Wednesday, October 5, 2016

2016 USATF 5K Masters Championship Recap-Part 1: US Records Fall at the Syracuse Festival of Races

October 5 2016. The skies were cloudy with temps in the upper 50's and very little wind, perfect for some fast racing. And the athletes did not disappoint. The men ran first at 9:50 AM followed by the Women at 10:50. There were a record high number of finishers at 259 and probably a record number of national class performances, 131 women and men! What a tribute to the wonderful job done by the Race Director of the Syracuse Festival of Races, Dave Oja, his wife, Linda, Greg Tuttle, their Operations Director, and the entire crew and volunteers.

Let's focus on the new US Records first. The men ran first and two age group records were set. Both were considered likely although one is unorthodox. Two California speedsters crossed the country to challenge records in the 60-64 and 65-69 category.

Co-Record holder in the Men's 55-59 category, Brian Pilcher was chasing Tom McCormack's 16:58 record for Men 60-64. Two years ago McCormack came from the hills of East Tennessee to Syracuse and took down the record that had stood for 28 years. But records were made to be broken. The next few years will likely be a golden age for Masters records. What made Pilcher's quest unorthodox was that he was attempting to do an unusual double, going after the 5K record on Sunday, October 2nd and going after the Marathon record at the Chicago Marathon a mere 7 days later. Certainly no one would bet against the 2012 and 2013 Long Distance Runner of the Year but it is definitely ambitious. Pilcher confided before the race that he was not entirely certain his coach actually supported the 5K attempt although it had been in the plans for months. Once the gun went off, Pilcher made sure he would not fail for lack of trying. He went out with the young guns, crossing the halfway point in 8:07 with a bunch of 20 and 30 somethings. While he could not hold onto that pace he did not fade much and cruised across the finish line 20 seconds in front of McCormack's record in 16:38. While there are no official Masters World Records, Ken Young compiles a list of World's Best Masters times by distance and age group. According to that website there are only two men in the world, 60 and over, who have run faster than Pilcher. After the race, Pilcher noted, "It's hard running fast coming off of logging the miles for Marathon prep but I figured it would be a good shake-out run anyway. It's great to have the 5K record already. Next up is the Marathon--and then all the distances in between-if I can!"

Brian Pilcher lowers the American 5K Record for Men 60-64 by 20 seconds at the USATF 5K Masters Championship hosted by the Syracuse Festival of Races [photo credit: Bob Brock]

Tom Bernhard brought the same approach to the Men's 65-69 record attempt, take no prisoners! In fact, Bernhard confided after the race that he had thought he was running well under control, nice and smoothly but was shocked to find himself going through the mile in 5:20. That was at least ten seconds faster than he would have liked. And it wasn't like he did a better pacing job over the next half mile or so because he hit the halfway mark at 8:26, still about ten seconds faster than he was aiming for. And, as he expected, Bernhard paid for it over the second half of the race, when he slowed substantially (by his standards). Luckily he was in condition to handily break the record as long as there was no breakdown. But about five meters from the finish it looked like calamity might actually strike as Bernhard started to lose balance and almost pitch forward. Luckily he was able to right himself and finish strongly a few seconds later, in 17:31, taking over 40 seconds off the record that Bill Borla established 11 years ago. According to Ken Young's website, only the renowned Masters Runner from Canada, Ed Whitlock, has run faster, with a 17:23 in 1998. It was a tremendous performance in every respect and especially so considering the pacing and the near fall. Bernhard reflected after the race: "Any time you break an American record, it's very special and I'm happy to have broken the record in my favorite event in spite of having run the most poorly paced race of my life. I really feel I can do better and look forward to trying to improve my time next year. It's things like this that keep us motivated."
Tom Bernhard about to claim the American 5K Record for Men 60-64 at the USATF 5K Masters Championship hosted by the Syracuse Festival of Races [photo credit: Bob Brock]

 Like Pilcher, Kathryn 'Kathy' Martin, already holds the American 5K record for her most recent age group, 60-64, and was aiming to add the 65-69 record to her records cache. Two years ago on this same course, Sabra Harvey established the current record of 20:27. Even though Martin ran 19:24 in this race last year, there was some doubt about her current fitness. She had been about ten seconds slower in the Fifth Avenue Mile this year and her only 5K had been run in 20:37! It was not clear in advance if she had been nursing an injury or was off her game for some other reason. Still, few doubted that the 3-time Masters Long Distance Runner of the Year would add this record to her many accomplishments. And we were not disappointed. Martin ran the first half of the race in a fairly quick 9:46. If she could keep it up, it would have been a 19:32. But her conditioning is perhaps a little off from last year as she slowed a bit over the second half. But she got the record by half a minute and as the Race Director Dave Oja, said later at the Awards Brunch, "...became the first 65 or older Woman in the World to break 20 minutes on a certified, record eligible 5K course!" In fact, according to Young's websiite, the Scottish runner, Janette Stevenson had set the current World's Best of 20:04 in March of ths year. So Martin broke that one by 7 seconds. There could be duelling 'World's Best 5K' attempts over the next year or two. I learned after the race from her husband and coach that the slow times in August and early September were because he was having Martin use races as workouts. That was part of her heavy preparation for the World Masters Athletics Championships in Perth Australia later this month. If she is trying to peak for the WMA Championships it is perhaps not so surprising that Martin vowed to improve upon this record. "I am pretty happy with the record but truly I could have and really should have done better. There is always room for improvement. I’ll be back next year. Kudos go to the Race Director, David Oja and his wife, Linda, for this outstanding event. None of this would happen without them and all they do for the runners.”
Kathy Martin zips across the Finish Line to claim the American 5K record for Women 65-69 at the USATF 5K Masters Championship hosted by the Syracuse Festival of Races [photo credit: Bob Brock]

Saving the best for last, consider Libby James. Age Division Runner of the Year for 5 consecutive years and current holder of the US 5K record for 75-79 year old's, James was widely expected to obliterate the record for Women 80-84. Anne Clarke set the existing record of 29:23 in 1989. The record has held for 27 years and yet James ran several 5K's earlier this year before her 80th birthday, in 25:10 to 25:28. The amazing runner from Fort Collins Colorado set a brisk pace as she crossed the halfway mat in 12:19. The pace was a bit too ambitious but nonetheless James smashed the US record by over 4 minutes! Her new record is 25:11. According to Ken Young, it is a World's Best as well; no one from outside the US has run under 29:41. Ever modest, James was a little disappointed that she had not run under 25 minutes but she offered the following perspective:
"Of course it is exciting to be a record holder, but more than that, I am thankful to be part of a sport where there are so many amazing and wonderful people willing to participate and support running with their enthusiasm and hard work. The Festival of Races in Syracuse is the ultimate evidence of that. All summer I’ve been trying to get below a 25-minute 5k. I have not done it. And it doesn’t matter. I’m just grateful that I am part of the running community."
Libby James crossed the Finish Line in 25:11 establishing a new American record and a new World's Best for Women 80-84 at the USATF 5K Masters Championship hosted by the Syracuse Festival of Races [photo credit: Bob Brock]

Three Cheers for the four new American 5K Record Holders!

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