Masters sprinter strives to accelerate and excel


By Albert Amateau

While the sports pages last week were filled with the exploits of the thousands of long-distance road runners in the 34th annual New York City Marathon, a small group of sprinters were running hell for leather in East River Park.

Several mornings a week, even when it drizzles, a tall skinny man with a mustache, a receding hairline and arms tattooed from wrists to shoulders, works out at distances measured in yards instead of miles on the E. Sixth St. track within sight of the East River.

That would be Francis Schiro, 51, a longtime East Village resident and entrepreneur and one of the founders of Sprint Force America, a team that won the World Championship 4-by-400-meter relay in Puerto Rico last July for runners in the 50-year-old Masters age group.

The tattoos began accumulating when Schiro was 18 (it started with a butterfly on his chest) and multiplied over the past dozen years when he began patronizing the Inkline Studio, run by Anil Gupta, a neighbor on E. Fifth St.

Schiro, who was the lead runner in the Sprint Force America victory in Puerto Rico, is an enthusiast for older people participating in athletics.

“At the Penn Relays this year Irwin Horack was 101 and ran the 100 meters — they put him in the field with 80-year-olds,” said Schiro, who, in addition to an herb and gift business he runs with his partner, Darlene Margeta, also trains a few sprinter clients.

“I do all my training at the Sixth St. track in East River Park,” he said. “It’s an all-weather track and you can find a cross-section of the East Village, a multiplicity of people of all ages — I’ve seen women running in high heels.”

In contrast to the “no pain — no gain” school of training, Schiro says, “Athletics is something you should enjoy — it’s not punishment. The important thing is participation. I’d love to start a track club for kids in the East Village.”

Schiro began running as a schoolboy in Chatham, N.J. “I come from a family with six children. I guess running was a way to distinguish myself. I couldn’t catch or hit a baseball but I could run faster than any of the other kids,” he recalled. By the time he graduated from high school in 1970 Schiro had a shelf-full of track medals and about 20 college scholarship offers.

“But I was tired of working hard. Track is really hard work and I wanted to party, so I went on the road — San Francisco, Santa Cruz — and I quit running for a couple of years,” he said. By the end of the 1970s he was back in New Jersey, qualified as a substance abuse counselor and took up road running to get back in shape.

“I saw Alberto Salazar win the New York City Marathon in 1981 and break a record, it inspired me and I ran it in 1982,” he said. But although he finished in the top 10 percent of his age group, Schiro wanted to distinguish himself, so he returned to the track events he excelled in as a teenager. “I’m a competitor,” he explained. “I advocate participation as the goal, but when I run I like to be on top. Finishing in the top 10 percent doesn’t satisfy me.”

Schiro began sprint training again in earnest in 1997, at the age of 45, all the better to come out on top in the Masters age group, which begins at 35. With fellow runners Ed Gonera, 52, a Westchester resident, and Sal Allah, 42, he organized the Sprint Force America team, with a Web site at www.sprintforceamerica.com.

At 6 ft. and 152 pounds, Schiro is in racing trim. Winning the 4-by-400-meter relay championship in Puerto Rico with teammates Gonera, Carroll Blake and Robert Bowen was a highlight, but the team intends to go on and compete in the 50-plus Masters class in the famed Millrose Games in Madison Sq. Garden in February.

“In March we’re going to the World Indoor Championships Masters meet in Stuttgart and we’re looking for sponsors.” Schiro said.