On the back wall of Fitzgerald’s 1928 you can find a photograph of two Olympic runners in a heated race, their faces contorted, full of concentration. The face of the lead runner belongs to Horace Ashenfelter, perhaps the best known resident of Glen Ridge, the New Jersey town where Fitzgerald’s is located, and whose history its walls celebrate.
At a celebration on the evening of November 27, in Fitzgerald’s spacious back room, Mr. Ashenfelter became the first recipient of the Glen Ridge Lifetime Achievement Award.
The story has been told many times. The year is 1952. The place is Helsinki. The race is the 3000- Meter Steeplechase. The favorite is world-record holder Vladimir Kazantsev of the Soviet Union, who lowered his best time to 8:48.6 earlier in the week. Mr. Ashenfelter is an FBI agent and the newspapers make much of this, turning the contest between the two runners into a cold war challenge.
History tells us that the steeplechase originated in England, where riders on horses raced between towns, from steeple to steeple, the highest visible markers. In the modern equivalent, runners must cross 28 hurdles and 7 water troughs to approximate the hills and streams of yore.
In this video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dDYuHQlpNZM you may not understand the Finnish announcer but the images clearly show Ashenfelter and Kazantsev neck and neck. At one point the Russian stumbles but recovers. With the finish line in sight, Ashenfelter bursts ahead, winning the Olympic gold by more than 6 seconds and setting a new world record.
Next time you are in Fitzgerald’s notice that the giant clock in the back has been set to a quarter to nine to recognize Mr. Ashenfelter’s world record time that day in Helsinki: 8:45.6.
If you’re lucky, you might even see him sitting at one of the tables at Fitzgerald’s 1928. It’s a neighborhood place.