Many older people are participating in track and field after an absence of 30 to 50 years, and they're breaking records as they go
Seventy-nine-year-old John McManus sat in his warm-ups in the stands at the Reggie Lewis field house at Roxbury Community College, chatting with friends and cheering on the athletes at the USA Track & Field (USATF) Indoor Masters National Championships.
But Mr. McManus, who had traveled to Boston for the event from his home in Woodside, N.Y., wasn't there just to watch. Over the course of the three-day meet in March he competed in four events.
"I don't think there's anything like track in the whole world," he says. "It keeps me young and happy. And I think my wife is happy because I'm not sitting in a chair watching TV all day."
A few years back, McManus set an American record in his age group as his family looked on. "That was the thrill of a lifetime," he says.
Now he's especially looking forward to the outdoor championships in Eugene, Ore., in August: He will have turned 80 by then - just in time to compete in a new age category (80 to 84) where he can try to set new personal, or perhaps even national, records.
According to the 2000 census, Americans over 65 are an active bunch. Nearly half of them, some 15.8 million, walk for exercise, while 3.8 million swim, 3.8 million more use exercise equipment, and 3.1 million play golf.
But at the tip of the javelin of senior athletics is a group of dedicated track and field participants, numbering in the thousands. Three-quarters of them are men, most often former high school or college athletes.
All find pleasure in pushing the boundaries of their physical abilities, attaining personal bests, and finding an outlet for their competitive drives while also enjoying the kind of special camaraderie that develops among athletes.
"One of the joys is that you're still competing with your college class in a lot of ways," says senior athlete George Mathews, with a chuckle. Mr. Mathews serves as chairman of the masters committee of USATF, the governing body for track and field in the United States. "Still being known as an athlete at an older age is fantastic, because most people give that up."
The competitive flames continue to burn bright in older athletes, he says. He's always amazed at how interested they are in how they rank within their local association, their region, and nationally. "They want to know where they stand," he says. Some develop friendly rivalries with others in their age bracket across the country.
And these older athletes are also just as proud of their accomplishments as their younger brethren. Their performances are precisely timed, measured, and recorded at meets. First, second, and third-place winners win medals at 57 local, seven regional, and two national meets.
"Our medals are important," Mathews says. Members proudly take them home to show their families what they achieved.
USATF masters can also qualify as "all-Americans" by reaching certain goals for their event and age. (Masters events are held in five-year age groups, beginning with those who are 40 to 44 years old. Events include the pentathlon, race walking, hurdles, high jump, shot put, weight throw, triple jump, long jump, and races between 60 and 3,000 meters in length.)
McManus had run track and cross-country in high school 60 years ago, but then forgot about it. About 20 years ago his son, a New York City policeman who had taken up running, "gave me a pair of shoes and shorts, and off I went at age 58."
Now they run in road races together in Central Park. He belongs to a track club and trains four or five times per week, putting in about 40 to 50 miles of roadwork. He runs uphill to build leg strength and does short sprints, called "interval training," to improve speed. "You have to do your 'homework,' " he says of his regimen.
Sitting near McManus at the Boston meet, Marie-Louise Michelsohn of Stony Brook, N.Y., had a somewhat different story to tell. Ms. Michelsohn, who broke a world record for women 60 to 64 in the mile at the meet (6:02.49), didn't take up running until about seven years ago.
Her daughter was recovering from a serious illness, and Michelsohn found caring for her stressful. "I was really very tense and on the edge," she says. Her husband was a runner, so one day she gave it a try.
"I just took to it," she says. Only three weeks later, she entered a local race and placed third in her age group. She was hooked. Now she enjoys carrying on a long-distance rivalry with another runner her age on the West Coast, but she says she's not obsessed with winning. "It's not a mean kind of competition," says the professor of mathematics at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. "It's a fun kind."
The deep commitment evident in athletes such as Michelsohn and McManus hasn't translated into a boom in senior track and field, Mathews says. The number of people participating in USATF masters track and field has grown only by "single digits" per year at a time when millions of baby boomers have entered the over-40 age group.
He blames the limited growth on a lack of publicity, the popularity of long-distance road racing such as marathons, which siphon off athletes (the longest running event at the masters indoor meet was 3,000 meters), and perhaps, most of all, a misapprehension that only cutthroat competitors need apply.
"That emphasis is hurting us," he says. "We have gotten a reputation as being almost elitist."
Former distance-running stars Bill Rodgers and Joan Benoit Samuelson brought glamour and press coverage when they ran at the Boston masters event. But these legends of road racing might also cause potential participants to shy away, Mathews says, thinking, "That ain't me."
Few people see it that way, but track and field "is a lifetime sport," says Mathews, who lives near San Diego and at 59 competes in the hammer and weight throws.
After attending St. Johns University in New York on a track scholarship, he took 23 years off before discovering that track and field competitions for older Americans existed. He now trains five days a week, year-round, and competes locally and nationally. He hopes that more track clubs for seniors can be started, so that members can encourage and train with one another and, in more competitive groups, get professional training.
One idea for the future is to hold meets where clubs compete against each other (all competitions now are among individuals) so athletes can enjoy a team experience similar to what they had in high school or college.
Top masters athletes, even some over 65, would be competitive at many high school or college meets, but a big gap remains between their performances and that of top collegians and pros. In Boston, Anna Wlodarcyzk, a 52-year-old from Orange, Calif., set a world record for her age group in the triple jump at 10.69 meters, prompting a college coach to remark that she'd be happy to recruit her for her team.
But the mark is still far off the American women's record of 14.23 meters.
Though age-group records continue to fall impressively, "the people doing that are a small number" of the total membership, Mathews says. Most senior athletes stay with track and field to achieve their personal goals and enjoy friendships.
"I don't do this to break records," he says. People can be just as fanatical about playing golf, he points out. "We're just a little more unique. There are a lot more golfers out there."
Unique is certainly the word. Some people would not expect to see a 101-year-old walking a golf course under his own power. But Everett Hosack from Chagrin Falls, Ohio, who's that age and the oldest athlete in USATF history, does something more strenuous. At Boston he competed in the 60-yard dash and shot put.
"I laid off [track and field] for 50 years from the time I was 30 to 80," Mr. Hosack says. Now he goes running every day at 4 p.m. - "if there isn't snow on the track." Last year he competed in the prestigious Penn Relays, and in April he demonstrated his shot-putting prowess on the "Tonight Show with Jay Leno."
Hosack also has a dry wit. Asked what he likes most about competing, he replies, "I usually walk away with a gold medal." When told what an inspiration he is, he answers, "That's what most people say."