Inside the intensely competitive Colorado Masters track and field scene | SummitDaily.com

Inside the intensely competitive Colorado Masters track and field scene

At 56 years old, Bob Cottrell's competitive running career is about to peak.

"I expect to get better with time," says Cottrell, a native of New Jersey who moved to Summit County in 1993 and has hardly left since. "Age might rob us of some speed and some strength, but the right regimen can help you get back in."

As a teenager in the late '70s, Cottrell ran track for his high school in Tom's River, a township not far from the coast on the Jersey Shore. He was decent enough on the track, he says, a sprint specialist whose 400-meter time topped out around 48.5 seconds. That was good enough to earn him a spot on the track team at Yale University, where he split time between varsity track and football.

Today, some 35 years and 9,000 vertical feet after his supposed peak, Cottrell is convinced he's running better now than he ever did as a 190-pound 20-something. He isn't necessarily breaking all-time personal records — there's no way he'd be able to match the 48.5 in the 400m he had as a kid — but that's not quite the point. On the nationwide Masters track and field circuit, anyone can break into the deep and intensely competitive scene by staying just ahead of their peer groups: 50s, 60s, 70s, even a small yet dedicated core for runners 80 years old and older.

"I'm kind of becoming as lean and mean as I can be," says Cottrell, who runs year-round these days, indoor and outdoor, from bi-monthly summer meets in Boulder to the USA Track and Field National Championships out East. This winter, he notched about 25 days on his alpine skis, compared to 60 days training on the track and 35 days training on local cross-country trails. It's a training program of his own design, all built around the sprint intervals he remembers from high school and college, plus a trick or two he picked up from endurance running in his 30s and 40s before returning to the track in 2014.

"I guess I also look kind of hungry right now, and I'm probably the lightest I've ever been," laughs Cottrell, who says he's right around 160 pounds, nearly 30 pounds lighter than when he ran for Yale. "For me, it feels no different right now than it was at 18 or 20. If you can remember those goals from before, those 'glory days,' there's no reason to turn them in, even if you can't hit your personal best again."

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Back to the track

For most runners, Cottrell included, racing track seems like the realm of young, strong, quick-to-recover college runners bound for the Olympics. And so, instead of training for sprints, aging runners pick up road races — the typical 5K and 10K runs so popular across the nation. Cottrell did the same, eventually tackling marathons and half-marathons for a new challenge. He was still running, sure, but it never quite felt the same.

"You see a tendency these days to go longer and longer, from 10Ks to marathons to ultras," Cottrell says. "With Masters track, there's a beauty with the focus and intensity of a shorter distance. What's funny is I've had people say, 'You will drive two hours for an 800-meter race?' I tell them yes, because it's the same to me as driving for a half-marathon somewhere."

Cottrell is hardly alone. This summer, Colorado is home to more than a dozen outdoor Masters track and field meets, including the Rocky Mountain State Games in July. It's a qualifier for the 2017 State Games of America — the Average Joe equivalent of the Olympics — and draws several hundred adult runners, hurdlers, pole vaulters and more from across the state.

Denver's Scott Siriano is no stranger to the Masters track scene or Summit County. In the past eight years, he's won five overall men's titles for the Summit Trail Running Series and, with any luck, hopes to win another this summer. He's a mid-distance specialist who walked onto the cross-country team at the University of Texas in 1985, and then notched a "claim to fame" 4:11 mile shortly before retiring from competitive running in 1992.

But, like Cottrell, Siriano couldn't stay off the track forever. In 2007, he returned to running after a 15-year hiatus, with "fresh legs," he says, feeling stronger and healthier than ever before.

"My doctors, my orthopedic surgeon, everyone told me that the muscles hadn't quite matured until my 30s," says Siriano, a 49-year-old new father of triplets who turns 50 this August. "When I was trying to break that mile record in my 20s I was beating myself up and get injured. But, what I've found is there is a cumulative effect for running and some people can just be better Masters runners. Maybe their muscles didn't click in their 20s, but now they're the best they've ever been."

It held true for Siriano. On July 13 and 14 in 2013, he raced the 10K and 5K at the USA Masters Outdoor Championships in balmy Olathe, Kansas — and set Masters track history. For the first time ever, a Masters runner made the podium in both events when held less than 24 hours apart.

"All I could think was that I just took the bronze, and that's cool, but no record," Siriano remembers. "Winning that was a kick in the pants. I had heavy legs — I could hardly walk for a few days after that. They usually don't run those races back to back, and even when they do no one is crazy enough to try it. But I hope someone does. Records are made to be broken."

Train, rest, repeat

Cottrell and Siriano come from a track and field background, but Masters races don't require a varsity scholarship from the past. Most local events — say, popular meets like the Boulder Road Runners All-Comers series every other Thursday from June to August — are open to racers of all ages and abilities, including current high school and collegiate runners. Some take it seriously, others simply enjoy the environment, but just about everyone loves the thrill of spring competition.

"The thing about Masters track is that it's one of the best ways ever to give people like myself the chance to still compete locally, regionally and nationally," says Ric Rojas, winner of the first-ever Bolder Boulder road race and member of the 1975 PanAmerican track team with Bruce Jenner. "The biggest problem is that you have a handful of people in any given event will always dominate, and the reason they can dominate is that every 5 years you go into a new age group."

After a decades-long career deep in the running industry, including more than 10 years developing product for Nike, Rojas now operates a Boulder-based coaching program for youth, collegiate and Masters runners. His clients regularly top the leaderboards at races of every level, from Tony Sandoval, winner of the 1980 U.S. Olympic marathon trials, to 68-year-old Laurie Rugenstein, a fellow Boulder local who currently holds the age-group mile record of 6:12.

"You see very few people trying Masters track," Rojas says. "It's not like road racing, where you can go to the Bolder Boulder and see hundreds and hundreds of people of all ages. In track, you can't hide, and if you aren't very good, they will literally lap you."

For runners like Cottrell and Siriano, the age-group format of Master's track is a major perk. Everyone has the chance to peak every five years, Cottrell says, and he's looking forward to dominating the 60-65 field in a few years. When Siriano turns 50 years old this August, he enters the 50-55 division just in time to try for the mile record at his first USATF National Championships since his triplets were born.

"If I can say I was the fastest 50-year-old running four laps on the track, man, I'll take it," says Siriano, who also credits the Masters track scene for introducing him to faith and the Christian church in his 40s. "I feel like I'm in high school again because I'm so gifted and blessed, and not just with running. How many 50-year-olds are blessed with triplets? I guess I'm just a late bloomer."

Colorado Masters track meets

This summer, Colorado plays host to more than a dozen different Masters track and field meets in every corner of the state. The majority of meets are open to the public, with no track experience, qualifying times or coaches required. Here’s a look at the biggest — and most prestigious — before the outdoor season leaves the start line.

June to August — Boulder Road Runners All-Comers meets, every other Thursday at Potts Field on the University of Colorado-Boulder campus (boulderroadrunners.org)

June 4 — 5280 Challenge, Stutler Bowl stadium at Cherry Creek High School in Denver (5280challenge.com)

July 22-24, 29-31 — 2016 Rocky Mountain State Games, Lewis Palmer High School in Colorado Springs (coloradospringssports.org)

August (TBA) — Rocky Mountain Masters Games, Colorado State University campus in Fort Collins (colorado.usatf.org)

August (TBA) — USATF Mid-American Regional Championships, Air Force Academy Campus in Colorado Springs (colorado.usatf.org)

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