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Still Hungry at 80: The Road to the World Masters Championships

Lifelong runner and former masters world champion Roger Robinson eyes a return to worlds after two knee replacements.

The Quest: At age 80, running on two knee replacements, Roger Robinson hopes to compete one more time at the World Masters Association Championships in Toronto, July 2020. After competing at the international level as an open runner, Robinson won world masters gold medals at age 40 and 50. For a comeback in running, how old is too old? What can other older runners learn from this journey along an unknown road?  Here is the first of Roger’s monthly reports.

Return to Running

When orthopedic surgeons do second knee replacements for a 78-year-old, it’s not often that the patient’s eager priority is to get back to competitive running. I had managed it after the first replacement, a partial, when I was 71. But this time, in August 2017, on the other knee, it was a total replacement—a much bigger surgery—and now I was pushing 80. Luckily my surgeon, Dr. Mark Aierstok of Orthopedic Associates of Dutchess County, is an active triathlete and runner, so he was tolerant of my fantasy.

“Could I soon start doing a little careful jogging?” I asked him at our three-month post-surgery follow-up. He hesitated.

“Yee—ss, just a little,” he said.

“Oh, good,” I said. “because I started last week.”

“They write psychological research papers about patients like you,” he said noncommittally.

It proved to be too soon.  Not that start date, but progressing to full training and racing within a year of the surgery. The thing about trial and error is that you might make an error. Muscles had wasted and needed more time for the near-daily work needed to keep improving. Pain developed around the new knee. After struggling to run for three months, I once again had to stop totally.

Surgeon Mark Aierstok, here finishing the Lake Placid Ironman, was sympathetic to a runner’s aspirations / photo: courtesy Mark Aierstok

I complained to my sympathetic surgeon, Mark, who had just finished well up in his age group in the Lake Placid Ironman.

“I know what you did—you gave me a triathlon knee,” I said. “It only wants to run every third day. Well, I’m not swimming or biking, and it’s going to be a runner’s knee, like it or not.” As a scientific theory, that was new to him, but Mark is tactful as well as skilled.

“You need at least to build up that quad muscle,” he advised.

I submitted to a skilled but severe physical therapist named Emma. For half a year, my regime was two-hour walks, alternating every second day with a one-hour walk plus three rounds of torturous knee lifts, planks, bridges, one-leg balancing, and other horrors. I called it “doing my emmas,” and I couldn’t wait to start running again.

I still had no idea if I would ever run properly. But despite age, knees, conventional wisdom, and rational sense, I wanted to try. Not as a goal—I don’t believe in setting goals. Life for me is more a matter of testing what might be possible. But privately, without commitment or serious hope, I noted the date of the next World Masters Association (WMA) Championships: July 2020, Toronto.

Birthday Beginnings

May 2019: To celebrate my 80th birthday, in the course of that day’s walk, I ran for one minute.

Two days later, it was two minutes. Then three. I added one minute—strictly never more—every two days or so. Within six weeks, I was running for 30 minutes. After four months, it was one hour. It’s amazing how the total goes up, only one minute at a time. Twice I entered races to support local events, walking most of the distance once I’d used up my permitted running minutes. It takes patience.

By September, four months after that first one-minute shuffle, I ran all the way in a 5K. Gasping like an old steam engine, I just broke 30 minutes. Some muscle memory had survived, but my best asset, the cardio, was way down on two years earlier. The knees behaved, however—that was the important thing. It meant I could think of myself again as a runner.

Roger Robinson, age 50, winning the World Masters 50-54 10K road race (32:13.9), Eugene, OR, 1989. / photo: Kathrine Switzer

The Road Never Before Traveled

The best older runners have used a bewildering range of training methods. Canadian Ed Whitlock circled his local cemetery for three hours at a time, Derek Turnbull ran “as I feel, when I feel,” around his New Zealand sheep farm. American John Keston alternated long steady-pace runs with long walks. Not a lot of help there. It’s all trial and error when you’re running a road no one has run before.

I decided to do what has always worked for me—long intervals as the key, slowly extending longer runs for endurance, and maintenance in between. A balanced schedule, with some emphasis in the early months on building the base (more details next month).

Two new elements: more recovery, and fewer hills. As a coach of older runners, my mantra is, “You can do a 25-year-old’s training if you take a 75-year-old’s recovery.” I don’t know if it’s true. With older runners, no one knows anything for sure. But it sounds true, and so far it seems to work.

The day after a race or hard session, if I try to run, there’s nobody home. “You gotta be kidding us,” say the legs. So there are more days off than there used to be. And what used to be the hard/easy principle is now hard/easy/easy/easy.

But the hard still matters. If you want to race quality, you need quality training. Doing the repeats, recovery is key again, with the interval jog longer than it used to be. “As long as you need,” I tell myself.

Avoiding hills is simple sense on replaced knees. Downhills are obvious danger, and I have found the new knee gets sore if I push hard on steep ups. I hope that will pass, as it’s a training element I need. But maybe steep hills will become like uneven footing, something I used to love but can’t do anymore.

Roger Robinson, age 80 finishing the “Honest 10K” (55:25), Wellington, New Zealand, 2020. / Photo: courtesy Wellington Harriers AC

Progress, and Podium Perspective

Now it’s eight months since I started, and in five 5K races I’ve brought my PKRPR (Post-Knee-Replacement PR) down to 27:17. The second 10K I did, early February, was 55:25. Somewhere in my deep subconscious I figured I’ll go to Toronto if I can run 26:00/55:00. So it’s close.

Those times, as a reality check, would put me about sixth to tenth most years in the WMA 80–84 age group. I’m thinking pack, not podium.

Surprised? Try 22:34 as the 5K winning time in Malaga 2018, by Bernardino Pereira (Portugal). And 47:14 for the 10K road by Fidel Diaz Mendez (Mexico). It’s a world championship. Don’t be surprised that the winners are so good, whatever age group. Their names are to be honored.

The skill of two surgeons and the luck of good health have given me the huge life bonus of being a runner again. At 80, I’m still immature enough to think it would be an even better bonus to be once more part of worlds. For me, that’s the ultimate fun run.

Next month, Part 2: Can you still find Flow after 80? The Road to Mastery Continues

Roger Robinson is the author of When Running Made History which has won international acclaim as one of the best books about running ever.