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But now, there's an entire generation of road racers who are blowing that idea out of the water. They're known as "Master Runners," those competing at ages 40 and older.
Scott Hansen, left, and Perry Dau run on the track at Stiehm Stadium in Weston. The two are competitive masters runners who often train together.
"You'll go to a local 10k, and in the top 10, seven of the guys will be 40 and over," said Scott Hansen, 48, a master runner from Rothschild. "We obviously have a competitive streak. It bugs us to have someone ahead of us."
According to Running USA's Road Running Information Center, in 1992, 28 percent of finishers of 5-kilometer races across the country were master runners. By 2006, 39.4 percent were ages 40 and older. Figures compiled by USA Track & Field put an estimated 2.04 million master runners finishing all race distances in 1993. By 2002, that number grew to 3.16 million.
While there aren't local statistics, Wausau-area master runners clearly hold their own. Five of the top 10 male finishers of the May 10 Journey's Half Marathon in Eagle River were master runners from central Wisconsin. Steve Frericks of Marshfield won the race in a blazing time of 1:15:52. Jay Punke of Wausau was third; Hansen was sixth; Dave Lyon of Schofield was seventh; and Perry Dau of Rothschild was ninth.
Frericks, Punke, Hansen and Dau are friends as well as competitors, and they'll compete again in a half marathon in Duluth, Minn., on June 21. In that race they'll compete as a team, going head to head with runners of all ages.
"We're going to be competitive with guys half our age, I anticipate," Dau said.
Statistically, more men are master runners than women. While one out of every two male road racers were older than 40, only one out of every three female runners are masters.
Barb Klinner, 49, of Wausau is one of those female master runners bucking the odds. She is a top-tier ultra marathoner who, until she was sidelined recently with injuries, regularly competed in races that ranged from 50 miles to 100 miles.
She moved from running marathons to ultra marathons because she thrives on challenge and loves the people she meets at the races. Overuse caused her injuries -- stress fractures in her hip and two of her ribs.
But running has become a part of her lifestyle, and she doesn't plan on giving it up any time soon.
"I'm still going to be doing this when I'm 80," she said.
Dau, 46, loves running so much he decided to use the sport to earn a living -- he's the owner of the online running store www.RevelSports.com For him, running is almost an addiction.
"If I'm getting stressed out about something, I need a run. Just like somebody might need a drink, or eat," he said. "Occasionally, my wife will tell me it's time to get out for a run."
Hansen said he has made some concessions through the years.
"You can't be competitive forever. It is a drain," he said. "(Getting older) takes some readjusting mentally. ... You can't ever recapture your youth. So you set new goals."
But like Klinner, Hansen plans to stride on "until something gives out. I'll continue to run until I literally can't anymore. Then I'll look for another aerobic sport to do. Maybe swimming or biking."
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