July 30, 2022 4 min read 2 Comments
By Ray Glier
LEXINGTON, Ky.___It was the fall of 2016 and Steve Schmidt could finally indulge himself. Running is almost a spiritual practice for him and he was no longer stifled by the tangle of a job. Schmidt had retired from the Department of Justice and traded in his pilot’s wings for the metaphysical wings on his feet.
A guy who made a living taking off vertically was about to take off horizontally.
It took a minute—as the kids say—for Schmidt to take off. Injuries and Covid put a drag on his hobby, but now that he is fit, he has taken off in a big way.
Schmidt, 61, won the Gold Medal here Thursday in the M60-64 5,000 in the USA Track & Field National Masters in 17:37.03. Earlier this year he won the Detroit Marathon and Chicago Marathon, respectively, in his age group and received an invitation to run in the London Marathon on Oct. 2, which has been designated the World Age Group Championship.
He has poured himself into running and it would be just fine with Schmidt if you tattooed his identity on his forehead: Runner.
“I just love the sport,” he said. “I probably have run more miles in the last six months than I did in my youth. I always wanted to put those miles in and never had the chance to…and now I do.”
The lift off actually started in 2021 when Schmidt won Gold Medals in both the 5K and 10K in USATF Masters Nationals in Ames, Iowa. He goes for the 10K Gold here Saturday. Update: Steve won the Gold Medal in the 10K at 36:20.72.
Schmidt is in the Geezer Jock wonderland. Pickleball players experience it. Golfers get giddy about it, and so do runners. What was out of reach, the full-time joy of their sport, is now within reach because retirement came just in time.
Schmidt has never been on a terrestrial quest for medals. His thing has always been the chase, the competition, and the satisfaction of just being out there. He described himself as a sort of rank and file runner in high school and college (Millikin).
These days he is hardly middling.
The web site Running Level says an “elite” 5K time by a 60-year old is 21:49 and a world record-type time is 15:52. That puts Schmidt and his 17:37 Thursday right on the edge of being world-class.
In the USATF Masters 5K two days ago, the runners in the age cohorts 55-59 and 60-64 were grouped into the same race. Only one runner in the 55-59, David Matherne, could beat the 61-year old Schmidt.
“The goal was to get under 18,” Schmidt said.
He almost did better than that.
It is not often that older runners beat younger runners, especially with six years difference. But two miles into the race Schmidt saw three of the 55-59 cohort runners within striking distance. “I thought they were 1-2-3 in the race,” he said. “And they were not pulling away from me.”
Schmidt worked on reeling them in. He caught them and even managed to build a lead, which was important because the 5K is not his typical race and he doesn’t have much of a finishing kick. In a dash down the stretch, Schmidt just managed to hold off the 55-year old Thomas Lenz (17:38.02).
It wasn’t until he crossed the finish line that he realized Matherne, 57, had won the race. Still, it was a Gold in his age group.
Schmidt, who lives in Lake Orion, MI., competed in the 2016 USATF Masters Nationals in Grand Rapids and took silver medals in the 5K and 10K. But then he started having issues with his right ankle, sinus tarsi syndrome, which is an obscure malady to most of us, but just know it is an overuse injury.
“That's probably the most difficult part of continuing to race is keeping healthy,” Schmidt said. “That's usually 50% of the game. It seems like something is always sore, or bothering you. You just got to listen to your body.”
Schmidt listened to his body by going on a three-week hike on the Appalachian Trail in 2020. He had a backpack, of course. The efficient, slow motion, believe it or not, eased the pain in his right ankle.
“I just have to make sure I'm warmed up well before I run anything fast,” Schmidt said of dealing with the balky ankle. “It's just something I've had five or six years, and then I have to back off running. Hiking on the Appalachian Trail for three weeks seemed to take care of it.”
Schmidt talked Thursday about the running phenoms, the ones who would zoom past him in his youth. They chased the Holy Grail of medals, accolades, and thin scholarship offers, but it came with a price.
“You don't tend to see a lot of senior runners, masters runners, that were All-Americans, or state champions, because I think they had to work so hard and their bodies have so many miles,” he said.
While others were digging their holes, Schmidt was content to simply enjoy the sport and not wear himself out with over-wrought training. The result is what you see in the picture: a face full of glee.
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