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FOR LONG RUN, THIS IS A NICE PLACE TO BE

Brooksville filled up with young, sleek runners floating through their warmup jogs Saturday morning. Older guys like me propped their heels on car bumpers to take on the grim job of stretching out middle-aged hamstrings.

The finish line had been strung across Howell Avenue. A keg of Miller Lite had been tapped, ready to serve a cold one to anyone hard-core enough to want such a thing on a 50-degree morning after running one of the oldest and toughest 10Ks in the state - Flatlanders Challenge.

It was, in short, my scene.

The smell of Ben Gay is for me what the aroma of a fresh-baked pie is for normal folks - a reminder of my youth, a signal to my brain that I belong, that I have come home.

It's that way with every race, more so with Flatlanders.

A dozen years ago, I was a former runner, glad to have put such a painful sport behind me.

Then I heard that Judy Hensley, the race director at the time, had lured two aging marathon greats, Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers, to enter Flatlanders. I decided my usual routine of drinking coffee and watching from my porch wouldn't be good enough. I wanted to run.

I did it slower than I thought possible, slower than kids and retirees, slower than the guy pushing a baby stroller who flew by me in the second mile. But, afterward, I stuck around for a Gatorade at Hernando Park. I remember thinking how pretty Brooksville looked - the white band shell at Hernando Park, the bright green rye grass and the big oaks. I realized how much I liked talking to other runners, including Hensley and Hernando High cross-country coach Ernie Chatman, who had helped organize the race.

With a newborn son, I was at a time in my life when I was thinking a lot about where I wanted to settle down. Like most young reporters sent to work in Hernando County for the Times, I never planned for it to be here.

This one day not only got me back into a sport that I've stuck with ever since; it helped change my mind about Brooksville. It made staying here seem okay.

The point is this: As I start writing a regular column for the Hernando Times after 18 years as a reporter, I will be writing as a true country resident. My wife, Laura, owns businesses in Brooksville and Spring Hill. My two sons go to public schools. I own a house, no longer in Brooksville, but just south of town. I pay taxes.

You will see me at events like Flatlanders, soccer games, school plays, restaurants and the supermarket. Stop me, please, if you have an idea for a column - any idea. It's that open. I plan to write about the admirable and reprehensible people in Hernando County, the environment, our government and schools. And, after all these years of sticking strictly to the facts, or trying to, I'm now free to write my opinions.

I'll start with an easy one.

Flatlanders, with fewer than 200 runners, seemed a little barren on Saturday. I took a drink at one aid station not because I was thirsty, but because the volunteer looked so forlorn behind her rows of carefully filled cups.

So if you have any inclination to run, to be part of a race and a community event, get out there next year. It's a tradition that will be 30 years old by then and deserves to last much longer. Because traditions, like the oaks in Hernando Park - and unlike hamstrings - get better with age.

Dan DeWitt can be reached at dewitt@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6116.

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