ALBANY — Regina Joyce says the Freihofer’s Run for Women has “a very unique feel” to it.
She wasn’t talking about what it feels like to get pinned to a tree by a car backing out of a driveway.
Then winning the race, anyway.
But she could’ve been.
The 1983 Freihofer’s champion, then an Irish citizen running for the University of Washington, will be on a panel of past winners conducting a panel discussion of the race from 6:30-7:30 p.m. Thursday at Sage College, as the Freihofer’s Run is celebrating its 40th anniversary on Saturday. The panel is free and open to the public, but seating is limited.
The 61-year-old Joyce, who lives in Seattle, said that if she’s going to travel cross-country for the anniversary festivities, she may as well jump in the race, too. So she’ll be revisiting the site of not only a victory in what at the time was an increasingly high-profile race on the national scene, but also a near-death experience. “I’m sure I’ll get asked about the car,” she said with a laugh during a phone interview two weeks ago.
In 1983, the Freihofer’s Run was in its fifth year of existence, but had gained national recognition through its designation as the 10k AAU national championship and its ability to attract elite runners even though it wouldn’t begin to offer prize money until 1985.
Joyce was preparing for the Marathon World Championships in Helsinki, Finland, and her coach suggested running the 10k in Albany four months prior since it could serve as a steppingstone against stiff competition. As part of the elite field, she was invited by long-time race director George Regan to come a few days early for a tour of the course.
She, naturally, could not have envisioned that the stiff competition would also include the rear end of a car and the unyielding trunk of a tree.
“It was about halfway down this residential street,” Joyce said. “George said we wouldn’t need to worry, no one would be leaving their house. He had left flyers all over the neighborhood informing people of the race.
“It was 40 and rainy, I had a small lead and Judi St. Hilaire was leading the small pack in second. Out of the corner of my eye, on the left side, I could see a car backing out, and I thought I was fine because I was on the other side of the street. The next thing I knew, my whole life flashed in front of my eyes.”
Much to the horror of race organizers in the lead car — as well as St. Hilaire bearing witness not far behind — an elderly woman backed out of her driveway right into Joyce.
She somehow was able to gather herself and keep running, if shakily.
“She backed out so fast,” Joyce said. “She would’ve hit the tree if she hadn’t hit me first. I thought I was dead. And then it was ‘Let’s see if I can still run.’
“She drove alongside of me for a bit and asked if I was OK, and I said, ‘I think so, but you should get out of the way.’ The guys in the lead car asked me if I was OK, and I said, ‘Yes, but you might want to get her number.’ Judi said she could not believe it.”
Joyce was able to fend off St. Hilaire, who would go on to win the race in 1989 and 1991, when the prize money and emphasis had been shifted from the 10k to the 5k. Her winning time was 33:35, eight seconds faster than St. Hilaire, who nevertheless was named national champion since Joyce was not a U.S. citizen.
For her trouble, she came out of the race with a very swollen and bruised right hip. She can laugh about it now, but in retrospect, the car encounter may have had lingering effect.
“George could not believe it happened,” Joyce said. “I didn’t file or sue. I didn’t think I was injured at the time, but I ran a marathon that summer, and looking back 35 years later, I had a lot of lower back and hip injuries, and I think maybe it was related to that.”
“I’ve always had a good relationship with that race. The crazy thing is, this was in April, and in February I ran Gasparilla in Florida, and at the start there was a big confusion, the ropes were still up at the start, there’s a surge of 6,000 runners and I got knocked down. Something wasn’t right, and as it turned out I had broken my collarbone. I took two weeks off.”
Joyce went on the finish seventh behind Grete Waitz in the World Championships in Helsinki that August with a time of 2:33:52, then shifted her focus to the marathon at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
Despite have a strong year, she managed just a 23rd place (2:37:57) at the Games, which included another vehicular hurdle, this time a helicopter that stirred up a minor sandstorm as the marathoners ran next to the beach in Santa Monica.
“There was no lasting effect to me, but the women wearing contact lenses could hardly see,” Joyce said. “On a good day, I could’ve broken into the top 10, but it just wasn’t my day.”
Joyce became a U.S. citizen in 1993 and still competes on occasion, winning the women’s 60-64 age group (3:29:31) at the Phoenix Marathon in February.
She hasn’t been back to Freihofer’s since 1994, when her sister, Monica, a 1984 Olympian in the 3,000 meters, finished ahead of Regina, “much to her delight,” Regina said.
Joyce will be joined on Thursday’s panel by Joan Benoit Samuelson, 1982 winner Jacqueline Gareau, 1997 winner Elva Dryer and multiple masters winner Carmen Troncoso.
“It is a special atmosphere,” Joyce said. “They make it a celebration of women. There are men who feel they should run, but compared to other races, this has a very unique feel.”