A Day at the Races and a Spring to Remember

by: Jack McClintic

The sky was dark in the early dawn; the rain came down and blanketed the lighting and thunder overhead. It was a surreal sight that shrouded the Bayou Bash Relay staging area and a portent of the ensuing battle to come. I wondered to myself: “Was this going to be Tornado weather?” The uncertainty of the weather was reflected in the anxiety of the runners themselves. I saw the same hurried pre-race scenes of people getting ready, made all the more amplified by the tingling rain. In utter contrast to all this preparation and haste, I was serene, Zen-like, almost floating over the puddles. I had come not to run, but to cheer for my teammates. Deep down I was celebrating already in a wonderful spring season that had sprung for the Tornado Running Club.

For over a decade we had been blessed with some of the fastest runners in Houston. For years we had earned many of the open men’s awards. But in the last two months, our own Tornado women had risen up and doubly blessed us! They were always there amongst us and we knew that they were fast. In the last four HARRA spring races they suddenly appeared in front of all the clubs. They had won two first places and two second place team finishes. The tornado men were very proud of them for they made our club feel complete. But we all knew, men and women alike, that this relay race was it. We had battled all the other dozen clubs, some three times our size and were ahead after four races. However, we were not ahead by much, only one or two points!

I found the Tornados keeping as dry as possible underneath our two canopies. Victor had done an excellent job in getting there early and providing shelter. He had even skipped out on a race that he had paid for in advance. The air was so damp that I started shivering uncontrollably right in front of our confidant runners. Perhaps thinking that mild hypothermia looked like nervousness, Victor suggested that I wear his heavy raincoat. I readily accepted knowing that shaking was very un-Tornado like prior to a race. As I looked around me everyone was calm and focused, despite even a couple of lighting delays. Sara our fourteen-year-old sensation wasn’t worrying about the race at all as she gleefully tipped torrents of water off the sagging canopy top. She kept us all warmed up too, since we had to keep jumping out of the way to keep our shoes dry!

The best part of all the rain and waiting was getting to meet some of our new runners. Victor and Gannon had assembled a very competitive men’s relay team: Gannon White, Abel Zavala, Joseph Routt and Gabrial Rodriguez. When Victor sent out the call Gannon and Abel immediately responded. They had made the trip from Nacogdoches down to Houston several times to lead us to victory. I knew Gannon from back in the days when we stood around and froze at our pasta party in the park. It was great meeting Abel for the first time. He had a very friendly face. Although Abel and I did not talk much he did point me to where the drinks were. Anyone with food knowledge is my kind of person! I introduced myself to Joseph Routt. He seemed to be the most relaxed runner there that morning. Joseph was chilling to some tunes on his headphones, but I did interrupt him for a minute. I brought up the subject of some fast 5Ks that I had heard him run. He mentioned that his 5K PR was 14:57. I said, “It must feel great to run that fast.” He just nodded his head and said, “Yeah it feels good.” I greeted Gabriel Rodriguez just after he arrived. I wished that we had gotten a chance to talk, but you kind of hate to bother runners while they are getting prepared to warm up and race.

Our new women’s team was even newer this morning. Monica Montes, who had raced all of the previous four races, was taking a much-needed break. Paige Krekeler had already committed to a Playboy bunny reunion, once a bunny always a bunny! In their place were two new ladies that we were so glad to have: Michelle LaBlanc and Pearla Rodriguez. Pearla is Gabriel’s wife and I was afraid she might walk out on us for a minute when I confessed to her that I had overestimated her age by ten years on the application! Not having ever seen her before, she was very nice and forgave me. Pearla and Michelle both had something in common. They both had babies within the last few months. As fast as they ran, it must do something to speed you up. Maybe the Good Lord gives them extra speed so they will be able to catch their children later!

Katrina Price and Alexandra Gajewski were there too and completed our women’s team. In Serai’s words Katrina and Alex together were “a dynamic duel,” and that they were scaring her. Although a tornado member, Serai had spent the previous day letting our women’s team know that she was forming a fast Terlingua team with two ex-collegiate runners. Alex mentioned that Serai had been scaring her, but that she ran faster on fear! Victor had been spying on our women’s teams other competition, Al Lawrence and mentioned that they had Jessica Armenteous, a fast area runner. If all this added to our women teams’ excitement, you could not have told so by looking at them. They all stood under the canopy and talked about babies, running on the Rice track team, cross country and even speed workouts. These were my kind of women! They were talking a language that I could understand. In fact when it was all over, Tracy said that she loved the torn up dirt trail that we ran on, for it reminded her of cross country. I knew these women were tougher than I was!

Our competitive mixed open team was composed of Tracy Jones, Sara Collazos, Jeff Eisele and Leno Rios. They had been a little taken back when Victor had done some last minute shuffling, but in his defense we did not know how tough the Al Lawrence women’s team was going to be. The main thing was that all of our runners showed up on all of our relay teams. This has to be a Tornado first! I do have to admit that I was stressing out all day Thursday and Friday over getting everyone there and on time. I must have sent out at least fifteen emails and made five phone calls. I gave out Jeff’s cell phone number to everyone I could. I just cared so much about it coming together right, and that everyone would be happy. We also had a good junior team made up of Gerardo and Pete Lopez, Alfonso Franco and Ruby Rucoba. And just so we wouldn’t be accused of discriminating against the Tornado hierarchy, we let our Tornado officers, Victor Aguirre, Ramona Zumudio, Jaime Rodriguez and Gregg Felts form a team. We would see if high rank on the Tornado board would be enough to beat our other teams composed of lowly members! I was recruited at the last minute to run on Jorge Alvarado’s family team with his wife and two sons.

The race did not get off with a bang, but rather with a whimper as we did not even hear the starters gun (maybe it was wet?). From the dry safety of the tent we saw a good sized crowd of about 75 runners take off. I could see Gannon in about fifth place amongst the lead pack. However when the first leg runners returned, to my excitement, Gannon was about 100 meters ahead of the entire pack! Pearla, who ran our first leg for the women’s team came in second place by only 30 seconds behind the lead-off runner for the Runsport Hotties. Sara Collazos came in strong just a little bit later and handed off to Tracy. Sara was so dedicated that she ran for our mixed team and then her mom drove her all the way up to College Station for another race. She would not know the outcome of her team for several hours later.

Joseph Routt ran the second leg for the men’s team. When he arrived he was at least 300 meters ahead of the second place runner from Runsport. It had clearly come down to a two-team race in the open men’s between the Tornados and Runsport. The Harriers men’s team never showed. Some of their best runners were racing some local 5Ks for cash and airline tickets. It was refreshing that our top runners were giving their all for the greater good of their club and not for a few personal dollars or air miles. Alexandra Gajewsky ran the second leg for our women’s team. She caught and passed the lead runner from Runsport midway through their leg. Tracy came in after giving it her all for our mixed team and handed off to Leno.

I saw Leno take off at almost a full sprint on the way to clocking a 5:15 first mile. Unfortunately, Leno ran passed the turn-around and ran out to the old traditional terminus of the course. Many other teams did the same thing. The race director’s volunteer did not get to the turn-around point to help direct the runners. Two of our runners on our men’s team went long too as did their competitors on the Runsport team. So in most cases it all came out more or less equal. It did not faze any of the Tornado runners at all that morning. We had come to race our best and were not worried about precision and technical details. I could hear one guy from another club getting all upset about the confusion out there. I thought to myself, “He needs to join the Tornados so he can learn to channel his complaining energy into some real running energy!”

Michelle LaBlanc ran the third leg for the women’s team. She furthered the gap on the second place team, which was now the Al Lawrence women’s team. Leno came in strong and handed off to Jeff a little while later. Our women were clearly in first place and looked to have the race won. We had no idea where our mixed team was since the mixed teams are always hard to track. But previously our men’s third leg, Abel, came in tied with the Runsport team. It had become an exciting race as Gabrial Rodriguez and Mike Olague got their batons at the same time. Gabrial and Mike were two of the fastest runners in the Houston area and nobody knew the outcome. Leno spotted them dead even at the turn-around, leaving them only a little over a mile to go. At this point Gabrial put in a surge and dropped Mike. He then put in a second surge when they were back on the pavement for good measure. Gabrial went on to beat him by twenty seconds in an exciting race.

Katrina Price, anchoring our women’s team, came in just a few minutes later. They ended up beating the next women’s team by over four minutes! With this fantastic exclamation point they not only won the race, but they won the entire HARRA spring series in the team (and probably the club) competition. The plaque was theirs and it made us all proud of them. Our junior team edged out our women’s team by only 14 seconds. Our junior’s team finished in fifth place only 54 seconds away from some hardware! Jeff brought in our mixed team, the twisted tornados, into the finish line four minutes later. Our mixed team ended up winning by over five minutes over the second place team, Four on the Flour. Our distinguished board came in ten minutes later. I guess all that executive power doesn’t necessarily translate into leg power!

It was a strange and storming morning, but it turned out to be Tornado weather! Three out of our five teams took first place. These six women and men claimed their hardware, but they claimed something much greater, a Tornado Running Club sweep of the entire open division. If only they did not have this artificial over 40 age discrimination! We are young and we love to run fast. However, let’s not rest on our laurels. Let’s come back this fall and compete in the master’s categories too. We have some excellent master’s runners amongst us, just like we had those fast females that broke out this spring. They not only ran well, but they won it all. Our Tornado women did it with style too; they did their talking ever so eloquently with their legs. We all ran like Tornados and went out there “and tore it up!”

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