by Paul Thompson (and pictures by Shamala Thompson)
My first ever race in the land down under went better than hoped and in the final reckoning proved a classic Pommy verses Aussie showdown with the usual outcome. Now before I start let me warn you this is my longest post ever! But I hope you hang in there for the full distance to hear how I walked away with two silver medals and what it meant to me in the pecking order of what I’ve done that’s given me the most joy and fulfillment.
Having schlepped the 30 or more hours to get here, via Hong Kong with Cathay Pacific where Sham and I had a 10 hour layover spent in the comfort of one of the world’s best first class lounges thanks to my frequent flyer status, I spent a few days resting and getting adjusted to the 12 hour time difference from New York.
This was my first crack at a World Masters competition. I’d toyed with Lyon 2015 but figured I had a better chance of winning something as a newly minted M50 in Perth, Australia in 2016 than a 49 year old in a M45-49 race. Perth is a fabulous city but it has to be one of the most geographically isolated major cities of the world. It is home to two million and like many US cities spreads as far as the eye can see. It’s very low rise and suburban. Folk live a comfortable life with great weather – lows close to freezing but highs topping 40C (100F). It’s generally dry and quite windy.
While this was my first World Masters I was acquainted with many competing thanks to Facebook (including groups like this one). In fact Facebook blurs the distinction as to who we know – we can know so much about someone, including the data points of their morning run, their pending birthday, and lots of useless stuff we like to share, without having actually met them face to face. And owing to posted pictures so many are familiar like a long lost family member or friend.
Sham and I booked an apartment on Airbnb in a residential district close to the main venue – Western Australian Athletics Stadium. It turned out the place was barely 400 meters – imagine – from the cross country (XC) course. So ironically come race day, having been resident in Floreat and running on or around the XC course for a few days, I was the local athlete with home advantage.
I did a lot of homework for this race – about the climate, the courses (for XC and half marathon, my other race) and competitors. The Airbnb host gave me the low down on the course by email – flat grass fields. And so it proved. The fastest XC course I’ve experienced. Four 2K laps, like Boulder’s golf course for the USATF XC Champs in 2014 and 2015 only without the altitude to contend with.
Not knowing much if anything about the runners, especially the Aussies, I spent some time Googling those on the list of entrants. If I could run sub-28 minutes it seemed I ought to be able to breach the top ten and be part of a three man medal winning Team GB. The only thing that might take the edge off performances was the sunny weather and 70F. As it turned out sun burn was more a risk than heat exhaustion.
While preparations for these championships was all at sea until late August, since then things had gone very well. On location in Perth I quickly got into my stride with steady runs in the neighborhood, the highlight being a steady 10 miles around Bold Park and the nearby beach, and a light speed workout on the grass oval adjacent to the XC course. By race day I knew the course – blade by blade (of grass).
The race was at 1pm so I spent morning trotting back and forth to the venue to cheer Team GB and Team USA – the first race of M70 and above was at 8am. The highlight of my spectating was seeing Kathryn Martin (USA, W65), who lives in the New York area, settle into second and then gradually close a big gap on the leading W60 to one second on the line. Kathryn was entered in multiple races and likely would return to the US with a Michael Phelps’ like medal haul.
The M70 and above saw a 90 year old Romanian complete the race. And the W50-59 race, immediately before mine, saw Lucy Elliott (GB, W50) do like Kathryn Martin only to win on the finish line! Watching it was hard not to feel part inspired, part emotional as to how what motivated these older athletes to achieve so much against such odds. What a way to spend your retirement, pushing relentlessly to see what the mind could convince the body to achieve. This was not a place to feel sorry for oneself but to feel the spirit of shared determination, commitment and sacrifice – to know that everyone, no matter age or origin, we were on the same weird wavelength of life. One that most do not tune to.
And finally we were off. Two guys bolted – Bruce Graham (AUS) and Anders Dahl (SWE), both M50 – and within the first 600 meters built a 40 metre lead over David Sweeney (AUS, M55) with me a few metres further back. During the first lap the leading two held their advantage but did not build on it. I decided to work with Sweeney to close them down. I did much of the work but hey David was 5 years older than me so I felt I owed him.
The four of us were locked together for the second lap, Sweeney and I tucked behind Graham and Dahl. As we passed the start and finish area – placed barely meters apart – I heard the commentator announce “Paul Thompson, Great Britain is just behind the leaders and looking comfortable”. Indeed I was and that just did not seem right – both in the illogical and inappropriate senses of the word. So on the third lap I decided to see whether I was in fact as comfortable as I appeared and took the lead. No point finishing second and wondering what might have been.
Once in the lead I only know one way to run. To gradually turn the screw until such time as my challengers fall away. Problem is runners of our generation have a habit of just hanging on as if life depended on it. So I spent the next 3Ks with three runners on my tail. No matter what pressure I applied I knew they were in the wings.
But it felt amazing to be leading a world championship race. Sure I’ve taken my time. I was never remotely good enough for decades. But I was in this for the duration and as I aged, more slowly running wise than most, I edged my way up the rankings. And now I was able to trade strides with the best runners in the world aged 50 and above. True, many better runners may not have made the trip, but those of us in Perth had. Just Do It.
After a lifetime of running for club (Kettering Town Harriers (Kettering, UK), South London Harriers (Croydon, UK), Holmfirth Harriers (Honley, UK), MacRitchie Runners (Singapore), Pacesetters (Malaysia), Warren Street (New York, USA) and now Urban Athletics (New York, USA), school (Kettering Boys’), town (Kettering), county (Northamptonshire), university (Warwick), region (North of England) here I was wearing the colors of Team GB. While I’ve been away from the UK since 1998, feel fully adjusted to life in the US and likely to stay for good, the one country I wanted to run for was the one from where I originally came, that shaped who I am, for better for worse.
Out in front felt somewhat surreal. I had the eyes of everyone – Sham, friends and Team GB participants and supporters – watching, cheering and wiling me on, and the commentator talking about me. I was full to bursting with pride. But the pain of trying to stay in front was real.
With less than a lap to go team mate Ben Reynolds, a XC absentee concentrating on the 5000m and 10000m, shouted “they’re in single file”. I knew what this meant. They were hurting, at full stretch. But with around 600 metres Graham was clearly not hurting enough. He skipped past me. I jumped on his tail but he gapped me quickly. In the final straight he steadily pulled away. I sprinted for all it was worth to hold off Sweeney, not in my age but someone I had to beat since he was in the older age group! I’m so ageist.
Graham won in 27:15 (1st M50), I was 2nd in 27:18 (2nd M50), Sweeney 3rd in 27:19 (1st M55) and Dahl 4th in 27:23 (3rd M50). It seems it was one of the best races of the day for spectating and four of us had been locked together jockeying for first for 6 of the 8Ks. Team Australia took gold (their 3rd M50 was in 5th M50) while Team GB (Simon Anderson, 28:21 in 6th and Bashir Hussain, 29:26 in 8th) got silver. Two World Championship medals in my first ever championship. Click here for full results of M50-54 and race video.
I followed my usual post race routine. I stood around and talked with fellow runners. And talked. Not just for England but for Great Britain. What a great bunch of fellow runners. Even the Germans. We are the fiercest of rivals. But only for the duration of the race. The rest of the time we are friends. Friends that may have little contact beyond Facebook but friends who, like our better halves, know us – what motivates and drives us, how we think. We don’t know why we do it. All we know is we have to.
The finale was the medal ceremony. Finishing second meant I failed to stand and hear God Save the Queen ring out. Instead I was actually doing my warm down when I got called. As was Dahl. We both belatedly realized our error and convinced the organizers to rerun the medal ceremony so that Graham had some company. Soon after we then did the team ceremony when I was joined by team mates Andersen and Bashir. Two silver gongs. Even a whinging Pom like me had to be happy with that. No way! Next up the half marathon on November 6 and hopefully two gold.