Townsend embodies spirit of road racing

Posted Oct. 23, 2008, at 10:18 p.m.

Following the leaders at last Sunday’s Mount Desert Island Marathon produced a certain degree of personal jealousy.

For while merely getting out of the car to record their progress renewed the back pain of a weekend spent moving firewood from pile to pile, hundreds of runners fought off the physical and mental demands of the 26.2-mile road test with limited concessions to the inevitable aches and pains involved in pounding the pavement for hour after hour.

Perhaps the biggest dose of jealousy was reserved for a particular runner, Austin Townsend Jr., a 54-year-old grandfather from Perry who defies age with a competitive spirit and love of running that helps him race successfully against rivals typically 10 to 25 years younger.

Townsend crossed the finish line Sunday in 2 hours, 57 minutes and 28 seconds, good for 10th place overall. But top-10 marathon finishes are nothing new to the Eastport native, who does much of his training along U.S. Route 1.

He finished eighth last May at the Sugarloaf Marathon, ninth at the 2007 MDI Marathon, and sixth at last year’s Sugarloaf Marathon.

“I love to compete,” said Townsend, now a veteran of 33 marathons. “I just try to put myself in with runners who are as fast or faster than me, and I find myself running harder because I want to catch them.”

Townsend’s best time for the distance is 2:55:57 at the 2007 Boston Marathon, but his success is not confined to the longest events. He was fourth in this year’s Bangor Labor Day 5-miler in 29 minutes, 55 seconds, a pace of 5:59 per mile.

“If it’s a 5-miler I set my goal at sub-30 [minutes],” he said. “If it’s a 5K, then it’s under 17 minutes, and with a marathon it’s 3 hours or better.”

Townsend may benefit from being relatively new to the sport given his age.

“My daughter got me into running 14 or 15 years ago, and it’s just something that took off,” said Townsend, a shoemaker who trains about 60 miles a week. “After a couple of years I started marathon training, and the rest is history. I just love it.”

Townsend’s running passion is fed by volume — he averages 35 to 40 races each year, and the considerable travel that schedule requires is made easier by frequent carpool partners Al Churchill and Rick Roussel, who at 64 took up the sport just four or five years ago.

It’s similar camaraderie Townsend finds once he arrives at any of the 35 to 40 races he runs each year.

“Before and after the race everybody is so friendly,” he said, “but when you get on the course it’s all business.”

For Townsend, the business end of racing boils down to consistency both within a race and from race to race, which he credits to several factors. He’s been relatively injury-free in recent years, in part because he pays particular attention to foot care — and goes through seven or eight pairs of running shoes each year.

And while he craves the long distances, he also knows when to take a break.

“I try to listen to my body,” he said, “and if something starts acting up, I will take a few days off.”

Using that philosophy, Townsend plans to continue running for many years, drawing inspiration from the longevity of such competitors as Maine running legend Robin Emery of Lamoine, still active in the sport in her early 60s, and 91-year-old Tom Miller of Castine, who still competes in 5-kilometer events.

“I started out running late,” he said, “so hopefully I’ll be able to finish late.”

And no doubt he’ll have a long, healthy future in road racing — but who’s jealous?

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