Play Ball!

As the seemingly interminable winter finally begins to loosen its grip, albeit grudgingly, on most of the country, baseball fans everywhere, who see the prospect of green grass and warm weather as little more than a cruel promise right now, have been sustained, as they have for decades, by one thing: spring training, and the promise of the first real games in less than a month.

200px-GateRiverRunLogoRunners have similarly adapted a light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel attitude, knowing that slogging through a slushy 10-miler or speedwork in arctic conditions will be eventually rewarded by balmy races in shorts and singlets.

But while baseball’s first pitch won’t be thrown out for several weeks, for the road racing world, Opening Day is Saturday, and stretches across the weekend with a doubleheader that is sure to satisfy both participants and spectators alike.

The action begins where much of the baseball preparation has been taking place, in Florida, specifically Jacksonville, home of the Gate River Run 15K. Over its history Gate River has consistently drawn some of the best fields in the country, and not just because it has usually been the USA championship for the distance.

It’s also because the country’s best distance runners, having soldiered on through winters of varying degrees of inclemence, are anxious not just to test the fitness gained and steeled in the cold and dark of December and January, but to finally run in a land where multiple layers of clothing aren’t necessary for survival.

The 15 kilometer distance is perhaps ideal for a “rust buster” this time of year, since it’s not so short that a long period of sharpening speedwork is necessary to excel, yet not so long that an extended recovery period is required afterward. And for those athletes training for a spring marathon, it’s the perfect litmus test of their training and fitness for a 26-miler a month hence, allowing just enough time to fine tune the workouts for the final buildup to the big race.

It’s that same marathon gut-check that prompted the New York Road Runners to move their NYC Half from the lateNYCHalf2 summer date of its early years to mid-March, when the weather is likely to be more favorable to distance running, although admittedly the last snows of the winter from hell just melted from Gotham’s streets during a spring thaw that blessed the area earlier this week.

As usual, NYRR has assembled a strong field, more international in flavor than Gate River, and primarily composed of some of the top entrants for next month’s London and Boston marathons. Indeed, the race from Central Park to the Battery could be a preview of the battle for the men’s London title, with two-time NYC Marathon champ Geoffrey Mutai facing off against British Olympic champ Mo Farrah over 13.1 miles.

Following the leaders in both Jacksonville and Manhattan will be a combined total of some 40,000 more mortal runners, who are just as anxious as the elites to get out there and stretch out legs that have spent too much recent time encased in insulating Lycra and nylon.

So as the Grapefruit and Cactus League pitchers continue to work on their changeups and the batters hone their home run swing and the fielders work on turning a clean double play, road racers will get a jump in their first big game of a season that won’t end until after baseball’s World Series and running’s final World Marathon Majors race in November.

For both groups, right now is a season of beginnings, of potential unfulfilled, a time when, like the recalcitrant spring, hope springs eternal.

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