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Joanna Harper Wins Silver at National Masters Track Despite Injury

By Joanna Harper

An uninjured Harper (709) competes in the 2010 Portland Track Festival.

This past week, I ran in the USATF master’s track championships in Lisle, Illinois, (a Chicago suburb) and while I didn’t get what I travelled there for, I did come away with something of value none the less.

In 2008 and 2009 I had two very successful outings at the master’s track meet when I was in the lower end of the women’s 50-54 category. A few months ago, I moved into the W55 group, and I hoped I could replicate the results of those earlier meets, albeit at slower speeds.

My annual professional meeting took place earlier in the week in Charlotte North Carolina, and I decided to combine the two events into one trip. While it might have seemed a good idea at the time, there were some unforeseen consequences.

I have had some ongoing hip flexor issues over the years, and my left hip started to bother me this spring. Of course, I didn’t act until the pain got bad enough to be seriously limiting. I wound up curtailing speed work for a few weeks, and the problem improved somewhat.

I got to Charlotte the Sunday before the meet, and as I was out running Monday morning, I stepped in a pothole that I didn’t notice, and felt a serious flash of pain in the hip. For the next 24 hours I didn’t think I’d be able to run at all in Lisle, but by the time I left Charlotte on Wednesday, the hip had improved to the point where I could run, but I knew that I’d be slower than usual.

In June, Wanda Toro had run in the master’s race that I coordinate as part of the Portland Track Festival, and at that time we agreed that we would share a room and a car in Lisle. I arrived without incident Wednesday afternoon, but Wanda didn’t make it in until 2 in the morning on Thursday.

The next morning I drove us to the track for our 5000 meter races. Competitors in the women’s race ranged from 35 to 81 years of age, and the runners were divided into two sections based on age. As is the custom at this meet, the older runners went first, and I wound up as the youngest runner in the first section.

Going into the meet, I figured that Debbie Lee of the So. Cal. Track Club and I would battle for the W55 crown in the 5K, but it didn’t turn out to be much of a battle. Debbie opened up a lead from the gun and ran away with the win, eventually lapping me. I settled for a very distant 2nd place in the age group, in a mediocre time. I wasn’t even second in the section, as 65 year old Nancy Rollins beat me too. But I did manage to finish before 81 year old Lois Gilmore.

The second section of the women’s race was up later in the morning. Wanda finished third in the W45 age group. In an interesting age reversal, she would have been 4th in the W50, 2nd in the W40 and would have won the W35. As the meet wore on, the W50 age group would continue to be very deep.

Wanda would go on to have a very productive meet, winning 10K and 1500 meter titles, while placing 2nd in the 800 meters. In June she had mentioned that she was less than thrilled with the timing of the meet, as she would turn 50 later in August. It turned out that she was much more successful than she would have been in the W50 category. Funny how that stuff works out sometimes.

I was “only” running the 5K and 1500, and so had two off days before my second race. I took the train into Chicago on Friday and spent several hours at the Field Museum, a science and history mecca which includes the most complete T-Rex skeleton in the world. Wanda and I also got to watch lots of the Olympics on TV.

But my hip was only slightly better by Sunday, and I placed 4th in the 1500, again running much slower that I had previously hoped. While it was hard to take, I had to remember that I had been blessed with good health at earlier editions of the meet, and the law of averages was bound to catch up with me.

I was told that I was brave to show up and race when I wasn’t at my best, but I don’t really see it that way. I had committed to the meet, and I was still capable of running better than most women my age. If you only compete when entirely healthy, then you’d miss out on lots of great races.

In addition, I got plenty of benefits of the trip, as I got to spend time with several terrific women, both at and away from the track. I had nice time hanging out with Wanda, and I enjoy seeing all of the men and women out giving it their best, while trying to defy aging bodies.

I also came away with an increased appreciation of Debbie Lee. She wound up winning the 800, 1500 and 5K titles in my age group, and was once again a workhorse for her winning club team.

Just like everyone else, Debbie has good years and not so good years, but she was certainly pretty dominant this year. She was easily the best middle distance runner in the W55 group, and there is no way I would have beaten her, even if my hip had been better.

But I certainly am not conceding future races to Debbie. I plan to rest (i.e. work my butt off in the gym) and get some therapy, and I’ll be back. After all there are plenty of more races to run.


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