Frostbite '86

In the 1980s, Westminster was the home of one of the premier races in Maryland, the Frostbite 5K and 15K. Held the first weekend in January, these races started and finished on the campus of Western Maryland (now McDaniel) College.

Both race courses left the college and then went out and back on Uniontown Road. When you look from a distance at Uniontown Road coming back toward the college, you’ll notice that there is a hill that looks like a quarter-mile-high wall. The courses were hard.

Despite that, the race attracted the best runners in the mid-Atlantic area. Names like Doub, Smith, Chattin, Stevens, Kartalia and Simonsick held spots on the top-performance listings.

It was 30 years ago now, December 1985, that I decided to run the Frostbite 15K on January 5, 1986.

I had had mixed results for much of 1985. I couldn’t seem to match many of my race times from the previous year, but things started to come together that fall. In October I ran a 25:43 5-mile PR, and that was enough to reenergize my training.

In the 28 days leading up to Frostbite, I completed 34 runs and workouts totaling 270 miles. Though not high mileage by elite standards, it was a lot for me.

I began the race hoping to run an even pace over the hilly course, and settled in around 15th place in the first mile. During the 2nd mile, I began moving up.

I remember coming up beside Mike Spinnler, and we chatted for a few minutes. Spinnler had recently moved to Westminster and we were quickly becoming good friends. His credentials included a 2:28 marathon and two JFK 50-mile victories, but he was hampered by injury at that point.

I left Spinnler and continued passing runners, finding myself in fourth place after the third mile. That’s when Jeff Scuffins came up from behind and settled in next to me.

Scuffins was one of the runners I ran against in high school, who would later become national class. The following year, he would run 2:14:01 to win the Marine Corps Marathon, a course record that continues to stand.

I had no business running with Scuffins, but he was there for a workout, and my pace suited him.

The three runners in front of us, John Doub, Chris Chattin and Jeff Smith, were legendary; at least they were to me. In the distance we could see them battling.

We turned around and began heading back. A hill after the five-mile mark rivaled the one near the finish, but I rushed up it hoping I could recover at the top. I crested the hill feeling strong.

To fully appreciate how I was feeling at this point in the race, you need to have a little insight. I had finished first in a lot of local races. That summer I won the Westminster Road Runners Club summer series for the fourth straight year. That didn’t satisfy me.

I dreamed about reaching the next level, but in big races like this one, I was typically struggling to finish in the top ten. So it was special for me to be six miles in to a 15K race with Jeff Scuffins on my shoulder and three elite runners still in sight, even if Scuffins was slacking.

And then Jeff Smith, the 1982 Marine Corp Marathon champion, started falling back.

Scuffins began to encourage me. I pushed harder.

I ran the rest of the race thinking I could catch Smith. If he was struggling, I figured, the final hill would finish him. It didn’t. When I turned into the college, Scuffins still by my side, Smith was too far ahead.

As we approached the finish line, Scuffins gestured for me to move in front, and I was more than happy to oblige him. The official results listed the top five finishers this way – Doub, Chattin, Smith, Griffin, Scuffins. I was happy to be on that list.

In the weeks following the race, I got a picture in the mail from Scuffins showing the two of us nearing the finish line. “To Dave,” a note on the back of the picture said, “You got lucky. It will never happen again.”

Frostbite turned out to be the highlight of my year. By spring, I was dealing with a knee injury that was later diagnosed as a cartilage tear. Surgery techniques weren’t as advanced as they are today, and I spent most of the year recovering.

I returned to top shape by late 1987, and over the next few years ran some of my best races, but I can’t say I ever felt closer to the elite than at Frostbite 1986.

After so many years, there are times when it begins to feel like my fastest races never happened. Athletic achievement doesn’t age particularly well.

I guess we’ve all lost something we’d like to have back, and December is the time when we miss those things the most. The emotion is real. It’s right to allow yourself to feel it, but when you’re ready, it’s also important to understand something else.

Nothing, and no one, is gone that has shaped you. This day can be a perfect combination of all the good things in your past and all the great dreams for your future. Let yourself be grateful.

Only you can give yourself the gift of peace.