My life in race shirts: 2003 USATF National Masters Championships

Joe Dudman started running road races as a sophomore in high school, circa 1980. Since that time he has accumulated over 600 race T-shirts (Yes, he finally got around to counting them!) Some of them evoke special memories and (hopefully) interesting stories. In this recurring series, he recounts some of them for Run Oregon readers. In August 2003, Hayward Field in Eugene was the site of the USA Track & Field National Masters Outdoor Championships. In track, masters is 30 and older, unlike road racing where it's 40+. I was 39. So entering a couple events in a national championship in my own "backyard" was a no-brainer (one of those events was the dreaded track 10k, a no-brainer in a different sense!) I signed up for the 1500, 5000, and 10,000 meters. I was just excited to get a chance to compete in such a major event only a two-hour drive from home. I held out faint hopes of maybe snagging a single bronze medal in one of the events if I was really lucky and everything fell into place, but that seemed like a long shot.

My first event was the 5000, midday on Thursday. It was hot, and I didn’t know what to expect, except that the 5k was my strongest and most familiar distance. While we were competing for medals with those in our own 5-year age groups, a few of the races consolidated some of the smaller divisions. My heat of the 5000 included men aged 30-39, so I had some “youngsters” to contend with as well as my close peers. As an aid in identifying our direct competition, USATF provided us with age-group bibs to pin to our backs, creating a “target” for those of similar vintage.

I managed to run a very respectable time and a solid race, and was excited to take 3rd in the 5000 in the 35-39 age-group, behind the usual Oregon suspects Damian Baldovino and Lawrence Merrifield, Jr. As the proud new owner of a largely unexpected bronze medal, the pressure was off, and I figured anything else I did at the meet was gravy.

My next race was the 10,000 on Saturday morning. I had run only one other track 10k before, freshman year in college in the Conference Championships, and despite knowing better, here I was 20 years later, lacing ’em up for another 25 laps of torture.

Joe Dudman (purple shirt) rounds the curve somewhere in the midst of the 25 laps of the 10,000m.

This time our heat consisted of masochists aged 30-44, so the age group bibs on our backs really came in handy. As I settled into my pace and braced myself for the long effort ahead, I began to scout out the age groups of the runners around me. Some of the 30-34 runners began to pull away, as did some in the 40-44 age group. But as I stuck to my guns and ran my own race, I became aware that only one runner in my own age group was ahead of me, and not far ahead at that.

Somewhere in the final third of the race, I realized that I still felt pretty strong, and I decided I could pick it up a little. I gradually caught up with the 35-39 guy I had been trailing, eased past him, and began to pull away, feeling the age group “target” symbolically burning a hole in my back. Now leading my age group, that 35-39 bib seemed like a neon billboard screaming “Come and get me!”

Joe Dudman (in purple) makes his move on his age-group competition (#542) in the final stages of the 10,000m.

But I pressed on, lap after lap (after lap!), and in a rare case of a well-paced 10k, I managed to hold on for the age group win, and earn a completely unanticipated gold medal. I was the 2003 10,000m National Champion in the 35-39 age group! Of course, there was a lot of luck involved, as there were faster times in both younger and older age groups, but as Woody Allen once said, “90% of life is showing up!”

I had one race left, the 1500 on Sunday morning. I was bushed, and finished 8th out of 12, but it truly was “gravy” (and my legs felt like biscuits). It was like a victory lap (3 3/4 victory laps to be exact). I had come into the meet just to compete and give it my best shot, not expecting to medal at all. Instead, I left with two medals, including a gold, and great memories that remain near the top of my list of running highlights.

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