Age Grading

15 Mar 10
Age Grading

A few years ago, I ran a race wherein the winners were not the ones who got to the finish the fastest but rather the ones who got to the finish fastest when you also subtracted age-grading variables. For those who do not know, age grading stems from the undeniable fact that both men and women lose strength and slow down with age. About a decade ago, with more runners entering the Master’s category, a way was apparently needed so all masters runners could be compared to each other in one category. By making all masters equal regardless of whether they were 40, 50, or 60 years old, awards could then be given to the athlete with the best performance.

I have two thoughts on this subject:

1. This was the product of the Baby Boom Generation getting older and once again thinking that the world had to revolve around them.

2. The whole idea of age grading has always seemed somewhat ridiculous to me.

Absolutely, age is a factor in runners slowing down as time goes on. However, I can think of fewer better occasions to say, “Well, that’s life!” In addition, while indeed a factor, age is far less a decider of someone’s overall race time as are natural ability or training. Some people are simply born with “it” and some are not. Some can work very hard and get to the maximum level that the skills they were born with will allow, but there comes a point when that ceiling is reached for those of us who are not elite.

Given that, I think age grading is insulting to those who have maintained physical fitness over the years. They do not need to receive help in order to lower their times. Likewise, I think, for the most part, those who get a higher ranking because of the age-grading know that they did not actually beat the people who finished in front of them.

This all came to my mind as I recently read an issue of Running Times which had an article about the greatest age-graded times ever run. Some of the times were just mind-boggling.

There is no age-grading calculator out there that would allow me to run times like Dennis Simonatis, a Master’s runner in Draper, Utah, who at age 45 ran a 30:08 for a 10K. Holy mackerel. If anything, I need to handicap him. How about the timeless Colleen de Reuck, who at the chipper age of 45 ran a 2:32:37 marathon?  Just for math’s sake it is neat to see that those times are a 98% and 98.4% respectively in terms of being close to the absolute fastest anyone could ever run at that age, but I do not need age grading to tell me those are ridiculously fast.  These runners are still excelling well past their so-called primes.

18 Comments

  • This article is coming from the same guy that complains when there are 10 year age groups instead of 5 year age groups at races he does?

    Your position is completely inconsistent. Oh wait, it is consistent. “10 year age groups?, Damn, I don’t get a prize.” “Age-graded race? Damn, I don’t get a prize.” “How are people going to recognize the greatness that is me?”

    Mike   17 Mar 10, 5:39 pm

  • I think everyone agrees that the winner of a race is the first person who crosses the line. BUT we also know that, as you age you get slower, so we have masters running and age groups. The 21-year-old may have won the race with a 29 minute 10K, but I’m still interested to see that the guy in 767th set the course record for a man over 70 by running 38 minutes. That’s the norm of the sport–to the victor go the spoils with some recognition that as we age, we slow down.

    I think we all agree that this is how it should be. The fact that A few running clubs have had the “fun” idea of doing a full on age graded race doesn’t change this. I’m sure even the organizers wouldn’t say that that should be how races are normally organized. it’s just a fun idea for people to try something different. It’s like the races where you get a time bonus for every time you bench press your body weight before the start. It’s not the norm, just something different. Is your argument that there should never be an age graded race? I agree that it shouldn’t be the norm, but who cares if people do a few random local races that way? The Olympic gold medal will never go to an age-graded finisher.

    Tim   17 Mar 10, 5:01 pm

  • DeeMacD,

    For personal edification, seeing whether you are staying with the overall fitness level that the age-graded results say is where you should be, is just fine and dandy (even though, again, it is obviously quite different for every person.) To that I have no problem and wish I had put more clearly in my original article.

    Dane   16 Mar 10, 10:04 pm

  • Dane:

    Age grading provides me with a reference to my general fitness. In other words, it keeps me honest. May never run an 18 minute 5k again but I can be satisfied with a 20 minute 5k. I like keeping track of my age graded percentages year after year on the same courses. Age graded races are not the norm but, with a gajillion races to choose from, you can easily avoid them. The Bucks 5K Series (no-I’m not director) records results overall, age, age graded, age graded masters….. It’s the most comprehensive system I’ve ever seen.

    DeeMacD   16 Mar 10, 2:17 pm

  • Ted,

    Glad I could provide you with a jumping point to your race. You are welcome.

    However, this is the sort of race which was the exact crux of the issue. Runners are given head starts based on some sort of preconceived notion that they “deserve” such a headstart based on their age. And you are simply playing with the fine print to make it so that the winner gets to the finish line “first” by giving age graded starts.

    As always, if one does not like a race, they needn’t participate in it and to clarify, I think it is a fun idea every now and again. I still, however, think it is rather degrading to those in the upper age groups.

    Dane   16 Mar 10, 1:56 pm

  • Age Grading. Like it or not is certainly your choice. Personally, I do. It recognizes outstanding performances by those who have some grey hair which is a great motivator for relatively younger folks to keep truckin’.
    I do agree that the first to the finish line should win the race. Hence, we’ve designed an age graded event where that is exactly the case. The “Run For The Ages” 10K Trail Chase on Sept 4, 2010 will use and age graded start: Runners start in 5 year age groups based on age/gender. Application is at http://www.pagodapacers.com/RFTAApp2010.pdf for more information.

    Ted   16 Mar 10, 11:37 am

  • Jon,

    Thank you for taking the time to say my article is basically without merit and meaningless. But allow me to respond nevertheless.

    1. Ok, they are few and far between. So? That doesn’t make my feeling they are not correct to be used in any circumstance any less valid.

    2. Shooting for an age group award or record is fantastic and I most assuredly think they should exist. There most definitely should be times for each distance for each age group to break. That has zero to do with what my article was about.

    3. I never once said the sport would collapse in on top of itself with the use of age-grading. My two thoughts were that they were a product of an extremely narcissistic generation and they seem ridiculous for the purpose mentioned above. They can continue to be used, in relative obscurity, being updated every 15 years, and still will never help a single runner get to the finish line first.

    4. Right. It is about time and placement and if you were to ask them if they felt they had won a race because of assistance by a chart, they would probably give you an “are you effing kidding me?” look.

    So from what I can see, you haven’t added anything to my space filling article except to fill more space! But you gave me something to do while I waited for my late flight, so I can thank you for that.

    Dane   16 Mar 10, 1:51 am

  • Dane, I think you’re filling up space on this one.

    1.) Age-grading for individual race awards are few and far between. It’s a good change of pace. The Houston Area Road Runners Association (HARRA) uses the top three age grade scores for each runner out of five and six races in the Fall and Spring, respectively, to distribute prize money. It has been pretty well accepted. We only have one race in the greater Houston area that gives out Masters awards based on age grading.

    2.) Running USA and the Association of Road Racing Statisticians still keep age group and single age records and runners of all ages still shoot for them. In Texas, we’ve had several of them recently, including 60-something star Sabra Harvey.

    3.) The first WAVA tables appeared in 1989 so the sport is in its third decade of their use and the sport isn’t crumbling – even among the set with the most experience. The tables were updated in 1994 and again in 2006 and now fall under the auspices of the World Masters Association (WMA).

    4.) “Given that, I think age grading is insulting to those who have maintained physical fitness over the years.” The majority of masters runners that I know from ages 43 to 76, who are record settes, never talk about age grading. They don’t care. I never hear them talk about it and I talk to a lot of them. Those that do, use it as a benchmark. To most of them, it is still all about time and placement.

    Sean Wade, one of the top masters in the world, said after Saturday’s win at the Bayou City Classic 10K in 31:27 – at the age of 44 – “I’m glad that I won but as usual not happy with the time. I was trying to break 31, but it was one of those days.”

    Jon Walk   16 Mar 10, 1:08 am

  • I compete in a relatively new sport whose constituents just waged a fierce debate over whether to add a Master’s Division to their annual championship. I tend to agree with Dane on this one; I’m not yet part of this group, but I like to think that when I reach that age I’ll have grown to accept the idea that peak performance is in my past. No matter how old I am I’ll continue to give everything I’ve got to best as many competitors as I can, regardless of age. In that respect, nothing will ever change.

    They ultimately did add a Master’s level competition to our sport, which I don’t think is an inherently bad thing. But the idea that it somehow levels a playing field does not hold water. The rationale for a Master’s Division, as cynical as this may sound, is a component of the sport’s marketing strategy.

    Charles   15 Mar 10, 7:04 pm

  • Dane -

    I like age grading for the fun it brings me when I compare times that I run today (when training hard and racing for time) to what I ran at my peak (and they are pretty close), but I think they are ridiculous if used to state the winners of a race. The winner is the person who ran the fastest, regardless of their age.

    Could I run times as fast as I did at my peak? Doubtful. Why? Because I can’t/don’t/won’t train like that any more. I train now as to what best fits my lifestyle at the present. Sure age has slowed me a little, but I have run times in my late 40s that have equalled times in my late 30s. Like I said, the WAVA tables make me happy when I compare myself to that younger runner.

    As for Dennis Simonitis (whom I knew in college and even worked with at a camp in Massachusetts) and Collen De Reuck – more power to them. Genetics and hard work prevail – isn’t that awesome! It is to me.

    Michele   15 Mar 10, 5:59 pm

  • Dane,

    I’m in your camp on this one. The fastest guy is the winner. Period. Speed is speed, regardless of your age. Folks can “win” in their age group if they aren’t fast enough to beat the young runners.

    At some point one will start enjoying the sport and the competition for what is is and move away from the focus on “winning”.

    While you were winning at Iron Horse, I was lucky enough to receive my first DFL. I’m older and still enjoyed the experience of being on the course with you guys. I look forward to more fun on the courses and maybe improving my speed.

    Scott Sanders   15 Mar 10, 5:24 pm

  • The best part about turning 40 was to enter the Master’s category. It’s been fun. And, I could care less about age grading. Interesting article.

    Beth McCurdy   15 Mar 10, 2:48 pm

  • I think part of running is knowing how to give respect and awe to those who are great and better than us regardless of age, size, weight, etc…and encouraging those who come in behind us. I am so new to running that I surely do not claim in any way to know much about the running world but I have learned so much about myself in the last 2 years that I started running. I am 38 and feel very young! I am heavier than most runners but I feel proud to show up and just check into the race! I want to get better with age and I believe I can do that. Will I be as good as I could have been years ago??? I will never know but who cares! I am here now and I love to compete so I set my personal goals. I like to look where I am in my age bracket. I did a sprint tri where our age was on our calves. I hated it because i didn’t want the guys to know my age ;) but it was cool to see that 28 year old youngen in front of me and me pass her up because I had to prove to myself I could do it! It was fun! I think in life it is what it is! I don’t have a thyroid…so its hard to loose weight…so either its my excuse…or it is what it is and I do what I have to do to go after what I want. 2hrs in the gym for me where is takes others 1hr…fair?? maybe not but oh well..just own it and go after what I want…I am so so inspired by people who win the race! I am so inspired by people older than me who beat me! I love to cheer for the ones who came in way behind me…running for me is definitely a reveler of our character…it’s become a teacher to me…and if i learn and become a better person I win! :) If I was given a medal for winning a race because i got a boost for my age and I saw someone finish ahead of me I would want to give them my medal…but that just me… :)

    Mary Alice Vela   15 Mar 10, 2:31 pm

  • There are folks who love the numbers, the more the better; and then there are folks who don’t care about any number except their own time (if that). I’m in the latter category, although for marathons I may find it entertaining and a curiosity to view statistics about how I ranked overall or among my peers (masters).

    Ultimately however, I always thought the idea of a golf handicap was unfair even though I don’t play, and I view the idea of someone winning a marathon based on some age algorithm is not fair either. I have not actually taken part in such a race, but would likely fare better than usual if I had. Frankly I would find it embarrassing.

    It’s kind of fun to have a masters category as long as it doesn’t mean much – a few superflous awards given out. So what? I get annoyed with folks who get too caught up on the numbers. When are folks going to realize that they get real benefit from the running lifestyle simply from running in itself? The marathons and races are a celebration of that lifestyle for most people.

    I know I won’t ever win a marathon in the future and I never want to do it via some age based caluculation if I did. Leave the real winning for the young guys/gals who have something to prove. The first to cross the line wins the race. Everyone else gets their own personal victory for simply finishing and/or achieving a time they find value in. The thought of having a true win taken from the person who finished first and give it to someone who is older and slower seems absurd.

    Heath Johnson   15 Mar 10, 2:18 pm

  • I do not think age grading is a good idea. One of the things that is very comforting about running is that whoever crosses the finish line first wins…period. With a system like this, you wouldn’t know who the winner was until some calculation was done. I think you make a great point about the runners who are older and still very fast. Much of how fast we are capable of being is due to the heart and lungs we were dealt, but this will only get you part of the way there. Common, folks! Let’s just be willing to face the facts here…in running, as in life….there are winners and participants and yes, even losers.

    Shannon Mitchel   15 Mar 10, 1:41 pm

  • Elaine,

    You make some excellent points and I appreciate your viewpoints. Let me start with the ones I disagree with.

    It would be nice and interesting to add age-grading to our sport. But racing, for the part of competition’s sake, is not nice. Reality is harsh and leaves us with many a bitter pill in our mouths. but that bitter pills, which we never want to taste again, spurs us on to do better. With your overtaking the slightly heavier woman in your race, there would be many who would know that their age grading (if it were utilized) would give them the edge and feel no need to push through the pain and tired feeling to overtake that person. We should never let a Excel spreadsheet determine whether we ant to push hard or not.

    What I agree with:
    I do agree that the “old” (over 35 or more) are often looked at as not as valuable or useful and that is a shame. But if there is one place where I think that is the least true, it is in the world of running. In fact, it goes the opposite direction. It is when we see the older runners out there that we are often inspired to be like them someday – still mobile and moving along at whatever age they are. If they are “just” and adult (say in their 40s) they we can have our gasts flabbered at their speed. If they are older (60s on up) and still cruising along, we can be moved inwardly. If they are 80 or beyond, we can just shake our heads in wonderment and realized that those who say they do not have time or energy to be fit are completely full of it because if this octogenarian is out there then no one has a legitimate reason not to be giving their all as well.

    If we wish to know before the race ends who is in our age group and who isn’t, races should have competitors wear a age group number on the front and back of their shirts – pretty simple. (Like they sometimes do for half-marathons, relays and the like in a full marathon race). However, as someone else commented elsewhere on my article, my response was that the fact remains that the result itself is most impressive, without the use of charts and graphs. Those who would not be impressed to hear of the 45 year old running a 30:00 10k are not going to care if we use age grading to move them to the top of the pack. In fact, it will only make many wonder why that person is up there when it is obvious that they did not cross the finish line first.

    Dane   15 Mar 10, 1:41 pm

  • Background: I am a 46 year old female. I qualified for the Boston marathon on my first marathon in October of 2008…however, I have not improved my time since…. You could say I am struggling with age related issues.

    Although there will never be an accurate way to handicap based on natural abilities, absence of a whole slew of medical diagnoses, etc., I welcome the idea of racing with more fairness, even if only a little more. I welcome it even though it is obviously not a complete solution, as you point out.
    Competition has its values, it also has its drawbacks. I see great value in it because it brings out our best; for example it makes me push just a little harder. I once won an uphill race because there was a lady in front of me who outweighed me by 20 pounds. Even though she was much younger, I figured I could pass her if I could hold on until she gave out. She didn’t give out until one mile before the race was over. I passed her and won, but the great surprise was finding I ran much faster than I thought myself capable. This would not have happened without the element of competition.
    Now for the other side of the issue. One drawback of competition is that feeling of less-than we get as we compare ourselves to others. There is, in the United States and other areas, a disdain for old age, with an accompanying lack of respect for anyone past their reproductive prime. Pooh-poohing aside, depression related to the idea of getting older (read useless, unsexy, etc.) is a real issue. Although there are already age divisions, it is hard to impossible to tell, during the race, where you stand; competition loses its advantage when you don’t know until after the race how you ended.
    So….for the sake of promoting the sport, I think more “older” (aka, greater than 35 years old), people would be likely to participate if they could compete with those their own age….even compete as if they mattered in the world of running. It is telling that participation in races has gone up even with a down economy and high unemployment. Running gives a sense of accomplishment, especially for the jobless who otherwise may be feeling less than worthwhile. Mental health is often trivialized, but it has a big effect on productivity and hence the economy. A whole new subject, but a reason to promote running.
    Not all races should be age-graded, but it would be so nice, and interesting, if many of them were.
    Elaine

    Elaine Dunn   15 Mar 10, 1:25 pm

  • On the one hand, I agree…I did a coaching session with Tom Ryan not too long ago to see how he went about being as fast as we was in his 50s. It’s not uncommon for me to be chasing him despite the fact that he has over 2 decades on me and hasn’t been running for nearly as long. (Hence why I wanted to do the coaching session.)

    That said, I like seeing the age graded numbers and how people compare to the USATF Age-Graded Performance Standards…but that’s a little different than basing the winner on age grading.

    It can make for some fun team events though, given that there’s only 1 or 2 guys younger than me on my current team, most are masters, and half the guys are way faster than I am.

    Blaine Moore   15 Mar 10, 12:48 pm

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