A Birthday PR at The Bennington Road Race

Although I cannot remember the bulk of my life (a result of years of depression perhaps) there are a few conversations that have stayed in my memory as clearly as the day they occurred. One such dialog took place at a high school track meet in 1984. My coach Steve Zemianek took me aside after a race and in a stern tone uttered the question; “VanOrden, when are you going to get serious?”. It wasn’t that I had done poorly in the race that caused him to single me out, but the opposite – I had done done quite well and really surprised him. He saw potential in me and challenged me to rise up to meet it. Coach Zem remains one of the most inspirational figures of my life. Were he alive today he might see that 24 years after he uttered those immortal words, I’ve finally gotten serious.

One of Zem’s great legacies in my home town of Bennington, VT is the annual Bennington Road Race, held on the first Sunday of May. The race is a celebration of the end of a long Vermont Winter and the beginning of a lush and vibrant spring. For over three decades this race has attracted many of the best runners in the northeast who want to challenge themselves on one of the prettiest courses anywhere in the U.S. Since his passing in 2000, the race has been held in honor of coach Zem to remember and celebrate his contributions to the thriving running community in Bennington. Three of my teammates on Zem’s miracle team in the mid 80’s have gone on to great national and international success. Dave Jareckie competed in the 1992 and 1994 Olympics, Lincoln DeWitt competed in the 2002 Olympics and Chris Lundy has competed in two Olympic trials (including 2008) and has been on many national teams competing at the world championships. Then there’s me. I guess it took a lot longer for Zem’s advice and coaching to sink in, but it has, and I’m grateful.

It was 5:15AM when I awoke Sunday morning on the 4th of May 2008. I was 40 years old. The previous two nights and days had been spent “partying” and celebrating my 40th birthday in New York City with Dhrumil Purohit, Phillip McCluskey and the amazing raw community there. The “thin mint sundae” that I had consumed at 11:00PM at Pure Food and Wine the night before was doing the cha cha in my intestines, and my groggy eyes did not want to open. It’s a 3 and a half hour drive from New York City to Bennington so I figured that we would have to leave at 5:30 in order to make it to the race. The first race of my 40’s. The beginning of my Masters running career. The first race for me to show my hometown just how serious I had become.

The Bennington Banner, the local newspaper, had come to my house a week earlier to do a story on the Running Raw Project. I was very surprised when they had called me, as Bennington is a very conservative town (by Vermont standards). The reporter wanted to do a run with me and then film me making some food. I had thought that it might end up as a little blurb in the sports section of the paper but it turned out to be front page news, and consumed almost all of the print real estate on page one. I was shocked, and I must say a little embarrassed, but at the same time grateful that I had been given such a large voice in my community. This issue of the paper came out just a few days before the race, and I was hoping that the race would be a great opportunity to demonstrate the power of a simple raw diet to my community.

When I arrived at the race, which takes place on the grounds of the former Governor’s mansion (now a park), there were smiling familiar faces everywhere. I have spent the vast majority of my 6 months in VT running alone in the woods or working at home on the computer. My interaction with the community has been minimal and this grand celebration of spring and sprint felt like my “coming out” party. I was worried that I might be perceived as a freak after the article in the paper ran, but the cheerful greetings and questions that I was being bombarded with told a different story. Aside from the usual questions about protein, calories and “what do you eat?”, the general consensus among my inquisitors was that it made sense. Vermonters are very practical people and can appreciate the benefits of eating a simple more natural diet.

Race psychology is a strange phenomenon. As I warmed up and shared greetings with friends and runners from years gone by, my mind was still focused on that thin mint sundae, my lack of sleep for the two previous nights, and the cramped quarters on the drive up from the city that morning. The outer calm that I displayed was in direct contrast to the fear that I was going to look like a fool in front of my hometown crowd. My brain told me that they were expecting big things from the raw vegan bold enough to be a front page news story. The pressure was intense. Had the race been held elsewhere I might have choked, but the bright green tunnel formed by the stately old maple trees lining the dirt road and the perfectly placed stones of the old stone wall in between the trees touched a relaxing chord somewhere deeper in me. This was home, I was safe. But more importantly I was running to honor coach Zem, not for my own personal ego.

As the race began I found myself immediately in the lead and feeling surprisingly swift. After a few hundred meters a man pulled up to my side. I said hello and we began to converse. His name was Greg and he worked as a registered nurse at the local hospital. I could feel that it was a quick pace, but Greg seemed comfortable and I was excited not to be running alone. The conversation was still going strong as we hit the first mile in 4:50. Ahead of us stretched a quarter mile long hill that climbed quite steeply. I kept the pace going strong as I charged up the hill, Greg could not maintain the pace and fell back. I offered a “good luck” and ended the conversation. I would run alone until the finish. The clock read 19:50 as I broke the tape and crossed the line. It would be the first time that a local runner had broken the 20 minute mark on this hilly 3.8 mile course.

Congratulations poured in accompanied with comments about my diet. One woman offered “Whatever it is that you are eating, it seems to be working”. The day continued with many wonderful conversations with friends old and new. I can only hope that a seed has been planted in the town of Bennington, VT, and I can’t wait to see how it grows in the times to come.

This is the story that appeared in the Bennington Banner the following day: http://www.biteback.be/news/detail.php?news_id=4303

Click HERE to see the Video.

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