Older Runners

Older Runners

Older Runners

A few weeks ago, I returned to Amherst College for a 40th reunion. It was a great time, with many moments I’ll never forget.

One instance that has stayed with me, perhaps not expected, involved a couple of Daves—Cahan from Boston and Miner from Florida. It was Sunday morning, just after dawn, and I was standing at my favorite place. Memorial Hill overlooks the athletic fields and provides a stunning panorama of the beautiful Holyoke Range (one of the few east-west mountain ranges in the US!). I was running on campus and had stopped as I had each morning that week to take in and appreciate the vista. With the hilly campus, it wasn’t just a fit of nostalgia, but a good excuse to take a break.

My reverie this morning was broke by a couple of heads bobbing near the crest of the hill. The heads belonged to Dave and Dave.

Now, mind you, this is not just “a hill.” It’s steep, with at least a 30-degree slope, and is about 50 or more yards long. It’s a tough, tough hill to walk, not to mention run. Yet here came these two 60-somethings charging up it, yakking like they were on a casual Sunday morning stroll.

After I questioned their sanity (and hadn’t they left the reunion tent well after midnight the night before?), the Daves prevailed upon me to join them, not for one, but two charges up Memorial Hill.

Since, this episode has led me to once again consider aging runners, namely masters and seniors. Like watching Cahan and Miner, I’m often astonished at what 40- and 50- and 60- and 70-year old runners do.

As I grew up, my father was pretty active in officiating and coaching several sports, including basketball, which required a good deal of running. Later, he traveled, attended all his grandkids’ events (as he did all his kids’ events), and even walked for up to an hour five or six days a week. But he never did, nor can I imagine him or any of my friends’ parents doing, what many masters and senior runners do. I can’t at all envision him running or biking my current modest mileage while in his 60s.

At the recent Run Fit 5K in Novi, John Tarkowski blistered the course in18:29. That’s under a 6-minute pace! Only a few ticks behind at 18:49 was Doug Goodhue. Tarkowski is 58-years old and Goodhue is 67! Jane Sanders, among the women, ran a 21:56 at age 53. I’d guess the vast majority of runners couldn’t run that fast when in their 20s and 30s. And also running the Run Fit was Jerry Mittman. If I remember correctly, the 65-year old told me this was his 15th race of the young running year. Septuagenarians John Wehrly and Art Kitze, long-time runners and racers of Southeast Michigan, were there running, too.

Of course, runners 40 and older are called “masters.” A further distinction, “seniors,” is given to those who have hit the half century mark. At one time, the 50-year olds were “grand masters,”” but that seems to have fallen out of favor, replaced by “seniors.” (Hmmm, “seniors” at 50? Try getting the senior discount at a restaurant at age 50!) These developments have been great for running and runners.

David Pain, a California lawyer, is credited with the masters concept. In 1966, he initiated the first masters track meets, for those 40 and older. Thirty-nine year olds were too young. Shortly after, his events introduced age-groups at 10-year intervals.

Before long, masters meets were being organized all over the US. This pretty much coincided with the running boom of the 1970s. Some meets continued to be held exclusively for masters, but soon road races included masters divisions and five-year age-groups. Older runners found new leases on life, their competitive lives, that is.

Now, there are still masters and senior meets and open races with age-groups which allow runners to remain competitive as they get older. Earlier last month, the Dexter-Ann Arbor Runs held the USATF National 10K Championship. Michigan was well represented competitively. Tracy Lokken won the men’s race, while Laurel Park was the women’s champion. Both Paul Aufdemberge and Monica Joyce took bronzes, he fewer than 20 seconds behind Lokken and she less than a minute behind Park.

Races that offer prize money usually set aside a pot for masters and even senior runners. For instance, the Crim offers $1500 for the first masters, $1000 for runner-up, and $500 for third place.

And it’s not that the older folks are out taking strolls. Many are running fast—quite fast. Check the USATF Web site ( HYPERLINK "http://www.usatf.org" www.usatf.org) for American Masters road race records. You, too, will be astonished at how fast 40-, 50-, 60-, 70-, and 80-year olds have run at distances from 5K to the marathon.

As impressed as I am with these records and how fast local masters and seniors run, I am more so with the numbers of masters and senior runners out there. They are running hard and running often. Instead of spending their later years in the hammock in the back yard or watching the Home Shopping Network on the boob tube, they are pounding the roads, tracks, and trails.

Years ago, Joe Henderson wrote of “long distance running.” In this instance, he wasn’t referring to mileage, actual “distance.” He was talking about running for the long haul, being out there for years and years. For many of us, that’s the real race.

John Bingham, self-described as “The Penguin,” is a former couch potato turned runner and running writer in later life. He wrote, “The miracle isn’t that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start.” I initially thought that was a bit hokey, maybe even sappy. I don’t think that any more, not at all.
Here are some Web sites for information on masters and senior running: