Late Bloomer Jocks - Older Women Runners Train Hard and Run Fast

10 years ago

Last month, our prolific and much admired Contributing Editor for Travel, the witty and lovely Pam Mandel, offered an opposing view in her comment to a blog post where I got all jiggy in extolling the virtues and benefits of aging.

I crowed: "...let go of your irrational fears of aging."

And, reminded readers of the obvious: "...aging is far superior and definitely preferable to its grim and final alternative."

Pam responded with her typical candor:

Having embarked upon the annual exams and suffered the requisite indignities, I vote no to aging...The brain works FINE, thank you very much, but the body? At the crest of the hill, she doth protest too much. I ain't saying there's not plenty of good living to be had, but oy, my back, knees, etc. amen.

I didn't comment on Pam's remarks because really, what could I say? The girlfriend has a point. My body, not unlike Pam's, is whining and bitching. She has lots to bitch about - bursitis in the left knee, a weird pulling sensation in the right hip, bad mojo in the lower back. My once strain-free body never experienced such maladies until turning 50 two years ago. And, because of these maladies, my body and I had to defer from running not only the 2006 New York City Marathon, but this year's race, as well.

In spite of the disappointment in missing the glorious New York City Marathon once again, hope springs eternal for this aging jock. I've eased back my running regimen considerably and I hope to get back to racing in 5Ks and 10Ks this winter. I've been working on strengthening my knee, hip and back with yoga and resistance training. I'm determined to give running another shot.

A recent article by Gina Kolata of the New York Times shined a ray of hope on my ambitions. The thesis of Kolata's piece, "See Jane Run. See Jane Run Faster and Faster", is that older (over 40) women runners are more focused in their training and many of these dedicated racers out-run their younger competitors. Kolata's observations:

Men, as might be expected, get slower as they age. At a recent five-kilometer race in Pine Beach, N.J....the fastest man was 24 years old and the men’s times increased with each five-year age group.

But the women were different — their times were all over the place with older women beating younger women in almost every age category. The fastest woman was 37 years old; the fastest woman in the 45 to 49 age group beat the fastest woman in the 20 to 24 and the 40 to 44 age groups.

The same thing happened in another five-kilometer local race, the Eden Family Run, in Princeton, N.J.

There, the top female runner in the 50 to 54 age group beat the top females in the 20 to 24, 25 to 29, and 40 to 44 age groups.

And it’s not just a New Jersey effect. Others have noticed it elsewhere and when I did a random check of race results in California, I saw it there too. On Aug. 8, in a 10-kilometer race in Alameda, the 53-year-old woman who won in the 50 to 54 age group was faster than the woman who won in the 25 to 29 group. A 38-year-old woman beat every other woman in the race.

What does this mean? Why are these middle aged women gliding past the 25 year olds?

When posing this question to experts, Kolata learned what might separate the mindset and abilities between younger and older runners:

(1) Many older women could care less if someone is watching them do their pre-workout stretching routines . However, such lunging and reaching may be inhibiting for some younger women:

Mary Wittenberg, president of New York Road Runners, thinks part of the answer is that most female runners shortchange themselves. Look at them before races she said. Men warm up and do strides, short runs to prepare to take off at the starting line. A lot of women hang back, often because they are embarrassed to be out there with the men, acting like determined athletes, Ms. Wittenberg said.

“They are too inhibited to put their full passion out there,” she said. “They are almost afraid to be serious about a sport. They think that if they’re not the best, they shouldn’t care so much.”

(2) The older female runner simply puts more into her training:

Ralph Vernacchia, who directs the Center for Performance Excellence at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash., has worked with elite runners including Olympians. And with elite runners, there is no question about competitive drive.

But with average runners, he said, older women may be faster because, oddly enough, they are trying harder than younger women and discovering for the first time what they are capable of.

(3) And, as Coach Vernacchia explains further, older female runners are perhaps more inspired by their athletic pursuits:

Most middle-aged women grew up when track and cross-country teams were for men only. Some of those women, who had no opportunity to race when they were young, are just learning to be athletes and are running faster than younger women who may not care as much.

He described the experience for women as “a kind of wakening, an epiphany.”

Sophie Speidel, a 44 year old ultramarathoner ("ultra" marathoners run on courses longer than the 26.2 miles of the traditional marathon), who just started her running blog,
Shining's Ultra Blog, recalled the NYTimes article upon completing the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club Women's Half-Marathon (WHM):

I was marveling at how fast the ladies in the 40-45 age group were (this is my age group, of course). I had just read this interesting article in the New York Times about women runners getting faster as they get older, and the WHM not only confirms the author's observations about speed, but also about embracing competition: when women are given opportunities to be competitive in a supportive environment like the WHM, they can shed their inhibitions about being passionate and can find physical, emotional, and spiritual energy they never knew previously.

However, commenters on the group blog, Mother Talkers, took issue with the article's premise that younger women don't try hard enough. From the post, Women Runners:

I don't buy the notion that younger women, who grew up in a post-Title IX world, would be so self-conscious. My theory is that younger women are in life-building mode. They are putting together a lifestyle, relationships and careers. They've got a lot going on and are less likely to focus on any one thing. Not that we older women don't have a lot going on, but our lives are more settled and it is easier to put ourselves into the single-minded training mode when we want to.

Asthanga practitioner, yogamum of yoga gumbo, also agrees that it's not about inhibition or a lack of rigorous training on the part of younger women, but that older women have identified and set their priorities:

The Times reporter suggests that perhaps younger women are too intimidated by the idea of setting goals and positioning themselves as an athlete to train as hard. Personally, none of the 20-something women I know seem to be intimidated by sports; I think it’s more likely that the 40-something women have gone through the process of winnowing down their attention and energies, and have decided that running is one of the things that really matters to them. It took me until my late 30’s to realize that it might be better to choose to do one or two things really well than to keep trying — and failing — to do it all. Maybe the same phenomenon applies to women runners.

I concur with yogamum - at this point in my life, I have narrowed my interests and participate in fewer physical endeavors, focusing on what I enjoy and do well. There was a time when I did try to do almost everything - wind surfing, SCUBA, rock and ice climbing, sailing, downhill and cross country skiing. My closets were heaving with sports equipment and every weekend I was away on some adventure.

I was also reckless as a younger athlete. I skied as if I had a death wish, schussing headlong down crevasses in the High Sierras. I trained for no more than two months for a race, but would still manage to finish with an easy 7-minute mile pace.

Both the gully skiing and 7-minute mile elude me in my 50s. And I don't trip over skis and SCUBA tanks in my storage areas. However, I now possess deeper concentration, awareness and even a sense of reverence when I put my physical abilities to the test. My sense of accomplishment in finishing a race is far greater and more precious than it was 25 years ago. It makes sense to me that if I integrate the focus and the inspiration, this would readily translate into harder training and, maybe, running past a few 30 year olds.

But first, I have to ice my knee.

*******************

I would be remiss if I did not mention two blogs of accomplished over-40 women athletes:

One of the greatest American rock climbers of all time and a hero of mine and many, the magnificent athlete Lynn Hill, writes an "expert" blog on rock climbing at the Saturn Motors site for weekend warriors, Detour.com. She covers a lot of ground, both on the vertical and horizontal planes, and reports on her climbs, the environment, her young son Owen, and women's issues.

Run...here...now is the beautiful ultramarathon blog from Sarah of Oregon, whose training and races I've followed since discovering her site last year. Sarah's photographs of her trail runs and races are vivid and stunning. She keeps her mileage stats on her sidebar and, at this writing, Sarah has run 1,329 miles this year.

That's a lot of miles. Pass that ice pack, again, would you?

Aging athlete Grace Davis runs, conducts a yoga practice, pumps a moderate amount of iron, wrangles a Jack Russell Terrier and mothers a teenager in Santa Cruz, California. She uses her personal blog, State of Grace as a repository for numerous complaints about exercise induced aches and pains as well as equally numerous parenting woes.

This is an article written by a member of the SheKnows Community. The SheKnows editorial team has not edited, vetted or endorsed the content of this post. Want to join our amazing community and share your own story? Sign up here.
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