All Charles Ross had to do to set a world record was finish the race. For him, in this event, the real challenge was making it to the starting line.
No one in his age group had ever completed the 2,000-meter steeplechase, at least officially. He would give it a shot Saturday, at N.C. State’s Derr Track, in the 43rd edition of the Southeast Masters track and field meet. All he had to do was show up, make it five times around the track, over a few hurdles and across the finish line.
Doesn’t sound like much, unless you’re 90 years old.
“You better finish,” Bob Weiner, 66, told Ross as they gathered at the starting line. “It’s a world record if you do.”
“I know,” Ross replied. “I’ve finished every one I ever ran in.”
Ross is a spry 90, lean and muscular with a square jaw, a member of the Army Ranger Hall of Fame. That isn’t the kind of honor one receives merely for finishing, although surviving three wars certainly clears that bar. He fought in World War II. He fought in Korea. He fought in Vietnam. (He got a medal for that trifecta. “Only 275 people have that one,” Ross said.) He also got shot in his left hip and acquired a load of shrapnel in his left knee.
A native of Indiana, he spent 31 years in the Army, serving all over the world, retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel. He met his wife while serving in North Africa. She’s 82. They have four children and four grandchildren and live in Conyers, Ga. When they went to his 50th high-school reunion, they were dancing while many of his classmates couldn’t make it onto the floor. Not for me, he said. He got home and went sky-diving.
He made his last parachute jump at 80, the same year he ran his last marathon. He ran a half-marathon at 85. He has competed in every track-and-field event in a single meet. In many ways, there’s no better representation of the spirit of Masters track and field than Ross, who makes a statement simply by participating at his age, epitomizing the value of lifetime fitness.
This year alone, Ross has had several skin cancers removed from his leg, a chipped bone in his foot and hernia surgery. Also, he’s 90. There are parts on this guy that have been out of warranty for decades. He didn’t make it this far by taking anything for granted. “Do no harm,” is his competitive motto, but at one meet recently he pushed himself too hard, fainted and hit his head.
The steeplechase, like the triple jump, is one of those archaic events that feels like it has been rescued from another time. Competitors run a reasonable distance – in Ross’ case, 2,000 meters; younger competitors run 3,000 – while hurdling large wooden barriers arrayed around the track, one situated directly in front of a water-filled pit. With wet shoes and big hurdles, this was no Saturday stroll.
Saturday, he ran with one woman – his coach, Lydia Woods, 60 – and four other men competing in varying age groups. Because world and American records are commonplace at the Southeast Masters, with several set Friday and Saturday, there’s a whole bureaucracy behind the scenes, with paperwork to be filed and judges stationed at every hurdle. As he approached the starting line, Ross was the entire focus of their attention.
Ross jogged the first 50 meters or so before settling into a fast walk. He’d accelerate as he approached the hurdles, then clamber over, left hand on top, left leg over, then right leg over. On the water jump, he’d plop into the thigh-deep water and stagger out. Five times he did that. The leader lapped him twice. Woods left him far behind.
The sun bore down on Ross’ black Army Ranger hat, the one he saves for his biggest races. When he feels weary, he takes it off and holds it in front of him. “It gives me strength,” Ross said later. It never left his head Saturday.
Ross clambered over the final barrier, only a few dozen meters from the finish line. The crowd, well aware of the circumstances, cheered him on. He started pumping his arms and ran the rest of the way to the finish. His time of 18:54 was the new world record. He hoped to get close to the 19-minute mark. He never figured he’d beat it.
“Oh man,” he said, still shaking from the effort. “I don’t believe it.”
Ross had two goals Saturday. One was to finish and claim the record. Done. The other? To make sure he would have a world record to break when he competes at the U.S. championships in July.