Roger Robinson racing virtually at 80
photo: Kathrine Switzer

Still Hungry at 80: Training Alone and Racing Virtually

Despite losing his goal of a world masters championship appearance this year, Roger Robinson is finding positives and keeps training and improving. 

Roger Robinson racing virtually at 80

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The Quest: After competing at the international level as an open runner, Roger Robinson won World Masters gold medals at age 40 and 50. At age 80, running on two knee replacements, he had hoped to compete one more time at the World Masters Association Championships in Toronto, July 2020. After a successful return to running, Robinson, like the rest of the world, found himself on the road to nowhere, but still pushing for progress. For a comeback in running, how old is too old? What can other older runners learn from this journey along an unknown road? 

Living in isolated lock-down (sheltering in place) is like being a professional elite runner, the fantasy life of nothing to do but train and sleep. When you’re 80, the ratio is different, that’s all. At this age, every one-hour run takes two hours, because of the need to nap afterward. That apart, we older runners are fortunate, with fewer work and family obligations, so we can take full advantage of the daily absence of other commitments.

Crucially, we can make the run become the focus of each day. In the last six weeks, I have been able to plan and implement training with more attention than any time since I was a graduate student. I can fine-tune sessions, ensure that the overall balance is right, and nudge up the mileage. When I started writing this series, in February, my weekly average was a little over six hours. Last week the total was 7 hours 37 min (seven minutes up on the previous week: that’s what I mean by “nudge”). When I was young and fast, increasing weekly mileage was part of the formula that produced improved racing. Is that true at eighty? I don’t know yet, but I don’t see why not.

The timing of the virus lock-down meant that I’m seeing it through in sensible New Zealand, where exercise is officially encouraged, provided you take no risks, stay in your own neighborhood, and strictly observe social distance. The cricket/rugby culture means there’s a wonderful area of three big grass sports fields only a mile from home, open to the public, with plenty of varied running. Alongside is a perfect hill for two-minute repeats (on grass or blacktop), and for wet days there are sheltered bush tracks nearby. I love the place. Allow me to be nostalgic. This has been my favorite venue for interval training since 1975. In the early years, usually I led a posse of twenty or more younger aspiring competitive runners. Now, by law, I run alone.

Solitude: A Different Kind of Pleasure

That is no problem, rather a different kind of pleasure. Running alone means I have more opportunity to appreciate this green place. I know every step of its turf with the intimacy that comes from running over it for so many years. Equally I can notice the changes, like the exuberant dog park that now occupies the soggy lower field where I used to prepare for mid-winter cross-country mud. (Dog exercise areas in Wellington are marked with official Council signboards in dog language –  “Woof-Woof-Ruff.”)  Running solo, I can enjoy the increased birdlife, and meditate on the trees that have grown from saplings to maturity while I have been aging.

In my first running book, Heroes and Sparrows, a Celebration of Running, I had a section where I defined “the motives and rewards of running.” Alongside “the friendships, and the companionship of shared effort,” I wrote that “I run also for the intense privacy it bestows.” The responsibility of keeping social distance means I can unashamedly indulge the Ebenezer Scrooge side of my personality, and veer unsociably away from the recreational walkers and family groups.

The other day I was not far from a young father walking with his little girl, when they began to run. He edged a few steps in front, still encouraging her, but she stopped, burst into tears, and howled, “No – ooo, Daddy, you’re s’posed to go SLOWER!” As I jogged by, I commented sympathetically to him, “I say that in every race these days.”

Kathrine Switzer's early morning work-out with global 261 Fearless charity women
Kathrine Switzer’s early morning work-out with global 261 Fearless charity women / photo: Roger Robinson

Even at home, lock-down is rarely tedious or silent, as Kathrine joins 261 Fearless charity keep-in-shape classes with women from around the world, often at 6am our time. The only real problem is our grocery supplies are delivered to the doorstep by kind neighbors, who are convinced that at 80 I must be vulnerable and feeble. So when I head out for my daily run, I have to creep by in a hoody, in case they discover that I’m ambulatory.

I wrote last month of how the search for personal improvement can be enough to give a sense of direction, as our usual races disappear from the calendar. But it’s good also to create some short-term incentive. So I initiated an international “virtual race,” in live-time.

Racing Together, on Different Continents

Virtual racing has become the lifeline that might save the endangered species of our sport. It deserves the support of every runner who can afford not to ask for a refund. (For the financial plight of our race organisers, simply think of stacks of unwanted but paid for t-shirts.) But can you make it feel like a real race?

We did. The new dimension was that we raced in live time, simultaneously in two hemispheres. At 8am on a mellow fall morning, I stood on the 5K start-line on the Wellington, New Zealand, waterfront. At that exact same moment, 4pm in New York State, among spring blossoms on the New Paltz rail-trail, my friends Dennis Moore and Norman Goluskin were on their marks,  GPS timing devices poised. I had my distance and time checked by another friend, Gabby O’Rourke, on her bicycle, a qualified course-measurer (and 2008 Boston masters runner-up).

Kathrine Switzer, jogging because of an achilles injury, doubled as race starter. Also alert, in Martinsville, Virginia, was Joe Philpott, whose 10th Annual Martinsville Half Marathon and 5K was forced by the virus to go Virtual. Joe and I met as age-group rivals and became good friends, and this race in his home town is a major way for him to put back into the sport he has loved for fifty years. He is typical of the best kind of race organisers, who this year may be losing a lot of their own money. To help him create local and media interest in the Virtual replacement, we all registered, giving Martinsville 2020 probably the most international field in its ten years. That t-shirt (soon to be mailed) is one I will treasure, as a historical relic of this strange time. Safely social-distanced at 8,000 miles apart, we were all keeping the fun in running, and giving Joe a wholly unprecedented kind of race to worry about.

Virtual racing in New Paltz, NY
Virtual racing in New Paltz, NY / photo: courtesy Dennis Moore

Kathrine made cell-phone contact around the globe, and she cried “GO!” And it did feel like a race. When my breathing wanted me to ease off, I knew I had to stop Norman from closing. Dennis was spurred to a lifetime PR (23:04). I got a post-knee-replacement best (26:16). Dennis, at 73, placed third overall in the full Martinsville result, and when Joe calculated the age-graded percentages, I’d edged Dennis by 0.38%, a photo-finish thriller. By international phone, we shared results and made excuses and joked just as all runners do in the minutes after every race while the endorphins still romp.

“O, who can cloy the hungry edge of appetite/By bare imagination of a feast?”

I tremble to argue with Shakespeare, but by bare imagination and a cell-phone connection, we did it.  We raced.  We almost satisfied that hungry appetite. Not a feast, perhaps, without the tactical challenge of head-to-head racing, or mingling with a supportive wider community. But it gave us a reason to plan, to focus, to taper, to (in my case) wake up early, wear racing shoes, double-knot the laces, warm up, get a little nervous, the whole pre-race ritual. It gave us purpose in training, and competitive drama on the day.  The results seem to matter. Now we’re thinking of a series.

Next up: Insights from Mark and Russell, the two knee replacements the comeback has relied on.

Roger Robinson is the author of When Running Made History which has won international acclaim as one of the best books about running ever.

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