A long-retired elite runner gets back in shape and sets a new age-group world record in the mile.
As high school runner in the late 1980s, John Trautmann broke Steve Prefontaine’s national record in the 3,000-meter run. As a collegiate runner at Georgetown, he won an NCAA championship in the 5,000-meter run and outkicked Bob Kennedy to win that event at the 1992 U.S. Olympic Trials to earn the chance to represent the U.S. at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. But then a foot injury, which would linger for years, derailed his career and forced him to retire without ever reaching his goals. “It was a bad breakup,” he says of his relationship with running.
By the time he was 40 years old, he was long removed from running and tipped the scales at 210 pounds—more than 72 pounds heavier than his old racing weight. It happens to almost everyone, right? Work, family and a slower metabolism get in the way and life moves on.
It appeared to be the case for Trautmann, but after not running for years, he decided to try to get fit again in 2009. At the David Hemery Valentine Invitational meet in Boston on Feb. 14, he called on his rekindled athleticism, the guidance of his old coach and much of the same grit and determination of his youth and blazed a new world record in the mile for the men’s 45-and-older age group, clocking an impressive 4 minutes, 12.33 seconds.
“I don’t think you ever start out with that desire,” Trautmann says. “But you set little goals for yourself, and any of us that were at that level in the old days still have it in our minds. We’re competitive. We set little goals and we achieve those and we want to set higher goals. It sneaks up on you. The bug is still there.”
It didn’t happen overnight. In fact, it was an arduous process that took almost six years to achieve. It started when, at age 40, he reconnected with his old college coach, Frank Gagliano, who, after several years of coaching in Palo Alto, Calif., and Eugene, Ore., returned to the east coast and started coaching the upstart New Jersey New York Track Club.
One summer day in 2009, Trautmann, who admits he wasn’t living a very healthy lifestyle and wasn’t really exercising much, showed up in Rye, N.Y., where “Gags” was coaching 2008 Olympian Erin Donahue in a workout session. Just for fun, his old coach had him run a few 400s in about 90 seconds or 6-minute mile pace. Compared to what he used to run, that was a pedestrian pace—30 seconds slower than the workouts he did with Gags back in the early 1990s.
“I was just going up there to hang out with him. Gags is a good guy to be around, but he gets you motivated,” Trautmann says. “It was the summertime and I happened to have some running shorts and shoes and he had me out there doing some 90-second—supposedly easy—400s. They weren’t so easy at the time because I was 205-210 pounds. In fact, it was pretty hard. But at that point, I just wanted to get healthy again.”
Still, being healthy was far from the notion of racing for age-group world records. First, he knew he had to lose weight, even though he knew his body couldn’t withstand the rigors of running every day. So, initially, he says he jogged two or three days a week and worked out relentlessly on an arc trainer at the gym, sometimes twice a day.
“My bone structure really isn’t that big and running with that much weight really affected my joints,” he says. “My knees would hurt every day and it was really tough for me to recover. If I ran more than that, I would just be in pain.”
But with his daily efforts and watching what he ate, he says, the weight came off fairly quickly. When his weight was down to the low 170s, he started to feel like a runner again—though still far from what he once was.
“I set little goals that I could achieve. As I achieved each goal, I set the bar a little bit higher,” he says. “Then I started running some local road races with the New York Road Runners Club and it kind of just progressed from there. Every time I achieved one goal, I just set another one a little bit higher.”
As he continued to lose weight and get more fit, his old form started to return. By late 2013, he down to about 155 pounds and had upped his training about 80 miles per week. With Gags’ encouragement, he started thinking about the M45 mile world record—which was about 4:20 until Brad Barton, a 46-year-old from Ogden, Utah, lowered it to 4:16.84 in 2013. Trautmann had gotten down to 4:17.3 last winter before a foot injury took him out of commission for a bit.
Not long after that, fate intervened. After more than a decade working as a bond trader in New York City, his position was eliminated last summer and he was suddenly out of work. He decided to take that opportunity to train full-time again, ramping up his mileage to 100 miles per week and also joining faster workout sessions with the New Jersey New York Track women’s team.
Two weeks ago, he clocked a 4:18.72 to win the masters mile at the New Balance Grand Prix in Boston. Then on Feb. 14, running against collegiate runners in the sixth of 22 heats of the men’s mile, he ran like the wind and finished fifth in 4:12.33. Ken Stone, editor of Masterstrack.com, called it “perhaps the greatest masters record of all time.” His time broke Barton’s reigning mark and also beat the unofficial indoor mark of 4:13.25 set by Tony Young of Seattle in 2009, as well as Young’s 4:16.09 outdoor record.
Trautmann says it’s been a thrill racing with runners half his age—most of whom weren’t born yet when he made the 1992 Olympic team or ran his PR of 3:58 in the mile. In the faster heats, 12 runners broke the magical 4-minute mark and 14 more ran 4:06 or faster. The winner of Trautmann’s heat, Jeremy Hernandez, of Ramapo College, ran 4:09.22.
“It’s great (racing against younger runners), but I just don’t have the same turnover as they do,” he says. “Every race I’m in, I’m dead spankin’ last at the 200 and often at the 400. No matter how fast the guys are in the race, they’re always out faster than me. I feel like I go out pretty much on pace, but I feel like everyone else gets out a little bit faster and I end up having to weave my way through the pack. And that’s what I did on Saturday.
“By 800, I was on the pace I wanted to be, and with 400 to go, I won’t say I knew I had it, but I was 90 percent sure I could do it. At that point, I was thinking, ‘Wow, maybe I have a shot to break 4:10’ and I gave it everything I had. The last 120 was pretty hard, I was definitely feeling some lactic acid.”
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Trautmann says he’ll continue to race this winter, although he isn’t sure which races he’ll focus on from here on out. But he says his comeback has helped put him at peace about the premature ending to his career as a pro runner.
“The thing about masters running is that we all want to see each other run fast,” he says. “It’s not about beating each other, it’s more than we all want to see each other run fast. We’re all going through the same aging process and we’re seeing our bodies gradually deteriorating and dealing with the same aches and pains, and there is a camaraderie that’s really the best part about it. It’s good to be healthy, but you never know how long it’s going to last. So when you’re healthy, you have to race when you can and get all you can out of it.”
Tips From The Top
A few insights from masters runner and former U.S. Olympian John Trautmann about training after 40.
“I had gained a bunch of weight because I really wasn’t working out at all. Yeah, I went to the gym and lifted some weights, but I wasn’t doing anything cardiovascularly and really, I was eating whatever I wanted and that wasn’t working. Losing weight was a big goal, but I couldn’t do it by running.”
“When I was younger, I could eat anything. But now I can’t do that anymore, or I’ll wind up gaining 10 pounds in no time. At my age, no matter how much running you do, you still need to watch what you eat. Because, to get down to the racing weight that I want to be at, I really need to watch everything I eat.”
“When I first started to come back, all I was doing was hard workouts. I wasn’t jogging. I would run hard on my running days and I would be cross-training on every other day. I had been working out hard three days a week and cross-training on an arc trainer (like an elliptical) an hour before work and an hour after work. I felt like I was getting as good of a workout as I would running, if not better. I wasn’t working on all of the muscles you work on when you run or working on the efficiency of my stride, but I was definitely working my heart out and helping myself to lose the weight. I would do repeat 400s or a short tempo run or some hills. So I was still getting good training in without putting in much mileage in at all.”
“My hard days are very hard, but my easy runs are very slow. On my easy days, I run 8- to 9-minute mile pace. I have women in baby strollers passing me in the park. Central Park is crazy and there are more people passing me than I am passing some days.”
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