TAMPA — Local track legend Charles Johnson is fast, strong, limber and …
To be exact, he’s 45.
That has helped make him 25 pounds heavier, tighter, and not as fast as he used to be, and that was faster than most.
But time waits for no man, not even Johnson, who in 1987 did what no other Hillsborough County track athlete has done and might ever do again: He won four events at the state high school track meet (the 120-yard hurdles, the 330-yard hurdles, the long jump and the triple jump) — a feat that helped King High win the state team title (only one of five county boys teams to do so).
Johnson went on to become a 12-time collegiate All-American at North Carolina’s St. Augustine University, and in 1996 he just missed making the Olympics, wiping out on the first hurdle in a preliminary at the U.S. trials. He ran professionally for a few years after that, and then he hung up his spikes and turned to coaching local kids.
“I needed a break,” Johnson said. “Running at that level can wear on you.”
So why in the heck was he broiling in the sun the other day at King High, lifting weights, jumping hurdles, sprinting? Heat rippled off the black track. Sweat poured out of him. His lifelong friend, Will Crawford (who ran for King on that 1987 state championship team), punched his stopwatch again and again, telling Johnson his hurdling was “a little quicker” or slower or cleaner.
“Have to do it,” Johnson said, sweat burning his eyes. “Have to get it done.”
It appears that somewhere along the way, Johnson’s fire was reignited.
A few weeks ago, Johnson stepped onto a track at Florida State University and ran the 110-meter hurdles in an official 14.63 seconds, faster than any American over the age of 45 has run it.
The previous fastest American time for 45 and older was 14.79 seconds, set by Tom Guilliard in 1995.
How about the world record of 14.41, set by Jamaica’s Karl Smith in 2006?
“It’s going down,” Johnson said. “I say that for a lot of reasons.”
No. 1: He insists he’s 20 to 25 pounds too heavy (currently 225 pounds on his 6-foot-2 frame). No. 2: It’s only in the past year that he started working hard on technique, stretching and weight training. No. 3: “I’m really enjoying this,” he said.
Johnson said he could break the 45-and-older world record (after losing about 8 pounds) as soon as Aug. 16 at the USATF Florida Association Masters Outdoor Championships in Miramar.
“If the wind doesn’t get in the way,” Johnson said. “I believe I’ll get it. That’s how good I feel about it.”
How about running in the U.S. Nationals, a meet that includes America’s top pros and collegians, and this year required a 110-meter hurdle qualifying time of 13.65 seconds.
“I truly believe that is also possible,” Johnson said. “I feel there’s still so much more in me.”
Johnson said he has no designs on winning nationals, but to qualify for such a meet at his age, “It’s a great motivation.”
“I feel that I have been gifted with this ability,” Johnson said. “If I can qualify for (the U.S. Nationals) I could help change the way everybody feels about getting older. I could help show that if you stay in shape, you can keep performing at a high level. You can still run and jump.”
He acknowledges that it’s not as easy to train as it once was, particularly between juggling training with his work schedule as a Tampa longshoreman.
“You have to find the time,” Johnson said. “It’s not an option. I’m also doing this because I want to stay healthy as I get older. I know I can stay healthy if I keep at it.”
In the process, several more age-group records might fall.
Crawford — who in recent years of training has dropped 53 pounds (from 210 to 157) — said he has no doubt the world’s 45-plus age-group record in the 110-meter hurdles will be Johnson’s.
“We’ve gone to a few meets with college kids competing in them, and Charles has beaten them all,” Crawford said. “When he loses that 20 to 25 pounds and gets stronger, look out. He’s going to fly. I know for a fact that he can go a lot faster. There is no doubt in my mind.”