“I’m going to be last!”
You have probably said this at some point in your running life, maybe when you’ve entered a 5K or gone to a track workout or something else outside your comfort zone. Or at least thought it.
“I’m going to be last!” said my mother before the Senior Games Road Race 5K in Albuquerque, NM, on June 21. “But that's okay. I’ll get a medal.”
Mother was banking on the fact that awards go at least three deep in five-year age groups and that she probably wouldn’t have much competition in the 90-94 age group. She’s been going to the Senior Games since 1997. She knows the deal.
Mother is 91.
The National Senior Games—or the Senior Olympics, as we irresistibly, erroneously and possibly illegally call it among ourselves—is a biannual competition open to anyone over the age of 50, and offers 20 sports, including basketball and softball (my mother’s original and preferred sports), pickleball (I have at least two mom friends over 50 who love pickleball), road race (5K, 10K) and track & field.
You have to qualify in a State Games (your own if the event is offered in your state; a partner state if it is not). You have to pay the not-insubstantial entry fee ($165 for the 5K). You’ve got to show up, as my mother is especially and keenly aware at this point in her life.
You have to be in it to win it!
This was my third time running the 5K in the Senior Games with Mother and big sister Leslie (who because she turns 70 in August competed in the 70-74 group).
And yes, you do have to make peace with admitting that you are a "Senior," even if you are "just" 57 (me), which I think is particularly hard for women in our youth-obsessed culture. Then again, our race results are all over the internet. There's no hiding from age.
And we're fit, dammit! It will surprise exactly no one to learn that the Senior Olympics are extremely popular with the athletic over-50 set. More than 13,000 athletes representing all 50 states registered for the Games this year.
And the Baby Boomer generation of women aging up, many of whom didn’t have the opportunity to compete in the pre Title IX era before 1972, are setting new standards all over the place.
This year in track and field events, four women between the ages of 70 and 85 set American records. Wow!
You may have heard about or seen the video of Julia Hawkins, a k a the Hurricane, who ran the 100 meters and is believed to be the oldest woman to formally compete on an American track. The Hurricane is 103.
In the Road Race 5K, Jane Trevelen of Gig Harbor, Washington, set a new Senior Games age group record.
Jane, who is 71, ran 22:59. Kids, that is 7:24 per mile!
To be honest, I was worried about Mother. Honestly, I was worried about me. Albuquerque is high desert at 5,300 feet altitude; we are flat-landers. June in Albuquerque, which has not a lick of shade, defines blazing-sun hot. Various health matters have curtailed Mother’s training, though she still manages a mile on most days. Travel is hard; racing away from home is hard. Even if you are an athlete, being 91 is no joke.
The 5K course was sort of like a lollipop, with an out-and-back stem. So as I was heading back, I passed my mother heading out, doing what she herself describes as “the granny shuffle.” She was indeed in last place, and this was a blessing, as a man riding sweep on bicycle was beside her. I yelled to him: “You keep your eye on her!”
Why do we love older runners so much?
Why do we call them “inspiring”? Because they (we!) are out there still trying and for those of who run hope we can follow the same path for as long as possible. Because most of us aren’t Jane Trevelen or the Hurricane. We’re going to slow down. We’re going to feel aches and pains. We’ll lose our balance and maybe our recollection of where we set down our sunglasses (in the hotel lobby, but not to worry, someone had turned them in to the nice man behind the desk).
But as long as we can keep putting one foot in front of the other, well, there’s another day to be had. With possibly a medal.
For those of you keeping score, I finished in 27:06, a full three minutes slower than a practice 5K I had run one week earlier! Did I mention the altitude, the travel? I placed 18th out of 43 women in the 55-59 age group. Kids, these “old” athletes are seriously fit and seriously fast. The winner in my age group ran a 6:58 pace. Laughing-crying emoji.
I grabbed a water bottle and circled back to the finish line. The no-trees high desert setting provided a clear sightline to see Mother granny-shuffling along the last stretch to the finish line.
If you’ve ever been at a finish line when the lone last person is coming in (or if you ever been that person), you know what kind of ruckus a good race announcer can kick up.
“Here comes Terry Hamilton of Greensboro, North Carolina!” Race Announcer boomed. “Terry is 91 years old!”
People yelled and screamed and clapped and cheered. I choked up. People swarmed her, taking her photo, asking to take selfies with her, wanting to interview her. Mother beamed. She loved every minute of it.
And guess what? The only other female entrant in the 90-94 group didn’t show. Mother won the gold medal! She who is last shall be first, as they say in some running bible. Never dismiss the last-place finish, says me. It is better than the alternative. You gotta be in it to win it, kids.
Senior Games 2021 is in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Mother will be 93, and I will worry about the heat and humidity.
See you there? I sure hope so.