Track Team Is Peerless and, Seemingly, Ageless
July 23, 2014
Sports of The Times
By Juliet Macur -- The New York Times
Photo by Doug Mills/The New York Times
Roy Englert, 91, and four other nonagenarians
set world records in three relay events last weekend.

LAKE RIDGE, Va. — There’s no exact blueprint explaining how to build a dream team, but it usually starts with a star, like LeBron James, and backbreaking and sometimes heartbreaking attempts to woo others to create an untouchable superpower that can win championships.

But in the track and field world, one group of athletes has figured it all out.

Last weekend, five of those athletes came together for the first time at the USA Track & Field Masters Outdoor Championships in Winston-Salem, N.C., and — just like that — set world records in three relay events.

Their secret?

“We all just managed to stay alive longer than everybody else,” Roy Englert, one of the runners, said Wednesday at his home outside Washington. He may or may not have been joking.

Englert, you see, is 91, and his teammates are also in their 90s, and they easily set the records in their age category because, according to USA Track & Field, they were the first team of nonagenarians to compete in a relay at an official meet.

Photo by Bruce Chapman/Winston-Salem Journal
Englert handed the baton to Charles Ross, 91,
during the 4x800-meter race in Winston-Salem, N.C.

That isn’t to say there weren’t concerns. A potential member of their squad had to back out because he had cancer and thought he wouldn’t live much longer. Others had ailing wives they had to take care of or illnesses that precluded them from traveling. When the runners met the night before their first event, they told one another, “Now all we have to do is make it another 24 hours.”

They meant that literally.

The five who made it to race were Englert; Charles Ross, 91, of Decatur, Ark.; Charles Boyle, 91, of Annapolis, Md.; Orville Rogers, 96, of Dallas; and Champion Goldy Sr., 97, of Haddonfield, N.J.

“Why do I compete?” Ross said Wednesday in a phone interview. “C’mon, because I want to win!”

Though all the team needed to do was show up and run the full distance to set world records in the 4x100 meters (2 minutes 22.37 seconds), the 4x400 (12:41.69) and the 4x800 (28:17.10), it wasn’t easy, Ross told me over and over.

He had been in charge of finding runners for the team, and he called it one of the hardest things he had ever done. That’s something, since Ross is a retired Army lieutenant colonel, a member of the Ranger Hall of Fame with two Purple Hearts and Combat Infantry Badges from World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

Ross said he worked three months, combing through possible runners who could set the world records with him. All they needed to do was walk the distance, he told them, but many were too scared to try. When you’re 90, a fall during a race could mean disaster.

Englert, who was the deputy general counsel at the Treasury Department before leaving in 1996, was the first to say yes.

At both of his homes — in a retirement community here and in his former family home nearby — his medals are everywhere. Hanging from doorknobs. Tucked into drawers. Balled up into boxes. That’s what happens when you win nearly every race you run. But Englert, who is slightly built and about 5-foot-7, says he doesn’t run for the medals. In fact, he rushed out of the nationals on Sunday so quickly that he didn’t even pick up the ones he won in the relays. He had driven to North Carolina by himself, and needed to hop back into his maroon Lincoln for the five-hour trip back.

“Oh, those world records were kind of a stunt, just a gimmick,” he said.

Photo by Doug Mills/The New York Times
Englert works out three times a week,
usually going two or three miles on a treadmill
at his retirement community.

Don’t believe him. Englert, who also broke a 25-year-old American age-group record in the 5,000 meters last weekend, has played down big events before. When asked about going ashore at Normandy on D-Day when he served in the Navy, he said it didn’t frighten him, even though his ship crossed the English Channel seven times, carrying prisoners and wounded. He said he just remembered watching in awe as the battleships behind him lobbed shells onto the beach.

“You’re young and invincible,” he said, adding that, yes, he still feels kind of invincible.

Englert, like most of his relay teammates, hadn’t been much of an athlete when he was younger. He picked up running in his late 50s and started competing at 60. He liked it because it kept him fit and enabled him to travel around the country with his wife, Helen, for races.

He said she marveled at his athleticism, as well as the fact that he worked out three times a week — two or three miles on the treadmill in the retirement community’s clubhouse, or occasional five-mile loops around a local lake — and his insistence on taking the stairs instead of an elevator. His wife used to boast to friends that he could still fit into his Navy uniform.

“Sometimes, to my embarrassment, she was my biggest cheerleader,” he said.

Englert hasn’t changed his training schedule since she died in March, but running does keep him busy, and going to meets “beats the heck out of watching TV alone at home,” he said.

Most of his friends have died, he said, but he feels as if he has led a charmed life. He eats well but admits that he is addicted to chocolate, proving it by showing the four Hershey bars — along with six miniatures and a Goo Goo cluster — in his freezer, next to a chilling Martini glass.

Not many people in his neighborhood know about his running feats, but one woman at his community’s gym said, “The famous Roy!” as he walked in. Dimples appeared as he blushed.

Englert is taking a few days off after his world-record runs but says he will start training — at about 12 minutes a mile — next week for a 12-kilometer run this fall. He hopes his record-setting team will reconvene at the indoor nationals next year.

“People make themselves old,” he said. “First they say, I’m too old to do this and too old to do that, and suddenly they look in the mirror and they are old.”

When he looks in the mirror, what does he see? Not a man closing in on 100 years old.

Looking back is an athlete. He and his teammates are proof that there’s one inside all of us.