Who Moved the Finish Line?
This post was originally written for Runner’s World in June of 2015
The author, Jim Braden, asked us if we would share his post with our blog readers…so here you go!
“Who moved the finish line?!” That was on the back of a runner’s T-shirt I was passing a few years ago. I remember it vividly because it was exactly what I had been thinking. The convention center, where the marathon finished, was so huge that it appeared much closer than it was; my finishing kick was finished, and I still had a quarter mile slog to the finish line.
I’m turning 80 soon, approaching the final finish line. I didn’t begin running until my late 30’s. I eventually became a committed life style runner. More than a decade ago I tumbled to a perspective which I have not yet seen articulated by others as I have experienced it: Let the negatives of declining performance go. Accept that it is inevitable. But you can retard the rate at which you would inexorably otherwise decline physically with age, by working hard to stay in the game as long and as hard as you can – becoming healthier longer than those who yield sooner to the increasing difficulty of staying in the game – a different dimension of competition.
The physical law of entropy is at work on our bodies: all structured systems, inorganic or organic, over time will deteriorate – even with maintenance – buildings, machines, cars, and yes people. The number of runners dropping out of organized US events (2013 – men) increases sharply after the peak 25-34 age group. Only 72% of that age group will run in the next ten year age group. Only 35% will run in the 45-54 age group; and only 20% of them will run in the 55-64 age group. The 65-74 age group will have only 5%, and the 75+ age group will have only 1.2%. (Running USA)
Older runners, has your pace been slowing down? Of course it has, on average by 3.5% for each five year age group (Runner’s World). Finding it harder to stay in the game? Life happens. The dominant priorities aside, Family and Work, the principle performance dynamic is that we inexorably are losing strength, muscle mass, as the years go by. About 10% of muscle mass will be lost by age 50, and by age 80 another 30% is lost. (Noakes, “The Lore of Running”). The over-arching problem with old age is inactivity. Muscles: use ‘em or lose ‘em! Every pound of muscle (lost) uses 6 calories daily (WebMD). Metabolism is slowing, tendons are less flexible, joints are less resilient, alveoli less efficient, plaque in the arteries, et.al. . . . . . Between age 70 and 80, muscle strength reduces by about 30% (Noakes). Oh, and your aerobic capacity, beginning in your 40’s, will thereafter diminish by about 10% per decade (Reynolds, “Why Runners Get Slower with Age”)…..These data represent the normal outcome.
But, why be normal?! Challenge this inevitable reduction in strength. Work hard to reduce the rate of loss in your physical performance as you grow older. Yield only as you must to reductions in both the volume and intensity of your running. Staying in the game becomes increasingly difficult, requiring increasing mental toughness. “Listen to your body” once served you well to keep you from the edge of injury or overtraining. But wait, sometime in your 50’s or 60’s, you realize it must be changed to “don’t listen to your body”; it now wants to be on the recliner at home.
Having peaked competitively in my 50’s, my focus shifted to how to slow this increasingly steeper decline in performance. Am I too old for this now? Is it time to back off, or quit? . . . . . No, eventually I decided, as a self-competitive runner, I will now succeed, stay in the game, by working hard to delay the rate of my physical decline as I get older. I will continue to have events on my calendar to provide a focus for my training, and I will continue to do strength work twice weekly at the fitness club. I like this sport: it’s a wonderful subculture. The driver has never been about winning anything, or competition. It’s simply a love of effort.
I think that I have succeeded somewhat at beating the ‘normal’ outcome of declining physical performance, anecdotal evidence including:
- The Houston Marathon has a local invited runner program. I was not even aware of it when running in my 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s. The year I turned 70, an age group friend of mine asked if I knew what the invited runner qualifying time was. I didn’t but, after the warmup series race, I looked it up. Surprise, I too had qualified. I assume that the qualifying criteria are constant across the ten year age groups. Whereas as a younger runner I never approached qualifying, I now could. My times had slowed over the years, but at a slower rate than those of many of my peers. I qualified again the next year. Thereafter I had slowed out of ever qualifying again.
- My marathon PR is 3:02, obtained when I was 52. My Houston Marathon time last January at age 79 was 4:34, which age grades to 2:53; a national PR by 9 minutes. Not really: My 3:02 PR 28 years ago age graded to a 2:40; but I am still running within 8% of that PR.
- I had planned to run my last marathon at Houston next January. Then I watched the recent Boston Marathon. There were only 10 guys 80+. I looked up the qualifying time for M80+: 4 hours 55 minutes. I had already qualified by about 20 minutes. So, Karen and I are off to Boston next April for my last marathon. As I have aged, I have been creeping under the qualifying times by increasing margins.
One can be very fit, yet not healthy. Runners experience injuries from time to time as we push ourselves. Injuries, however, usually heal. Yet by staying in the game through these injuries – and myriad other excuses to quit – we are to a degree holding off the degenerative diseases, the stuff with life expectancy implications, heart disease, dementia, diabetes, et.al – adding to our health as well as to our fitness. The literature teaches that generally we runners live just a few years longer; but we are healthier while we are alive. The American Heart Institute says that each hour of exercise adds two hours to our life (WebMD). The perspectives I presume to add here are:
- the benefits of working hard to stay in the game, as it becomes increasingly difficult, will be in some proportion to the effort made (duh);
- strength work, to reduce muscle loss, increases in importance as the years go by; and, especially,
- focus on obtaining the future benefits of better health longer rather than the negatives of declining performance.
Make your running experience even more interesting by committing to one or more end-game goals. Such as running 50 5K’s? 13 Half Marathons? With your daughter? 100 10K’s? Run Boston? And Comrades? Or Kona? A 10K in every Florida county? Fifty marathons by age 50? Target to become one of the age 70+ marathon runners? Whatever. . . . . . . . . Move the finish line!