The 69th annual Howard County fair came to a close Saturday evening, but not before a 4-H tradition involving some slimy, fuzzy and multi-legged critters. After a week of showing off pigs, goats, chickens and cows, Howard County kids turned their focus to some creepy crawlies with a worm race.
Dug from the dirt or plucked from a leaf pile in the woods, the squirmy competition wasn’t limited to earthworms: there were categories for “fuzzies” and “pedes” (of the centi- or milli- variety), as well.
Under the roof of the Show Pavilion, where the race was to be held, Michael Yencha, 10, clutched a plastic cup filled with dirt, its opening secured by saran wrap and a rubber band. You couldn’t see it, he said, but buried in the soil was a centipede so big it had the potential to blow the competition away.
Michael, of Sykesville, had found his champion out in the backyard, rolled up on top of a woodpile. The centipede had already proven he had the mentality of a victor: “He ate a 3-inch worm this morning,” Michael said.
Until race time, the centipede would stay put in his plastic-cup terrarium: “I can’t let him out, because he can run extremely fast.”
The earthworms were the first to take to the races.
The worm track, a shallow, white wooden box, was divided into nine lanes, each marked at three distance intervals by a green, then yellow, then red line. Green was the closest to the track’s starting point, and not many worms or ‘pedes made it past that first boundary.
The children gathered around the track, which was balanced on top of a trash can, and dropped their competitors into a lane. The announcer lifted the gate, and they were off – or at least had that option.
Most of the worms just wriggled in place; some tried to climb out of the track and others inched a few worm-paces forward before reversing course. One trick, it seemed, was to find the longest worm, or at least the one who lay flat and completely extended: in a mostly directionless race, the ability to stretch the farthest becomes a great asset.
Spectators took in the scene with a sense of humor.
“This is intense,” one boy commented to his neighbor. “This is hardcore, dude!”
“This could be a long race,” said a father matter-of-factly.
Michael watched and considered his strategy.
“I need to put a fat, juicy, plump worm here” – he pointed to the end of the track. “My centipede would go crazy.” The divided lanes were a good safety precaution, he added: “If they didn’t have the lanes, he’d be eating all the competition.”
While most of the races were low-energy, some had a bit of breakaway action. A few energetic worms managed to take off with a sense of purpose, injecting a bit of excitement into the race as they propelled themselves toward the green line.
The crowd went wild:
“It’s moving, Nick, it’s moving!”
“He’s in the lead!”
“Good wormy, good wormy, good wormy!”
Finally, it was time for the ‘pedes category, Michael’s race.
As his friends looked on, he scooped his centipede out of the dirt. There were gasps.
“My God, that thing is huge, Michael!” It was about three times as big as the competition.
He placed it in a middle lane, along with a clump of dirt. The centipede writhed, ready to take off.
Unfortunately, he was up against a particularly ambitious millipede, who, in his excitement – or maybe it was a hope to escape back to his earthy home – jumped the gun multiple times, squirming under the gate to break free and run to the end of the track in just about 10 seconds.
After the third or fourth time of this, the announcer declared the hardworking millipede the de facto winner. Michael’s centipede was beat.
That’s okay, he reflected: the centipede could be put to other uses. There would be no rest in retirement for the critter: “He’ll make a good snack for the chickens,” Michael said. “They’ll eat anything!”