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Flatlanders Challenge was test for runners, Brooksville community

I jogged the course of the Flatlanders Challenge on Tuesday.

I jogged it because there isn't going to be a race this year, or maybe ever again.

I jogged it because I wanted to mimic the feeling of running one of the state's oldest and hilliest 10Ks (minus, of course, the impossible-to-duplicate agony) and remind myself of everything we'll miss.

Setting off down Brooksville's Main Street, I recalled the way most of us started off too fast, and then paid for it when we turned onto S Brooksville Avenue and the first hill.

In 1995 — hung over, fat and still in my bathrobe — I watched the race from the front porch of my old house on this street. I saw Bill Rodgers float by, barely trailing the leaders. I figured that if he could run that beautifully at age 47, I could at least give it a try. So I was reminded of that as I jogged by — my decision to get back in shape.

The next year, I was determined to run fast in memory of my Pop, who had died the month before and who had lost 40 pounds and pretty much quit drinking after he started running in middle age. I thought of him every Flatlanders — and on Tuesday — at the crest of the first hill. It was there that a volunteer had called out my sad, slow 1-mile split, which told me that if I really wanted to honor my father I needed to start training.

A few hundred yards later, jogging past the public library, I missed the crowd that always gathered there on race days, and the prospect, after finishing, of communing with other runners over green bananas and frozen bagels.

Races bring life to cities, like Brooksville, that tend to go into hibernation every weekend. When my son and I, and 14,000 others, entered the Gasparilla Distance Classic in Tampa on Saturday, it was clear from the number of walkers that it wasn't really a race. It was a modern, drug-free be-in.

The weather for Flatlanders wasn't always clear and cold. But jogging through the lush, hilltop neighborhood around Colonial Drive reminded me of several race mornings like Tuesday, when frost had wilted the early azalea blossoms.

The course heads downhill from there — then up, down and up again. I've heard that Brooksville, like Rome, is a city of seven hills, and it's only during Flatlanders that this claim doesn't seem completely ridiculous.

So what happened? Chuck Boldt, a former race director and longtime member of the Red Mule Runners, said no one in the club wanted to prop up an event that barely drew enough runners to break even. Jay Pingley, co-director in 2007 and 2008, said he offered to stage it again this year (and next year, too, by the way), but nobody took him up on it.

I can't criticize people who over 30 years built this race into a community institution, but that's what it is now. And I think it's a shame it was allowed to die — or even come this close — without more of a fight.

Jogging onto Howell Avenue, staring up at the last and steepest hill, I remembered that it was the hardest part, the point where you had to decide if you had the guts to hold off the runner behind you or go after the one ahead.

So that's what this race gave us, and hopefully will again. It's right there in its name. It gave us a challenge, which us self-indulgent softies need once in a while. And I'll miss that, too.

Flatlanders Challenge was test for runners, Brooksville community 03/05/09 [Last modified: Thursday, March 5, 2009 9:06pm]
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