VETERAN Columbus North cross-country and track coach Rick Weinheimer remembers the first time he saw Lee Bridges run.
The year was 1982. Middle schools then were Grades 7-through-9 junior highs, and freshmen had to finish their junior high track season before they could run for the high school.
In Bridges’ first high school meet, he anchored the 4x400-meter relay in a sizzling 49.8 seconds.
“That’s when (head coach) Phil (Wasmuth) and I looked at each other like ‘This guy is something really special,’ and all that he did was improve from then on,” said Weinheimer, who was an assistant. “It seems like yesterday, even though it’s been 30 years since he graduated. He was my hero then, and he’s my hero now.”
Bridges, who became a two-time 400 state champion at North, is still running at the age of 47. And he’s still running fast.
Last month, Bridges captured the USA Track and Field Masters 45- to 49-year-old division in both the 400 and 200. He ran the 400 in 51.01 and the 200 in 23.18.
“(The 400) was a real competitive race,” Bridges said. “We had two guys that were competitive with me, so I enjoyed it quite a bit.
“(The 200) wasn’t as competitive of a race because a couple of the competitors ended up pulling out to run a relay,” he said. “By the time the 200 comes along, it’s the fourth day of the competition, so you just kind of want to get it done. It wasn’t as rewarding as the quarter, but it was still a nice win.”
The 5-foot-10, 159-pound Bridges, who lives in the Chicago suburb of Homewood, Illinois, was at Franklin College on Saturday to compete in the USATF Indiana Masters Championships. His goal was to break his age-group world record of 50.18 in the 400.
Bridges fell a little short but still won in 51.99.
“It wasn’t what I wanted,” Bridges said. “I wasn’t able to quite come through the 200 where I wanted to. If you don’t get it in the first half of the race, that’s about it.”
Although he was playing some tennis and indoor soccer and doing a little running to stay in shape, Bridges wasn’t satisfied.
“I was doing some 5Ks, and those are OK, but I read a book by a guy named Bill Collins, and one of the phrases he coins is ‘Why run far when you can run fast?’” Bridges said. “So I got back on the track and started doing track workouts, and then I came upon this club that trained at the same high school.”
So in 2009, Bridges began working out with Explosion Track Club. He started running track events again in 2010, running the 400 in the mid-50s and working his way down.
“We have a good group of sprinters at our club, so you always have a benchmark to see how you’re doing,” Bridges said. “But I was surprised that I could pop off the times. That makes you hungry and go a little faster. Now, I want that 49-second quarter.”
Last year, Bridges ran a 50.9 400 and a 23.0 200. His personal-bests are 45.4 in the 400 and 20.8 in the 200 while at University of Illinois.
In 1988, Bridges ran the 400 in the Olympic Trials in Indianapolis and beat future gold medalist Michael Johnson in his heat.
Bridges still holds the North school record at 47.4. He holds the North Sectional records in the 100, 200 and 400.
“He was amazing,” said Wasmuth, who was boys track coach from 1976-91. “I don’t think he ever ran a 400 over 50. Even in dual meets, he was always in the 49, 48 range, and in the big meets, he was down in the 47s.”
Wasmuth remembers Bridges running a 46-second anchor leg in the 4x400 to make up 30 yards on the leader and give the Bull Dogs the 1985 regional team title.
“He was a great team leader,” Wasmuth said. “He was so special. He was a wonderful athlete, and he was every coach’s dream and I was fortunate enough to be there when he came through.”
Following Bridges’ senior year, Wasmuth let him keep his blue jersey with “NORTH” written across the chest. Bridges wore that same jersey Saturday at Franklin.
“When we got back after dinner and everything that Saturday night (after the 1985 state meet), usually when someone wins the state, there was a fire truck to meet them,” Wasmuth said. “I gave him a ride on my scooter and dropped him off at his house.”
One of the competitors Bridges beat for the state title, North Central’s Robert Thomas, now runs against Bridges in masters races. Thomas, who is currently injured, was the director of Saturday’s meet at Franklin.
“We’re just as competitive now as we were then,” Thomas said. “It doesn’t change any. He wants to win as bad as I want to win. For our age group, he’s one of the best in the world.”
Bridges said he plans to keep sprinting as long as it’s fun. He definitely wants to make it through the next couple years to get the world record, and then maybe try for the 50-54 age group record in three years.
“But I know that Father Time works against you, so each year gets harder to get that 50.1,” Bridges said.