It was hot and sunny in Lyon the day before I was due to take part in the 10000m at the World Masters Athletics Championships held there in August. I set off on an easy and relaxing run simply to collect my race number from the registration centre at the Stade Balmont in the old part of town but my frequently visiting friend, the pre-race anxiety monkey wasn’t going to let me stay easy and relaxed. First, I got lost trying to navigate over Lyon’s extensive inner city motorway system before hastily forming a back-up plan that unknowingly involved a long road tunnel cutting, rather obviously, through a massive hill that I was eventually forced to climb to reach Stade Balmont.
My anxiety peaked in concert with the hilly ascent as I considered the implications of burning myself out the day before my race. My mood darkened.
As soon as I reached the top of the hill (which I walked in the end) the darkness lifted as if I’d joyfully flown away from ground level murkiness and rain to a calm oasis of sunshine and colour above the clouds, because there on the streets surrounding the Stade Balmont was a glorious gathering of runners of all ages decked in bright national kit (no country seems to have grey or black in its national colours), preparing for their race or supporting others. There was simply a fantastic sense of energy.
Stade Balmont is an impressive facility boasting an indoor 200m track, which doubled as the registration centre, and an outdoor 400m arena complete with a spectator facility that would not look out of place in many a league football club. I picked up my number and then joined hundreds of others to watch the 800m finals. If you’re not familiar with Masters Athletics, it is open to anyone over the age of 35, there is no selection and no qualifying times and races break down into 5 year age brackets for as long as, well, for as long as there are enough entrants left. The men’s 100m for the over 95s had two entrants, for example.
The first 800m final (5 entrants) was for 85-94 year olds, won to tumultuous applause by Christian Larcher from France, followed by the 80-84 year olds which was fascinating for two reasons. Firstly, because like people of all ages and experience, 80 year olds can go off too fast at the beginning of a race, Fredy Suarez from Chile burning himself out in the first 200m. Secondly, it was fascinating to see the determination, drive and technique of the winner – David Carr, 83, from Australia. Short, fast and very efficient strides enabled him to finish in 3 minutes and 7 seconds – that’s just over six minute mile pace. Truly incredible.
Remarkable performances like David Carr’s played out during the whole event where winning was important to those that won, but being part of it was much more important to everyone else. The camaraderie among athletes and the support from spectators rivalled anything I have experienced in athletics/running or indeed any sport I have participated in.
Throughout the whole event, everywhere I turned there were people supporting men and women of all ages striving to be THEIR best not be THE best. At a time when elite athletics is in something of a drug-cheat induced identity crisis, that is an important distinction.
That’s not the main point though, the main point is that many people think of running as a solo event, and while I was avoiding motorways and road tunnels and climbing steep hills the day before my race, I certainly felt alone, but that perception couldn’t be further from the reality. People may run for or by themselves but we are actually part of a huge, warm and supportive community that celebrates people being the best they can be.
In that sense running is the most inclusive of sports. It genuinely is for everyone. Everyone can strive to be THEIR best. to reach their milestones and that is what binds runners together in a way that no other sport can or does. This timely reminder of the unmatched inclusivity of running was truly uplifting and an experience that will live long in my memory, even as it fades through my advancing years.