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How a 12-year-old girl shocked the field at a Lancaster 5K

Some egos probably were bruised after the recent Chris Griswold Memorial 5K Race in Lancaster.

After all, how often do adults lose to 12-year-olds in anything involving athletics?

Tessa Zajac of Lancaster was the young lady in question. She ran the 5-kilometer distance in 21 minutes, 37 seconds. That was first among women in the field, and 21st of 234 overall.

Her proud father, Tom Zajac, cut short his own race in order to have the thrill of seeing Tessa cross the finish line ahead of 101 other women.

“At Como Lake Park, the course goes to the left a little ways from the end and does a loop,” Tom said. “I went straight, because I wanted to see her win. I knew she had it, so I told her, ‘I’m going to the finish line.’ ”

Tom was there when Tessa completed the win, finishing 1:11 ahead of any other female in the field.

“I didn’t think I would run that fast,” she said. “I thought I’d get my usual time, although I was hoping I’d run 21 minutes. I was in the lead the whole time.”

Tessa received her award at the postrace party a short time later. The site of the 4-foot-9 runner taking the first-place trophy shocked a few people.

“Some people said, ‘That little girl just won the race!’“ Tessa said.

Tom added, “It was really fun. The speakers were turned inward in the gazebo, so the people who were out by the hot dogs didn’t hear it. My wife even asked if they had given out the awards yet.

“But Tessa knows three-quarters of the Lancaster Striders,” a local running club, “and all of the Striders were going crazy.”

Running has turned out to be a good father-daughter activity for the Zajacs. Tom is a veteran runner who competed in the Boston Marathon in 2009, and soon Tessa figured she’d try a race.

“I told him that I wanted to run the mile race,” an event held for children at the Griswald Race, “and I liked it,” Tessa said. “I did it the full race the next year.”

Tessa’s times for this Griswold event have been dropping steadily. After a 28:34 clocking in 2012 (age 8), she had a time of 25:31 in 2013, a 24:51 in 2014, and a 24:17 in 2015. That last time was the seventh-fastest among women.

Along the way, Dad figured out that his daughter was a very impressive runner.

“It was at the Moonlight Run two years ago,” he said. “One of the UB coaches is a race director, and said to Tessa, ‘Are you going to run your bib number?’ The number was 900-hundred something, meaning a nine-minute mile pace. Well, she ran a 23:57 time for 5 kilometers,” which is a 7:43 pace.

Tessa joined the modified running program at Lancaster upon arriving in middle school this past year, and there’s already talk about moving up in class next year. It’s easy to wonder how good she can be down the road, but Tom stresses that it’s far too early to think about such things.

“I have a lot of people say that she might get a scholarship someday, but she’s 12,” he said. “What will happen when she is 15 or 16? You don’t know. I don’t say, go out there and run some miles. She just likes to do it.”

Tessa took part in the James Metz race in Lancaster earlier this month, and finished second overall in 22:10. She plans to run “The Fabulous Five,” a series of night races held during the summer and fall months in the area.

The duo also will team up to take part in the relay on July 4 for the annual 10-kilometer Boys and Girls Club Run. The Zajacs have done this event together before. Tom used to run the first half alone and then provide Tessa some company for the second half of the race. This time Tom plans to take a little shortcut after finishing his leg and run with Tessa for the final couple of miles.

It’s another sign that the running bug apparently has been fully passed along from dad to daughter.

“I used to play basketball,” she said. “Now, I just run.”

email: bbailey@buffnews.com