Thursday, October 20, 2011

Wait! I'm not too old to run?


Haile Gebrselassie. 38 and giving 2012 Olympics a last hurrah.
Two of my kids go to an awesome little Waldorf school in the Southside Chicago neighborhood of Pilsen. The school always has fun events and the harvest festival was no exception. One of the nice things about the events is the fact that you can lose your kids for long periods of time without panicking. As I walked around without my wife and kids, I bumped into a guy named John. I know his wife and this was the first time we had exchanged more than pleasantries. The conversation kicked off around Born to Run. I think my wife had told him that I had read it. We talked about all aspects of the book. Nothing new there. People who have read it can talk about it endlessly. He had once owned a house in Colorado and said that he felt that he had missed out because he had never seen the ultra-marathon runners. The conversation then somehow got to the fact that I was at the tail end of recovering from stress fractures. I threw out some flippant comment like "I guess I'm getting too old for this shit" and John quickly responded with "No way. You are peak age for an ultra distance runner." I didn't want to appear foolish, so I just nodded. My cool exterior did not reflect the reaction I was having inside which was more like... SAY WHAT!!??

When I got home, I jumped on the computer to turn to the Interwebs for the straight dope (honest truth). There are lots of arguments out there about peak age. There is no doubt that physical peak comes in the 20's but race maturity can add to physical prowess well into the 30's. After the 20's, the body starts to decline but scientists claim that it is not as dramatic as you would think for the average person. The change in performance is very significant for elite runners. Think of the way Haile Gebrselassie was in tears realizing that he had lost his edge last year. A small change in aerobic capacity or muscle can mean a loss of seconds and the loss of a winning career to an elite athlete. Most of us (thankfully) will never feel that because our margin of success isn't that fine. The good news is that there are elite's peaking late. Gebrselassie is one example and another is Constantina Tomescu-Dita, a Romanian mother who won the Beijing Olympic Marathon. I didn't find evidence that ultra folks peak later but there are lots of accounts of people claiming that age added confidence, strategy, efficiency and pain resistance. I could see how all of that could help win an ultra. There are clearly plenty of older folks out there. Marshall Ulrich is 60 and going strong. He said "I'm 20% slower, don't recover as quickly and am more susceptible to injuries -- but greater mental strength offsets it. I'm as tough as I've ever been, maybe tougher. I can manipulate and shift my mind in different ways". State of mind seems to be a big part of an ultra, so maybe John was right. Sometimes with these ultra races, it can come down to some very basic things. I love the story of Cliff Young, a 61 year old man who turned up to a 543.7 mile race from Sydney to Melbourne in overalls and work boots. He beat all the young elite runners with a simple strategy which was no sleep and guts. A few things to love about Cliff:
  • He honed his long distance running skills as a young man hearding sheep on foot because they couldn't afford horses or a tractor.
  • When he won the $10,000 prize, he gave it away to other runners. He said that he didn't know there was a prize. He did it for the challenge and love of running.
  • At age 76, he attempted to raise money for charity by running around Australia. After 6,520K, he pulled out because his one and only crew member fell ill.
The late, great Cliff Young

Cliff died in 2003 age 81. God bless you Cliff! Read a few more details here:

Here's a YouTube video about ultra-marathoners in their 60's:

This post came from a conversation about Born to Run, so I'll bring it full circle. I'll never forget a part of the book where Christpher McDougall quotes Caballo Blanco (Micah True) as saying something about how elderly Raramuri (the running tribe from the Copper Canyon in the Sierra Madre, Mexico) hike over huge elevations because nobody told them that they can't. Their society witnesses super human running accomplishments on a daily basis. It's easy to forget how much of running is all in the mind. As long as I don't plan on winning any major races, I am going to be very happy with my future runs. I have plenty of good years ahead of me. In fact, I am all the better for just starting because I haven't yet hit my personal best. Most people who have been running since they were kids have seen their best times already. I like the quote from Jason Karp, Ph.D., a coach in San Diego. "Runners who decide to get serious about the marathon at age 40 can easily continue setting PR's for years because they have so much room for improvement". Maybe I'll plan on an ultra in future. Who knows?


UPDATE TO POST – OCT 27
I just listened to a TED talk that Christopher McDougall was giving. He talked about research that shows that runners progress from a starting pace at age 19 to a peak pace at age 27. That's 8 years to progress to peak. The interesting thing is that when the body gets past peak, it takes 45 years to go back down to that pace. 64 year olds are running at the pace they ran when they were 19. That's pretty awesome! Check it out here:
http://www.ted.com/talks/christopher_mcdougall_are_we_born_to_run.html

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