Lessons From Five World Class Masters Mountain Runners

·9 min read

This article originally appeared on Trail Runner

This weekend is the biggest race in Masters mountain running, the 21st annual World Masters Mountain Running Championships, held in Clonmel, Ireland. The race is open to all athletes aged 35 to 79, and it's sanctioned by the World Mountain Running Association and World Masters Athletics.

"The World Masters Mountain Running Championships is a great opportunity for older runners to compete at a high level without having to qualify," says Richard Bolt, USATF member and ATRA (American Trail Running Association) staff person. He is excited about this event happening in Ireland for the first time in the race's history.

Bolt thinks that mountain running is well-suited for masters runners, with its less-jarring majority-uphill courses. "Some participants were at the top levels of the sport when they were younger, while others may have just started mountain running later in life," says Bolt. "Running is often referred to as a lifelong sport, and mountain running is no different."

Starting in the town of Clonmel - on the southern side of Ireland - the course ventures up into the Comeragh Mountains in County Waterford. The route climbs into the mountains along a mixture of trails, forest paths, and open mountain tracks, and finishes at the Cross overlooking Clonmel and the River Suir Valley.

The long course is 10.5 km (6.5 miles) with over 2,000 vertical feet of climbing, while the short course is 8.4 km (5.2 miles) with 1,700 vertical feet. Those 55 to 79 years old (and are USATF members) can run the short course, and no one 80 years old or above can compete.

Trail Runner reached out to five Masters mountain running athletes from the United States competing this weekend.

Sara Wagner

  • Age: 50

  • Hometown: Flagstaff, Arizona

  • Profession: Grant professional, small business owner

  • Years Running: 35

How are you feeling about the race?

I'm really excited. It's super cool that Ireland's hosting it for the first time, that more Americans than ever before are participating, and that we have this opportunity. There's so much seriousness in the world that it feels like a true gift to do something so health-boosting, so fun.

What’s the secret to a long life of competitive running?

Respecting and honoring our bodies. It's important that we take care of ourselves as best we can - being mindful of what we're putting into our bodies, getting regular body work, immersing oneself in nature, sharing miles with friends, getting rest, and staying away from stress.

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What’s different about your approach to the sport, as a Master?

I'm much more relaxed. If something comes up that requires me to shift my running plans, I often do. I nearly stepped away from competitive running a while back, to foster other life aspirations. I now have a personal rule that training has to be fun at this juncture of life.

What advice would you give your 20-year-old runner self now?

I would tell her that going to college classes in running clothes (to squeeze it in) was worth it, that she will always remember the way she felt during that time (when she felt like she could run all day, were it not for other obligations), and to latch onto that special feeling running as a young woman gave her. I would tell her that running will keep her young, cultivate community and lifelong friendships (some of the best people she'll meet), and will transcend many other gifts. Most of all, I would tell her that the strength, discipline, and tenacity she cultivates through this practice will apply to countless aspects in life - unquantifiable in their value.

Anything else you'd like to share?

Trips to this championship (which rotates countries each year) are definitely worthwhile. This will be my fourth. It's really cool that we have the chance to race those in our five-year age increments from all around the world - being able to compete in an international field is really fun, and the host countries do such a great job of showing us their flair. These championships are a reminder that there are so many like us out there who value remaining active as we experience more life seasons.

 

Just because we have a few grey hairs (some more than others!) doesn't mean we still don't get fired up for competition.

 

Todd Callahan

  • Age: 52

  • Hometown: Beverly, Massachusetts

  • Profession: Marine Scientist

  • Years running: 15 years

How are you feeling about the race?

I’m in my best shape of the year and think this steep course will play to my strengths.

What’s the secret to a long life of competitive running?

Remember to rest, even if that rest day is some form of cross training like cycling, cross country skiing, or snowshoeing. I have a lot less heartache about taking a zero day now than I did five years ago. Honestly, in recent years I’ve found that my competitive spirit has waned, but having a strong set of teammates to rally me has really helped.

What’s different about your approach to the sport, as a Master?

The camaraderie. It’s a small community. Many of us end up racing against each other at regional and national races, so we get to know each other well. At least in the northeast, many of us regularly communicate with each other. We check in on health and training, upcoming races. and try to get enough runners together to score as a team.

What advice would you give your 20-year-old runner self now?

Simply get outside and check out the trails. You’re going to get a lot more of a high from running in the woods then you will by sitting on a bar stool. Go into the woods without earbuds and just listen to your feet hitting the ground. Look around you; smell the air. There are gifts everywhere.

Anything else you'd like to share?

I came to trail running late, age 38, so most of what I’ve accomplished has been as a Master. As I’ve gotten older, racing has been less about me and my personal goals, and more about being part of a team, helping the team.

Nancy Hobbs

  • Age: 62

  • Hometown: Colorado Springs, Colorado

  • Profession: Executive Director, American Trail Running Association

  • Years Running: 41

How are you feeling about the race?

I'm feeling blessed, excited, and a bit nervous. Blessed that I’m able to race after a roller coaster ride of injuries, medical setbacks, and loss in the past 18 months. Excited because the World Masters is one of the events I look forward to each year (this will be my 13th running!). This year is even more special since I have not been able to race in the championships since 2018, and that makes me a tad nervous hopping onto the start line again.

What’s the secret to a long life of competitive running?

Listen to your body and pay attention to little aches and pains so they don’t progress to full blown career-ending injuries. Make sure you have a trusted physical therapist, massage therapist, and/or doctor on your support team. Cross train. Don’t run more; run smarter. Quality over quantity, including some speed work. Rest and recover.

What’s different about your approach to the sport, as a Master?

Running less, cross training more.

What advice would you give your 20-year-old runner self now?

Get a coach, and allow your body to rest! Strengthen all the muscles around weak areas.

Chris Grauch

  • Age: 49

  • Hometown: Nederland, Colorado

  • Profession: Running coach and massage therapist

  • Years Running: 27

How are you feeling about the race?

The thing that is unique about having it in Ireland this year is because, like most years, it's somewhere new. The courses and venues that are chosen seem to take us places that we normally wouldn't have otherwise chosen. Some of our favorite places to visit now are ones we discovered by racing there.

What’s different about your approach to the sport, as a Master?

The master’s circuit is particularly special because it allows those of us in the Master's division to have a concentrated, highly competitive race. Just because we have a few grey hairs (some more than others!) doesn't mean we still don't get fired up for competition. And even with the fierce competition on the course, it's nothing but laughs and good times before and after.

What are common themes you see in Masters at the top of their mountain running game?

The common themes I see in Masters runners is the absolute love of the sport, still enjoying competition, friendliness, and enthusiasm to share running with others, and still pushing to get the best out of themselves regardless of age.

(Photo: Richard Bolt)
(Photo: Richard Bolt)

Tim Van Orden

  • Age: 54

  • Hometown: Bennington, Vermont

  • Profession: Sports Coach

  • Years Running: 16

How are you feeling about the race?

I've been dealing with injuries for the past few years, so I've had to become very creative to stay moving. One of the ways that I now train is roller skiing (summer) and cross country skiing (winter). So I'm very curious to see what these skier legs can do on the Irish trails.

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Why do you think the Master’s circuit is particularly special?

After taking seventeen years off from anything fitness-related, I started to run again in my late-thirties. Learning that there was a Masters category, once I reached forty, gave me something to shoot for. Perhaps if I put in two years of solid training, I could be competitive in the Masters world! I got hooked. It's so much fun to set training and racing targets, knowing that you are not going to win the race outright, but you've got a fighting chance of doing something in your age group.

What’s different about your approach to the sport, as a Master?

I've replaced hard training with volume. No more intervals, just lots and lots of easy hours.

What are common themes you see in Masters at the top of their mountain running game?

The Masters world is full of stories of comebacks and overcoming obstacles. Everyone at this point in the game has dealt with some kind of loss, illness, or serious injury. We are all putting ourselves back together for each race. It thrills me to see someone who's been injured show up again on the start list. We are all rooting for each other to stay healthy and strong.

What’s the secret to a long life of competitive running?

Letting go of expectations and results. Realizing that there will always be another race. Making sure that you love the process more than the results. Seeing your competition as friends who have something to teach you.

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