Running has many natural advantages over other sports.
Not only can you run at any age, you can compete at any age against anyone of any age. If you are 45, you can have a great race against a 15-year-old or a 65-year-old.
Running is safe, for all ages against all ages. A large 45-year-old man can have an exciting race against a small 14-year-old girl. (Trust me, it’s possible, and yes, I lost.) A 10-year-old boy can have a series of hard-fought races against his father or grandmother. (Again…)
You can reach your peak as a runner at almost any time. Some runners run their PBs in their teens, others in their fifties.
You can enjoy running even if you are not very good at it. The experience of outsprinting someone to come first is much the same as the experience of outsprinting someone to come eightieth.
You can run well alone or with others. You can run a thrilling track race against two other competitors or a thrilling relay race against hundreds of other teams. You can run your best time and come last.
In all these respects, running is special. You cannot play competitive hockey unless you have a team and a league. You cannot safely play rugby against players who are much bigger than you. It is not much fun playing cricket if you can’t bowl, or golf if you can’t hit the fairway, or soccer if the other team is scoring all the points.
When we compete in age groups, we squander those advantages.
Age group running brings arbitrariness into a sport that is otherwise natural and uncomplicated. Why should it matter whether the person you are trying to beat is older or younger than you? Why should it matter whether you are running for an age-group medal or an overall placing?
It cheapens medals and victories. Whether you win a medal, whether you contribute to your team score, whether you are a valuable asset to your club …all can depend on whether you are 34 or 35, or 59 or 60.
It leads to endless arguments and distinctions. In running, of all sports, we have no good reason to argue over whether Masters should begin at 35 or 40, or whether a championship distance for 50-59-year-olds should be 5k or 10k. Shut up and run!
In a time of declining participation in club running, age group divisions make it harder to put together relay teams, especially for smaller clubs. If a club has seven runners, regardless of age and sex, they should be able to form a team and compete against other teams of similar ability. It shouldn’t matter whether they are all the same sex or were all born within one decade.
Imagine a world without age group running.
In each event, give out exactly six medals: first, second, and third, for women and for men. Beyond that, everyone gets to compete in whatever way they choose: aim for the top ten or the top fifty, aim for a PB, try to beat your friends or the person next to you – or, if you’d prefer, aim to beat others of your age.
Where different runners prefer to run different distances, hold a short-course and a long-course race, both open to anyone.
For team competitions, every runner in the race should score; our sport needs more participants and we should let everyone contribute to the success of their club. Give most team points to the place-getters, some points to those who make the top ten men and top ten women, a few points to those who make the top twenty, and one point each to those who finish. You get the idea.
At relays, give medals and points for the top three women’s and men’s teams, then give points based on overall placing and participation. Encourage clubs to enter teams of runners who are similar in ability – regardless of age. Let’s see a 60-year-old passing the baton to a 30-year-old who sets off to chase down a team of 18-year-olds. If a 50-year-old can run a 16-minute 5k, let him run with bunch of other 16-minute guys, not a bunch of other 50-year-olds.
I have focused on adult age groups. While it is obviously a more complicated topic, I think the same points apply to children’s running. It is not good for children – it is definitely not good for their parents – to think that the value of running comes from winning medals. They get enough of that in school competitions. Club running would be more welcoming, more accessible, and more fun if everyone could race everyone, over whatever distance they find challenging. At the Shaw Baton or the Dorne Cup, I would love to see a 1k race in which a 10-year-old tries to keep up with an 80-year-old, while both overtake a 25-year-old who is running further than he’s ever run before.
Let’s get rid of age group running. We are better together.