It’s never too late to have a career highlight in running. Ask Jim Park.
The Buffalo runner took part in Monday’s Boston Marathon, his first time in the prestigious event. That alone would be great, but finishing fifth in the 50-54 age-group was more than the icing on the cake.
“I’ve had some good races so far, but it’s possibly the race of my life,” he said.
Park has been one of the best marathon runners in Western New York for the past several years. He’s been cutting back on the miles during the last few years, but decided running in Boston was a worthwhile goal.
“I lived there once,” he said about Boston. “I used to compete there, and I trained on Heartbreak Hill when I was younger. I ran with the Boston Athletic Association 25 years ago. But I never had the chance to do the marathon.
“I hadn’t run a full marathon for a few years, but I decided I’d try to run Boston when I was 50 and do something in the 50-54 group. I figured taking a few years off would restore my health.”
The catch with trying to make it to Boston is that you have to qualify to enter it. Park ran the Buffalo Marathon last May in 2 hours, 54 minutes and 41 seconds - good enough to allow him to start packing for his trip to Massachusetts about 11 months later.
When raceday finally arrived, Park noticed the temperature right away - mid-60s at the start, with the thermometer going up a bit during the day. That was much better than the 85-degree reading the day before, but it was still rather warm.
Park wasn’t up with the elite runners at the start of the race, but he wasn’t that far behind them when he finally got to the starting line.
“I got going about a minute into the race,” the veteran runner said. “I was boxed in for the first 10 kilometers or so. I guess I could have passed a lot of people early in the race, but it would have taken a lot of zigging and zagging. I think sitting back ended up working in my favor.”
Besides, it didn’t take him long to figure out that he was surrounded by excellent runners from around the globe - people who could break three hours at the 26-mile, 385-yard distance. Park had to run his race, and not worry about everyone else. He believes that helped him a bit Monday.
“I’m more of a competitor than a time person,” he said. “I like to compete. When it’s a fast field, I run fast. I don’t even wear a watch when I run. I have a pretty good sense of my time by how I feel. Besides, they tell you how fast you’re going at the major points in the race.”
When Park wasn’t feeling so great - it happens during such a long event - he relied on the legendary Boston crowds to give him an emotional boost. The fans always came through.
“It was amazing,” he said. “It definitely picked you up if you hit a rough patch. The Wellesley girls were terrific. You could hear them about a half-mile before you got there. They just screamed. And you could hear them a mile past them. It’s like a parade. It was by far the best crowd I’ve ever seen.”
By the second half of the race, Park knew he was having a good run. He could see that the heat was taking a toll on some runners, who wilted in the final miles. Park made it up Heartbreak Hill with no problem, and crossed the finish line in 2:47:22.
He had prerace hopes of cracking the top 10 in his age-group, but he had no idea where he might have placed when he finished because the start of the field is staggered. Park found some friends and headed off to have a nice lunch. One of those friends checked on his phone and gave him the good news: fifth place in the age-group.
“I said, ‘You have got to be kidding me,’ ” he said. “Getting a top 10 would have been nice, but top five was just ridiculous.”
Only the top three in each age-group receive awards and only the top 15 masters runners earn prize money. Park couldn’t care less about that. He had shown he could compete in his category with some of the world’s best.
Park, who had won the “Feel the Spirit 5K” in Cheektowaga only nine days before the marathon (“I guess that was great preparation”), felt a little sore the next day and had a couple of blisters but was otherwise fine. He plans to run in New York in the fall, lifted by the fact that his training for Boston had paid off so well.
“When it comes to running, it’s true that you get out of it what you put into it,” Park said.
• BuffaloRunners.com 6-Hour Distance Classic, 6-Hour Ultra, 1615 Amherst Manor Dr. in Amherst, 8 a.m. on Sunday April 23.
• Canisius College Shoes for the Shelter, 5K, 1833 Main St. in Buffalo, 10 a.m. on Sunday April 23, 888-2977.
• Flatliner Series #4, 3 miles, Chestnut Ridge Park in Orchard Park, 6:15 P.M. on Wednesday April 26.
• Catalyst Fitness Race for a Cause, 5K, 6:30 p.m. on Friday April 28, 824-4655.
• Mathletes Cindy Frank Memorial 5K, 1339 Indian Church Road in West Seneca, 9 a.m. on Saturday April 29, 668-7081.
• Buffalo Undy Run & Walk 5K, Delaware Park in Buffalo, 9 a.m. on Saturday April 29, (202) 628-0123 x125.
• The 716 Mile, 1 mile, UB Stadium Track in Amherst, 11 a.m. on Saturday April 29, 645-6815.
• SAPS Race WNY Maple Festival, 10K/5K, 31 North Main St. in Franklinville, 9 a.m. on Sunday April 30, 676-8060.
• Laps for Limbs, One-Hour Run, Front Park in Buffalo, 9 a.m. on Sunday April 30, (607) 435-8715.
• Run for Babies 5K, 44 Prime St. in Buffalo, 9:30 a.m. on Sunday April 30, 583-9527.