From the classroom to the starting blocks
Fred Judson was a professor in the Department of Political Science from 1986 to 2011, and served as chair of the department from 2003 to 2006. His research interests included Latin American revolutionary movements, Canadian/international political economy, comparative politics of the “Global South” and critical international relations theory.
Fred sent us this note about his journey to a world championship at the age of 65.
When I was 14 or 15, I used to read about the exploits of Olympic distance runners, idly imagining what it must take to race at five and 10 km, even a marathon. And I found a life as a distance runner in my 30s, 40s and 50s at the U of A and in the city of Edmonton. There were plenty of road races, cross country runs and the splendid Jasper-Banff relay, which I did a number of times on masters teams. I even finally did a marathon at 46, so far and most likely my one and only.
But I was also reading, back in the day, about the decathlon, the buffet meal of athletics that takes two days to complete. Day One, in order and taking about six hours to do: 100 metre sprint; long jump; shot put; high jump; 400 metre sprint. Day Two: 100 metre hurdles (110 m for open athletes); discus throw; pole vault; javelin throw; 1,500 metre run. Joining Edmonton Masters Athletics in 1994 opened a door for me to pursue those interests from decades earlier. I started to do the “Masters Mile” at the Edmonton Journal Games, and when our Masters coach, herself a former internationally competitive “combined events” athlete for Canada, started introducing jumps and throws into our workouts for the fun of it, I found I could still do some things I’d not tried since high school: shot put, long jump, high jump, even the odd javelin toss.
So I learned to use blocks and spikes for sprints and hurdles, took up 400-metre hurdling (now, at 60-plus, the distance drops to 300 metres), started throwing discus, javelin and shot put, and even attended a pole vault workshop upon turning 50. I learned to do the “Fosbury Flop” in the high jump. I kept the long- and middle-distance running going, but started to compete in classic track and field in my later 40s, particularly focusing on “combined events,” i.e. the outdoor pentathlon (long jump, discus, 200 metres, javelin, 1,500 metres) and middle distances (800 and 1,500 metres).
It occurred to me that I could maybe survive a decathlon, so I tried my first one in Calgary at 50, some 16 years ago. Across the variety of events I did pretty well, first at provincial and national levels, later in international competitions, and in 1997 attended my first World Masters Athletics Championships in Durban, South Africa. At this point, “geezer” track meets have also taken me to Australia, the U.K., Puerto Rico, Mexico, Guatemala, Barbados, the U.S. and a number of places across Canada.
A broken hip in 2007 slowed me down, and I missed world competitions that year and in 2009. But superb physiotherapists, cross-country skiing, swimming, yoga and time in the gym enabled me to get back to things slowly from 2008 on. And this past July, in Sacramento, California, I was finally — it had been since 2003 — able to compete at the world level once more in decathlon. Masters athletics is gender- and age-group organized; hence I was competing in the Men 65-69 category, at the bottom of the age cohort, with 11 other athletes from the U.S., France, Germany, Canada, Switzerland and Japan. Many of them I knew from other international meets.
I’d been hoping merely to complete the event, held in Sacramento’s rather fierce summer weather (over 40 C by 11 a.m. on the track both days), but solid performances in jumps and throws (second to fourth) kept me in the running that first day. And the 400 metre run turned out to be a good one for me, beating the field and finding myself in third place after the first day. At the end of nine events the second day, I was surprised to be in second place, with good discus and javelin throws, a better-than-expected showing in the hurdles, and some passable body-flinging in the pole vault.
As we started what virtually no one likes, the 1,500 meter run, I was thinking “if you don’t blow it, you could have a medal out of this”. It turned out my Swiss friend Herbert (we’ve competed together since 1997), in first place since early the first day, being a lot bigger man and not very happy in the heat, had a pretty slow 1,500, close to eight minutes. My time just above six minutes won the 1,500 and put me over 100 points ahead of Herbert (we both cleared 6,000 points, so it was reasonably close). I was astonished to win the decathlon, never imagining that at 65 I would lay claim to being a world champion.
There are plenty of other dimensions to life as a retired professor, but maybe track and field is where I’m really able to put something extra into “acting my age.” It’s called geezer power.
Photo by Maryon McClary
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