How old is an old runner?

By Roy Taylor

As a long time statistics nut I like an occasional trawl through the astonishing range of detail that can be found on the excellent results section of the parkrun web sites. Having reached a considerably senior age group myself, I find the number of runners in the groups from 60 upwards to be particularly impressive. In twelve and a half years of Brighton and Hove parkrun 406 men and 256 women are listed in the 60-64 age groups, 213 men and 104 women in the 65-69 groups and 105 men and 43 women in the 70-74 groups.

Obviously as runners move up a group, names will be repeated. Whilst a fair number are long established former and present club runners, many are listed as unattached, having either taken up running relatively recently or returned after a long absence. Hedgehoppers at present have a very good spread across the age groups compared to some occasions in the past where as a club we may have seemed just a bit elderly. We are however very well represented in these age groups and even older groups. With possibly one or two exceptions at the upper end these runners would in no way be considered elderly. Many are in fact considerably speedy and competing on level terms with much younger runners.

Where you might ask is all of this number crunching leading to. It is leading to a comparison with the situation when I joined Brighton AC in 1956. The men’s cross country/road section comprised around 35-40 regulars and occasionals and the club usually had no difficulty in fielding three decent teams of six for a road or cross country relay, events which were very popular in those days. Everyone was of a reasonable standard. Joggers had not yet been invented. The club would enter around 10 of these relay events in a normal year, in addition to the various inter club, handicap and championship events over the country.

A large proportion of these runners would take part in around 20 or so track events between May and September at varying levels. Unlike today, there were very few road races held during the summer months. Most of the Brighton runners would be between the ages of 18 and thirty, with a few over 30, and nobody that I can remember between 40 and 50, although a couple were getting near. We did however have two extremely senior runners who had both reached the grand old age of 52. Although not quite in semi retirement, both were a bit selective with their races.

Fortunately the club staged several cross country handicap events and various club championships each year in which they usually participated. They were looked upon as being quite remarkable to have been able to continue to such an advanced age, while most of their contemporaries were either judging or holding a stopwatch, or in many cases had vanished from the athletics scene completely.

In those days, in addition to the Argus, there were two weekly newspapers in Brighton, the Gazette and the Herald, and we received very good coverage in all three. Even the handicaps, which were identical to our annual Hedgehopper event, received newspaper reports sometimes running to 40 or 50 lines. As our ‘elderly’ gentlemen started first, way ahead of anyone else, and occasionally stayed there, they were always mentioned in the reports. They were frequently referred to as ‘old war-horses’ and described as ‘starting off at their usual steady trot’. So how fast (or slow) were these old guys? I recorded the complete result of the club three miles championship in my training diary for 1959 and one of them ran 19:04 and the other 20:19. By then they were really old at 55!

Fields for open road races were very small in those days. In my first experience of a 10 mile road race, at Bognor in 1957 just 72 runners took part. Standards however were quite high and it will surprise many that 35 of the 72 runners finished inside 60 minutes. Sixty-two years later, only 124 reached this target among the enormous number in the 2019 Great South Run.

There were still very few veterans (over 40) around in 1963, when, in an effort to stimulate some interest, the club added a veterans team event to the popular annual seafront road relay. By now the two mentioned earlier that were approaching 40 had survived to reach veteran status, but we had to rely on one of the ‘old war-horses’ to complete a three man team. Having reached a very elderly 60, he had gone off the boil a bit, having taken all of 83 minutes to complete the Worthing 10 miles, but he at least made sure that we made it into the team positions.

At this stage I should say that Brighton Athletic Club when I joined in 1956 was a men only club. Brighton Ladies Athletic Club was a separate entity. In the sixties participating numbers were still small and a female runner other than a sprinter or hurdler was a very rare item..

After a disastrous experiment in 1928, it wasn’t considered safe to include a women’s 800 metres in the Olympic programme until 1960 and even later, 1972, for the 1500 metres and 1984 for the marathon.

A Sussex cross country championship for women was not considered necessary until the mid 1960s. In the late sixties and early seventies, while driving anywhere in Sussex, I would know any runner that I passed on the road. In most cases I would stop the car a bit further on and have a few words as he went by. They were always men.

Gradually through the 60’s and 70’s more club runners continued through into the veteran stages and by the early 80’s the massive running explosion changed everything completely. With thousands of new runners out on the roads, those of us club runners who had survived into veteran status, suddenly found ourselves projected to positions much higher up the field percentage wise than we had been used to.

Running only clubs began to outnumber the traditional mainstream athletic clubs and events such as the West Sussex Fun Run League and much later, the hugely successful parkrun system, meant that everybody could run. Running was no longer the exclusive province of the athletically talented and the age of 50 and even 60 had ceased to be considered elderly. In fact, reference to any recent set of results from a Sussex Cross Country league fixture will show that veteran runners massively outnumber runners between say 20 and 30. Can this be right, good though it is that runners are finding the sport in their 40’s and 50’s.

Going back to my early days in the Brighton club, our leading runner in 1956 was aged 27. Earlier that year he had won the Southern 3 miles championship in 13:35 (equivalent to around 14.00 for 5k.)  He holds parkrun records at Hove Park for the 80 to 84 group at 28:31 and 90 to 94 group at 49:13. His 85 to 89 record of 36:52 has been beaten by Ken Peters with an excellent 34:19. My old mate, former Hedgehopper John Hay, who sadly died last year at 93, also figures in the 85-89 group,  having continued to run, swim, cycle and visit the gym until nearly 90. So how old is an old runner?

Roy Taylor