Stephen Day

I think masters grades for running are silly. 

I can see the appeal, as I get slower, of wanting to cut away the fast competition and just race those who are also greying and varicose veining their way into middle age and beyond. 

But I also think everyone ages at different times and rates. I’ve never thought it was either fair or fun for a 35.01-year-old to be racing in the same category as a 49.99-year-old but not in the same category as a 34.99-year-old. No matter at what number we draw the cut off between age groups, it will be arbitrary. 

Like many runners, for a while, I tried rejecting the classification system by pretending I was still a senior rather than a master.

But I can see its value as a tool for keeping masters runners engaged with the sport. So I’ve been pondering if there is a better way to do it.

I came up with a completely impracticable and unworkable idea that I nevertheless thought was elegant and worth sharing. 

The problem (or at least one of the problems) with masters grade running is that people age at different times and different ways from each other. I’m having a good streak as a masters runner not because I was a great runner but because I haven’t really got slower until I was a few years into being a master. On the other hand, I know some seniors who have lost their speed and are still waiting for the arrival of their first masters’ age group.

So, what if people could choose for themselves when they had got slower – and then enter the next age group? 

Let’s call seniors – people at their running peak – Category A.  Let’s say that for them to graduate into the next category, Category B, they have to be 5 percent slower than their Category A personal bests. That’s about how much slower a 40-year-old should be, on average, than they were at their peak according to masters age-grade tables.  The catch is, if they choose to become a Category B runner they are not allowed to run a time within 5 percent of their previous personal best.  And they are not allowed to return to their previous category. 

For example, my personal best for 10km is 32.18.  Five percent slower than that is 33.55. So when I chose to move from Category A to Category B in a 10km race it would be because I do not think I am capable of running faster than 33.55 any more. If I do run faster than that my finishing time would be rounded up to 33.55. I might not be racing people the same age as me but I would be racing people who are 5 percent slower than their personal best. Category C would be 10 percent slower than personal best – 35.32 for me. And so on. 

The benefit of this system is:

No one moves up an age category until they are actually slowing down from age or long term injury.  In the example above I would have no incentive to move up a category if I thought I could beat that time – because it wouldn’t count and I’d be rounded up to a higher time. At the moment I still back myself to run faster than 33.55. So, even though I claim I’m getting older and slower, I know I’m not really 5 percent slower than age-grade tables give me credit for.  

On the other hand, I would be fall-over surprised if I could get within 5 percent of my 800m PB these days. I’m ready to admit I need to move up an age grade to Category B when it comes to middle distance races. 

There are technical problems with this proposal – not everyone has PBs over a range of distances – especially not masters runners new to the sport. It involves more calculations and cross-referencing for officials than seems fair or manageable, and it would be a nightmare at mass participation events like Round the Bays. (However, there is a subset of runners who love maths, spreadsheets and calculations.  This proposal would leave them feeling like pigs in a clover field.) 

There are also practical problems with this proposal. Most sensible people simply don’t care enough about running to work out what their personal best is, let along what 95 percent of it is. Or 85 percent. My proposal doesn’t make running more fun or easier. It just makes it less arbitrary.

But eliminating arbitrariness is a good goal. If we liked arbitrary competition we would play snakes and ladders. Or we would become Hungarian gymnastics referees. Or we would get Athletics NZ to consult on age-grade regulations.