Hardly ageing on the track

MARIETTA, Georgia – Philippa Raschker, the most enduring female athlete you’ve never heard of, is flying solo, dashing down a track that rings a high school football field.

With no discus or shot or javelin or hurdles handy, no pole vault or high jump or long jump pit on the premises, the day’s casual workout – conducted alone, as usual – is limited to sprints, her specialty.

Trim in two-piece running garb, she is economy in motion, reddish-brown hair like a jet’s contrails, painted fingernails glistening in the sun. Why wouldn’t a publication that annually celebrates the contours of athletes’ physiques and appearances, causing double takes, consider her for its pages?

Except one thing.

“Wait a minute,” Raschker had told the caller from ESPN the Magazine who invited her to pose while loping naked in its issue called The Body. “Do you know I’m 63 years old?”

Assured the magazine did, she eagerly accepted, then spent a full day in upstate New York, running and log-jumping into an icy swimming hole at a photographer’s behest.

For Raschker – widely known as Phil, except when others on the World Masters Athletics circuit that she has lorded over for nearly three decades lovingly address her as Grandmother – disrobing on the run was a welcome out-of-body-and-clothes experience.

“I feel very good about my body,” she said, attributing her lack of prudishness to her European roots and comfort at topless beaches. “I take care of it. I hope they’ll have me back when I’m 70.”

Surely she will be competing then, at something. The hunger to lock horns athletically is as acute as it was 50 years ago, when Raschker aged out of day care in her native West Germany and enlisted with a track club.

At age 20, she moved to the United States, began dabbling in track and quit a new job when the manager denied her a day off for a meet, according to a book about older competitors, “Second Wind: The Rise of the Ageless Athlete.”

Scurrying to as many as 36 competitions a year, Raschker became a regular at the U.S. nationals. She was a women’s pole-vault pioneer. An adventurous sort, she has vaulted against men and even engaged them in the decathlon, in which only men normally compete.

At one meet, she entered an alien event, the triple jump, against men after two of them took her by the arms and showed her the technique. At another, she was roped at the last second into the steeplechase, which she had never practiced, to help fill out a small field.

It is the global masters program, in which nobody ever ages out, that Raschker has turned into her domain.

In its world indoor and outdoor championships combined, for women 35 and older, Raschker has won 71 gold medals, 19 silver and 7 bronze.

She has set more than 200 records and still holds 63 U.S. and 18 world marks. The numbers are made possible by the masters format of dividing participants into five-year age increments (i.e., 60 to 64), allowing for rebirth every five years.

Its world meet – in Sacramento, California, this summer – will draw up to 12,000 athletes. While most entrants choose a few events, a la carte, Raschker treats such gatherings as a buffet. Typically, she enters all three sprints, both hurdles and every jump, along with the seven-discipline heptathlon. The weights, her least liked endeavors, are no picnic for a 50-kilogram – “I get dizzy” – but she has sampled them all.

Raschker has no coach, so she learns by trial and error. She resembled a hopping frog as a beginning long jumper. She remains slow out of the blocks in her best event, the 200 meters, forcing her to “see everybody’s butt” before she runs them down.

Rumblings have portrayed her as a product of the East German sports machine, even though she was from West Germany. As a consumer of performance-boosting drugs. As having had a sex change.

Ken Stone, who maintains records and a website devoted to masters track and field, recalled a transgender athlete telling him, “Phil Raschker has to be a former man.”

Stone said he sought and obtained documentation proving otherwise. “I’m embarrassed that I bought that lady’s story,” he said. “She is special. She’s accomplished more than any masters athlete in the universe.”

The suspicions, Raschker said, “used to bother me.”

“Now I don’t give it a second thought,” she added. “I run away from negativity as fast as I can.”

Stone is one of many who have urged Raschker to eliminate some events, which sometimes require up to two dozen races at a given meet. Doing so, the argument goes, would result in Raschker’s setting almost untouchable age-group records.

She has pored over the list, looking for candidates to drop. “Which one would I choose?” she said.

The naked truth is, as much pain as she withstands to compete, hanging up the spikes would be acutely painful, now that she is aware of her inspirational role. That would not mean abandoning competitive athletics altogether.

A client suggested she switch to rowing. “It’s something I’ve considered if my legs can’t carry me anymore,” she said.

Ever rowed before?