Unlike Mitch Barnhart, I have no death wish. We’re both on the sunset side of our fifties, but unlike the University of Kentucky’s director of athletics, I’m not jumping out of perfectly good airplanes or scaling the heights of Mt. Kilimanjaro. I do, however, periodically participate in something many consider just as torturous—I like to run. I’ll tolerate all sorts of blisters, shin splints, and the occasional bout with plantar fasciitis just so that I can choke down that entire pepperoni pizza and a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream guilt free. So when the opportunity came for me to participate in the inaugural Go Big Blue 4 Miler race, I eagerly plunked down my $30, laced up my sneakers, and showed up early on a blustery, overcast Saturday morning ready to see how fast and far my aging flat feet could still take me.
This isn’t just any ordinary, run-of-the-mill road race. Sponsored in part by Kroger, this unique run/walk event winds its way through seven different University of Kentucky south campus sporting venues. For die-hard, lifelong UK fans, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to actually be on the field of play—to retrace the footsteps of your Wildcat heroes, as you tread the same exact turf they did during all their glory years.
My race strategy is to start slow and ease back, but that’s easier said than done for this distinctive event. You see, I’m nowhere near my running prime, but I’m still prideful enough to want to show all these young whippersnappers a thing or two. I haven’t forgotten what it feels like to be sprinting so hard that your body goes anaerobic as you bust a lung and pull a hamstring. Sure, these young guns in their spandex suits can run six-minute miles now, but show up when you’re sixty and let’s see what you’ve got. Plus, they don’t know that I’ll be running for the old Blue and White–scoring touchdowns, hitting dingers, and winning gold in my wildest Big Blue fantasies.
As we gather together in the parking lot of Kroger Field for the start of the race, I’m surrounded by about 500 other bleary-eyed competitors. I glance around and see the usual assortment of muscle bound dudes in tank tops and hot chicks in running tights that invariably gather at these Saturday morning events. Supposedly Mitch is here also, together with Ryan Lemond and a few other luminaries who look as if they’ve had one donut too many. My adrenaline spikes as I prepare to kick their tails while sporting my newly customized Anthony Davis UK checkerboard jersey.
It’s a stampede out of the starting chute as everyone jockeys for position. I begin the race in a semi sprint as the massive pack circles around the perimeter of the stadium. As we cruise onto the Football Training Facility practice field, I know we’re all going way too fast, as if we’re somehow being chased by linebacker Josh Allen while Coach Stoops looks on mockingly.
It’s not a good sign as my lungs are already burning in mile number one as we head uphill under the towering silhouette of the newly rising baseball complex. The $49 million price tag of this Taj Mahal palace is enough to inspire me onward as I picture myself comfortably lodged on press row next year, snacking on gourmet nachos and popcorn while watching Coach Mingione work his magic.
The Bell Soccer Complex is next. This field is a lot bigger than I thought it would be and there’s a heck of a lot of running to do. It dawns on me why I never played soccer. In my mind, I hear Coach Carry and Coach Cedergren egging me on, but I’m already sucking wind as I mercifully exit the stadium.
Next up is John Cropp Stadium. I’m pretty familiar with this softball venue and immediately begin to get my second wind. I pass a nine-year-old track star prodigy and a John Candy lookalike as if they’re standing still. All of a sudden, I’m Bailey Vick, effortlessly chasing down a fly ball on the outfield warning track. I’m a legend in my own mind as scores of fans gather on the newly constructed outfield berm, cheering me on.
Entering Cliff Hagan Stadium, I’m more than half way home and a wave of nostalgia hits me squarely in the jaw. It’s UK Baseball’s last season here at the Cliff and I want to make sure I give it a good sendoff. I immediately pick up the pace and start gaining ground on the group in front. Giving Coach Madison a well-deserved salute, I’m suddenly transformed into Troy Squires, rounding the bases after my grand slam homerun propelled me into UK Baseball’s exclusive 100-hit club.
As I enter the track and field complex, my feet suddenly gain even more traction on the blue synthetic running surface. I’m—you guessed it—Sydney McLaughlin setting another world record as the Chariots of Fire theme reverberates in my imaginary headphones. Yep, I’m feeling it. These are the moments you live for—those fleeting seconds where running becomes effortless, and everything seems right with the world.
Heading out of mile three, I’m abruptly jolted out of my reverie by the piercing screams of the UK Women’s basketball team. They’ve gotten up early to lend their enthusiastic support. “He’s one of those media guys,” I hear one of them say as I pass by, obviously surprised that this old Chinese guy with a ponytail still has a functioning motor.
And then, just like that…I immediately hit the wall. Coming back through Cooper Drive, it’s a wind tunnel as my feet feel like they’re stuck in concrete. Four miles feels like forty and I’m praying for the racing gods to put me out of my misery. As I enter Kroger Field, I make one final push for the finish line. I channel Lynn Bowden, imagining myself returning a kickoff a hundred yards to beat Tennessee. Tom Leach’s call blares through the speakers as my 15 seconds of fame flashes across the video jumbotron. Touchdown Kentucky!
There you have it. Four miles in 31:36. Good enough for 36th place overall and 4th in my old man age group. Pass the ibuprofen, please. Donut anyone?
Check out his most recent UK Sports coverage at http://www.themanchesterenterprise.com/category/uk-live-breathe-blue/
Check out his most recent Cincinnati Bengals and other professional sports coverage at http://www.bluegrasssportsnation.com/category/writers/john-huang