At 80, remaining competitive and inspiring others
The fastest runners at the Shoreline Classic 15K race in Decatur in mid-September — those running five-minute miles — were introduced and received their awards.
Then came the age group award winners. But it wasn’t until Don Pratt of Monticello was called forward for his third-place award in the 65 and older age group that the crowd stood and applauded.
The standing ovation recognized Pratt’s longevity in running area road races, as well as his talent.
Pratt finished the hilly 15K run at Shoreline in 1 hour, 33 minutes and 7 seconds, averaging 10-minute miles.
At 79 years old, he was competing with runners more than a decade younger. His time at that race would have edged out several runners in each of the younger age groups, all the way down to runners in their 20s.
“He lives and breathes (running). That’s just part of his life,” said Peggy Coats of Champaign, Pratt’s daughter. “I don’t think it was until he was older and I was older that it really kicked in, what exactly he was doing and how great it was, to be at this age and still be running and going to races. He’s an inspiration.”
Pratt, who turned 80 in October, was principal of Monticello High School for 10 years before serving as superintendent of the district from 1972 to 1990. He started running in the early ’70s, when his youngest son began running cross-country. He was also motivated to stay healthy, as his parents and a brother all died relatively young.
And he is quite competitive.
“Being able to match yourself against those that are of your age — I just like that,” he said.
He started out running 10Ks, then moved up to include marathons. He has run eight marathons, including a personal best of 3:28 at the Chicago Marathon when he was 60. He qualified for the Boston Marathon with that race and ran Boston the next year (1993), then switched to half-marathons.
The half-marathon is his favorite distance, “even though it’s a little more of a struggle now,” Pratt said. “You don’t have to run as fast. The 800 and 1,500 (meters) are more speed races, and the 5,000, really. I’ve lost a lot of speed. I can keep a pace fairly well, but I don’t have to keep that fast pace up (with the half-marathon). I’ve got pretty good endurance, I think.”
He still runs those shorter distances, though, competing in USA Track & Field masters competitions, and racing in national and international championship masters meets.
He runs the 800-, 1,500-, 5,000- and 10,000-meter races at masters meets.
He’s run at world meets in Italy and Finland — and all over the U.S. at national meets. Pratt likes the competition and the people he meets at races, and “particularly at nationals and world meets, there are people from all over that are just tremendous runners.”
His best finishes on the track are seventh in the 10,000 at a world championship meet and second in the 10,000 at a national meet. His 10K record is about 40:30. In the last few years, he has run 10Ks in about 58 minutes.
Pratt has run fast enough to meet the All-American masters standards at both track and road running distances.
One of his favorite races is the Naples, Fla., half-marathon, where he ran a 1:54 a few years ago. More recently, he runs a half-marathon between 2:10 and 2:15.
Pratt spends winters in Florida and runs a lot of races there. There are more older runners — and more age groups for older runners — there.
But, “Competing against 65- and 60-year-olds, if you happen to beat a few, that gives you a little more incentive too,” he said.
Pratt runs four days a week, between 20 and 25 miles a week, unless he’s training for a half-marathon. His usual workouts include running hills once a week, one track workout and a longer run. He also lifts weights twice a week and golfs.
Dyke Piatt of Monticello and Pratt were running partners for a decade, training and traveling to races together.
“We weren’t competing with one another, but we made each other better because we both wanted to go out and do the best we could,” Piatt said, adding the two ran in different age groups.
Pratt has a friendly competition with the runners in his age group whom he has seen at races over the years.
“There’s a doctor in his age group, he’s never been able to catch him,” Piatt said. “It kind of rubs him the wrong way a little bit. He’s a competitive guy, but in a nice way.”
Coats said her father has encouraged any family member who decided to run, helping her younger brother when he ran cross-country and attending her children’s cross-country meets.
“He’s never been one to push it on us, but he’s behind you 100 percent,” she said. “If you run a race, he’s telling you, ‘You did great. You can do this.’”
Coats runs 5Ks occasionally, but “I wouldn’t call myself a runner. He’s flattering me when he says that.”
She recalled a race they both ran. They started out together.
“I thought, ‘I’m 25 years younger. I haven’t trained as much, but surely I can keep up with him,’” Coats said.
She could not. She told her father to go on ahead.
“He would not be who he was if he wasn’t running. That’s what he loves and enjoys,” Coats said. “He always told me, ‘Use it or lose it. If you are not going to use your body, things aren’t going to be working.’ I try to remember that when I don’t want to go out and do something.”
Pratt said his goal is just to keep running as long as he can.
Then he added, “I would like to place in the world meet. Seventh is my best. I would like to at least place third. Another goal is, at the national championships, to get a first. I’ve got a second but not a first.
“Maybe in the 80 age group I’ve got a little bit better chance.”
Photo: Don Pratt at the Monticello High School track, where he does a track workout once a week. Photo by Robert K. O'Daniell/The News-Gazette