Jim O'Neil began the last lap of Friday's 10,000 meters knowing full well he was about to relinquish the National Masters 60-64 age-group championship he had monopolized the previous four years.
He was nearly a minute behind front-running Patrick Devine of Los Angeles.
It wasn't that O'Neil was fading. In fact, the La Jolla resident was still going strong, but his 64-year-old legs simply could not keep up with the stride of 60-year-old Devine, who led throughout.
Devine won easily--as many thought he should, being the young buck in the group--finishing in 37 minutes 24 seconds. But O'Neil, the old man of the pack, placed second at 38:22.29, beating several younger competitors.
Although other runners, race officials and onlookers knew the time gap between the two was proportionate to their difference in age, O'Neil would not use that as an excuse.
"He (Devine) was tough today," O'Neil said. "He deserved that win."
But O'Neil deserved some accolades, too. He was not merely defending his four-time title in the event but was keeping alive his string of 22 consecutive appearances in the National Masters Championships.
"Twenty-two straight years," marveled Pico Rivera's Larry Banuelos, the 10,000-meter winner in the 65-69 age group. "That's phenomenal."
It is even more phenomenal when one considers that there have been only 22 of these meets. O'Neil is the only one to run in all of them.
"I'll run as long as it's fun," O'Neil said. "My long-range goal is that I want to break all running records for the 100-year-old age group."
Of course, there are no such records--not yet anyway. But through his straight face, it was difficult to gauge whether O'Neil was joking.
There is also O'Neil's history. He hasn't been getting older--he has been getting stronger.
Never mind that for the first time in five years, O'Neil failed to win the 10,000-meter championship. Next year, he'll likely be back on top in the 65-69 age group.
"He'll definitely put me away next year," Banuelos said.
Consider that in his college days at Miami of Florida, where he ran the two-mile and was the captain of the track team, his best mark was 10 minutes, and that much later, at age 47, he ran a 9:58.
"I was more disciplined than I was as a youngster," O'Neil said. "I had more motivation, plus the training methods are different now. In my college days, if a training run was four or five miles, that was a long way. As a Masters runner, I go eight or nine miles and think nothing of it."
That wasn't always the case. When O'Neil first got into the Masters program at age 42, he couldn't even complete a mile.
"At that time, I weighed 25 pounds more than I do now, and I was drinking a lot," O'Neil said. "It took me literally a couple of years to get all the martinis out of my system."
It was after he saw a Masters mile at the San Francisco Examiner Games that O'Neil decided, "My God, if those guys can do it, I can do it."
Looking back, he says that decision saved his life.
"I probably would not be here today if it were not for (Masters track)," he said. "It sounds corny, but the truth is it turned my life around. It's like someone who smokes--or drinks, it's the same thing--it takes something to motivate you to stop. And for me, that was running."
O'Neil's new obsession has allowed him to reap many rewards. He has set "more than a dozen world records," but his most cherished achievement came at the age of 52 when he and his son, Tom, then 17, established the father-son world record for marathons. Jim finished in 2:35:08, an American record for his age group, and Tom came in at 2:24:26.
"It was a thrill to run with him and share the record with him," Jim said.
It would seem O'Neil has shared his running with more people than just his son.
"I have a picture of him running," Banuelos said. "A little 8-by-10 that he signed a couple years ago. He doesn't know it, but I have that hanging on my wall at home."