Mastering a Long-Term Relationship with Sport: Stories of Masters Runners (Part 1)

Runners of the Six put out a call on the Runners of the Six Instagram a few weeks ago asking what readers wanted to have included in the upcoming ROT6 journal. One of the topics that was submitted was: Masters athletes. This immediately caught my attention.

Over the last year I’ve dealt with multiple injuries and illnesses that left me not able to run as often as I was able to. I had just joined the Runners of the Six journal team prior to my first injury of the year. Being a part of the journal at this time was helpful – I was able to stay connected to the running community while not being physically able to run. I was also able to share different stories about injury, which many runners and other athletes could relate to. I just didn’t realize how long I’d be sidelined for. Eventually the writer’s block hit.

When I discovered that you, the readers, wanted to read about Masters athletes, that immediately re-sparked my ‘why’. The main reason why I got involved in running, and continue to push myself to run longer distances, all comes back to a single Masters athlete – my dad. More stories of diverse Masters runners will be shared over the coming months to showcase the benefits and challenges of being an athlete, for life.

Below is an interview with my dad (John Helliker): obsessive runner, 24/7 worker, and my personal chauffeur. Growing up, the main time I got to spend with my dad was in the car. He spent hours driving me and my friends to school, to only drive hours to his own job after that. He would pick us up after school and drive us to dance, spending well over 3 hours in the car each day. When he started running, he would go to practice after dropping me off and wouldn’t get home until bed time. Some days, if I forgot to pack something for dance, he’d use this opportunity as his workout and would run it over to the studio so that he could fit it all into one day. There were, and continue to be, a lot of privileges associated with this lifestyle, but I didn’t appreciate this when I was younger. Before I developed my own love for running, all I recognized was work and running came first – clearly I didn’t appreciate the car rides. Over the last five years, running gave me the ability to spend quality time with my dad. He still leaves the house for hours at a time to go for long runs, but I now go with him. As you’ll read below…my mom is the reason why my dad started to run – I wonder if she regrets this at all…

Can you tell me a bit about yourself?

John Helliker: I’m 70 years old, identify as he/him, white settler, privileged in many different ways (e.g., financially, access to education). I’m still working full-time in an administrative position at a college. I live with my wife/partner in the west end of Toronto, and have a car. Location and access to transportation are relevant given Masters competitive events don’t happen everywhere. 

What was your involvement in running (or other sports) as a kid/growing up?

I never took part in competitive sports as a kid – running or otherwise. I was pretty small and skinny – weighed less than 120 lbs when I was in high school. I knew I had some ability in terms of middle distance running – or thought I did – as I was usually among the first in cross-country exercises in high school within gym class, but never went beyond that. I went to China on a cultural exchange after I got my undergrad degree and studied for two years at post-secondary institutes in Beijing. In the second year there was an opportunity to take part in intercollegiate athletics so I tried out for the Beijing University track team – primarily so I could have more of an opportunity to socialize with Chinese students. I became one of the few international student members of the track team that year (10,000 meters) and competed in inter-collegiate events. I was in my mid-20s at the time. I should point out that it was my dream as a kid to run a 4 minute mile. I had read a book on Roger Bannister (1st 4 minute mile) and became consumed by that idea for awhile, probably because I was considered so athletically-challenged, with running being the only thing that I felt half-way capable of doing. 

How would you describe Masters athletics/running to someone else?

It’s a national and international movement, set of organizations, and events that foster and support life-long participation in physical activity with a competitive athletics aspect within running, track and field in general, and other sports. It’s often structured in track and field within competitive events so that you’re running with people of your same age, as heats in events tend to be scheduled within a competition so that everyone is within a five-year age range (e.g., 60-64, 45-50). Participation within the individual heats of a particular event (e.g. 100m, 1500m) can also be scheduled based on the time that you put down ahead of the event as your expected result, with people in the same general level being placed together with or without reference to age and gender. And in some events (e.g., cross country and road races) everyone runs together but results are provided based on age ranges. There is a ranking system nationally and internationally based on results and age categories. 

How did you get involved in Masters running?

My wife started running on a regular basis each week to get into shape. After quite a while I started to run with her and then we decided to take part in a 5 km event together. I didn’t know about masters athletics and the system of competing against people in your own age group until then. That event hooked me. I really enjoy running and I did pretty well in the event so I started looking for training opportunities where I could meet and socialize with other people while training. I searched for running clubs and discovered the University of Toronto Masters Track Club, which turned out to be an ideal situation for me. Given my childhood dream of running the mile, I was especially attracted to the fact there was a middle-distance focus within the club. I trained with UTTC Masters from the time I was 60-65. I’ve run road races, cross-country, indoor and outdoor track. More recently I’ve decided to just run track for now given I most enjoy the 1500 metre and occasional 800 m. 

National Masters Championships 2015, Canadian Champion in the 1500m, breaking the MR in 4:59.13 – UTTC

What was the transition like going from being a ‘casual’ runner to being a Masters athlete?

I loved it – particularly because of the club environment. I would train twice a week with the club all year round (indoor and out) given the access to U of T facilities, and there would always be at least two or three people in my ability level that I’d be able to do workouts with. The toughest part was physically – building up mileage and working on different aspects of what’s required – speed work for example. Available time became an issue as I still work full-time, and injuries came and went as they do for everyone. But from a social perspective it was wonderful to be part of a club, where there was a camaraderie and lots of support. People would pace other people during workouts, cheer people on at events. Instead of it being an isolated experience as some people might think, it was very group focused, but that again is part of being within a club. But also at events, people from other clubs, even competing in the same events, would be very friendly and supportive.

A UTTC Masters relay team after breaking the Ontario record in the M60 4×200 – Ontario Masters

What were the biggest highlights of your Masters running career?

Being part of the club for the five years was the biggest highlight given what I just mentioned. It was fun. Highlights included: 1st in the Hartshorne Mile in my age category (60), an elite masters mile event at Cornell in New York. I competed along with one of the UTTC masters coaches (Coach Paul) and our top 1500 female runner (Annie Bunting). They were both invited as elite runners who had competed there before and I went along for the ride given my times were competitive with others competing in my age group. I came first in my age group. 

I was Ontario and Canadian #1 ranked in the 1500 and 800m for my age category within different years and ranked internationally as high as #8 in the world in the outdoor 1500m and #18 in the 800m in 2016 in my age category. I also have raced with my wife as mentioned earlier, and I had the joy of running alongside my daughter in a 10k, her first road race, in 2019.

2019 – When maskless race corrals felt normal…

(Editors note: Although not mentioned, I’d say being asked to carry the Pan Am torch is a pretty cool highlight. Yes, most people opt to not actually ‘run’ the torch, but of course he took it seriously and made everyone run along with him…)

How did Masters running benefit you in other areas of your life?

It gave me a purpose in my running which is really important for me in terms of keeping in shape. Without taking part in Masters athletics I’m sure I wouldn’t be in anywhere near the shape I’m in now. I don’t know if I would have been as consistent with my running and exercising in general. With Masters running my mindset started to be that I want to deal with the effects of aging in any way I can. I think this is partly due to the competitive element. It’s not just friendly competition with others but competition with yourself as you age. Competing in masters athletics has allowed me to gain more information about physical fitness requirements – for example the importance of strength training and core strength, flexibility etc. I’ve learned from others how they approach these areas. I’ve started to do more work in these areas based on this knowledge and also recognizing that improving in these areas will ultimately potentially impact my running time and my general physical condition. So as a result, many of the aspects of a more complete approach to physical fitness, particularly important as I age, are now a part of my regular routine. Overall, the masters running has ingrained habits that support my physical and mental health as I age. When I run I feel better, have more energy overall, am in a better state of mind. So it impacts my ability to work and live well in other areas. 

What was the hardest part about being a Masters athlete?

The time involved. It wasn’t so much the training that I had to do as the approach I took to training – being part of a club and the competitive approach I took. I found myself upping my distance, adding more elements to training, and more time was required. I was travelling to get to workouts twice a week, going to meets. It took up a lot of time that could have been spent with family.

What was the transition like going from being a Masters athlete to a ‘casual’ runner again?

Funny question for me. I still consider myself a Masters athlete so really can’t answer that. I last competed at the Ontario Masters indoor championships in 2020 in the 1500m. Due to COVID I haven’t competed since. I run about 25-30 km a week to keep a base of some kind (run six days a week). I do some core and strength training and feel that once events have started again and I feel safe doing so I’ll start more serious training and continue to compete. From the five years of training with UTTC Masters I know the basics of general training and how to prepare for a competition. I’m hoping it’s a lifetime participation and that I’ll rejoin training with others at some point. I envision myself 20 years from now taking part in running with people in Masters training and competitions.

What would you tell anyone who doesn’t know much about what being a Masters runner/anyone on the fence/looking to get involved?

I’ve taken a particular approach or mindset towards my participation in Masters running based on who I am as an individual. But people take part for a variety of reasons. I think the main features of it are that it’s a social activity where you have the opportunity to engage in physical activity with other people who are very supportive of the concept of life-long continuation of activity. There’s an amazing amount of volunteer engagement in setting up and running events where people who are not participating in an event are giving of their time to support the process in Ontario. People share information and experiences, primarily around running at first, but also more broadly if you take advantage of the opportunity to meet new people. You can train on your own and take part in indoor and outdoor events throughout the year or join a formal or informal training group, depending on your time and interests. My ability to engage in the way I did does reflect the privilege I referred to earlier. For example, training for Masters events can take a considerable amount of time, and there can be costs associated with gear and joining a club. But often this can be adjusted to the individual’s capacity.

I’ve spoken about it from a competitive standpoint given my interests, but people of all levels participate. There’s support and encouragement as you’re participating no matter what your level. The support from the other participants comes from the fact that you’re doing it, achieving or satisfying your own personal goals. It’s fun.