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Coming of Age: a Tale of Aging and Running Speed

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!). 

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Last year, my best running friend, Molly, made me run with a helium balloon tied around my waist on my birthday. Because that's what friends are for.

 

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.

Doing PT last summer. Saucony Impulse Shorts + Another Mother Runner sweatshirt hide my menopot!

 

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.

Always there to give encouragement: Molly (orange hat) and me after 16-mile run last Saturday.
Always there to give encouragement: Molly (orange hat) and me after 16-mile run last Saturday.

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.

Post holiday race, confidence back and Santa medal in hand.

 

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.

 

 

19 responses to “Coming of Age: a Tale of Aging and Running Speed

  1. I too found this very inspiring when I first read it. And then the other day I had a huge aha moment. I’ve been struggling getting back to running after a couple of months of being sick and then exhausted with a crazy schedule not at home and at work. But I realized the other night that part of the issue is that it’s taking me s very long time to get warmed up. Do much do that I keep giving up on my long runs even really I need to be waiting it out.

  2. Very inspirational for me. My PR’s are similar also in my early 40’s. 3:46 in 2005 running Boston in 2006 And was fast enough to re-qualify every year after up until getting married in 2009. Developed planter that year myself and was a
    Long recovery. I’ve managed to finally run 1:49 , 1:50,1:51 and 1:52 half’s but my fastest full is 4:02 and last spring a 4:08 on a hilly course. I am training now for Rome but it’s been tough in MN to get some decent runs in and getting the crud and flu recently hasn’t helped. I am hoping to have some great training runs yet so we will see. I enjoyed reading this. I’m approaching 54 and it certainly doesn’t get easier But blessed I’m still running

  3. Happy Birthday SBS! This post has inspired me to believe that I CAN get faster! I’m a new-ish runner (only started in my late 20s, now in my early 30s) but speed has NEVER been in my bag of tricks. i saw great improvements last summer with the TLAM challenge, and now i’m prepping for a 1/2 with the Own it plan from the book. i am learning to love speedwork!

  4. Happy Birthday Sara! I hope your day is absolutely wonderful! Your words are so timely. I’ve been “irritated” by my age number lately. Some of the most fabulous parts of my life have made their appearances deep into my years. But, there are times when I give in to the “oh crap, who is THAT lady in the mirror” feeling. Your essay brought me back to reality and appreciation. Thanks for pointing out that, despite breasticles, reading glasses and such, the fun (and speed) sure isn’t done!

  5. What a post….I gave struggled with this very topic for the last few years. 2014 was the worst. At 44, every single freaking race was worse than the next: slower times, feeling awful. I ended that year with losing my waist entirely and pounds coming from out of the blue ( yay, perimenopause!) . I swore 2015 would b different. So I got a coach and buckled down like nobody’s business. I wanted to set a PR again before it was too late. Well, my target race came in the spring, and wouldn’t u know it, it was a mother-trucking heT wave that no one was prepared for. Not only did I bonk, but so every runner on our girls race weekend getaway. And, you know what? I was ok. I was sure I would have just lost my marbles for not reaching my goal. But oddly, I was cool with it. Since then, I decided to embrace another running arena: trails, as well as ultras. There is SO less pressure on achieving a time goal and just finishing. When it comes to mentally being able to make it, I will succeed -no matter how damn old I am.

    Happy birthday SBS! May today be the start of your best year yet!!

    1. Thanks for empathizing, Patti! And a coach is best way I know to stave off the slowing that aging brings. And know: If you decide to gun for that PR again, you still have time. xo

  6. Thanks for the insight and the laughs Sarah. I have struggled with slowing times too. I got the point where I wanted to stop running altogether (that point hits me on many levels actually!). So instead of beating myself up for not being able to even maintain times let alone improve them, I started looking for “new” challenges in running – running trail events, or fun runs with the kids, or running to the beach and adding in a swim to break it up. It all kept me going instead of giving up completely. As you get older you have to accept certain limitations, but if you keep on moving in any shape or form you are doing better than the majority of people. To be off the couch is to win!!!

  7. Happy Birthday, SBS! I too, am a Pisces, celebrating 61 in a few days. Aging is a bear, but this is the my question – did I get slower because of age or because I stopped racing? I love distance running. I loved 5K’s but it’s the every day run that appeals to me the most. I’m fine once I get my dose of the outdoors.

  8. Happy B-day SBS! As a 50 yo mom who started having kids at 35 and running for real at 40-sih- I too am a late running bloomer. It is hard to see times get slower and I have those- “if I lost 10 pounds I’d be faster” thought accompanied by the “but I do love chocolate” afterthought. I agree with Dimity that for me trail running is (one) answer. I get to run long without quite so much pounding and time is pretty much not an issue. Remember how badass you are (’cause you ARE)- and also remember that many people who see you out running admire you and your happy face! And probably envy your fitness 🙂
    love to you on your B-day

  9. Happy, happy birthday!
    And while it’s not quite misery loves company, sharing your story is a blessing to those of us who struggle and sometimes aren’t sure why. When surgery put me into menopause last year, things literally changed overnight, and I’m struggling to find a way for running to work for me again. Mostly I’m failing at that 😉

  10. Happy Birthday, Sarah! Thank you for your honest and inspiring words. I have run for 27 years (since I was 18, so I am around your age) and I started having more chronic tightness (sometimes pain) in my glutes/hammies in my late 30s. I was never a speedster, but I am noticing that the energy required for long runs and faster runs is much greater these days. Injuries take longer to heal, days off feel fewer and further between (even when they are actually more frequent than they used to be). It is all very humbling — and I don’t think I actually needed any humbling to begin with. I try to remind myself that the signs of aging now are probably more subtle than they will be when I am 55 or 65, so I try to appreciate my current age and body (something I did not do in my teens, 20s, or 30s) for what it still can do. But the mental component is a challenge — trying not to perceive this time as being on the descending slope of a bell-curve. We all know that that mindset is not really helpful, and actually self-defeating. So, here’s to taking each day as it comes, challenging ourselves while also listening to our increasingly wise bodies and minds, and enjoying many great workouts and moments in the days — and decades — to come!

  11. Happy Birthday SBS! As a running coach with many clients in the 40+ AG, I can tell you ageing is different for everyone. There are so many components involved in the way we age and the way we run as we do so. Hormonal fluctuations, training, enthusiasm for the sport, fatigue, and mental outlook all play a hand in this. Maintaining a positive outlook, making the most of one’s abilities are key and most importantly HAVING FUN and embracing new adventures are key.

  12. Happy Happy Birthday! I have LOTS of thoughts on aging and running. I am “lucky” that I didn’t start running until I was 40 (I’m 47 now) and I didn’t get serious for a few years after that, so my times are still dropping. A lot. 22 minute PR at the Phily marathon last fall, baby! But, I have a friend who is quite a bit older than I am and a man. He is still faster than I am. What strikes me watching him is that a larger force than the actual physical decline is the decline of expectations. Sometimes his own, sometimes from other people. This has all kinds of mostly negative effects. He is still really fast, but he doesn’t have much competition in his age group except at bigger races. People don’t expect him to take competition seriously anymore and that has a mental cost, for him, because it makes him doubt himself. I say, why? Maybe I will see it differently when my own times are headed in the other direction, but for now, why stop fighting? Why stop competing? It’s good for us to go out there and really race, at least some of the time. If more older folks stayed committed to genuine racing, it would be better for everyone and better for our societal conception of what aging is about. So, happy birthday and get after it!

  13. First of all Happy Birthday! Second of all you are not OLD…12 years ago (12 and a half really) I bought a mountain bike, was training for my second Ironman race and was looking forward to retirement soon. 12 years later I LOVE mountain biking, am so thankful I don’t have to buy tampons anymore and am contemplating my 3rd IM in a couple years. I just competed in a local 5k in my retirement community where the second overall guy was 63 and one of the ladies (55) ran a 21 on a certified course. Most days I am so thankful to be out there in the early morning hours and to be able to still run. I see many here who can’t (or won’t, or never did). I have loose skin where I don’t want it, especially around my middle from being HUGE 29 years ago during my pregnancy, and if I don’t keep up my bench press and push ups, my boobs are slowly sagging also. Sometimes I wonder who the old lady in the mirror is…my 42 min. 10ks and 22 min. 5ks are a thing of the past along with sub 2 and sub 4 halves and marathons. I still see improvements in my swimming and mountain biking though and I guess that’s what keeps me going. Count your blessings….memories are sweet and keep on creating more and more.

  14. Happy Birthday SBS! I have a few (just 3) years on you…but I have a lot of thoughts about being an aging mother runner. I know it’s coming. I write about it a lot on my blog. The inevitable slow down. But not yet. Last spring I ran a 10 mile race and desperate to get an AG award, I chased down a runner ahead of me who I thought was my age. I couldn’t catch her, and when we crossed the finish line, I congratulated her. We talked and I learned that she was not in my AG, she was 60! She told me that her 50s were her best running decade. Since then, I’ve kept her in my mind. You don’t have to slow down! Just keep moving forward!

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