Sarah's essay about aging and running speed originally appeared in Tales from Another Mother Runner. She wrote the essay in the summer of 2014; she went on to qualify for the Boston Marathon in a time of 3:56:54 that fall. We're running it today as she's entering a new decade tomorrow (i.e., it's her birthday!).
Because it’s mid-July here in Portland, sunlight sneaks through our bedroom blinds even though it’s only 5:30 in the morning. I slowly open my often-creaky closet door in hopes of not waking my husband, Jack, or our light-sleeping, early rising son, John, whose bedroom is closest to ours. It’s week five of training for the Victoria, B.C., marathon, and my coach has prescribed a fifty-minute run with some fartlek speedwork sprinkled into the otherwise-comfortable running pace. Five bursts of thirty-second intensity, then four repeats of two minutes of tempo effort. In an already challenging training plan that stretches out another three months, it’s a four on a one-to-ten scale of tough.
I slip on a patterned running skirt just as Miller, our tabby cat, starts nudging my lower legs in hopes of getting fed. In one motion, I turn around and bend to pet him. When I stand back up, I’m greeted by my reflection in the full-length mirror on the back of the open closet door.
Slats of sunlight illuminate my save-for-the-skirt naked body. When, I wonder, did my barely B-cup breasts acquire the ability to hold a pencil under them? Even after breastfeeding all three of my children, my boobs had still held their own in the upright category. Now, I notice, they are melting down my ribs.
I rotate for a profile view. My stomach strains the skirt’s waistband. My belly was always my least-favorite part of my 5’ 11” body, but my loathing of it has only intensified since becoming a mother. After the birth of my older daughter, now twelve, I’d committed myself to twice-weekly Pilates classes. The Boat Poses, Hundreds, and other challenging, core-centric exercises finally had given my abs a wee bit of definition. For the first time since my early teens, I hadn’t had to furiously suck in my gut at the pool.
Then I got pregnant with twins, and the duo did a number on those muscles, stretching them before they were sliced by the OB/GYN’s scalpel. Despite now taking a barre-inspired class every Tuesday and Thursday, which serves up a fair share of strenuous ab work, I’ve lost hope of ever getting rid of my gut. Being launched into early menopause only made matters worse. As I stand gaping at my paunch, the term “menopot” springs to mind.
I slip a Saucony bra over my head to scoop up my heading-south chesticals, and numbers flitter through my mind. I’ve always had a good memory and a head for dates, which translates into being able to easily recall my race times. Plus, I work hard for my results, so I like having them handy in my back pocket to bolster my sports ego when it flags or, yes, to #humblebrag occasionally. At age forty-three, I set all my big personal bests. A 1:46 half-marathon, 3:52 for the marathon, and equally speedy-for-me times in the 5K and 10K. Times that were, save for the half-marathon, the fastest in my life — not just that decade. I sigh, which only makes my bulging belly swell even more. I contemplate my current marathon goal — less than four hours — as I struggle to hook the bra’s clasp. It was the number I strove for throughout my thirties, when I first starting running 26.2-mile races.
My finish times of my previous ten marathons have mostly danced around the four-hour mark. A 4:03 in my debut marathon as a divorced-with-no-kids thirty-two-year-old. A 4:01 at age thirty-six, fourteen months after giving birth to our older daughter. The same time in the super-hilly Big Sur Marathon after training with a coach at age forty-four. A Boston-qualifying 3:59:54 later that same year.
After being sidelined with plantar fasciitis for roughly four months the next year, however, my times dramatically slowed down: 4:43 in the (record-hot) Boston Marathon and 4:08 in the Twin Cities 26.2. Going half the distance didn’t help matters much: In the blink of an eye, it seemed, my half-marathon finish times all clustered around 1:58 or 1:59. No matter how hard I pushed over the course of the 13.1 miles, I barely squeaked in under two hours.
While my foot was hobbled with PF, my uterus had stepped out of line, deciding to bleed almost as often as it didn’t. That summer was a sea of red that suddenly parted that autumn, leaving me without a period for almost a year. Just before I crossed the finish line into menopause (which is vaguely and frustratingly defined as the cessation of menstruation for twelve months), my period made a brief appearance, never to be seen again. I hadn’t been hit hard with many menopausal symptoms like hot flashes or dry lady-parts, but I didn’t need an M.D. to connect the dots between menopause and tougher times, both physically and mentally, in races.
I was embarrassed to have gone into early menopause — psychologically, it made me feel like a senior citizen when it often seems like high school was years, not decades, ago. No one else needed to know I was now barren, but I knew, and I felt it as I hoofed around our neighborhood. Early menopause was like a banana peel I’d slipped on as I progressed along the aging-process path.
Even as I’m learning to cope with my menopot and all the other issues “The Change” brings, I have to acknowledge the main reason I’m slowing down: age. I could lose weight and regain some speed. (For every pound lost, studies suggest a runner can go two seconds faster per mile. Over the course of a marathon, losing five pounds would translate to finishing four minutes, twenty-two seconds faster; dropping ten pounds would shave almost nine minutes off the clock!) And I could redouble my effort at strengthening my core (recently, when I bemoaned my belly, Dimity suggested I hammer out a plank a day), and probably gain some seconds there. But I love desserts too much to drop any pounds and planking as I focus on my kids’ candy wrappers under our basement couch just isn’t going to happen. The hard truth is, like all us mother runners, I’m getting older. Sigh.
According to World Masters Athletics, runners slow about seven percent per decade in their forties, fifties and sixties. (The decline is even more precipitous beyond that point.) In addition to having no head for science, I’m lousy at math, but good ol’ Google tells me that means adding 4.2 minutes for every hour of race time for my golden 4:00 marathon. Right there, in one decade, is about seventeen additional minutes. Ouch.
In my thirties and even early forties, any start-of-run sluggishness disappeared by the time my GPS beeped out the first mile. In my mid-forties, I needed to get two miles under my legs before they felt decent; now that I’m forty-eight, I feel slow and lumbering until mile three. A 10:30- or 10:15-pace in those first few miles feels as strenuous as an 8:45 felt in my twenties or 9:15 felt in my thirties. It’s demoralizing and daunting.
These days, once my engine gets moderately warm, it takes more effort to make it rev. My hips seem less willing to let my legs drive forward and back with sufficient intensity; my knees sometimes suddenly seem to zig when the rest of my body zags. (And now they cr-cr-creak whenever I squat to sit on the toilet.) If I stop too suddenly at an intersection, my glutes occasionally seize up. Even my stinking hammertoe — my curled-under, pork-rind of a little right toe — shrieks louder and more frequently during runs than it did even just a year ago.
For most of 2013, a year scattered with half-marathons but no 26.2s, I started to accept the fact I was almost a card-carrying AARP member. Running runDisney races made the I-am-getting-woefully-slower reality a bit easier to accept because those full-of-photo-ops races aren’t about the time on the clock. I told myself my 2:15 at the 2013 Tinker Bell was because of posing with Mrs. Incredible and Aladdin, but when I was honest with myself, I admitted it was because I didn’t have the juice to go faster.
Reluctant to stare down a start line knowing my finish time would only make me feel geriatric, not jaunty, I didn’t race much in the spring and summer of 2013. Meanwhile, in “real” life, I kidded myself that the thatch of white hairs at my part blended in with my blonde highlights. As the months flew by, the furrow between my eyebrows became almost deep enough to plant a row of carrots.
As fall approached, a quick backwards-count on the calendar told my running partner, Molly, and me it was time to start training for our mid-January half-marathons. I was headed back to Disneyland for Tinker Bell, and Molly was running a small, tabletop-flat local race that promised fast times with diligent training. Despite my belief I no longer possess what it takes to fly, I jumped on a moderately aggressive training program to support Molly.
For the first time in more than a year, I put my nose to the workout grindstone. Tempo runs, intervals, and hill repeats. (I only remember where the big hills in our neighborhood are located because I’d been avoiding them for eighteen months!) My lungs heave, my quads ache, and my head feels a bit fuzzy after the bursts of exertion. But I also am exhilarated when Molly and I run 400-meter repeats at the recently refurbished high school track in 1:58s, then 1:55s, then 1:52s. We hit the track every Monday morning and do tempo runs every Wednesday. The more intense workouts restrict the flow of conversation, making me realize our runs over the past year had become in-motion gab sessions, not speed-honers.
One December morning, as heavy clouds obliterate the early morning light, Molly and I are running the second of two two-mile tempo segments on a neighborhood street where the only inclines are speed bumps. We’d agreed we’d each run our own pace, and in the second mile, I am nearly two blocks ahead of Molly. My strides are relaxed and smooth, a gazelle-like sensation I hadn’t felt in several years. At the end of the two miles, a smile creeps across my face between shallow, rapid breaths.
“You have newfound speed, Sarah,” Molly pants. “You should run a race before Tinker Bell to see what you can really do.”
For the next few days, Molly’s comment bumps around in my brain. While I love running in a crowd of tutus, I needed fewer runners and cooler temps to know what I was capable of on a race course. With an abbreviated, four-day taper, I toe the start line of a holiday-themed half-marathon, replete with a green-and-red felt Christmas tree quilt pinned to the back of my running vest. Surrounded by runners decked out in fuzzy reindeer antlers and candy-cane-striped knee socks, I am optimistic.
I give myself an unstructured time goal — closer to 1:50 than 1:55 — to allow my pace to be fluid, rather than laser-beam precise. This race is about seeing what I have left in my legs, not fretting if varicose veins are developing on them. By mile two, I surprise myself with how comfortable and controlled an 8:35 pace feels. I only occasionally glance at my GPS, choosing to run by perceived exertion; I’m aiming for a six or seven on a one-to-ten scale. I pay careful attention to fueling and hydration — Nuun and a GU at miles four, eight, and eleven — because gone are the days of winging it in a race.
The excitement of the crowd and seeing friends along the course carries me through mile ten. I dig a little deeper, and I spot runners to pass. My limbs feel surprisingly supple and cooperative, and I am able to maintain a brisk pace. In the final mile, the thrill of picking off runners, some of them firm of flesh and young of age, makes my steps feel a little lighter. Or maybe it’s the slight downhill to the finish. Either way, my finish time is 1:53:12. Closer to 1:55 than I’d hoped, but an online search later tells me it’s the fastest half-marathon I’ve run in more than three years. Menopot or no, my mother runner legs still have a spark.
Now, in the July morning light with Miller meowing insistently, I pull on my grey-and-pink badass mother runner hat, and I stare at my reflection one final time. I know many challenging workouts — much closer to the “ten” end of the exertion scale than the "one" side — await me during the next few months of marathon prep. A sly smile creeps across my face. Sure, I have laugh lines and need reading glasses, but I also know with age comes wisdom. I am wise — and old — enough to know I have a few more good and speedy years left in this body.
What's your attitude on aging? Pros? Cons? We want to hear all of it below.