When Randy Stearns ran an 8-kilometer cross country race earlier this month, he was competing against some of the best over-40 runners in the country.
He and several other local runners competed at the U.S.A. Cross Country Championships in Forest Park near St. Louis. Along with selecting a team to represent the United States at the World Cross Country Championships in March, the events included a masters championship race for runners ages 40 and over.
“These may be the guys that ran in college and were world-class or All-Americans,” Stearns said.
It wasn’t the first time the 54-year-old Champaign man tested himself against some of the best runners of his age. Stearns ran at the masters indoor track championship last year in Bloomington, Ind. 
“That was my first taste of running at the masters national level,” he said. “I knew these guys were going to be fast.”
He ran the 3,000 meters, the longest race at the indoor meet.
A few weeks before, he ran a 3,000 on the University of Illinois track at a UI track club race, and finished in 10 minutes, 57 seconds. His goal for the masters championship race was to get as close to 10:45 as he could, as that time would give him All-America status for his age group. He ran a 10:47.
“I’m very happy with my time and the effort I put into it,” he said. “What I’ve enjoyed is for years I’ve been doing mostly road racing. I enjoy it, but I was getting a little bored with it.”
He hadn’t run track and cross country since high school, and he’s enjoyed doing events that require different strategies than road races.
“I enjoyed getting back in there and jostling around,” he said.
While he likes the competition of racing against others, he’s really racing himself.
“Like road racing, you have a goal and you’re trying to reach that, and the other people in the race can help pull you along,” he said.
Stearns finished his 8K cross country race in 32:25, placing 10th in the 50-54 age group.
“It’s always nice to see what other guys your age are doing and get in there and challenge yourself a bit,” he said.
The 8K included all the masters runners, and the bibs worn by the runners were color-coded by age group.
“It’s a little more motivation,” Stearns said. “If there is somebody older than you, you’ve got to try to beat them if you can.”
Another motivation for him is keeping track of his age-graded times. The age-graded tables were compiled by World Masters Athletics, which governs masters track and field, and the tables adjust race times according to age, to compare an athlete’s performance to younger and older athletes.
Stearns, who turned 54 about a week after the cross country championship race, said his age-graded times have stayed steady since he was in his 20s, although his actual race times aren’t as fast as in the past.
Stephen Ostwinkle, who has coached track and cross country and who organizes speed workouts for local runners, called the age-graded standards “effort-based” criteria. He said the age-graded rankings are used in many masters races and they, along with All-America standards for masters, “give incentives for people to stay competitive as we get older.”
Reaching All-America status is another measure of how a masters runner compares with his or her peers.
Stearns just missed that with his 3,000-meter race last year. He said being an All-American on the track is tougher than it is for cross country.
Paul Spinner of Paris has been competing in masters races since 1997. The 68-year-old runner has achieved All-America masters status in a number of distances on both the road and track.
It took him a while to place in the top three at track meets, he said. Then he learned how to run the steeplechase, which he said he was better suited for than other distance events on the track. He won the 2,000-meter steeplechase event for his age group at the 2009 USATF national track meet.
“I like to compete and just see how I do,” Spinner said.
He also keeps track of his age-graded times and tries to keep them consistent as he gets older. And he usually picks a road race each year and runs it to see how his time compares at the same race in previous years.
Stearns said he’ll keep trying to push himself and see if he can get a little faster. He is looking for a track meet to run in later this spring.
He will likely run at the masters outdoor track championships in Kansas this summer.
Stearns credits his running group for helping him to keep running fast times. He runs with a group of fast masters runners who meet on the UI campus for lunchtime runs.
“They’re the ones who keep me motivated and make me faster,” he said.
And they are the ones who initiated the “birthday mile.” Members of the group run a timed mile each year on their birthdays. Stearns ran his two weeks ago at the UI Armory.
He recruited some of his running buddies to pace him, with the goal of running 5:20. He ran a 5:19.8. According to the age-graded chart, that is equivalent to a 25-year-old man running a 4:32 mile.
Several local runners competed in races at the U.S.A. Cross Country Championships on Feb. 2. Their times:
-- Brian Farrell and Brandon Smith ran in the Fleet Feet 4K Community Race. Farrell placed fifth overall and was third in the 25-29 age group with a time of 13:43. Smith was ninth overall and fifth in the 25-29 age group with a time of 13:49.
-- Randy Stearns ran in the Masters Men’s 8K, placing 10th in the 50-54 age group with a time of 32:25.
-- Jeff Kelly ran 44:13 in the Open Men’s 12K, alongside Olympians Dathan Ritzenhein and Matt Tegenkamp. The 12K race determined the members of the U.S. team that will compete in the World Cross Country Championships in March in Poland. 
Photos: Top, Randy Stearns at February's masters cross country championships in Forest Park in St. Louis. Bottom, Stephen Ostwinkle, Brian Farrell, Brandon Smith, Randy Stearns and Jeff Kelly at the U.S.A. Cross Country Championships in St. Louis in early February. Photos supplied by Stephen Ostwinkle.