It might happen when you are 40, or maybe 50, 60 or even later in life. If you considered yourself a runner at some point in the past, there's a fair chance you'll get the itch to see if you still have stride. Even if you've never run competitively, you might still catch the running bug.

"That's why masters track is so great," says Vicki Fox, 57, who's a member of the Northport Running Club, one of several groups that meets regularly for field and track events geared toward the over-35 set. Former runners, she says, get a second chance to compete while newbies find a fresh way to get in shape.

Fox fits into the second group. She had never run seriously until age 50 when her daughter announced she wanted to train for an Iron Man contest. The two began running together and soon entered a 5K road race. While the younger Fox eventually found other interests, the elder one was hooked. Before long, she was competing in track meets running 400- and 800-meter races against other 50-somethings.

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RUNNING AFTER 40

"That's the beauty of masters racing," says Rob Lemke, 53, of North Merrick. He's a masters half-miler, vice president of the Long Island Association of USA Track & Field, and chairman of the organization's masters committee. "Everyone is welcome. If you want to compete, that's great. If you just want to join a team and have someone to run with, that's fine, too."

For competition purposes, masters level races are divided into age group categories starting at 35 and progressing in five-year increments. Masters track events are held on local, state, regional and even national levels.

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"We have some athletes who have run all their lives," Lemke explains, "but most ran when they were younger, took about 20 years off to raise a family, and then came back to the sport."

Besides running events, masters meets also include field events such as the javelin, shot put, hammer throw and high jump.

Fall season, with its cool temperatures, is a great time to get started if you would like to run a meet this winter or even next spring. Take your time, ease into a regular running routine, and don't expect to run as fast as you did in high school, college or even your 30s. After a few years off, the playing field is back to level.

TEAMMATES HELP

"One of the best things about masters track and field," says Alex Cuozzo, 57, a member of the Bellmore Striders, is that you can join a team, make friends and get plenty of help training.

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Lemke likes the team aspect as well, adding that most squads have runners of all ages and abilities. "Being on a team also keeps you accountable," he adds, "because you are far less likely to blow off practice if you have teammates waiting for you to show."

"By this age," Fox adds, "we're all competing more against the clock than against each other, so everyone roots for everyone else."

Fox recently returned from the World Masters Track and Field Championships in Lyon, France, where she reached the finals in three individual events, took first place with Team USA's women's 4 x 400 relay and set American age-group records. Still, she doesn't see herself as being much different from any other masters competitor on the track.

"Whether you ran in high school, in college or just started last week, you can do this," she says. "Just start walking, then running. As long as you work toward small, steady gains you'll keep improving -- and you'll never need to hide your age."

MASTERS TRACK CLUBS

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Many local track clubs and running groups include masters runners among their members. A few, including the following, are especially active on the masters track circuit.

Bellmore Striders

PRACTICE Tuesday and Thursday nights, plus Sunday mornings.

INFO 516-652-3555, bellmorestriders.com

Northport Running Club

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PRACTICE 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays at Northport High School

INFO info@nrcrun.org, nrcrun.org

Second Wind Track Club

PRACTICE 8 a.m. Sundays in Sayville, call for directions

INFO 631-255-5211

We Are Athletes Racing Team

PRACTICE 7 p.m. Tuesdays at Farmingdale State College

INFO 516-728-4754, weareathletesracingteam.com

MORE INFO

For general information about Long Island track-and-field, cross-country and road racing, visit the Long Island Association of USA Track & Field at long-island.usatf.org