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Goals and Grit Keep a Masters Runner Going

The peppy young volunteer in the yellow shirt cheered as I passed.

“Looking good!” she yelled.

Looking good? I was looking like crap. My legs were screaming, my sides aching, my nose running, sweat was building up behind my sunglasses so that the whole world—the beautiful Stanford University campus around me—was visible only through a miasma of pain.

Looking good? Don’t lie to me. I was working my butt off, kiddo, at the 10K road race in the 2009 Summer National Senior Games. The 10K is the longest running event in the two-week-long games, and I had trained hard for three months.

I’d kept a monk’s hours since arriving from New York two nights ago, eschewing the college-town attractions of Palo Alto, Calif., in order to get proper rest. Sunday I’d awakened at 5 a.m. to properly fuel up with a light breakfast well before the 8 a.m. start. And so far my race was going according to plan. I’d run the first five-kilometer loop of the 10K course in less than 20 minutes. With a little luck and a lot more agony, I might be able to break 40 minutes. Finish under 40, the gold standard of 10k running, and you can hold your head high.

Of course, that was not a realistic goal for some of the older runners in this field of about 175 men and women, including the man who might be the best runner in today’s race. Tony Diamond of Washington, D.C., now 80, just missed making the U.S. Olympic Marathon team in 1956. He finished as high as 12th place in the Boston Marathon when he was a young man. Today if you’re an American who finishes 12th in Boston, you get a shoe endorsement deal. Diamond, a U.S. Navy officer, got bupkes.

But Diamond kept running, all the way into his 40s, when he helped organize the nascent “masters” running movement. Back then the idea that people over 40 could run or do any kind of strenuous exercise was almost preposterous. As the first chairman of the Amateur Athletic Union’s long-distance masters running committee, he helped gain entry and recognition for men who were then called “older runners” and, later, women of all ages. “We had to fight like hell for it,” Diamond says.

The Senior Games, and all of us competing in them, stem from the efforts of pioneers like Diamond. And even though he would finish far behind me and the “young” guys in today’s race, we owe a debt to people like him, who helped spark the senior fitness movement and are still out here taking part in it.

The weather was cooperating. It was warm and sunny, but the Stanford campus, famous for its foliage, kept us shaded by oak and eucalyptus trees. The course—two loops around the campus—was flat as a pancake. But now I was struggling. I knew I needed to maintain a six-minute, 15-second pace if I was going to safely break 40. I missed seeing the four-mile mark, however, so I had no idea what my pace was.

In most major road races, you’ll find a clock, a banner, somebody shouting out your “splits” (times for each mile). Not here. All I got was a sweet, sunny California college student, waving a directional flag, not standing where I needed her to be, and telling me I was “looking good.”

What kind of race management is this? I wondered. Was this another example of some of the sloppy event organization I’d heard about here at the games? A runner I’d talked to who’d done the 5K the previous day had dismissed it as a “mess.”

Actually, it turned out there was a reason for not having someone at every mile marker: This was a race for seniors. However much I try to avoid the fact, at 54 I am indeed eligible for such a competition.

J.T. Service, the 10K race director, also manages major road racing events here in the Bay Area. At the Senior Games race, he says, “we made safety more of a focus than performance.” So instead of the two water stops he might have had at an open or “all comers” race, he had four here. Instead of one EMT team, there were two, plus a vehicle out on the course ready to pick up anybody who couldn’t go on.

So the lack of mile markers was a matter of resources. “Do I put my volunteers at a water stop, at turns so runners don’t get lost, or at a mile marker?” Service says. “We decided to opt for safety, since this is a race for older adults.”

The nerve of him—worrying about people’s safety instead of my time goal!

With about a mile to go I was hurting. There were 12 guys in front of me, including one I could see, smoothly running along about 100 yards ahead.

I kept my head down and kept moving. One foot in front of the other, trying to keep up a tempo. It was like something exercise physiologist Chris Gibson, himself a top masters ultra-distance runner, tells his older clients: “People who set goals are living, people who don’t are dying.”

Gibson had used that philosophy with one of his runners, 50-year-old Joe Patrick of Columbus, Ohio, who at just about that moment was crossing the finish line in today’s race. Patrick came in first with an outstanding time of 36 minutes, 44 seconds, as his 16-year-old son, Tyler, and Gibson cheered.

I couldn’t see any of this as we turned down Santa Teresa Avenue. But I spotted the large orange finish-line banner in the distance. I summoned up everything I had and kept my eye on the clock. I had about 30 seconds to fulfill my goal, and it didn’t look good. I ran as hard as I could, passing the fellow in front of me, just in time for both of us to look up and see the clock ticking 39:58, 39:59. “Damn!” we both said at the same time.

I staggered across the line in 40 minutes, 12 seconds, two seconds ahead of him. I was 12th overall and sixth in my age group.

Later in the race, two women would find themselves in a similar situation, running neck-and-neck to the finish line. As one of the women, 70-year-old Becky Kotler of Manchester, Vt., recounts it, the other woman looked at her and said, “Let’s hold hands and cross together.” Kotler accepted the offer. “We’re two little old ladies finishing the race together and we’re happy.”

Kotler and her friend finished almost half an hour after I did. But you tell me: Who had the better race?

If you think I brooded over it, the truth is that I was happy with my time, even the extra few seconds. It was the fastest 10K I’d run in five years. And, true to Gibson’s philosophy, I’m already thinking about my next goal. It’s like what Gibson says: The vital older adults, the ones most healthy in mind and body, “all have goals. They’re moving towards something.”

It might be a performance goal, or an opportunity to reach out and share the joy of participation and completion with another, or both. Either way, goals sum up the spirit of these Senior Games, with the motto of “Long Live the Challenge.”

My next challenge is the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington in October, where I’ll be running with thousands of young people as well as some contemporaries. But I admit it, I’m already thinking about how to shave those 12 seconds off in the 10K the next time this event rolls around.

Health and fitness writer John Hanc teaches journalism at the New York Institute of Technology in Old Westbury.

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