Benefield: No slowing down for Santa Rosa masters sprinter, 75

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FORESTVILLE — Larry Barnum doesn’t look like your typical sprinter.

Reeling off sprints Thursday afternoon on the El Molino High School track, Barnum has to uncork his 6-foot, 3.5-inch frame from his starting position before leaning into the curves. Another of Barnum’s big numbers? His shoe size. One foot squeezes into a size 14 shoe and the other a 15 — numbers which make it tough to find racing spikes. But of all Barnum’s numbers that are atypical for a sprinter, the most eye-popping is this one: His age. Barnum, a mostly retired psychotherapist who lives in Santa Rosa, is 75 years old.

As a masters sprinter, Barnum — a former 800-meter specialist when he ran for the Gauchos of the University of California at Santa Barbara — is a five-time world masters champion and a 12-time national champion.

And how about this number: At the World Masters Athletics Indoor Championship in Torun, Poland in March, Barnum won gold in the 400 meters with a time of 1:07.55. He took silver in the 200 meters with a time of 29.72.

At the national meet in March, Barnum won both the 400 meters in 1:09 and the 200 meters with a 29.70.

“Running fast feels really good,” he said.

If running really fast feels good, it begs the question of how it must feel to run as fast as Barnum does.

“Speed thrills,” he said. “It just feels fun.”

And for Barnum, to run his best, to get his fastest result, means competing.

“To run fast you need to run against either a clock or someone,” he said. “Most of my goals are not necessarily winning the race but trying to get a good time.

“By the time it kicks in, it’s a drug,” he said. “You get the dopamine, the adrenaline, all that brain chemistry. And there is a sense of mastery. There is an immediate feedback loop. I have played golf; you do get that sense after a nice shot, but you don’t get the same brain stimulation.”

But Barnum doesn’t poo-poo the idea that sprinting, and even running in general, isn’t for everyone. It’s just that it is for him.

“In all of these things, it’s more of what works,” he said. “Running has worked for me.”

After his collegiate career, Barnum ran for the Southern California Striders. But work and life slowed his track pursuits down considerably as time wore on. Naturally lean, he said he maintained fitness, ran a 5K or 10K occasionally and rode his bike, but nothing serious.

He got the bug again in his mid-50s.

“I started back into track when I was about 56 and I had this idea that I wanted to run my age,” he said.

In track-speak, that means he wanted to run the 400 meters in the same number of seconds as the number of years in his age.

Turns out it’s a thing in track and it’s a major milestone among masters runners.

“I realized that there are other people that actually do this and I got inspired from that and got the bug,” he said. “I kept running and broke my age ever since.”

“As a 67-year-old I did it in 58 and as a 70-year-old I did 61,” he said.

The old running adage is that as athletes age, they are more suited to longer distances. Barnum has run his share of 5K road races but he is drawn to the track and loves the rush of the sprint.

“You don’t see a lot of people running on track. It’s a different mentality. You are exposed,” he said. “When you are running in a road race, the crowd isn’t watching you and it’s not as humbling and you can mix in with the other runners. I think a lot of people tell me they are self-conscious to be running on a track; it just seems too scary. It’s good that people can get past that and just have fun with it.”

Fellow runners describe Barnum as a welcoming elder statesman — generous with his knowledge but appreciative enough of the spirit of competition to drop the hammer when it is time to race. They call him humble and helpful to track newbies. Barnum didn’t reach out to me when he won gold in Poland; his workout partner did.

That camaraderie is a big piece of it for Barnum.

“I don’t have to be competitive and beat people,” he said. “It feels good to run faster and have permission to run faster. It’s more nudging each other. It’s more cooperative. You take turns pushing each other.

“You are thinking you are doing your best by yourself but someone comes up beside you or you see someone in front of you and it wakes up something — ‘I think I can go a little faster,’” he said. “It’s not that you want to beat that person; you just get outside yourself.”

Barnum said he tries to make the rounds of area meets not only to race, but to support the idea of community track meets. He’ll hit the Empire Runners summer track series meets on Tuesday nights at Piner High or he’ll travel to Marin County to race in meets there.

In July, he is scheduled to race at the USATF Masters Outdoor Championships in Ames, Iowa. After that, it’s the North, Central America and Caribbean Region of the World Masters Athletic Championships in Toronto.

“I’ve signed up for the 100, 200, 400 and 800,” he said.

Barnum isn’t superhuman. He’s been sidelined by the usual aches and pains of athletics.

On some days, masters track meets can become what Barnum calls “organ recitals,” meaning athletes go over a laundry list of woe and injuries. “It’s a list of all the things that are working and all the things that aren’t,” he said. “It isn’t necessarily the fastest, but who is left standing.”

Barnum, who has his share of aches and pains, is a proponent of cross-training. He is a regular at an aggressive spin class and he’s a devotee of stretching. In his workout bag he carries both a set of portable starting blocks and a calf-stretch block.

“The body is wonderful as far as when it works, but it doesn’t always work,” he said.

Barnum acknowledges that running puts some wear and tear on his body — especially his knees — but after decades at it, he is a firm believer that he is getting way more benefit than he’s giving away when he grinds out a workout on the track.

“We know runners who have knee issues. I have knee issues. But we also know a lot of sedentary people that have knee issues,” he said.

“Pounding on it and running fast is going to take wear and tear … if you do something there is a chance you are going to hurt yourself, but if you don’t do something there is a chance you are going to hurt yourself,” he said. “It’s more like the tradeoff for me is that I get way much more out of feeling fit and running than worrying about the fact that I can fall or something.”

So until he can’t, Barnum will be out there pounding and running fast. Very fast.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud, “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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