Fort Collins' FireKracker 5K's oldest participant going strong as 92nd birthday approaches

·5 min read

Winfield Bassage kicked off his Fourth of July weekend the same as always Saturday, lining up with dozens of his friends in the Fort Collins Running Club to complete the FireKracker 5K at City Park.

Bassage wasn’t able to run the race the race this year, as he had done seven of the previous eight years.

But he wasn’t about to skip it.

So, a little more than two weeks before his 92nd birthday, the oldest participant walked the 3.1-mile course in a little more than an hour. A recent procedure to remove some cancerous skin from his scalp kept Bassage indoors more than he would like and prevented him from training for the race.

“I think I probably did pretty well for my age group,” he joked afterward.

Bassage, who has become a celebrity of sorts among the FireKracker 5K’s regulars, ran the 2018 race in 40 minutes, 41 seconds. He participated in a virtual version with his daughter, Leslie Butler, and other family members in 2020 at the age of 89 and finished in 49:04 – the top time among all participants over the age of 80.

After receiving applause from a dozen or so friends who were there to cheer him on after he crossed the finish line Saturday, Leslie said, "This was probably his last 5K.”

Winfield, catching his breath at a picnic table, wasn't so sure.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I think if I get a chance to train for it, I might be back again next year.”

More than 1,000 runners and walkers, cheered on by nearly as many spectators, got their holiday weekend started with the annual race Saturday, race director Lisa Sinclair said.

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Traditionally held on the Fourth of July, organizers opted to move the race to Saturday this year to coincide with the City of Fort Collins’ other Independence Day activities, including a parade, old-timers baseball games, a food-truck rally and a night-time fireworks display over Sheldon Lake.

Christian Groendyk, 17, who will be a senior in the fall at Fort Collins High School, and recent Poudre High graduate Joseph Houdeshell, 18, finished 1-2 in the citizen’s race with times of 16 minutes, 3 seconds and 16:22, respectively.

Shelley McDonald, 40, of Loveland was the first woman to cross the finish line in 18:18. Allie Sibole, 29, of Longmont was second in 19:00.

Ben Eidenschink, former University of Wisconsin runner now living and training in Boulder, won the men's elite race on a separate four-lap course around City Park's Sheldon Lake in 14:13, two seconds ahead of runner-up Brian Barraza, a native of El Paso, Texas, who also trains in Boulder. Jessica Watychowicz, a Chicago native who lives and trains in Colorado Springs, was the women's winner in 16:40. Sophie Anders of Fort Collins, a member of the local Front Range Elite professional team, was second in 17:17.

Winfield, though, was every bit as popular as the elite runners.

Dozens of participants sought him out at the starting line to wish him well with many wondering if they’d be able to keep doing races like this when they reached his age.

He had to have his right arm amputated as a teenager and avoided bypass surgery in his 60 after X-rays and scans revealed he had grown a capillary around an artery that was “90 to 95 percent blocked,” Leslie said.

“I think Dad’s philosophy of always keeping in shape and eating well has kept him going pretty strong,” she said.

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More and more older runners, many inspired by Fort Collins legend Libby James – who set several national age-group records and even a world record or two well into her 70s and 80s – are continuing to participate in the FireKracker 5K and other local road races, Sinclair said.

“I’ve been doing this race for over 10 years, and when I first started, I think the top age group was 60-plus,” James said. “Over the years, we started getting 70-year-olds and the last couple years, we’ve been getting 80 year-olds and, this year, we have one over 90.”

Winfield moved from New Hampshire to LaPorte about 10 years ago, to be closer to Leslie, a teacher at O’Dea Elementary School. He has a regular 5K route from his house around Watson Lake and back that he ran for years and was still walking regularly until his recent procedure.

“I’ve never done longer than a 5K,” he said during an interview at his home earlier in the week. “I didn’t feel I wanted to go that far.”

Winfield said he used to run to the house of a friend, who lived on a farm on a hill just outside of his hometown in New York, and back before breakfast several days a week when he was younger and never really thought much of it. Running was just faster than walking, he said.

He jogged with his kids while they were growing up and at summer camps while serving as a Boy Scout leader in Ohio.

“I was usually ahead of everyone else,” he said.

Winfield didn’t get too involved in road racing until much later in life, though, participating in both Colorado and New Mexico Senior Games in his 80s alongside a sister who was eight years older than him and setting records for her age. He ran in the national Senior Games in Albuquerque, New Mexico, when he was 89 and finished second in the 5K for his age, Leslie said.

Wearing a multi-colored Fort Collins Running Club hat to cover the bandages on his scalp, a T-shirt from a previous year’s FireKracker 5K, blue jeans and his running shoes, Winfield, a retired high school math teacher, drew applause and encouragement from onlookers scattered throughout the course.

He was worried he had finished last but lit up a bit when his daughter and others pointed out a handful of walkers still crossing the finish line a good five minutes after he had finished.

A big smile spread across his face.

“I’ve run my whole life,” he had said earlier. “You’ve got to stay in shape, and it's just something I enjoy doing.”

Kelly Lyell reports on CSU, high school and other local sports and topics of interest for the Coloradoan. Contact him at kellylyell@coloradoan.com, follow him on Twitter @KellyLyell and find him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/KellyLyell.news. If you 're a subscriber, thank you for your support. If not, please consider purchasing a digital subscription today.

This article originally appeared on Fort Collins Coloradoan: Fort Collins' FireKracker 5K's oldest participant going strong at 91