JOHN Emmett Farrell is 87 - but he is contemplating a sporting debut today.

The grand old man of Scottish athletics, winner of the Scottish cross-country titles in 1938 and '48, and holder of several world age-group records, will break new ground if he goes to the start of the 1500 metres in the British Veterans' championships at the Kelvin Hall.

''I've never run indoors before, so I'm a bit apprehensive. It will be like going to the gallows,'' he said. ''I run only for constitutional reasons now, but a pal has entered me, and I may not resist temptation.''

Farrell is one of a lovable - some would say enviable - group of eccentrics who have placed Father Time on hold by their hobby. ''There's a child inside all of us, a wee Peter Pan, trying to get out. Through veteran athletics, thankfully, he sometimes succeeds, even though anno domine has put lead in our heels,'' said Farrell.

''I love running. You escape the claustrophobia of the city and the world's pressures, but it is difficult to accept that, when once you could run for several miles at inside five-minute-mile pace, you now struggle to do one mile in 10 minutes.''

Surprisingly, not all those for whom veteran life begins at 40 (35 for women) and contested in five-year age groups, find they slow with age. Dr Stephen Peters, who is 43, ran the fastest times of his life last year: 100m in 11.26sec; 200 in 22.23; and 400 in 50.22, winning the European 40-plus titles in Malmo at each distance.

These were improvements on the times that won him gold two years earlier in Athens. When he was overlooked as the second and third were ushered to dope-testing, Peters, a lecturer in medicine at Sheffield University, was indignant.

''They don't need to test you - one look at your puny shoulders tells you can't be on drugs,'' he was informed. ''I am quite skinny,'' concedes Peters, who took up the sport in his late 20s, training only once a week until he was 38.

''I was never that good as a youngster, never ran faster than 11.7 for 100m until I became a vet. I'd stepped up from one session a week to two at 38 in anticipation of being 40.''

He was involved in a car crash seven years ago and broke a knee. ''Before that, I could barely crack 54 seconds for 400m.'' Now he has his sights on the UK outdoor record of 49.7. He already has the European 200m record.

British Olympian Curtis Robb, one of his students, persuaded Peters to work with him. ''Recently, I've trained every second day - any more and I get injured. I don't take it seriously. It's a laugh, win or lose.''

Sometimes the laugh is on others. As he went to the start of the sprint final at an open meeting, a 19-year-old whippersnapper gasped incredulously: ''You're not running?''

Peters nodded, and the younger man put his arm around his shoulders and offered advice: ''Just treat it as an experience.'' It was indeed an experience, a salutary one for the young man, for Peters won the event!

Mary Wixey is 76, and competes today in the 60m, which she has won every year since the first British veteran event 14 years ago. Mary gave up teaching to nurse her mother, who lived to be 100, having won county titles as a young woman, but she had been out of the sport for 20 years.

The world 60m record holder indoors, she won the long and triple jumps with European records last year in Sweden, as well as bronze in the 100m and high jump, and has entered six events today.

There are several overseas entries, many warming up for next weekend's European event in Birmingham. Among them is Allan Muir, from Boston, whose trip has included a visit to the Forth Bridge under which his father flew a B-17 during World War II.

European 800m bronze medallist Alastair Dunlop, a Stornoway teacher whose only training ground is the Heb-ridean machar, has no rematch with Scotland's double Commonwealth finalist Paul Forbes today, but the pair should meet next weekend.

Also entered in Birmingham is 63-year-old Rosemary Chrimes. As Rosemary Payne she won discus gold for Scotland at the 1970 Commonwealth Games, and in 1989 set four world records in less than four hours at the UK veteran event.

Old habits, like old athletes, are hard to overcome.