By Chris Lotsbom, @ChrisLotsbom
(c) 2015 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved
(11-June) -- It doesn't have a catchy phrase or tagline, but the 1990 L'eggs Mini Marathon could have been called the 'Miracle in Manhattan.'
On a rainy, misty, and cool day just over 25 years ago, American Olympian Judi St. Hilaire outlasted some of the sport's best female road racers to proclaim herself Queen of Central Park, victorious despite suffering a devastating foot injury with a mile to go. The race, which now is called the Oakley New York Mini 10-K, will be run for the 44th time on Saturday.
"It's hard to believe that 25 years have gone by. That's scary in and of itself!" said St. Hilaire, speaking to Race Results Weekly exclusively over the phone from her home in Massachusetts. Taking a brief moment to turn back the clock, St. Hilaire laughed again. "So much has changed."
A consistent and top level road racer in America, St. Hilaire lived and trained in Fall River, Mass., traveling to compete in her specialty: races ranging from 5 to 10-K. Although she was a contender entering the 1990 contest in Central Park, a nagging left foot injury had caused her to miss training, putting her chance of even toeing the line in jeopardy.
"I was just trying to save my foot," St. Hilaire said. Leading up to the race, St. Hilaire did all she could to nurse the 'ranky" foot back to normal, resting more and taking days off. "I couldn't do speed work and I wasn't going to attempt it just to put it over the edge."
Days before the race, a television crew came to St. Hilaire's home to film her training in anticipation of the race. That only added to the pressure she felt internally.
"Even when ABC came to my house to do an interview, I was really hoping that I could just make it to the race," she said, the pain and agony of the moment audible in her voice. "I was hoping I could hold it together... I went [to New York] praying to God that I could run respectively and did not foresee it was going to break down like that."
Joining St. Hilaire on the line were a number of stellar road racers, a star-studded list of international athletes including Portugal's Rosa Mota and Aurora Cunha, Finland's Paivi Tikkanen, Ethiopia's Fatuma Roba and Tigist Moreda, as well as Denmark's Dorthe Rasmussen and the Soviet Union's Yelena Tolstoguzova.
Roughly halfway into the race, St. Hilaire felt good and surged. Her lead quickly grew to about 30 seconds, and no one was within sight. Surprised to say the least, St. Hilaire pushed on. Then the unthinkable happened: her left foot simply gave way. Later diagnosed as a stress fracture, St. Hilaire found herself about a mile from the finish unable to put weight on her foot.
The pain was unbearable, yet St. Hilaire wasn't one to give in. Despite the discomfort, she'd run the last mile at an estimated six minute pace, looking back often yet managing to hold on for the win. Walking across the finish line, St. Hilaire was a mix of emotions.
"If I hadn't had such a lead I would have been in big trouble!" St. Hilaire told Race Results Weekly. "I was relieved I won the race and I was able to finish. But I obviously wasn't happy the way I finished!"
The magnitude of the 32:36 victory wouldn't come until well after the misty race's conclusion. St. Hilaire's injury was a stress fracture of the fifth metatarsal, and she'd wind up requiring surgery on the foot to fix problems with both the metatarsal and her plantar fascia.
Yet it was the fact that St. Hilaire, a young American, defeated the likes of Mota, an Olympic Marathon bronze medalist and three-time Boston Marathon champion, as well as Roba, who'd go on to become an Olympic gold medalist and triple Boston Marathon winner, that lives on today. While St. Hilaire admits the distance wasn't Mota's strong point and Roba had yet to achieve her peak years, the victory is still very meaningful.
"I think I appreciate it more now," she said in a tone of reflection. "At the time I was in good shape and knew I was capable of winning. But in hindsight I look at those names --like Fatuma Roba-- they've gone on to accomplish so many things."
She quickly added: "They reversed the score on me a few times too. I think I appreciate it more now, in hindsight, what I accomplished that day."
St. Hilaire's win was a catalyst for great success to come. After dealing with her foot injury and the recovery process, she was motivated to return to her previous form. That she did, going on to qualify for Team USA at the 1991 IAAF World Championships and the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. She'd finish seventh in the 3000m and eighth in the 10,000m at those events, respectively. In Barcelona, she embraced teammate Lynn Jennings who won the bronze medal in front of her.
"Every success you have, you are going to gain confidence," she said. "When I was injured, I usually came back with a vengeance because I wanted to pick up where I left off and I always came back fit and ready to roll. That [win] definitively helped with my confidence."
Glancing down the list of winners of the Oakley New York Mini 10-K, one sees some of the all-time greats of the sport. The likes of Grete Waitz, Ingrid Kristiansen, Tegla Loroupe, Paula Radcliffe, as well as Lornah and Edna Kiplagat. Among the American champions are last year's victor Molly Huddle and 2004 Olympic bronze medalist Deena Kastor. Next to the year 1990 is Judi St. Hilaire's name, a race and moment she'll treasure forever.
Now a surgical coordinator at an OBGYN medical office, St. Hilaire keeps very busy. In addition to working in the medical field, she owns her own cookie business called The Wooden Spoon, creates leather and beaded jewelry called Abenaki, serves on the race committee for a local 5-K road race, and casually coaches athletes.
Unable to return to New York City to celebrate the anniversary of her memorable win, St. Hilaire instead took a few minutes to put the moment into perspective today.
"That was a big highlight. Anything in New York City is special," she said. "If I had to fill out my resume, that was one of the highlights, winning a race like that.
"Really, I've done as much as I wanted in the sport and my career. Even though I was injured a lot, I think my career spanned a good 20-25 years and I got as much out of it as I could," she added. "The passion's still there to go out and run to stay healthy... I would miss it dearly if I couldn't run."
PHOTO: Judi St. Hilaire wins the 1990 L'eggs Mini-Marathon 10-K (archive photo courtesy of New York Road Runners; photographer unknown)