Anyone of us who has even a passing interest in masters' competition has developed a love/hate relationship with time. My guess is that even those who claim not to care a wit about competitive running still sneak a peek at the results of the local 5K they just ran to see how they sized up against others in their age group.

As we get older, time poses a conundrum. We can't qualify for that next age group without the passing of time. Yet the time it takes us to run our favorite races seems to increase as we pass from age group to age group. The competitors among us can reap the benefits of long-term time gain (getting older) as long as we can limit the loss of short-term time gain (getting slower).  

River to River Relay
One of my favorite races has developed a wonderful method of addressing this very situation. The River to River Relay is an 80-mile race across the southern portion of Illinois. So named because it starts at the Mississippi River and ends at the Ohio River, R2R traverses a beautiful and hilly route through rural Illinois. The race has become so popular that the limit of 250 teams, with eight runners per team, is reached in less than 10 minutes via online entry.

R2R has most of the usual competitive divisions - men, women, mixed, masters (over 40), but no real age groups. The race organizers manage to pay homage to the older runners without short changing the younger competitors. See, R2R has only one age group division. It is denoted as the "handicap division." Teams entering this division have a time adjusted handicap applied to the age and sex of each team member. These time adjustments are added together to determine the team's "handicap" which is then subtracted from their overall scratch time. In this way, it is possible to compare the results of an older team with teams made up of young studs.

Putting together a competitive handicap division team requires the group to embrace that love/hate relationship with time. Relatively fast runners in their 40s are advantageous to have on a team. Fast 50 year olds are of significant benefit. If you can find some 60-plus runners who can still rip it up, you have struck gold.

Over the years I have had the opportunity to compete on "open," "mixed" (men and women) and "Masters" teams. But it wasn't until the majority of our group started to approach 50 that I entered us in the "handicap" competition.

There are perks to this aging process at R2R. We start early (6:15 a.m.) so we get to see the sunrise over the backwaters of the Mississippi. The top open teams do not start until 7:15 a.m. We have been fast enough some years to lead much of the race. We usually get caught by the winning open team around the 70-mile mark, although we have hung on as late as 78.5 miles. It is always fun to see the reaction of the leading group of post-collegiate runners when they finally see who they've been chasing.

Running in this division does present its own set of challenges. Keeping eight old running dudes healthy enough to compete in an 80-mile relay race can be daunting. In truth, just finding eight old guys who can each run three hilly 5K to 6K legs with two hours recovery in between is challenge enough. When one of our teammates was called out of the country to give a paper, a suitable replacement was a tough get. Yet come April 20, I hope to be waking at 4:30 a.m. to head to the start with a full team.

This is a great event and always a highlight of my running year. If you are not familiar with River to River or want to learn more, check out their website, www.olm.net.

Invincibility lost
Personally, I am acutely aware of the time contradictions for runners. When I was younger I just figured that I would outlive my competitors. When things are going well, it's easy to be lured into that false sense of invincibility that I see among the high school age runners I coach. Time, however, is a formidable opponent.

For a number of years I was lucky enough to gain more from my increasing age than I lost. While never all that fast, I was able to maintain what little speed I had for a number of years. Now I'm not so sure. The feeling of invincibility was lost long ago. I can no longer run a 5K at the pace I used to be able to maintain in a marathon. Yet I am excited to move into my next decade (this month) and see what I can do.

None of us can outrun time. Yet we can all embrace the benefits that time bestows. Time may change our perspective, but need not change the joy we get from heading out on a run. Our runs may take a bit longer to complete. The distance we can cover may be reduced. But the feeling at the end of a good run is a constant. Goals change as we age. Adjustments to our activity levels are inevitable.

I spoke with a friend after this year's American Birkebeiner who said he was doing more walking than he had done before. He was not walking in the middle of runs. He was choosing to complete long walks instead of runs on a few days just for the joy of being outside and staying active. He felt that this would extend his running career.

I intend to learn to ride singletrack mountain bike trails this summer. Never one to opt for too many days off of running, I'm hoping that adding a day of riding will make my runs that much more pleasurable. It's a good goal and I may just find another activity that leaves me smiling at the end.
 
Celebrate your run. Celebrate your accomplishments. Celebrate your age.

Good running to you!

Tom Kaufman, of Madison, Wisconsin, has run more than 40 marathons in as many years of running. He teaches high school phys ed and coaches high school track and cross country, as well as community and masters athletes. He has a master's degree in physical education with a specialization in exercise physiology.