Make Mine a Double
by Laurel Park, Aug. 24, 2005
Make Mine a Double
With running and athletics in general, there are so few things to look forward to as you get older. Slower times, achier bodies, tighter singlets. Kids look at you blankly when you mention things like Onitsuka Tiger racing flats, polypropelene shirts, and Shoe Goo. The cumulative blow to one's ego can be extreme and sometimes devastating. Yet within this cesspool of melancholy exists one shining beacon: Master's prize money, or, as I've come to call it - "Geezer Geld" ("Geld" being the German word for "money").
I don't recall when master's prize money came into vogue, although I do vaguely recall the showdown between TAC and athletes regarding acceptance of prize money versus "amateur status." Prize money races started gaining popularity in the late 1970s, and as the first wave of baby boomer athletes began to face the inevitable influx of the next generation, race directors sought to keep them (and their entry fees!) coming by offering a separate award structure based on age. This trend is continuing with the recent introduction of "veteran's" prize money for athletes aged 50 and older.
While some runners are critical of master's prize money, claiming that it rewards age rather than performance, the majority of runners I know have nothing against it and in fact are very supportive of the concept. There may be the occasional grumble here or there when someone misses out on open money by a few seconds yet sees master's money awarded to a runner finishing several minutes later, but in general I sense that most runners accept it in good spirit.
Overall I think master's money is a good idea, but personally I'd like to see the system "tweaked" just a bit. And, for the record, even though my objectivity toward the issue ended on March 22, 2003, I've held this opinion long before I joined the master's ranks myself. I firmly believe - and always have - that if a master's runner is good enough to place in the open category he or she should be allowed to "double dip" and claim both open and master's money. If race directors don't agree with this, they should scale back the master's money, extend the open money deeper, and award a small "token" master's prize.
It appears that very few race directors agree with me. The argument, as I've heard it many times, is that they want to spread the payout as wide as possible and thus benefit a larger group of runners. The notable exception appears to be the Grand Rapids running community, where races such as the Irish Jig 5K, the Diemer 5K, and the Fifth Third River Bank Run 25K allow double-dipping. Each of those races can draw quality athletes on merit alone, but the added benefit of double-dipping makes them "can't miss" events in my book. And it appears that word of this unique arrangement is spreading, as the top female master in this year's Diemer 5K traveled from her home in the suburbs of Cleveland to compete (and yes, it was well worth her effort).
Before I am accused of promoting a policy from which I might personally benefit, let me offer point two of my master's diatribe: I think 40 is too young to be a master. I would like to see the master's category begin at age 45. Judging from what I've seen over the past 15 or so years, neither men nor women begin to lose the competitive edge until their mid-40s. Master's runners with whom I've spoken have said - almost to a person - that training and racing didn't start to feel significantly "different" until then. When you look at some of the examples - Francie Larrieu-Smith, Doug Kurtis, Jane Welzel, Colleen deRueck, Monica Joyce, and most recently Paul Aufdemberge - all of whom continued to perform spectacularly, if not better than ever, at age 40 (and beyond!), it bears consideration. Perhaps there is scientific research out there somewhere that proves that physical decline begins at 40. If so, the anecdotal evidence against it is pretty strong - at least from what I've seen.
Rather than establishing categories based on an arbitrary number, I'd like to see some research applied to the issue. A study like the one suggested above, where the age at which physical performance begins to decline is analyzed empirically, would be a good start. A series of interviews with top runners from the early 1980s would also be interesting. Controlling for factors such as illness or injury, I'd be curious to see what these folks have to say.
I hesitate to look a gift horse in the mouth, and I certainly appreciate races that offer any master's (and veteran's) prize money, regardless of whether double-dipping is allowed. I suspect that if the master's category were changed to age 45, more race directors would be willing to embrace double-dipping. Given the amount of running talent in Michigan, any Geezer who earns open Geld under that system deserves every penny of it.