By Kerry Gillespie, Toronto Star
Paul Osland ran in the 1988 Olympics but he’s no different from the majority of Masters athletes simply trying to see how good they can be.
Vern Christensen used to drive his daughter to High Park and sit in the car while she trained with her cross-country teammates. But it wasn’t long before he wondered why he wasn’t out running too.
“This is stupid. Why am I sitting here? I can beat these kids,” thought Christensen, who was on the cusp of his 50th birthday and had last run seriously in university.
“Of course, I went out and I couldn’t, so I just started back on my own and eventually found a masters group.”
Masters athletics is track and field for those, generally, 35 and up — in some cases up to 90-plus years of age.
Now 75, Christensen holds multiple Canadian age-group records and is hoping to come back from France next month with a medal around his neck from the world \Masters athletics championships in steeplechase, where he races two kilometres around the track while jumping over barriers and through water jumps.
Every few years, Ed Whitlock smashes a world record in the marathon, as the 85-year-old did in Toronto last Sunday with a sub-four hour marathon, and it shocks the world that someone so advanced in years is running farther and faster than most people have at any age. Whitlock is extraordinary — his dozens of world records vouch for that — but the Milton, Ont., runner is not alone.
He’s part of a growing group of athletes in Canada and abroad who refuse to give up on the notion of being elite and still want to know how good they can be, at any age.
Paul Osland, a Masters athlete, official and coach, is hoping Toronto wins its bid to host the 2020 world masters athletics championships to draw more attention to this niche sport and buck preconceived notions about aging.
“People would then go, wow, I didn’t realize that there was this thing for older folk, that we can still do something,” Osland, the president of Canadian Masters Athletics, said.
Toronto is up against Gothenburg, Sweden, but thanks to hosting the 2015 Pan Am Games, the city has the sports facilities to rival those in that southern Swedish city.
Gothenburg has the benefit of cheap and easy travel for European members but Osland is hoping that Toronto’s history — the first world masters championships were held here in 1975 — and multiculturalism will help sway enough voters on Oct. 30. (A final bonus, he added, is that beer costs half as much here).
Last year’s championships in Lyon, France, drew 8,000 competitors, making it far larger than the track and field contingent at the Rio Olympics.
“It dwarfs any kind of thing like the Olympics but it’s about participation, so there are no qualifying standards,” Osland said. “You get levels of athletes from really elite like the Ed Whitlocks and Earl Fees of the world down to the people who are trying to walk around the track a couple of times at 80 or 90.”
There are 1,900 track and field masters in Canada, a third more than just a few years ago. But only a handful are former elites like Osland, who ran for Canada in the 1988 Seoul Olympics. The vast majority of Masters athletes across Canada are people who were a rung or two below Olympic status in their best days or came to sport later in life after raising families and establishing careers.
On one level, Masters competitions are similar to the Olympic underdog stories where an athlete might be well behind the favourites but garners plenty of crowd support for guts and effort.
“At the masters there’s a hell of a lot more of that,” Osland said. “You think about the guys that are running dead last, by a lot, and there’s a lot of support for them, it’s about that they’re still out there doing that when they’re 60, 70, 80, 90 or even 100, on occasion.”
On another level, it’s an outlet for highly competitive and driven people to continue to test themselves.
“When I get out there training on the track I feel the exact same as I did when I was in my 20s,” the 52-year-old Osland said. “The pain is the same, the effort is the same, everything is identical, the only difference is how fast I’m actually going.”
And that does take some getting used to. Just as masters athletes need to include more recovery time in their training schedules, they also need to shift their mindset around what constitutes success.
“When I was young, my first (800-metre) goal was to run under 1 minute, 50 seconds and my next goal was to run under 1:46 to make the Olympic team. Those are goals that I did and I worked hard to get to them. When I first turned 40, my goal was to break two minutes and I did,” Osland said.
“Whether it is 1:50 or two minutes, it’s a barrier that’s there to be broken, all we’re doing is reestablishing our goals and barriers.”
That is the crux of Masters Athletics.
“So, as I turn 60, my barrier will be something like 2:05.”
For Christensen, the barriers are both metaphoric and two-and-a-half feet high.
He didn’t pick up steeplechase until he was around retirement age — though at 75 he’s still not actually retired — and he wasn’t deterred by the event’s reputation for being tough and full of spills as exhausted runners try to leap over barriers.
“It is hard and it’s probably harder for me than those guys in the Olympics. They’re young,” Christensen said. “You just say, I’ve got to make it over because when you don’t make it over that’s when you can get into trouble. I’ve heard people say ‘did you see so and so, he fell right into the water’ and I say, ‘I didn’t see him because I didn’t look back’,” he said. “I’m very competitive.”
He holds the Canadian men’s steeplechase records for the 70 and 75 age group and he already has his eye on setting at least one more.
“There isn’t an 80 record and I’m hoping that I’m still running then and I’ll set that record.”
Why, exactly, isn’t there one?
“Nobody has ever done (steeplechase) at that age in Canada.”