Sole Sports employee Flash Santoro will go to all lengths to run a race; distance–traveling or running–is no obstacle. “I will travel 6,000 miles to run a 5K,” he says.
Granted, it wasn’t just any 5K.
This past August, Santoro traveled to Lyon, France for the World Masters Athletics Championships where he represented the United States in the 5K, 8K (cross country), and 3K steeplechase.
The World Masters Athletics Championships began in 1975 and are held every two years. Athletes from around the world compete in track and field, cross country, and road running events. They are divided into five-year age groups, beginning with 35 to 39 and go up to 95 to 99. This year in Lyon, there were more than 8,000 athletes from 98 countries, including Olympians, doctors, teachers, and more.
It was Santoro’s second appearance at Worlds—he also competed at the 2011 outdoor championships in Sacramento, CA. He has won national golds in both the steeplechase and 5K in recent years and is currently ranked number one in the country in the 3k steeplechase for his age group.
The 8K was Santoro’s first event on Day 3 of the competition. The cross country course was tough and crowded for the first two miles, but he managed to finish as the top American in his age group and 27th in the world with a time of 29:29.00.
Three days later, a grueling 5K took place in 100-plus degree heat and humidity. Many competitors ran about a minute slower than predicted and some did not start or finish due to the extreme conditions. Santoro experienced severe cramps about two miles in but fought through and managed to crack into the top 40 overall and finish as the top American in the 40 to 44 age group with a time of 17:46.55.
The final event for Santoro was the steeplechase, his bread and butter. The event consists of 28 barriers (hurdles that are 36 inches high) and seven water jumps (12-feet long stretches of water) spread out over the course of 3,000 meters. It requires a great deal of speed and agility, and the impact from so many hurdles can be extremely hard on the body.
But Santoro was hooked when he first discovered the event his senior year of high school in Stafford, CT. “My mom said I always had the biggest smile on my face,” he recalls. “She said I looked like Rocky, running on the beach out there.”
More than 20 years later, 40 years young, Santoro is still at it and competing at a world class level. He jumps over the hoods of cars and leaps over fences for practice. “Steeplechasers are the pinnacle of crazy,” he says. “We look at the world in a different way. I’ll see a park picnic table and I start thinking, ‘Should I jump off of that, or could I clear it?’ I’ll see a hedge and think, ‘Is that too deep? I know I can get it width wise...’”
So it is no surprise that in Lyon, Santoro was found leaping over anything he could find for practice, hurdling over fences and benches amongst the Alps. The race took place on August 15, the second to last day of competition and for this event, the weather conditions were just right–temperatures in the 60s, overcast, and a light breeze blowing. Santoro finished 19th in his age group and as the number one American. His time of 10:42.35 was a personal PR within his current age group, and allowed plenty of time for him to start a rousing cheer and series of high fives as the rest of the competitors crossed the finish line. “Even though we all spoke different languages, congratulatory hugs, handshakes, and high fives were universally understood,” he says. “There’s a really great feeling you can get from knowing you’re not alone in the world with this running thing. Running breaks down barriers (just not the ones in the steeplechase).”
Breaking down language barriers is nothing new for Santoro, who majored in French and taught the language for eight years. “That was one of the coolest things about Lyon,” he says. “I got to speak a language I rarely get to use.” Santoro acted as an unofficial translator between athletes from other countries, most of whom spoke some English, and locals. He makes a point to learn some of the language visiting a foreign country and is very sensitive to local cultures. In fact, he says he was less inclined to compete at the World Masters Indoor Championships in Daegu, South Korea because he doesn’t speak Korean–yet.
Next year, Santoro is setting his sights on another national championship in the steeplechase and then plans to compete in the World Masters Games in 2017 in New Zealand. After that, who knows? When asked how long he planned to continue competing, he replied, "I'll be in that 95 to 99 age group someday, if I can still manage it. That's the goal."