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Hal Higdon's 7-7-70 Quest - 2. World Veterans Championship

By Hal Higdon

Old Slow Folk Down Under

WAITING AT THE FINISH LINE OF THE MARATHON at the World Veterans Championships (for men over 40 and women over 35) in Brisbane, Australia two Saturdays ago was a photographer for The Sunday Mail and a TV crew from Channel 9 of that city. Younger and faster runners had finished several hours earlier, but the local media wanted only me. My time? Five hours plus; hardly an impressive performance even among Old Slow Folk Down Under.

Thus the conundrum of international athletics: The media at all levels of competition is less interested in performance than it is in "stories." Up close and personal. Marion Jones' time in hundredths of a second for the 100 meters ranks lower on their interest charts than the fact that she just divorced her husband.

My story? In Brisbane, I was running the second of my 7 marathons in 7 months to celebrate my 70th birthday and help raise $700,000 for 7 separate charities. That story proved infinitely more interesting to Brisbane's local media than the fact that some Australian bloke had run 2:30 to finish first overall. The TV crew stumbled onto the story by accident. They were nosing around the finish line looking for up-close-and-personals and spotted the Mail photographer waiting with my wife Rose and friend Walt McConnell for me to finish.

The Mail photographer was only there because Rebecca Hill, who handles publicity for The Alzheimer's Association, had pitched 7-7-70 to his newspaper. (Alzheimer's is the charity I ran for in Brisbane.) Alzheimer's Disease is a problem that affects older people. It is a progressive, degenerative disease of the brain, and the most common form of dementia. Approximately 4 million Americans have Alzheimer's Disease. In a national survey, 19 million Americans said they had a family member with Alzheimer's Disease, and 37 million said they knew someone with that disease. (If you want more information, or would like to contribute to the Alzheimer's Association, please click the link above.)

Rose and Walt looked concerned, because on a warm day on a hilly course I was taking longer than predicted. "Here he comes!" announced Walt, but it was someone else instead. The TV crew ably documented the disappointment on their faces. Then I appeared in my U.S.A. uniform smiling and shamelessly waving my cap as I crossed the line. TV audiences love disaster turned into triumph. My 7-7-70 bite made the 6:00 news. The TV crew also stayed long enough to capture the final finisher: a 70-year-old woman from India, who took more than 8 hours to finish. Sorry fans of fast runners; up-close-and-personal wins again.

Championships in Brisbane

This was my thirteenth trip to the World Veterans Championships. One focus of my life during the last quarter century has been this athletics meeting for older runners, held every other year in different parts of the world. Organized by the World Veterans Athletics Association (WAVA), the "World Vets" attracts approximately 5,000 track & field competitors from 75 or more different countries. Male competitors must be over the age of 40; female competitors, over 35.

That there exists a world track & field championships for older runners is due to the vision of David H. R. Pain, who was an attorney in San Diego when he started jogging in his mid-40s. Missing the competition he once found in handball, Pain convinced a local promoter to add a "master's mile" for runners his age in an open track meet. Eventually he founded a unique track meet for older runners. In 1972, Pain took a group of masters runners to a series of meets in Europe, which laid the groundwork for the first World Veterans Athletics Championships in Toronto, Canada in 1975.( I described Pain's efforts in an article for The Kiwanis Magazine titled "They're not runners; they're too old," which eventually was reprinted in my book, Fitness After Forty, now out of print.)

I ran in that first World Vets in Toronto, winning the M40 3,000 meter steeplechase in 9:18.6, still the American masters record. But fast times such as that don't always interest reporters. Other than my 7-7-70 Quest, the story that grabbed the media's attention most in Brisbane was that of Australian Leslie Amey, age 101, who ran the 1,500 meters in 19:59.54. No surprise that he won his age group. Amey is the first documented centurion to compete at the World Vets. Photographers also loved Mexican Rosari Iglesias Rocha, age 90, who donned a sombrero after running the 800 meters in 6:59.18.

How do those performances compare with high-schooler Allan Webb's 3:53 time for the mile this spring? Age-group charts do permit comparisons, but the media doesn't want to hear about it.

Fast Performances

For those of you who do care, one of the best achievements at Brisbane was Chantal Dallenbach of France, age 38, who won the 5000 in 16:25.55, 10,000 in 34:39.50, 2000 steeplechase in 6:51.97 and the 8K cross-country. Dallenbach won gold medals not gold as she might at a Grand Prix meet. Not all the fastest Old Folk traveled Down Under. Dallenbach might not have won that many gold medals had same-age American Regina Jacobs decided to show in Brisbane. (Jacobs ran near-15 for 5000 this summer at the USATAF Championships after winning the 800 and 1500.) And Johnny Gray's time of 1:48 at age 40 this year is certainly better than the 1:52.46, Ireland's Colm Rafferty ran winning the 800 at the World Vets. Play-for-pay runners like Jacobs and Gray are rarely attracted to pay-their-way competition. Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus don't compete in Senior golf events without compensation either.

The media might be pardoned its lack of interest in pure performance by Old Slow Folks, but sadly it often extends to all levels of the track & field sport. At a meeting of the World Association of Veteran Athletes held midway through the championships, WAVA sought to improve its marketability by voting a name change to World Masters Athletics (WMA). Left in place was the seemingly discriminatory rule that sets 35 as the age women become "masters," while men have to wait until turning 40. Try explaining that to the press or, through them, to the public.

It seems unlikely that the now renamed "World Masters Athletics Championships" will become a truly professional event that would attract major sponsors and large numbers of spectators to its next gathering in Carolina, Puerto Rico in July, 2003. Live TV? Forget it! Track meets for younger and faster people have a hard enough time doing that. In the meantime, there's still a place for a few of us Slow Old Folks to grab glory by having a story.

Results from Brisbane: For complete results at the 2001 World Veterans Championships, visit: http://www.worldvac2001.com.au/. The best continuing source for information on masters competition is National Masters News.

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