Ed Eyestone and Paul Pilkington had Steve Plasencia right where they wanted him. On their turf. Maybe he was a two-time Olympian from Eugene, Oregon, the Mecca of running. Maybe he had placed three spots ahead of Eyestone in last month's national track & field championships, held in Eugene. Maybe his specialty was 10,000 meters.
But Plasencia wasn't in the Olympic Games yesterday morning, or in Eugene, either. For only the second time in his life he was in the high altitude (compared to Oregon) of Utah. And the first time was 20 years ago on a family vacation to the national parks.It was not hard to tell that he was the outsider during the 10th annual running of the Deseret News/KSL 10K. Or that Eyestone and Pilkington were the insiders. Almost from the beginning of the race, they created a genuine Utah roadblock.
Plasencia was just another guy from the coast trying to drive on snow. He looked as confused as a New Yorker reading the liquor laws.
"We couldn't let him come into our hometown and, well, you know . . .," said Pilkington, one of the most polite and gentleman-like competitors you'll ever meet but, still, one who knows a home-course advantage when he has one.
"He's from sea level you know," he said.
Anyone who knew much about distance running, which didn't necessarily include everyone at yesterday's race, knew going in that although nearly 2,000 runners registered for the race, only three had a realistic chance of winning: Plasencia, Eyestone and Pilkington. They were the runners with credentials. They were the runners capable of running four minute miles - which they nearly did when they clocked 4:05 for the opening mile. And they were the runners who effectively scared off any other bounty hunting professionals from going to the trouble of flying into the Salt Lake Valley on its 146th birthday.
The reason was simple. This year's race would pay through just three places: $3,000 for first place, $2,000 for second place, $1,000 for third place. Finish fourth and you might as well finish 400th. When race-shopping 10K artists called race headquarters and found out Eyestone, Pilkington and Plasencia were already entered, they said, 'no thanks.' Las Vegas was a better gamble.
Which left Eyestone, Pilkington and Plasencia eyeing each other like chess masters at the starting line. Or, to be more exact, it left Eyestone and Pilkington eyeing Plasencia.
They were the natives. He wasn't. In the movie version he's the cricket and they're the seagulls.
"Our strategy was Ed would hammer him and I would pick him off," said Pilkington. "We talked about it a little before the race. Well, we talked about it a lot."
Eyestone and Pilkington are regular training partners. Their homes - Pilkington lives in Roy, Eyestone in Layton - are just 15 miles apart. Every week they meet for a speed workout on Tuesday, a tempo run on Thursday and a long run on Saturday. They get along well at all speeds. Together, they have created a world-class distance running pocket in northern Davis County - Utah's very own answer to Boulder. Eyestone, 32, is a two-time Olympic marathoner who finished 13th in Barcelona and is currently ranked No. 2 in the marathon in the country, a water stop from No. 1. Pilkington, 35, also a marathon specialist, was ranked No. 2 in the nation in 1990 when he won the Houston Marathon (Eyestone was ranked No. 1), and has lately been rounding back into that form after recovering from injury.
Each is also a former Deseret News/KSL 10K winner. Pilkington won the first race in 1984 and Eyestone won the third race in 1986. Since that time, their marathoning has mostly taken precedence. Until yesterday. When they formed the home team - and ganged up on Plasencia.
They did just as they planned. They went out hard from the gun, Eyestone first, then Pilkington, and broke Plasencia before the race was half finished. "It hurt us all," said Pilkington of the pace. "But it hurt Steve the most."
"It's always tough to come into somebody else's backyard," said Plasencia. "I had a hunch they were trying to take me out hard. They gave me a good licking."
He took it in stride. In winning, Eyestone had come within five seconds of his personal 10K best and in placing second Pilkington had shaved eight seconds off his personal best. At least they'd had to work for it. At least they'd be feeling it in their hamstrings at next Tuesday's speed workout.
"I just didn't feel right after the first mile," said Plasencia, whose 28:55 clocking was more than a minute slower than his career best. "My arms and legs just didn't feel right. I guess the altitude had something to do with it." That and the two locals up ahead setting the pace.