December 7 2017
As we near the end of 2017, Strava shares its running statistics for the year, gathered from user data logged around the world.
Imagine a race without age groups—or, better yet, imagine a race in which you could choose which age group you wanted to be part of, depending on how you felt on race day! I’m guessing the largest men’s age group would be the 18-25 category, while the 70+ age group for women would be overflowing.
If age is really “just a number” and runners of all ages are defying the odds and racing various distances well into their 70s and beyond, why do age groups matter so much? How were they established in the first place?
According to the Long Distance Log, the first recorded race with prizes for different age groups was a 4-miler held on Sunday, July 2, 1961 in Macombs Dam Park next to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. An excerpt from the book Idle Feet Do the Devil’s Work by Ray Charbonneau states there were three separate races that day: one each for “veterans” (ages 45 and older), “juniors” (19 and under) and the “open” field for everyone else. The following day, The New York Times referred to the “veterans” winner as an “old timer.”
Before the running boom in the 1970s, there were so few runners participating in races that a single publication (which happened to be the Long Distance Log) reported all of them! As running and racing became more popular, so too did the distinction of age groups.
For example, the popular Masters group (as it’s now called) begins at age 40. The first U.S. Masters Track and Field Championship was held in 1968. In 1975, the Boston Marathon gave its first award to a Masters runner, thus cementing a new era in the running boom: that of the almighty age groups.
Age groups of course are a great way to organize the massive races we are now accustomed to. They’re also the best way to level the playing field when it comes to each runner’s speed (or lack thereof) as we age.
But what if there were no age groups and no one to compare yourself to in terms of numbers?
The next time you race, ask yourself how you honestly feel about your performance, regardless of how you are ranked in your age group. You may just surprise yourself with a new number.