Wait, what does that mean again?
I caught up to the gentleman and quietly asked what he meant by "All-American", hoping not to guffaw like at the 2004 Park City Marathon when I blurted out "what does it mean I qualifed for Boston?" to a round of belly-laughing disbelief. The runner was happy to explain that USA Track and Field (USATF) had established age-graded standards for long distance running to signify the "top 5% of finishes", and he was pretty sure I was under the Men's 40-44 time for the 1/2 Marathon. Ah, I see! That sounds pretty cool.
Wait a minute...if it's so cool, why haven't I heard of it before? Is it because I'm new to the Masters ranks? Certainly at least one of my 40+ running pals would be boasting about being All-American if given the opportunity and few beers. Is it because "USATF All-American" has it's roots in track, and I'm new to the track scene? I did just Google "what is the steeplechase" the other day, after all, so it wouldn't be a surprise if I'm out of the loop. Or maybe it's one of these too-easy-to-achieve standards that is the equivalent of saying you were valedictorian at summer school? I figured it was time to investigate.What I found was pretty interesting.
What Is "All-American"?
If you're like me, when you hear the term "All-American" you probably think of the NCAA or football. Only a handful of athletes can get this moniker, either because they were a top finisher at a national event (track, cross-country, etc.), are high academic achievers, or were selected by the press to be on an All-American Team (football). In other words, these cats are the real deal and probably closer to the top 1% of all athletes. To be All-American is the big time.
The USATF, it turns out, does have All-American time standards for both Masters track and field, as well as road running. The track standards cover all indoor and outdoor track events, with age groups ranging from 30-34 to 90-94. The road running standards cover road races from 5k to the marathon, in age groups from 40-44 to 90-94. All of them are posted on the National Masters News site.
After a few minutes of perusing the qualifying times, I was perplexed. Whereas some of the standards for my age group seem really difficult (4:24 for the 1500m? Not in my lifetime), others seem far too easy (3:17 for the marathon? I wouldn't crack the top 100 in my age group at Boston with a time like that). Not to mention that comparing the road and track standards, there are discrepancies in the target times (10k on the track is 33:30, but on the road is 43:31...also your per mile pace time for a 10k on the track has to be faster than a 5k on the track). I was going to have to dig a bit more to understand it.
I exchanged some e-mails with Randy Sturgeon, Publisher of the track and field magazine National Masters News, as well as Jeff Bower, Secretary of the USATF Masters Committee, to understand more about how the standards are established and maintained. All of the standards are currently under review for 2010, but here's what I could piece together.
The track and field standards have been around for 20+ years, and nobody is 100% sure how they were initially established. The most likely possibility is that a target of the top 5% of performances was established for the youngest age group by looking at all participants in USATF events for the year, and then age-graded using a WAVA-like calculator. Since some events, like the 5k, might have had more participants and thus a lower average time for the top 5%, it would explain why something like a 10k race would have a faster per mile time. I checked with some track athletes online, and the consensus I got was that these standards were difficult to achieve. Most of the Masters track athletes were aware of these standards, and many had spent years of training to get their All-American time for their favorite event. The All-American standard signified achievement, and appears to work well to encourage Masters runners to strive and push their limits. That feels legit to me, although the standard times are potentially outdated.
The long distance/road running standards were established about three years ago to serve a similar purpose of giving Masters athletes a benchmark for distinguished performance. It appears the goal was to signify the top 5% of performances, but similar to the track and field standards, it's unclear what the process was to establish them. IMHO, these standards feel too easy, and a few others agreed with me that they are probably closer to the top 20% than the top 5%. Then again, I'm sure there are 1500m runners looking at the marathon times and thinking "not in my lifetime". Setting standards is a clearly a tough challenge.
I suspect the intent was good on creating the road running standards, but the target times were dragged down by the "Oprahfication of marathoning". I love Oprah and am quite proud of her marathon finish, so I don't mean to belittle her effort at all. But she's a good representative of the current state of marathoning, where total participation in the US has skyrocketed beyond 400,000, and the average finish time has lengthened to 4:41:33. Less than 1.7% of runners complete a marathon under 3 hours. I suspect this is less about us running slower, but more about the surge in ranks of people at the starting line. If you take the finishing time of ALL runners in your age group, no matter if they ran or walked, then a 3:17 marathon probably is close to the top 5% for 40-44 Men. So the All-American standard is likely accurate in identifying the top 5%, but does it achieve its purpose to motivate?
What Does All-American Mean To You?
The truth is that the established All-American standards could very well be a good stretch goal for a majority of Masters runners out there. Take a look and see what your standards are - if it looks like a good goal, go for it! You could be an All-American. If that means something to you, then that is all that matters. Train like hell, hit your time, get the shwag, and wear it with pride.
The super-elite probably could care less about this All-American moniker and will instead compare each other in the old fashion way - finish times. Perhaps this why the USATF All-American term isn't thrown about more often. I know among my fellow marathoners, terms like "Boston qualifier", "sub-3/sub-4 hour", "ran for the national team", and "took 10 minutes off my PR" seem to have more meaning. But if I run into someone who says they ran an All-American standard in track and field, they are demigods in my eyes. Respect is all in the eye of the beholder, no matter what the moniker.
What do you guys think?