When 86-year-old Nancy Auster lines up for the start of the USA Masters 5 km Championships on Sunday, the routine will be a familiar one. Auster has been running this race hosted by the Syracuse Festival of Races for years; in fact, she was there for the first race in 1993 and hasn’t missed a race since.
Photo of Nancy and Ellen Auster
Auster hasn’t been a life-long runner, but with 36 years of experience is far from where she first started. When Auster was 50-years-old, her daughter returned from college with a passion for running and convinced her mom to give it a try. The first time Auster ran a quarter-mile, she thought she was going to die.
Since then, Auster has logged thousands of miles on the streets of Canton, N.Y. She runs 20-25 miles a week and does most of her running with a group of women who meet at eight in the morning three days a week. They don’t relent in the face of bad weather and run even if it is raining, sleeting or snowing. Most of Auster’s running partners are young enough to be her children, with others young enough to be her grandchildren.
In the early 1990s Auster was retired from her career as an economics professor at State University of New York – Canton and found herself with more time to devote to running. She heard of a race starting in Syracuse that would feature a separate women’s 5 km and the idea intrigued Auster.
“The fact that it is divided gives a whole group of females the opportunity to do it,” Auster said. “You are doing it with all of them, when in some races you feel like everyone is against you.”
In the first running of the Syracuse Festival of Races 5 km, Auster finished in 27:31 to win her age group. Since then, she has won her age group 16 of 19 times.
For Auster, running has always been about improving herself. While the novelty of a 20-year streak of racing is nice, Auster enjoys being able to compare herself against her previous efforts.
“I really make a tremendous effort to run at races I’ve run before,” Auster said. “I see if I can take a few seconds off of last year.”
Auster admits that improving her results has gotten more difficult as she has gotten older, so she has adjusted her goals slightly and tries to match her performance from the previous year.
Before the Syracuse Festival of Races became a U.S. master’s championship in 2008, Auster had never heard of masters running or joined USA Track & Field. But race director Dave Oja made sure that Auster was ready to race for a title.
“He recruited her via email to make sure she would enter,” Auster’s daughter Ellen explained. “Suddenly this race she had done for years was a championship.”
Auster won her first national title in 2008 as she won the 80-84 division and has gone on to win in 2009 and 2011, with a runner-up finish in 2010.
Oja is a huge supporter of Auster.
“What Nancy is very close to accomplishing is unbelievable," says Oja of her 20th straight race. “It’s a combination of discipline, determination, health, fitness, lifestyle choices, family support, and amazing good fortune that’s as eye-popping and inspirational as any of the world-class 5K performances for which the Syracuse Festival of Races is known."
In Syracuse Auster may finish several minutes behind her younger competitors, but her treatment at the race is on par with the elite athletes. Oja ensures that Auster’s race bib and t-shirt are dropped off at her hotel so she doesn’t have to stand in line at the expo. Last year while Auster was running in a downpour, her belongings were staying dry in a finish line tent, and all along the way Auster is spurred on by cheers from spectators and competitors.
Auster’s daughter Ellen has run the race alongside her in recent years, and is not shy to announce her mother’s age to those along the course.
“The response from the crowd is amazing,” Ellen Auster said. “They cheer, they shout ‘way to go!’ It’s very heartwarming.”