"I was amazed there was a club for people my age that conducted track meets like the ones in high school," recalled Jim Demma, 41, who in 1977 took up the sport he thought he'd left behind 20 years earlier. Demma is among the thousands who have discovered masters track and field.
Reborn and newly born competitors from as far away as Charlottesville recently came to Yorktown High School in Arlington to a track meet for those over 30. Submasters (30 to 39) and masters (40 and over) age groupings were used, with master divided into 10-year divisions starting with 40 to 49 -- regional and national meets use five-year categories.
The Potomac Valley Seniors meet got under way at 10 with the 1,500-, 100- and 400-meter events run in succession. The 1,500-meter walk and 800-meter dash followed. Off at a far corner of the track about a dozen entrants gathered to throw the shot, discus, javelin and 25-pound weight. Stan Laski, field event coordinator, alternated as participant, instructor and cheerleader.
"My ambition is to be a world champion," he proclaimed, tongue firmly in cheek. "I'm going to keep competing until my competition dies off."
That may take a while, since there are master athletes in their 80s. The burly 64-year-old Arlingtonian came to the PVS meets with fitness rather than competition in mind. Even today, he swims and lifts weights to supplement running.
"The field events are part of an overall physical-fitness program," said Laski. "If you have competition, it forces you to train. If a meet is coming up, it makes you train harder."
Laski would have laughed if someone had told him when he started that he would eventually become a regional winner in the weight and hammer throw for the 60-to-64 age class. Laski said he hadn't wanted to compete, but, "as you go on you get enthused about it," he explained. "You want to break your personal records and beat the competition."
Some track enthusiasts try all the running and field events over the April-to-September outdoor season. Beginners frequently try many events, then decide to specialize.
Children of participants compete in special contests or tag along with the adults. For much of the morning, 10-year-old Scott Austin of Wheaton made the rounds at the field events. When the adults completed an event, he got his chance.
"Have your father buy you a shot," advised Laski after Scott heaved the iron ball several feet. His father, Cortez, specializes in the 100- and 800-meter dashes, and after those events were over came by to take pictures of his son. Cortez, 34, ran in high school but exchanged track for work to support himself at Howard University.
The developmental meets attract many distance runners. Rodney Johnson, 55, claims 18 marathons and numerous medium-distance races to his credit. He used the track meets to improve his speed in medium-distance races.
"Club members dragged me into this. They gave me constant encouragement, and that kept me coming," said Johnson, still shaking his head over an 11:04 clocking in the 3,000-meter run -- a personal record.
Some participants use the bimonthly meets as a launching pad to national prominence in masters track. Enders, the 49-year-old meet director, won national championships in the 45-to-49-year-old long jump, 400 hurdles and pentathlon within two years of his first local meet.
Masters track, still in its infancy, boasts many national champions with just two or three years of running experience. Nevertheless, those success stories are getting rarer because of increasing participation. Better days seem to lie ahead for the sport.
Former Olympians now compete as masters or submasters, including Bill Toomey, the 1968 decathlon gold medalist; sprinters Willie Davenport and Lee Evans, and four-time discus gold medal winner Al Oerter.
Masters events are being added to established meets such as the Milrose Games, oldest indoor track meet in the country, which held an open masters mile relay this year. The local team of Jim Demma, Larry Colbert, John Sanders and Alby Williams finished second, two steps behind the winners.
Until recently, regional and national meet expenses were paid by the entrants, but these days commercial sponsors pick up a good proportion of the tab. The T-shirts worn by some runners at Yorktown High attested to that.
Despite a steady increase, few women compete in track and field. Only a handful showed up at the Arlington meet.
"We need women in all age groups," said Jo Tober, a physical-fitness instructor and grandmother. "There's a lot of encouragement from the men. They're more than willing to share their expertise."
She and her husband, Bernie, took up track in 1977. Until then Jo's experience consisted of "casual jogging." Since then, she's won a drawerful of ribbons and medals. "If I could do it, anyone can," she said.
While most got their workouts during events, Enders got his in between. The director never stood still for more than a moment, racing here and there making sure everything went smoothly.
But a casual atmosphere prevailed. Blankets were spread on the lawn and runners lounged between races. Many stood around exchanging compliments, training tips and track gossip.
The meet ended by 12:30 and Sunday joggers quickly claimed the track. Enders and Demma joined them to run additional sprints.
"Running one event is not enough of a workout," said Demma, who won the 40-to-49-year-old half-mile. He and Enders were already gearing up for a regional meet in Raleigh, North Carolina, the following weekend.