Jose Mendez, 72, of Brentwood, crosses the finish line of...

Jose Mendez, 72, of Brentwood, crosses the finish line of the Massapequa Firecracker Lift and Run an unusual competition in which participants bench press their body weight (or a percentage of it, based on age) for as many repetitions as they can, and then compete in the 5K race. (June 26, 2011) Credit: Charles Eckert

'Come on, Joe! One more rep! You can do it."

Joe King grits his teeth, the strain showing on his furrowed brow. He lifts the bar off the rack. It's loaded with 115 pounds of weight. King lowers it to his chest, and as the knot of onlookers cheers him on, he slowly but steadily raises it up, fully extended, arm's length, for the 28th time.

"Yeah! Good job!"

The 62-year-old catering hall manager rises from the bench, acknowledging the high-fives and fist bumps from those around him, as another lifter takes his place.

"I trained like a demon for this," says King, who lives in Westbury. But the impressive lift sequence is only the first half of the competition. Now, he has to run a 5K (3.1-mile) road race.

He grins behind his bushy mustache. "Only event like it on Long Island!" he says.

Indeed, there is no other event like the Massapequa Road Runners' Lift N Run in Nassau-Suffolk; and few like it anywhere in the United States. The competition -- held in June this year in Massapequa Park -- is a combination bench press and road race. Participants deduct 10 seconds for each successful lift from their finish time in the Massapequa 5K Firecracker run that follows. There are winners in each age group, and overall winners for the men and women.

So, the overall winners must have a combination of power and endurance. Over the past few years, there's been an added twist that has yielded some unexpected and somewhat controversial results: The winners of the Lift N Run have been a combination of the strongest, the swiftest -- and, surprisingly, the oldest.

In the 2010 edition of the event, the man who finished first was 71. The first woman was 62. This, in a competition for anyone 18 or older, in which about 100 men and women compete. So, imagine an open sport competition, in any sport, in which the winners are among the oldest in the field -- that's how unusual this was.

And 2010 was the second consecutive year it happened. What was unpredictable was the reaction from younger competitors. Race director and Lift N Run founder Alex Flyntz was on the receiving end of complaints from athletes in their 40s about what they felt was an unfair advantage for that year's winner, Don Potenza of Northport.

"It was kind of funny, when you think about it," said Flyntz, 69. "Younger guys complaining that the older guys were getting an unfair break."

When Flyntz conceived the event in 1998, he decided to give older competitors a handicap in the lift. The 18- to 29-year-olds had to lift 100 percent of their body weight. Those 30-39 were required to lift 90 percent of their body weight; 40-49-year-olds were benching 80 percent; 50-59 lifted 70 percent; 60-69 pressed 60 percent. However, Flyntz decided that men 70 and older would lift only 40 percent of their body weight.

That handicap for the older men's age group was, Flyntz now admits, "a number we kind of pulled out of thin air. We weren't really expecting any 70-year-old to do this [event], except maybe as a novelty."

(For women, the handicap percentages were greater, reflecting the difference in upper-body strength between men and women. For example, women 70 and older were required to lift only 20 percent of their body weight.)

But things have changed. For more than a decade, older adults have heard about the importance of lifting weights. The U.S. Department of Health's physical activity guidelines now specifically recommend that older adults should do resistance training regularly to help offset age-related loss of muscle mass, improve bone density and balance, and help maintain functional strength.

Those who have heeded the advice are strong enough to slam the Lift N Run, as Potenza did last year, and lift 40 percent of their body weight for 90 reps with ease.

And it's not just the men, either.

Abby Gonzalez of Dix Hills had been an aerobics instructor for a dozen years when she heard about the Lift N Run, three years ago. "I said, 'Betcha I can come in first,' " Gonzalez recalls. "And I did." Not once. Not twice. But three times: In this year's competition, the now-63-year-old Gonzales -- who had not been a competitive runner before becoming involved with the Lift N Run -- performed 89 repetitions, then ran the 5K in 27:05, to win the women's field again. Her net time was 12:15, after her lifts were calculated, and the 890 seconds were deducted.

This year, in response to the complaints, Flyntz adjusted the weight reduction for ages 70 and older to appease the younger competitors. For the 2011 Lift N Run, the older guys had to pump 50 percent of their body weight.

It worked -- to an extent. The winner of this year's event was 41-year-old Michael Froese of Wantagh, who completed 40 reps of 110 pounds (80 percent of his body weight) and then ran a speedy 18:41 time (12:01 net) in the Firecracker 5K. But Gonzalez successfully defended her title against women much younger.

Showing that building strength and endurance is within the grasp of a wide range of the population, wheelchair competitor Peter Hawkins, 47, of Malverne also finished among the top scorers, as he bench-pressed 125 pounds for 32 reps and then pushed his way through a 13:52 time (8:32 net) in the 5K.

(Also worth noting is that Potenza was not there to defend his title because of a schedule conflict. Who knows what may happen if he returns in shape next year? A 73-year-old winner may be in this event's future.)

Still, for many of the older competitors, what started out as an oddball or curiosity event has now become the focus of their training year -- or at least an annual tradition.

"I've been running for 30 years, and I needed something different," said Alan End, 67, of Plainview, who began lifting a few years ago specifically to train for the Lift N Run. This year, he took second in his age group.

"It's fun. I've done it before," says Jose Mendez, 72, a longtime competitive runner from Brentwood, who admits that, government guidelines or no, he still doesn't spend much time in the gym. "I don't train for it," he admitted, after squeezing out just seven reps of 75 pounds (50 percent of his body weight). "But who knows? Maybe this will motivate me."

King, who finished third in his age group, completed 28 repetitions of the bench press and then ran the 5K in 27 minutes (about a nine-minute-per-mile pace). Deducting 10 seconds from that time for each of his successful reps comes out to 280 seconds, or a little less than five minutes, for a net time of 22 minutes, 22 seconds.

He said he has no sympathy for the younger lifters who don't like the advantage given to the older competitors. After all, he says with a laugh, "They're young! Why should we feel sorry for them?"