On a world stage against tough competitors, Barb Lauff ran with a bum leg.
Her foot almost dragged on the track, disrupting the smooth strides of long-distance running. But the Aurora native still managed a time of just over 20 minutes in the 5,000-meter race.
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"I have always plowed through the pain," Lauff, a teacher in Sterling, said.
It sounds like a familiar tale in competitive sports: Athletes pushing through blood, sweat and tears for awards and glory.
But Lauff is in her early 40s and a regular on the masters track and field circuit, where athletes 30 and older challenge their physical limits and routinely deliver world records in their age categories.
Lauff, 43, didn't set a record with her time last summer at the world masters meet in Sacramento, Calif., but she's intent on breaking the 19-minute barrier at the USA Masters Outdoor Track and Field Championships that open Thursday and continue through Sunday in Lisle.
It's a national competition bringing more than 1,000 athletes to the Village of Lisle-Benedictine University Sports Complex, where they will test their speed and stamina in a range of track and field events, including pole vault, steeplechase and pentathlon. The venue includes a 3,000-seat stadium.
The event is free to spectators but still is expected to generate between $400,000 and $450,000 in economic impact for the village, said Jay Allen, a sales manager who specializes in sports markets at the Lisle Convention and Visitors Bureau.
A chunk of that impact will come from athletes, families and trainers staying at local hotels and eating at area restaurants, Allen said.
As for the competition itself, USA Track and Field is the governing body of the event.
In Lisle, the youngest athlete registered is 35 and the oldest is 95, said Bob Weiner, chairman of the USATF national masters media committee. To participate, athletes must be members of USATF and are grouped in age divisions based on 5-year increments.
"You have those (high) caliber athletes, but it's more for the motive of lifetime fitness and health," Weiner said.
And spectators can anticipate some flashy times.
"We expect to have a myriad of world records and national records set at this meet," Weiner said.
For Lauff, the 5K at the Lisle meet will be one of her first major races since hamstring reattachment surgery in August 2011 to repair an injury typically sustained in snowboarding or surfing crashes.
"It's that severe and sudden," said Lauff, who doesn't know what triggered the injury, diagnosed after the world meet in Sacramento.
But she suspected something before that race.
"I was experiencing pain, but I ignored it," Lauff said. "I wanted to go to Sacramento and, by God, I didn't care what it was going to take."
Now she's dealing with scar tissue and avoiding sprinting.
Her regular routine squeezes in a five- to eight-mile run each day before teaching, coaching and playing the oboe and violin in local music groups. Lauff, who will perform the national anthem in Lisle, is also the assistant Illinois USATF masters chair.
During the school year, she gets up at 4 a.m. and is running by 5 a.m.
"I wouldn't give it up for the world," Lauff said. "I don't mind sleep deprivation just so I can train."
The payoff, Lauff says, is a quicker recovery time after her surgery, plus an "atmosphere of support" with masters athletes, who she runs with on Sundays.
Although she competed for her high school team her senior year, Lauff wasn't a dedicated runner until she moved to Sterling and discovered a track facility and a "pod of serious runners."
"I think a lot of times people think, 'Oh, that was in my past,'" Lauff said. "Well it can be part of their future, too. Embrace that fact that you can be active and you can do this."
The championships begin 8 a.m. Thursday. A schedule of events is available at www.usatf.org/events/2012/USAMastersOutdoorTFChampionships/schedule.asp.