On Sunday morning, on a gorgeous spring day of bright sun and an emerald blush of new leaves on ancient trees, a crowd of two hundred aged runners took to the streets of Dedham, Massachusetts to race in the venerable James Joyce Ramble and contest this year’s USATF National Masters 10K Road Race Championship. I say “aged” at least partly in jest. The masters championship was open to anyone 40 or over, and 40 years old seems very young to me, indeed.
I wasn’t there, alas. I was at home, sipping coffee and trying to fathom the meaning of a 2:03:05 marathon at London from a man in the prime of his running career. My excuse for not being out there with the other pensioners in Dedham was a resolution I had made after the Doyle’s 5M two weeks ago to stop the recent habit of not running at all for a week and then hopping into competitive races on the weekend. I had concluded it was a bad idea on many levels, an inversion of the proper relationship of training to racing.
In spite of that, the race in Dedham was on my mind. It’s not every day a national championship takes place so close to home, and I knew plenty of runners in the race. In fact, as I looked through the results, I found myself lost in admiration for the race performances, whose age-adjusted meaning I felt I understood well.
The overall winner of the masters race was 45-year old Mark Andrews of Rochester, NY, who ran 32:45. That age-grades to 30:21, a solid if unspectacular result. A scant two seconds in arrears was 49-year-old local boy Pete Hammer, who hails from Needham, MA (just one town over from Dedham). Hammer’s time of 32:47 age-grades to 29:24.
But that’s just the beginning. Further down in the results in 9th place overall was 53-year-old Nat Larsen, whose time of 33:50 age-grades to 29:20. Mark Reeder, 56, a tireless local runner who still runs twice a day and 100 miles a week, finished 15th in 34:55, which age grades to 29:29. Right behind HIM was 59-year-old Brian Pilcher of Ross, CA, whose time of 35:00 age grades to 28:46!
And I haven’t even gotten to the women, yet. The top three age-graded performances belonged to three women — Marisa Strange, Edie Stevenson, and Jan Holquist, respectively. The 52-year-old Strange ran 36:48, which the age-grading tables tell us is the equivalent of an open time of 31:48, a tremendous result on the rolling James Joyce course.
But as I contemplated all of these impressive results, one thought kept bubbling to the top of my mind. As I’ve written before, age-grading is a bit of a fiction, although a pleasant one for those of us struggling to stave off the inevitable decline. If these runners are anything like me, feelings of satisfaction at being awesome in the age-grading department coexist with feelings of being slower in absolute terms. How many times have I heard runners whom I consider legends gently complain about how slow they are? None of us ever completely forgets that whatever the tables say, 35 minutes is still 35 minutes, even if it’s an astonishing 59-year-old 35 minutes that blows away expectations about what pensioners can do when they stay healthy and hungry.
The thing that I find most impressive is not the statistical greatness of these times, but the human resilience that manages to ignore — or least not be discouraged by — the inevitability of getting slower, in absolute terms, every year. It takes a lot of training to resist the aging process, and that’s really the best you can hope for. I always think of the Red Queen’s remark in “Through the Looking Glass,” replying to Alice’s sensible observation that in her country if you run very fast for a long time you generally get somewhere.
“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”
It’s a tough formula. And it doesn’t lead to much in the way of fame or fortune. Masters running won’t fill a stadium with cheering fans anytime soon.
But that’s OK. The prize that age-group runners seek is less public, but still worthy, and that’s to train with purpose and dedication so that on a day like Sunday, they’ve slowed down by such a small amount that they and you can almost imagine they’ve figured out how not to slow down at all.