getting older does not necessarily mean you can’t improve
Recently I ran my 36th marathon, in my third-fastest marathon time. I report this not (only) because I am happy about it, but because I am approaching my mid-50s, and I want it to be known that getting older does not automatically, in and of itself, mean getting slower. For well over a decade now I have harbored the belief that it may still be possible to set a new personal record (PR), in spite of the inexorable progression from age group to age group. I have run since I was a kid, but I didn’t start registering and racing until my late 30s, in what felt like an eleventh hour scramble before I hit 40 and became a “master,” which many sources suggested would likely mark the end of improvement and the rapid and inevitable slowing of my pace (and, for that matter, of everything else). When 40 didn’t seem to mark the end of life as I knew it, I was assured that 50 probably would. But that, apparently, is simply not true. I still have the potential to get better and to achieve goals — running goals, and other kinds of goals as well.
I set my long-standing marathon PR on my 41st birthday, about two years along in my foray into racing. I ran for decades but had only ventured into the marathon distance as a bandit in Boston, at age 20, and again (faster) at age 21. As my youngest child made her way out of diapers and the era of being pregnant, nursing, not sleeping and generally being immersed in caring for babies came to an end, I decided that qualifying and running Boston as an official entrant would be a good way to reclaim my body and give me a little “me time” to balance out all the mothering. I signed up to run the Portland Marathon and started — in my own disorganized and unprofessional way — training. In a few short months I was fitter, stronger and healthier than I had ever been in my life.
That first year I needed a 3:45 to qualify for Boston. I ran Portland, my first “official” marathon, in 3:35:43, qualifying for Boston with 10 minutes to spare. As with my bandit runs, I finished feeling like I could probably have done that at least a little faster. Maybe if I really trained…. Unfortunately my first official Boston Marathon was something of a train wreck; a compounding of stress and injury and traveling with babies and general exhaustion that resulted in a very disappointing finish. Luckily for me, my Portland time was also a valid qualifier for the following year in Boston (they did it differently back then), so I had a second shot. I ran a lot and would probably have set my all-time PR in that race, had I been able to outrun the stomach bug my kids had been passing to each other for a couple of weeks prior. Instead, I ran a smokin’ fast ~17 miles and then spent the rest of the race visiting every available bathroom facility along the remainder of the course, followed by approximately 36 hours of gastrointestinal misery rather than celebration.
Intent on redemption, I signed up for an obscure little race in South Dakota, planned a significant road trip with an old running buddy, and set out to re-qualify and go back to Boston. At this point I had entered the dreaded “Masters” category and was unsure whether getting faster was really a possibility. Race morning was a comic fiasco: I overslept, missed the bus to the start (my friend got me there by following what appeared to be a bus — hopefully the correct bus — into the total darkness of the Black Hills) and was not quite at the starting line when the gun went off. I had to dash through a parking lot and start some 30 seconds behind everyone else (and this was a gun-time-only race; no electronic timing). The first few miles were adrenaline-fueled sprinting, with the voice in my head yelling to slow the hell down because I was going to burn myself out in the first 10 miles. Then something startling occurred. As I passed through an aid station around Mile 9, one of the volunteers pointed at me and shouted: “ELEVEN!” What? Eleven was not my bib number. I had no idea what he meant. Somewhere past the half-way point my friend was waiting to cheer me on. “You’re doing great!” she said, “I think you’re tenth!” Even though it was clear what she was saying I was still confused. Tenth? In the whole race? Me?
I am not fast. I do not win races. I’m not a top-ten kind of runner. I held these truths to be self-evident, and yet here it seemed I was somehow hovering near the front of the marathon pack. Granted, this was a small race — less than 150 people, all women — but even so, it seemed like I should be more like 45th, or maybe 39th, tops. Nevertheless, people continued holding up fingers and yelling numbers at me at aid stations, and I started to pay attention: if I am really in 10th place, then if I can catch up and pass someone I will be 9th, and if someone passes me I will be out of the top ten…. As soon as I started thinking this way (of course) someone passed me, but now I was focused on this novelty of potentially placing well, and I began keeping count and making the effort to catch up with the next person and pass her.
Incidentally, I ran the Olympic marathon when I was 11. That is, on “Greek Day” in Sixth Grade, after we had presented reports while dressed up as our chosen god or goddess and probably enjoyed some other educational activities I don’t remember, we ditched our togas and the entire grade assembled out on the field to watch select class representatives compete in various athletic events. There was sprinting and jumping and I believe the throwing of objects, culminating in what was billed as the marathon: a race that started on the track and then went off through some woods, around other fields and a school building or two, finally returning for a triumphant finish somewhere near the start. It can’t have been more than two miles, but it seemed incomprehensibly far. I don’t recall what went through my head as I raised my hand to volunteer for this event, but I do remember how it felt to emerge from the trees and run around the track to a cheering crowd. I finished third.
The experience left an impression for two reasons. One was that I won my cardboard-bronze medal without any serious effort — I just ran the distance, without really pushing or any notable discomfort, and finished faster than everyone except two girls who were generally recognized as athletes, or at least as “good at sports.” [It should be noted that this was almost 10 years before there was an actual Olympic marathon for women, so we had no point of reference.] They were competitive girls, coordinated, among the first picked for teams in gym class. I was not. I wasn’t picked last, either, but generally in the upper region of the middle. Not a standout, but solidly above average. This was my natural comfort zone. I had no drive to win, to beat anyone, to prove anything, and to say that I shied away from the attention associated with competing and potentially failing is an understatement: would never put myself out there like that.
I aspired to respectable mediocrity — the goal being simply to blend in and avoid the humiliation of being really bad. So I was startled by the thoughts I had after this race: I could have run much faster; I maybe could have won…
It was something my teacher said at the end of our Greek Day festivities, however, that had more impact on me than my own notion that maybe I could be good at running. With a sidelong glance and half-smile he made a remark about some of his students having hidden talents. I don’t even remember exactly what he said, but he was clearly both surprised and impressed, and his comment was directed at me. I realize this does not sound momentous at all, but it was, because while it was exactly the same idea that had crossed my mind at the end of the race, this time it was coming from someone else. And not just any someone, but an adult; an authority figure; someone whose opinion mattered; someone whose approval I desperately wanted and — in spite of all evidence to the contrary — did not believe I would ever earn.
Why I believed I would never be good enough to warrant attention and approval is another story, and since I’m writing about running I will simply say that this pervasive belief was stronger than the glimmer of possibility my Olympic experience provided. I went on to be a mediocre track and cross country runner in high school and barely even tried to run at the collegiate level. Then at 41 I finished that South Dakota race in 9th place, with a time of 3:31:20, and was awarded the age group win (but only because the woman who actually won my age group also came in second place overall, so was given a different award). As I mentioned, this was on my birthday, and the whole thing seemed like a glorious anomaly that would remain above and beyond any subsequent achievement. Marathon personal record; top ten finish; happy birthday to me!
A thing I noticed after this run: people congratulated me with comments like “you make it look easy.” As I ventured out to join group runs and track workouts around town, these comments continued: “you’re a natural athlete,” “you run like a gazelle,” “you have talent.” I persisted in thinking these remarks were simply friendly — nice people trying to be encouraging — even while recalling my 30-year-old bronze medal. I started signing up for local races and amassing age group awards, and I also began to feel the pressure of expectation: now that I had done well a few times, I felt like people would notice if I didn’t. This was a new thing for me. I was quite sure no one actually cared how I did, but I felt like I had to make an effort — to perform — and gradually I realized that was because someone did care. That someone was me. I began to imagine that maybe, if I actually applied myself and trained and tried — if I put myself out there — I could be a good runner. This idea was terrifying.
I was faced with a whole new reality and a couple of ponderous What Ifs: what if, I had been encouraged and pushed like this all along? What could I have achieved back in my teens and twenties and thirties? I recognize that this is a pointless and somewhat toxic line of thinking, because those decades are well behind me and that’s not how things went. The other What If, though is this: what if, even now, I have not yet reached my full potential as a runner? Could I go faster? Maybe. Could I go farther? Definitely — I had wanted to try an ultra for a long time, so I the year after my marathon PR I ran a 50-mile race, did pretty well, loved it, and started dreaming about running 100s.
And so here I am, well into my 50s, running 100-mile ultras and actively chasing a new marathon PR. I am on a women’s running team and part of a very supportive and encouraging community. I’ll never know how fast I maybe could have run in the past, but I do know that it doesn’t matter: I can find out how fast I can run now. Maybe I will never run a marathon faster than I did on my 41st birthday, but maybe I will. Maybe I will achieve all kinds of things I have only dreamed about thus far. It’s not too late.