The Wonderful World of Masters Athletics

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The face of the 800m doesn’t change with age! World Masters Athletics Championships Malaga 2018. David Matthew centre photo in 9th place. Photo credit: www.shaggyphotos.com

Fresh from the 2019 European Masters Athletics Championships in Venice, David Matthew M50 is our guide to this fast and friendly world.

In March 2019 USA’s Charles Allie ran 200m in 26.11 seconds. Fast running, but nothing special. Except that Charles Allie is 71 years old. Track & Field for the over-35s is thriving, and Serpentine is no exception.

Aged 40, like many Serpies I followed the path of jogging-to-marathon (via injury, cycling and duathlon).  A brilliant decade long journey. But the more I ran, the more I realised that the bit I liked most was sprinting the final few meters (and not just because the pain of endurance running was about to end!). Distant memories of butterflies at the start line resurfaced.

In 2018 I hit 50 and signed up for the Serpie Vets athletics team. Eighteen months later and I have travelled with thousands of others to three European and World Masters Athletics Championships, raced three 800m finals and joined a global club of athletics enthusiasts. I have found a welcoming and inclusive world of camaraderie, dedication to participation, some jaw-dropping performances, and a positive attitude to ageing. The butterflies never went away.

Serpentine RC has an enthusiastic group of Masters athletes, and we are keen to welcome newcomers. This Article provides reflections from some of these athletes and a few bits and pieces on what it’s all about. Hope to see some new faces on the start line in 2020!

Masters Athletics Basics

For those not familiar with Masters Athletics, it is track and field athletics for ages 35 – 100+. Serpentine competes in the Southern Counties Vets League and you only need to be a club member to compete.

Regional, national, and international competitions are organised separately. Athletes compete in 5-year age group bands (35-39, 40-44, etc.). In addition to your Serpentine membership, you need to join a veterans’ athletics club to enter. These clubs include the Southern Counties Veterans Athletics Club or Veterans Athletics Club in London. More information such as fixtures and entry rules can be found at the British Masters Athletics Federation (BMAF) website.

Every year there are European Championships and World Championships, one indoor and one outdoor. These competitions include full paraphernalia – heats, call rooms, drug testing, and sometimes TV and commentary. There are no minimum qualification requirements for any Masters competitions, including the internationals. Anyone can represent GB and race against the best in the world.

Competing with Serpentine – Southern Veterans AC League

This is London’s athletics league for the over-35s and it’s the perfect way into Masters track athletics. There are four meets each summer with a full T&F programme split into three age groups: 35-49, 50-59, 60-69. It is highly inclusive. So long as you meet the age-requirements you can compete (there are no restrictions on “non-scoring” entries). Standards are very broad, competitors can get lapped in an 800m and no one bats an eyelid.

Serpie over-35s – indeed at least one over-75 – also compete in numbers in the main senior leagues – Southern Athletics League and Rosenheim.

Age Grading

Age grading is the secret weapon of the Masters athlete. It estimates for each event the best possible performance for an individual of your age and gender, and compares your performance to those. The rough guide is that 70+% is “regional standard”; 80+% is “national standard”, 90+% is “international standard”.  100% means you are probably the age-group world record holder.

The fun part is that age grading estimates what your time would be if you were in your 20s. Bit theoretical, but nice to imagine! For example, at the Serpie 1 mile championships this year Andrea Sanders-Reece F60 finished 12th in 6:56. A great time in itself, but some way off the front. But put her 85.9% age grading through the calculator and we can see more clearly what an exceptional run it was – equivalent to a 4:54 mile, comparable to the Serpentine senior club record.

Catkin Shelley

Catkin Shelley, F55 – Women’s Vets Team Captain

Catkin competes at every track distance from 100m to 3000m, achieving an age grading of 83% or better at every one. This is equivalent to a 25 year old man hitting 11.7 secs for 100m but also being able to cruise the 3000m in 8 mins 50.

How did you get involved in Masters athletics?

From 2004 I did all the Vets League meets, Rosenheim and SAL, competing in distances between 100m and 800m.

British Championships

In 2015 I decided to take it up a level. I have entered the outdoor British Masters Championships three times now, competing in 400m. The whole experience is great – the quality of the other athletes, the process of a “real” call room and being led out to the start, just like at the Olympics… The middle-distance training squad run by Nic Berberis and Laura Carmichael has really helped.

What are the best things about Masters Athletics?

You are pitting yourself against people of your own age for once – in many other competitions I seem to be standing on the start line with people young enough to be my children. Whilst it is competitive, there is great camaraderie.  And it’s inspiring – watching people in their 80s competing and seeing people 10 or 20 years older than me running at almost the same pace!

Stuart Leigh (left)

Stuart Leigh, M55 – Decathlete

After a year of taking on virtually every event on the T&F roster for the Serpie athletics teams, Stuart decided to do them all at once and entered the British Masters Decathlon Championships.

How did you get involved in the Decathlon Championships?

I entered on a whim, and was pleasantly surprised to be lying 2nd at the end of Day 1, courtesy of PBs in the 100m Hurdles, 400m and high jump. Never having pole vaulted, Day 2 was a challenge but whilst it wasn’t pretty, my modest 2 metres plus PBs in discus and high hurdles kept me in touch with the leaders. Thankfully most decathletes aren’t built for middle distance – see picture – and I made up ground in the 1500m to take a very unexpected Silver. I thoroughly recommend Decathlon/Heptathlon, and with so many Serpies doing multiple events at athletics meets I think it could become a club speciality!

Avril Riddell takes on the Westminster Mile

Avril Riddell, F65 – 1500m to XC

Avril is the 2019 British Champion for 1500m and 3000m and won two international Silvers with the F60 GB cross country team (World Championships) and the F65 GB cross country team (European Championships).

How did you get involved in Masters athletics?

I had been doing Vets League races for a few years, but then talking to other Serpies I realised it would be worth concentrating on track training (a huge help having Nic Barberis coaching us) and trying the Masters events, competing with my age group and others younger and older.

What are the best things about Masters Athletics?

I have enjoyed it enormously – the challenges, camaraderie and respect for each other.  I do have a soft spot for Championships held at Lee Valley, but it is only this year that I entered the World Masters at Torun, Poland, which I loved.  The venue, meeting people, watching other athletes, and achieving some good times in my events of 1500m, 3000m and XC made it a great few days!

What are your plans for next year?

I’m not sure of my plans for next year at the moment as I’m recovering from an injury, so will see how things develop.

Rhiannon Needham

Rhiannon Needham, F35 – Sprinter and Ultra runner

Whatever the League, you will usually find Rhi doing enough events for the Serpentine team to count as a Heptathlon. She is not the only one and mathematicians still disagree whether it is possible for so many Serpies to be doing so many events yet fit them into the available programme.

How did you get involved in Masters athletics?

I first got involved in Masters athletics by accident. Some of the Wednesday 2 1/2 parks group were talking about the last Vets League meet of the 2016 season. I said if they needed numbers I could have a go. At first there was disbelief I was old enough, but I went along, was surprised to find myself B-string scorer in the 200m and came 2nd! Having done ultras and not been anywhere near a track for pretty much 15 years, I was surprised I had a bit of speed. That 200m is still one of my favourite races. The PBs kept coming – 400m at the South of England Masters in 2018 another favourite – and I’ve not looked back!

What are the best things about Masters Athletics?

It’s great to be competing against people in your age band and having the older athletes as inspiration to keep going. Everyone (coaches, officials and other athletes) want you to do well and are encouraging even if you’re having a bad meet.

Peter Clarke and family after the Welsh Castles Relay

Peter Clarke, M50 – Mile, cross-country and multisport

A regular in the Vet team, Peter has competed for Ireland in age-group duathlon and at the 2015 European Masters Athletics Championships at Aarhus.

How did you get involved in Masters athletics?

My first ever steps on a running track were when I joined Serpentine aged 44! A few years on I started to eye my entry into the 50+ ranks. I think only Masters runners and those on a DB pension look forward to getting older with such relish. Despite a team bronze with the Irish over 50s cross country team in the 2018 “Five Nations”, nothing will ever beat winning a coveted yellow Veterans Stage Winner t-shirt in the 2016 Welsh Castles Relay, with my family waiting for me at the finish.

What are the best things about Masters Athletics?

The best thing about Masters athletics is just how inspirational it is to see people you’d offer help to crossing the road still whacking out running times weekend runners can only dream of. It’s also nice to have a chance of actually doing well for a change, and age-graded results are a great target.

There’s a thriving inter-club Vets T&F scene with regional league fixtures during the summer. There’s great camaraderie among the athletes. Masters athletics also gives you the chance to race internationally. There is a World or European T&F championships indoors and/or outdoors every season to target.

What are your plans for next year?

Next year’s plans are to not get slower. I have a secret weapon to draw on if needed: giving up my daily fixes of cheese, chocolate and red wine. More seriously, I have unfinished business with the Mile. Twice I’ve run 5-zero-zero. I’ll retire happy with a 4:59.9.

Bart Porzuczek at the Polish Championships (front row, far right)

Bartosz Porzuczek, M35 – 800m

Go to any Serpie track meet in recent years and you would find Bart collapsed at the 800m finish line. This will have followed an unsustainable 58 second 1st lap, lactic legs at 600m and excruciating tie-up from there. But at the European Championships in September 2019 it all came good and Bart ran a brilliant 1:59.48 in the M35 800m Final. Add in an unexpected Bronze with the Poland 4x400m team and 5th place in the 4x100m, and it’s a great place to finish the tour.

How did you get involved in Masters athletics?

By accident. During a bus trip to Welsh Castles Relay in 2016 we found – with Jarek Olszowka – a Polish Masters website. We checked the results and figured out that we actually stood a chance of winning medals in the next indoor Polish National Championships in Torun. We entered, Jarek won silver in 3000m, I got silver in 400m and gold in 800m. And got hooked for good.

What are the best things about Masters Athletics?

It feels like being a “real athlete” – structured training, planning my season so I can reach peak performance at the right time. Participating in national and international events, with all the bells and whistles (registration, call room, decorations, etc.) Fame and glory! It just feels great to win a medal.

Great meeting new and old friends – after a few competitions one gets familiar with the “usual suspects”, meeting similarly “weird” people in different parts of the world. There is a great sense of camaraderie and friendship at Masters championships.

Inspirations

One learns that people are capable of absolutely unbelievable performances at any age. To mention just a few of countless examples:

  • An Italian gentleman competing in long and triple jump, at the age of 104.
  • A Polish lady whom I see at every Polish Championships, participating in at least 3-4 events, despite her diabetes, pacemaker and age of 82.
  • An American male sprinter running 400m in a time of 56 seconds. At the age of 70+!
  • A Polish lady who made a comeback to athletics (she was a junior international but suffered injuries) to run 800m in 2:04 this year, and to be hired as a pacer in several 800m races at this year’s Diamond League.

What are your plans for next year?

Next year’s plans are hoping to stay injury free and prepare well for the European Indoor Championships in Braga in March, and then for the World’s in August in Toronto.

Serpie International Champions

Christine Kennedy, F65

Ireland’s Christine Kennedy joined Serpentine in 2018 after relocating from California, since then her performance from 1500m to half marathon have dominated the top of the Serpentine age grading rankings.

This is no surprise or quirk of the age grading algorithm. Christine was a senior elite marathon runner who just missed qualification for the Barcelona Olympics. Subsequently she has taken Masters world titles, and set a new F55 marathon world record in 2010 (2:51:40). Most recently Christine was the F60 Half Marathon World Champion 2018 (1:34, Malaga).

Graeme Harrison, M40

GB’s Graeme Harrison is Serpentine’s most successful Masters sprinter. A great season in 2015 saw him take World Championships Silver in 400m (49.81) and Gold in 4x400m relay. He is also 400m British Masters Champion 2014, 2015 and 2018.

Graeme has had injury problems since 2016, but in 2018 won a British title and had a decent run off of limited training at the Venice 2019 European Championships (SF 54.21, enough to make the final).

So, I hope I’ve convinced you that stepping through the years needn’t mean giving up on sprinting, middle distance, jumping or throwing, and that it’s never too late to take up the Pole Vault. Masters athletics is fast, fun and friendly, and it never gets old. Look forward to seeing you on the track!

David Matthew M50 has been hooked on track athletics since Coe set three world records in 1979. He is thinking of training with a rugby club to improve his bunch racing ability.