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Keeping On Track

February 1, 2010

by Gary Grobman

Since 2007, I have been participating in Masters (35 and over) track and field competitions sponsored by the USA Track and Field Association (USATF). And I’ve enjoyed it. It is a departure from the usual 5K,10K, and half-marathon road races that have become a perfunctory exercise (pun intended) in my life. There are aspects to the competition that are more fun than road racing, and limitations as well.

Among the advantages is the opportunity to compete, REALLY compete, against some of the best athletes in the world, include world record holders. Now, I have been in races with some classy runners who have been household names. But I don’t really think Bill Rogers remembers that I raced against him because of the other 20,000 competitors who might have been in the race with us. And perhaps I caught a glimpse of him running by me the other way in a loop race. I waved to him; he didn’t. On the other hand, I distinctly remember being on the track with a former USATF Master’s Athlete of the Year Nolan Shaheed and talking some trash before he lapped me in the USATF 5K Outdoor National Championship in Spokane, Washington in 2008, running a staid and controlled 17:01 in the heat, shutting it down with a lap to go to conserve for his 1500 the next morning. At the age of 59! Among the more prominent names who compete at these meets are Joan Benoit Samuelson and Henry Rono. An occasional former Olympian will show up for kicks.

It is rare that there are more than a dozen competing on the track in a 5K or 10K, and for some reason, my medals from these meets seem to glisten more than my haul at road races. And I still get a thrill each year running in the same race as Frank Levine. Who is Frank Levine? Frank competes each year in USATF sanctioned events ranging from 400 meters to the 5,000. When I run in the Middle Atlantic USATF and Eastern Regional USATF Championships, it is not unusual for me to run in the same heat (both literally and figuratively) with Frank, who is 95 years young, and holds the world record for the 5K for his age group. And I beat him! As I look back on my running career, I think my best race ever occurred on the track, chasing down a current age-group world record holder for a satisfying win in a 1500 meter final in July 2008. And she (Lorraine Jasper) was really fast, for an old lady.

It is easier to get in a rhythm running on the track. You know exactly how much you’ve got left to run before you finish. You are given splits every 400 meters outdoors and 200 meters indoors. You don’t have to look down all of the time for potholes. And I’ve yet to get lost on a track course even once! You also know where your competition is at all times, as races are usually run by age groups, at least at the national level.

But there are some disadvantages. Running 25 laps around a 400 meter track in 95 degree heat can be a bit tedious. A typical road race 5K is part race and part festival. At track meets, there is no souvenir t-shirt or goody bag given out, unless you buy one when they are sold. There is no food. Registration can be expensive, particularly at the national level, although track clubs often subsidize registration fees.

The typical track meet competitor seems to me to be a bit more “serious” than those you might find at a 5K. While even the national USATF track and field competitions are “all comers” meets where anyone with the registration fee can simply show up and compete, few do who are not among the elite in their age groups. And it can be expensive to plan a trip to compete in a national track meet. In successive years, for example, I flew to Orono, Maine; Spokane, Washington; and Palo Alto, CA to compete in national championships of one kind or another.

Fortunately, we have two wonderful annual track and field opportunities not far from us—the Keystone Games and Pennsylvania Senior Games—which are held in late July in York, PA. I must say that even a mediocre runner can build an impressive track resume by competing in these meets, as there is a paucity of competitors, considering the prestige of being able to brag about being the state champion. I think that these competitions are among the running community’s best-kept secrets.