Speedy Masters Runners Create Mayhem with Awards at the Races

By Lena Hollmann/Running Journal/December 0f 2010

In the 1987 New York City Marathon, Priscilla Welsh stunned the world by being the overall female winner in a time of 2:30:17, at the age of 42. At that time it was virtually unheard of that a masters runner would take the overall crown in a major road race. We all assumed that as we reached our late 30s, our race times would start to slowly deteriorate, and that after we turned 40, we would no longer have the ability to compete on a level field with younger runners. Therefore many road races introduced a separate Masters category for runners 40 and older, with awards above and beyond the age group awards, and sometimes even a separate prize purse.

Distributing awards was seldom complicated at that time, as the top overall runners were usually all faster than the first master. Rarely did an age 40-plus runner finish “in the money” in the overall division. It was considered fair that the 40 and over crowd had their own division and their own prize money or other major awards. Very few grandmasters were serious competitors, so there seemed to be no need for a separate grand masters category beyond the five or 10-year age groups.

But a lot has changed in the past quarter century. Or maybe not, as many runners who were competing in 1985 can still be seen at the races. There are some newcomers who discovered running after joining the master’s ranks, but not much replenishment from the younger age groups. We “old timers” are 25 years older now, and a few of us are claiming not only the awards in our own age groups, but also the masters awards, and sometimes even the overall awards! Running continues to be a sport primarily for Baby Boomers and Generation X-ers, and many recent races have been won by runners over 40 years old, sometimes even over 50, especially among women.

This creates an array of dilemmas for race directors, who may scratch their head and ask: “Should I allow double dipping in my race? If a 40-year-old places second or third overall, do I include her in the top three overall or give her the first masters award? Or both? And do I give her an age group award in addition to an overall award? What if I have a grand masters (age 50-plus) category? Should I then allow triple dipping if a runner over 50 wins the race outright?”

The majority of races today will remove runners who receive an overall or masters award from the age-group awards, and instead give these to runners who place immediately behind. And since overall awards are usually more substantial than age-group awards, most award winners walk away happy. Or at least content with what they received.

However, sometimes the first-place masters award is of higher value than the second or third place overall award. Many races give the overall awards to the first three runners of each gender crossing the finish line, regardless of age. And then a masters runner could find himself getting the short end of the stick if he finishes among the top three overall! Unless double dipping is allowed, or he inquires and some special arrangements are made. Add a grand masters category, and the number of possible scenarios similar to the one above rises exponentially.

Obviously there is more at stake in races with cash prizes for the top finishers. Some people argue that if a 50-year-old finishes in the money in the overall, masters, and grand masters categories, then he has earned it in all these three categories. And there is some substance to that argument, i.e. to allow double or even triple dipping in prize money races. It would certainly make life easier for the race director, not having to figure out how to “place” the top finishers to maximize the monetary awards for everyone, or to deal with irate runners who wonder why they got the “wrong” award. Even with gift certificates or other items of value, many runners will feel cheated if they receive less than they would in a different category. There is no ”right” way of distributing awards that is fair for everyone, and I have no magic wand to create one. No matter how it is done, there will always be possible scenarios where someone doesn’t receive their full “entitlement.” Unless we allow double dipping — but then some will be unhappy to see the same people walk away with most of the awards. Maybe if the top three overall awards were all of greater value than the top masters awards, and anybody over 40 who placed in the top three would get an overall award (and were not allowed to double dip) we would come as close to the ideal as we could. But this arrangement may not be possible in all races.

Bottom line is that the jury is still out for finding a universal solution to this challenging dilemma, and probably will be for some time to come. In the meantime, the key for handling this is communication. As long as it is clearly indicated on entry forms and other race material how awards are to be distributed, i.e. whether double dipping is allowed, and if not, how a master who places in the overall and a grand master who places among the overall or masters will be scored, there should be no major fallout afterwards. If prize money or other substantial awards are being presented I would recommend either double dipping, or placing each winner in the category where they receive the greatest amount, even though it means solving a puzzle sometimes. So yes, it can definitely be challenging for race directors to sort everything out on race day, especially since we tend to favor speed over accuracy. Not many runners want to hang around for hours after a race to wait for results.

Let me finish by saying though, that we masters runners should be proud of ourselves for creating this mess! We are running so well that we are able to keep up with the youngsters and “clean up” at the awards ceremonies. Not only because there are fewer younger runners, but also because some of us turn in performances that were unthinkable a quarter century ago for a runner at age 40, 50, and beyond. Training methods among masters runners have improved in the past few decades, as we have more science and experience available to educate us how to proceed with our training as we age. Also, several of us who started running seriously in the 1970s and 80’s have continued to do so if our health allowed. And many talented runners have gotten inspired and taken up the sport in their 40’s and 50’s.

There is one way we can make it easier for race directors come awards time. Let’s get younger runners to the races in higher numbers, and inspire them to try harder. Let’s make them think along these lines: “If I dedicate more effort to running instead of texting and watching U-Tube videos, then maybe I can beat Grandma in the next race!”