July 09, 2022 6 min read 10 Comments
Photo By Rob Jerome. Allan Tissenbaum wins again. How much winning does he have left?
By Ray Glier
Allan Tissenbaum is striding on that bridge every athlete with a competitive fiber must cross. He is 62 years old, a world champion in the 100 meters in the World Masters in Finland last weekend, but he is approaching a peak age for a Masters track & field athlete.
How long does he keep up being worldly? Does he leave the sport entirely, or just throttle down and settle for the fun?
Tissenbaum is not just thinking about what's next. He's thinking about who's next. The question that lingers for Tissenbaum these days is this:
Why is my bridge so crowded with athletes ready to leave?
Tissenbaum says the ecosystem of Masters Track & Field has cracks. He doesn’t have hard numbers, but it seems the sport is in need of a fusion of the younger athlete to the Masters class. The advances in medicine and fitness regimen should be bringing more people into the sport. Instead, Tissenbaum senses a decline.
“We’re not getting them, we’re not,” he said.
It could be that the rise of pickleball and bocce ball is picking off the Geezer Jocks that are not playing golf and that’s why more are not running and jumping.
It could be that people, after a lot of years of damn hard work, just want a C-minus for a workout ethic, just enough to stay fit. It's hard to do Masters Track at a C-minus scale.
Then Tissenbaum witnessed the rollicking atmosphere of the National Senior Games in Ft. Lauderdale in May and just went, “Wow.” It was athletes with A-plus fitness regimens mixed with the C-minus all comers. Some very fast and very fit people, but also a lot of slower, less flexible people.
They were all having fun. The number of participants was impressive considering the surge in travel costs and the lingering threat of Covid.
“The stands were full of people pulling for one another, complete strangers were cheering you on,” Tissenbaum said. “Our meet (USA Masters Track & Field) is not like that. It’s more cliquey, people hang out with who they hang out with.
“It's just so much of a better feeling there at the Senior Games. There's way more camaraderie, right. There's more people, there's more buzz. You know, people are friendlier. USATF can be intimidating.
Tissenbaum is not getting out of his lane with this analysis of his sport. He can look big picture because he is an anti-doping watchdog for the sport and he is invested in Masters track & field, a trusted consultant for the governing body.
Darn right he has ideas how to reinvigorate Masters Track & Field.
First, Tissenbaum says, the USATF should shower invites and information about itself on every one of the participants at the National Senior Games and not just those that competed in track and field.
“You mean to tell me one of those volleyball players couldn’t compete in track,” he said. “What about the people who play softball and can really run the bases. Tell them ‘Hey, maybe you can do both, run track and play softball’ and then they think ‘hey, that might be interesting’.”
The problem, he said, is that masters-aged athletes are not aware of all the USATF events in their area. They need to be marketed to.
Tissenbaum said the national meets need to be destination vacations, near a big city, or near a vacation spot. The city has to be somewhere people can get to and don't mind spending five or six days, alternating between relaxing and competing. Tissenbaum is sure the track at the University of Kentucky for the July 28-31 USATF Masters Nationals is a fine facility, but could there have been a better city selected?
“What about a place like Cleveland? Cleveland is fine, there are things to do, and you can get there,” he said. “We need places that are a little more appealing. People complained Florida was too hot, but meanwhile they had great attendance. A lot of people were there.”
Tissenbaum said the U.S. and Canada could hold the CanAm Games in odd years instead of the Nationals. Wouldn’t a cosmopolitan city like Toronto be swell in the summer? What about Montreal?
He wonders if people had to qualify for the USATF meet, like they do for the National Senior Games, would they be more likely to show up. The reasoning is they would be more invested in their sport after qualifying at a state event.
Tissenbaum said American Mike Powell, the world record holder in the long jump, was the face of the World Masters in Finland. The 58-year old was there two days signing autographs and then he competed.
“That’s important, if we can get some of those guys to our nationals,” Allan said. “We need to do something different. What we’re doing is not working if we get just a thousand people.”
In the 400 for Men's 85 at The National Senior Games there were 17 signups. For the USATF meet in Lexington the M85 400 has just three entered.
The conundrum for athletes who reach 60-65 is how much to devote to their sport while they are still working. Tissenbaum is at that crossroads. He needed to be more fit for the World Masters meet in Finland, which called for six races in three days in the 100 and 200 (heats and finals).
He led the 200 for 190 meters. He felt the Frenchman Patrice Carnier, so Tissenbaum leaned at the end. He fell over the finish line and lost by .01. He lost, fair and square, he said, and hesitated to take anything away from Carnier.
“I ran out of gas,” Tissenbaum said. “It was a lot of races in three days (with the heats in the 100 and 200 and the finals). We don’t do it like that here in the U.S., that many races in a short time.”
Two days earlier, when Tissenbaum was fresher, he breezed to a win in the 100 in 11.90 seconds. He had to settle for the silver in the 200 with a 24.44 to 24.43 for Carnier.
He has a back problem and if he strives for more fitness it means Tissenbaum’s back is going to cause him pain. Injuries follow. He’s also working full-time as an orthopedic surgeon. That’s why he left the National Senior Games a few days early in May after winning the gold in the 50 and 100. Tissenbaum had to get back to his practice and couldn’t wait for the 200 on Monday.
And so you see the dilemma for Masters track and field athletes after they reach 60 years old. Athletes are still consumed with the duel with themselves. “I can go faster,” they insist.
Tissenbaum has been like that for years. Performance over Place. It's why he has won 24 gold medals in the big-time meets of the USATF Nationals or World Masters, and international events. It's why he injures himself.
These men and women at the top of the sport give it some vigor and need more maintenance. Some of them, like Tissenbaum a few years ago, ignore warning labels. He was fast and wanted to go faster, so he trained harder. He tore a hamstring in 2008. Not a pedestrian tear like mine and yours, but an avulsion injury that took months to heal.
He reassembled himself, got back at it, and continued winning gold medals with staggering times for a man his age. I thought I saw a quip a few months ago that called him, “The fastest old guy on the planet.”
Still, there is no money in being a fast old guy. Heck, even the current Olympians have trouble getting paid.
“But it keeps me in shape,” Tissenbaum said.
That's the money quote right there. "Keeps me in shape." The younger sect have to bring that with them as they get older and stick with the sport.
Tissenbaum lives in Pittsburgh and, for sure, he is going run in the 2023 National Senior Games in his hometown. Pittsburgh is known as the city of bridges. He hopes there is not a crowd on his bridge as moves toward retirement.
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