But that race was almost four years ago; and since then, John Jeffries, 27, has seemed to master distance running. He has won 47 medals in state Special Olympics competition and took first in the 5K Saturday.
"I like to run the longer races," he said. "It gives you more time. It helps your pace."
Jeffries, from Brigantine in Atlantic County, was one of about 180 mentally handicapped athletes who participated in two days of Special Olympics competition last weekend. The meet provided the best athletes a chance to enhance their seeding for next month's state Special Olympics to be held at Rider College in Lawrenceville. But for most, it was an opportunity to meet friends and feel pride in themselves.
The event came complete with Olympic-style opening and closing ceremonies and medals. Everyone who competed in the five events - running, bicycling, volleyball, soccer and roller skating - left with a ribbon, a T-shirt and at least one hug from the 200-plus volunteers who staffed the event.
"Special Olympics provides a lot of these people with a chance to feel successful for one of the few times in their lives," said Marie Schleinkofer of the Association for Retarded Citizens (ARC) in Atlantic County. "They have a difficult time in school and in their jobs. This is something they can do well."
Schleinkofer took a group of eight athletes to compete in Washington Township on Saturday. Most were entered in the bicycling events. The Special Olympics were open to any mentally handicapped athletes at least 8 years old.
Like many of the athletes, Jeffries competes in several sports. In the winter, he skis, and in the summer, he is the second baseman on the Atlantic County ARC softball team. The team competed in South Bend, Ind., last summer as part of the Special Olympics Softball National Tournament.
"I don't really know what is the toughest part about coaching them other than the times when we can't get a field or enough equipment," Schleinkofer said. "I never get exasperated with them because they always try hard. They are very highly motivated."
After having great success as a sprinter, Jeffries was motivated to switch to distance running. "He told me he wanted to run longer. It was too short for him," Kathleen Jeffries said. "So I went out in the car and marked out a 5K course for him and he runs it almost every day."
By excelling in sports, Jeffries has gained a measure of control over his handicap. Like all of his friends, Jeffries speaks easily and with confidence and is able to get along without too much help. Many of the ARC members hold regular jobs at seashore resorts and live in their own apartments.
"The Special Olympics has been great for all of them. It helps them work off some of their frustrations," said Kathleen Jeffries, one of more than 200 volunteers who worked Saturday. "It also helps the volunteers. I know that it has been one of the most rewarding and fulfilling things in my life."