A Trot Like No Other
Racing full speed ahead into its 60th anniversary year, Horace Ashenfelter's storied and still unmatched victory in the 3,000-meter steeplechase final at the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games remains a totally inspirational performance to generations of later-comers to the American distance racing scene.
Just ask most of the 2,483 runners, of all ages and talent-levels, who turned out for the annual Ashenfelter Classic 8K Race (4.97 miles) through the Essex County community of Glen Ridge, N.J., Thanksgiving morning.
And, most definitely, ask Mike Soroko of Kinnelon, N.J., a Rider University graduate student, an IC4A indoor 3,000-meter champion and IC4A outdoor silver medalist in — oh so appropriately — the 3,000-meter steeplechase.
Soroko led the big parade in 24:54.40 over Youssef Rochdi, a Parsippany resident formerly of Morocco (second in 25:12.52) and Michael Dixon of Fanwood (third in 25:22.79). Leading the women’s field was Rebeccah Wassner of New Paltz, N.Y.. in 27:50.
"It's amazing what he (Ashenfelter) did, long before I was born," said Soroko, 23. "I'm a steeplechaser myself so I know what a a great achievement that had to be. So that's a big reason I came out — to run for him as well as myself.
"I went out pretty hard, basically trying to keep the pace at five minutes a mile the whole way. Then when I got to that final straightaway, I felt pretty good, so that’s when I opened it up a little bit."
"For that last mile, Mike was just too tough," said Rochdi, who formerly trained with world record-breaker and 2004 double Olympic king (1500 and 5000 meters) Hicham El Guerrouj on Morocco's national team.
"The steeplechase? Of course, it's a very tough event," said Soroko. "I think Americans are getting better at it and we may be closing the gap ... just a little bit."
But will an American ever win the Olympics again? To Soroko and so many more, "that's very hard to say."
And probably getting harder and harder, as Kenyans get better and better.
Soroko's best steeplechase time is an 8:49. Sixty years later, he's still chasing Ashenfelter's 8:45.4 in Helsinki.
For sure, heaps of 'Turkey Trot' races are staged as holiday traditions throughout the nation but there's none as special as this one that honors the only American ever to strike gold in the 3,000 steeplechase final at the Games.
July 25, 1952, will forever be celebrated as the day Glen Ridge resident and Penn State graduate Ashenfelter, then an FBI agent, dug deep down into his energy reserves to blaze away from Vladimir Kazantsev of the Soviet Union over the final water jump to win it all.
Not only did 'Ash' set a world and Olympic record in the process and erase Kazantsev's 8:48.6 as the global standard, but at the height of 'The Cold War,' he made life easy for headline-writers around the nation.
As many of them wrote in the boldest of type in the next day's editions: "FBI Man Runs Down Russian."
Steeplechase racing had been on the Olympic program since 1900 — American James Lightbody actually won the 1904 race at 2,500 meters — but since the steeple distance was standardized at 3,000 meters in 1920, the best U.S. results have been bronze-medal performances by George Young (1968) and Brian Diemer (1984).
With Kenyan dominance of the event ongoing — seven straight wins since 1984 — the retrospective view of the Ashenfelter victory grows ever more powerful.
As ever, 'Ash' was there to cheer the multitudes who assembled for his event, starting on Ridgewood Avenue, in front of Glen Ridge High School (it took nearly four minutes for the last runner to reach the starting line), to applaud all of them as they passed back by at the midpoint mark and then again as they crossed the finish line.
"It's just amazing to see so many people show up at a small-town affair like this," said Ashenfelter, who will mark his 89th birthday on Jan. 23, 2012.
"The whole town supports this race so well," he said. "The mayor, the police, everybody, they're all into it, and that's what makes it go. It's always a day of fun.
"I'm lucky to still be around; I'm doing the best I can, I'm just happy to be here."
A friend told Ashenfelter that he was the picture of vibrant health; 'Ash' kidded back that "it's all an illusion."
"This year I found out that I'd had a heart attack two years ago — one that I didn't know about at the time — so I found myself going downhill rather than uphill.
"But I got that fixed and now I'm going to start getting back into shape.
"I've had a few hearing problems, too, but my eyesight's pretty good and I'm trying to hang in there."
But back to "the chase."
"Ask me why more Americans aren't interested in the steeplechase, and I can't really answer that," he said.
"Getting it onto the high school program would be great, but then somebody's going to fall over the barrier and get hurt, and that would be a black eye for the whole thing. And it's still not in enough college meets."
Sam Soroko, father of the winner, pointed out the three degrees of separation between his son and the Olympic champion.
"Horace, of course, went to Penn State and Mike's coach at Rider, Bob Hamer, was a two-time All-American at Penn State," he pointed out. "And there's even more of a connection. The indoor track facility at Penn State is named for Horace Ashenfelter (and is complete with state-of-the-art, hydraulically-adjusted banked curves) and my son went to race and train there. The connection is utterly amazing."
"Horace is a true gentleman," said Mike McDonnell of Middletown, a former FBI agent as well. "A fine person to know, a fine person to work with, you just can't say enough about him.
"When he won the Olympics, FBI people were just thrilled. And remember he had to do almost all his training on his own time." (As legend had it, he'd leap over park benches to simulate his barrier training.)
McDonnell didn't run this one himself — but cheered on his wife Bunny, his son Christopher and daughter Marybeth. Bunny was the women's 65-69 divisional winner in 44:55.
"The turnout today was fantastic, unbelievable," said Ralph Garfield of Manalapan, one of the state's finest septuagenarian runners and 2011 Ashenfelter 75-79 divisional winner in 39:01. "Nice course, I thought it was challenging, no really big hills, they're gentle but fairly long. This is a great race, beautifully organized. What a good way to celebrate Thanksgiving."
In real life, Garfield has a doctorate in actuarial science and has taught on the college level for years. Thus, his quick recognition of 89 (Ashenfelter’s next birthday) as a prime number (one that can only be divided by one and itself) and the status of the winner as a runner "still coming into his prime."
James Segal of Holmdel, the 60-64 winner in 31:45, summed it all as "good course, good race, good people."
Finally, an exception:
"I'm not really a great student of track and field history; before I came today, I really didn't know that Horace Ashenfelter was the only American ever to win the Olympic steeplechase," confessed runner Jeremy Stratton of Parlin.
"I'm from England originally and of, course, I knew all about guys like (Sebastian) Coe, (Steve) Ovett and (Steve) Cram," said Stratton.
"They were all great in their day, but today's the day I found out how great Horace Ashenfelter was, too."