There were 991 official chip-timed finishers in the eighth annual Sentara Sleighbell 5K Run, held Dec. 10 at the Geddy Outpatient Center of the Sentara Hospital. Since 18 of those broke the 20-minute barrier for the final Colonial Road Runners Grand Prix race of 2016, it might be easy to overlook the most impressive performance of the morning, the 19:56 time run by Bob Becker of Midlothian since he was 16th overall.
The last time Becker ran a CRR race was the 2014 Crapolfest 5K Run where, at age 62, his time of 20:08 was fast enough to be the top age-graded performance of that race (a national-class 81.08 percent), but it wasn't even a Crapolfest race age group record. Now age 65 (his birthday was Oct. 13), he is older, but faster, and that has made all the difference.
To start with, Becker's time of 19:56 was one of two Sleighbell five-year age-group records, bettering by over a minute the previous men's 65-69 Sleighbell record of 21:00 set by George Carrigan of Williamsburg in 2013. More impressive was that his time bettered the all-time CRR men's 65-69 record of 20:02, set by the late Tom Ray at the 2000 Vineyards 5K.
He also came within 3 seconds of the Virginia state 5K record for men 65-69, a 19:53 by Jason Page of Northern Virginia in 2010. The Sleighbell 5K is on a flat and fast USATF-certified course (VA-12066-RT) and eligible for state records. Becker probably could have gotten that record, but admittedly went out too fast. He said, "In registering for the Sleighbell race, I did come across the link on the CRR site of state records by distance. I noticed the 5K record at 19:53 at that time and expected I would run very close to that at Sleighbell and did think about it in the lead up to the race. I got GPS splits at 6:12-6:21-6:32-:51 and knew it would be close but missed it. In retrospect, there was probably a bit too much adrenaline the first mile and I might have run a bit faster overall if I ran the first mile 5 seconds slower. But the good news is it leaves the record out there as something to shoot for in 2017."
Becker already has a pending Virginia state record at the half marathon distance in his new age group. He ran a 1:31:01 at the Nov. 12 Richmond Half Marathon to better the current men's 65-69 mark of 1:31:48, set by CRR member Bill Hart of Virginia Beach at Norfolk's 2014 Harbor Lights Half Marathon.
First place overall at Sleighbell was 2015 and '16 CRR men's Grand Prix champion Roger Hopper, 25, of Williamsburg (16:45), followed William and Mary students Ben Hauk, 18, of Groton, Mass. (17:03) and Joseph Mastaler, 20, of Fairfax Station (17:33), both members of the campus running group Team Blitz. For the women, Team Blitz members Maura Finn, 19, of Alexandria (20:18) and Maddie Kelleher, 18, of McLean (20:26) went 1-2, followed by the CRR's Debbie McLaughlin, 51, of Williamsburg (20:43). Finn came within 10 seconds of the Sleighbell 15-19 record, and McLaughlin was within 26 seconds of the women's 50-54 record.
In the Masters (ages 40-and-over) category, John Piggott, 51, of Williamsburg won by more than a minute with his 18:30 time, good for fourth overall, followed by Justin Highley, 43, of Williamsburg (19:34) and David Anderson, 47, of Newport News (19:39). The top-three female Masters were Astrid Howell, 40, of Williamsburg (22:27), Katrina Fuller, 42, of Williamsburg (22:54) and Rose Crist, 61, of Lanexa (24:09). Crist broke the other Sleighbell age group record, her 24:09 bettering the previous women's 60-64 mark of 24:32 by Carol Talley of Toano in 2015.
According to race director Jim Elder of Colonial Sports Timing, there were a total of 1,267 registrants this year for Sleighbell, with 492 coming from the Williamsburg James City County SHIP program (School Health Initiative Program), and the students had a separate wave start, five minutes after the main start. The proceeds from the race benefit area youth in after-school activities. There were also 63 entrants in the one mile fun run.
Becker was also the top age-graded runner at Sleighbell, according to CRR statistician Jim Gullo, age grading 83.53 percent. The other runner age-grading over the national-class 80 percent level was John Piggott, the Masters winner, with an 80.36 percent. There were 26 over the 70 percent regional-class age-graded level, with nine over the 75 percent mark. Besides Becker and Piggott, over 75 percent were McLaughlin (79.97 percent), Crist (77.71 percent), Hopper (77.51 percent), Dale Abrahamson, 67, of Yorktown (22:04, 76.81 percent), Hauk (76.25 percent), Ben Dyer, 73, of Toano (23:53, 76.06 percent), and Dan O'Brien, 53, of Williamsburg (20:03, 75.31 percent).
That Becker broke the all-time CRR 65-69 record is not surprising, considering his running background. Between 1978 and '80, he ran four sub-2:20 marathons (Fiesta Bowl, Grandma's, Mardi Gras, and the1980 Olympic Trials Marathon). In 1979, he was under five-minute mile pace for a 10-mile race, a 49:45 in Iowa, leading up to a 2:21 at the Boston Marathon.
For 2017, he plans on serious half marathons at Shamrock in March and Richmond in November, but is considering as a tuneup the Jamestown High School Swamp Run 5K March 4, two weeks before Shamrock. It was somewhat surprising that he is racing so well, since he took a two-week vacation in October to Italy with his wife (who is Italian on her father's side), after his 65th birthday, and only ran light every other day while abroad.
Besides running the roads, Becker is a national-class run-bike duathlete at the Olympic and Long Course distances, and between April and September his focus turns to multi-sport events. He trained a modest 30 miles per week running, and 100 miles per week cycling this spring and summer. He won his age group in the Bend, Oregon National Long Course championship race (10K run, 40K bike, 5K run), and in 2013 won a World Sprint Duathlon age group championship in Ottawa.