the joy of spring, is for everyone,” McGee wrote after that first race.
The Old Mill quickly became an annual family reunion for foothill runners, complete with elders, kindly aunts, cranky uncles and nervous newcomers. As turnouts rose to 600 and beyond, we’d gather at the Columbia gazebo to swap stories, lies and excuses, jokes and jibes, high fives and thumbs up.
Then Jim Fixx died. Kenyan marathoners began outrunning Americans. Knees and hips got creaky. Fitness clubs opened. Yoga replaced interval workouts. And, as costs rose, the Old Mill began charging entry fees.
In 1992 The Democrat bowed out. A series of committees, service clubs and charities took over. But as the costs of putting it on mounted, Old Mill turnouts dipped.
But longtime runner and educator Dave Urquhart has coordinated the race’s return.
He and his cohorts in 2018 cut entry fees, enlisted sponsors, added a two-mile walk, and recruited artist Chuck Waldman to design a special-edition retro T-shirt. Race proceeds went to the Tuolumne County’s Christmas Eve dinner and to the WINGS Fund.
I’m now a believer – again.
Sidelined by a bad hip, I ran my last Old Mill decades ago. But I’ve been at the race almost every year since as a volunteer, so I know there is still magic in Columbia each April. That heady blend of competition and camaraderie that began in 1978, even with the lower turnouts of late, never disappeared. And I’m still convinced that running is the cheapest, most effective and most enjoyable way to get and stay in shape.
So you are hereby inviting you to join us on Saturday for 2018’s New Old Mill Run.
The race’s success pretty much depends on turnout, so if you show it will continue for years to come. Then you can tell your friends that you were there when the Old Mill began anew.