USATF Master’s National Championship Track Meet: It Was Pure Magic

On a warm, overcast weekend in late July, 1300 runners of all ages and backgrounds flocked to Lexington to compete in the Master’s Nationals track meet. Some were there to defend their titles, some were there to rehash collegiate memories and some were there with the sole intentions of completing their races with a smile. And smiles there were- pure happiness, euphoria and excitement radiated off that blue, rubberized track all the way to Louisville.

When I first heard this meet would be held in Lexington, I knew I had to do it. My background in track is weak, to say the least. In high school, my teammates and I were instructed to run (as a warm up) to our practice track, which was about half a mile away. I came up with the bright idea to conserve energy by taking the city bus instead. That kind of dedication led me to be among the most mediocre of all sprinters in St Paul, MN from 1993 through 1996. In hindsight, I probably should have been a distance runner but to me they appeared to be a whole different species and I could not comprehend how people could run for more than a minute or two. Shockingly, I did not attempt to run track in college.

Deciding to do this meet at age 44 gave me a new and refreshing goal. Since I did have some unfinished business in the shorter distances, I chose the 400 and 800 meter races. I also thought it would be fun to put a Bluegrass Runners relay team together. Shannon Florea was on board right away, and eventually Shannon Million and Betsy Laski joined us.

All summer, we knocked out track workouts under the cover of darkness, or on weekend mornings, commuting a good half hour to have access to a track. We did drills, we battled elbow to elbow through countless intervals and we were motivated by other friends who joined us for some of the workouts. Storms, humidity and insane heat did not slow us down.

Finally, race weekend arrived. When I went to pick up my packet, the nerves kicked in. The stands were packed, and hundreds of runners in fancy uniforms from all over the country had swarmed the UK track facility. Clubs like Atlanta Track Club, NYC Tracksmith and Southern California were there. One of my favorite clubs was the GYS Track Club from North Dakota (it stands for Get Ya Some.) Among those clubs were our own Bluegrass Runners, and we would go on to represent Kentucky well. One of the highlights of the weekend was cheering on our fellow Kentuckian friends!

All it took to ease the nerves was watching one race. It was the women’s steeplechase. There were some very competitive women, and there were others who were clearly out there to have fun. One woman was dressed like a superhero, and smiling the entire way. Another woman in an 80+ age group finished the race and then grabbed her cane to walk off the track.

My first race was the 400 meter dash, on Friday. I felt completely out of my element, and like an imposter. After years of running long races like marathons and Half Ironmans, here I was in spikes, backing into starting blocks to run a sprint with some of the fastest women in my age group. Of the seven of us, I was the only one who had not traveled in from hundreds or thousands of miles away.

When the gun went off, I pushed from the blocks and got a decent start. However, my legs had a hard time finding a rhythm. I was in lane six, and was passed quickly by three women. My secret hopes of a medal were gone. At the halfway point, I was blowing hard and starting to fatigue. With 100m left, the legs started to turn to noodles. I could see three athletes ahead of me. One was about 10 yards ahead, and I was slowly reeling her in. I didn’t think I could close the gap, but I dug deep, pumped the arms and got up for a bronze medal about two strides before the finish with a 1:07:00, half a second off my high school PR, which isn’t too shabby 25 years later. I had a ton of fun in that race, and couldn’t stop smiling.

The next day, I competed in the 800m dash and won it in 2:35. Shannon Million, a teammate and friend, was second. We can now say we are the 800m National Champion and Runner Up!

Finally, it was time for our 4 x 800m relay that we had trained for all summer. We were wearing our Coeur uniforms and I will say we looked like a strong and formidable group as we paraded to the starting line with 13 other teams. This would be the final event of the day, and the spectators were plentiful and loud.

Left to right: Betsy Laski, Shannon Million, Shannon Florea, Erin Rock

I was the lead off runner, and when they lined us up there was a gun malfunction. They positioned us in “set” and had us retreat about three times. The suspense was awful! But then, we were off! I quickly fell into a small group of three women, None of us really wanted the lead, so it was a slow first lap but we found ourselves well ahead of the rest of the field. Had I known that one of them was Olympic Trials marathoner Katie Ruhlman and the other was Courtney Naser, post-collegiate steeplechase specialist from Georgia Tech, I might have let negative self talk get the better of me. Fortunately, I did not know that and was able to stay with them. In the end, Naser was about a stride ahead of me and Ruhlman was a stride behind me as we made the initial handoff after running a huge negative split with a 1:15 second lap.

Shannon Florea seamlessly took the baton and was off. She quickly left the Atlanta Track Club runner but was challenged early by the Dayton Track Club Runner. Their entire team had a very impressive resume, and they were there to win. Shannon, the gritty athlete that she is, never did let the challenger overtake her. She dug in and even pulled away as she got ready to pass the baton to Shannon Million, who would have her work cut out for her against standout Ohio master’s runner Julie Mercado. Shannon gave 110% effort, and knocked five seconds off her time from earlier in the day. She had to be in the pain cave that entire half a mile, but she made us proud.

By then, Dayton Track Club had a significant lead and there would be no catching their anchor runner. But our own anchor Betsy Laski, despite a debilitating hamstring injury, brought the baton home well ahead of Atlanta Track Club. The rest of us were screaming in excitement as she crossed the line at 10:57, breaking our goal of 11 minutes and winning our age group.

But that was only the beginning of the fun! As each team finished, we stayed on the track to cheer on the other teams. We got to cheer in our friends from North Dakota. We clapped in awe as world record holder Michelle Rohl ran by us. And when it was down to just a few teams of women in their 70s and 80s, the yelling and cheering reached an all time high. I think we all had goosebumps and it was one of the most magical experiences of my life. I love this quote from first time competitor Danny Richie:

“What stood out to me most was the overwhelming level of unity of the athletes. There was a fellowship there that transcended age, gender, nationality, race and color. I saw men cheering for women and women cheering for men. I saw the youngest, strongest, and fastest come to their feet and applaud the races of the oldest competitors, and continue to cheer until the last competitor crossed the line. The oldest competitors were also the most honored and admired. I saw old men come together like military veterans that had fought a war together. I saw people from all over the country, from different nationalities and races, come together to form relay teams with one another. Each race was then commemorated with pictures taken with each other. People were celebrating seeing old friends and making new ones. It was truly an uplifting experience. We live in a world where every difference we have is being used to divide us, yet here at this event it was an overwhelming level of unity. It is too bad the rest of the world isn’t like the example set by these people.”

About erinrockrun

Erin Rock is a master's athlete, NASM personal trainer and USA Triathlon certified coach. She and her wonderful Irish husband Damien have two fur babies. When not on the bike or roads, she can be found plant-based cooking, reading non-fiction, or trying to break the world record for number of grocery bags carried on her arms in one trip.
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