Running at Any Age: How Old is Too Old?
Running at Any Age: How Old Is Too Old?
By Terri Barry
My sister-in-Law, Karen Karbo, an awesome bestselling author recently coined this phrase:
“Imagine a life where you are never too anything for anything.” -Karen Karbo
Coming home from my most recent climbing trip my climbing partner, in his mid-30’s, asked me if I planned to snowboard forever. It was an unexpected question at first, I mean, why wouldn’t I? But then it reminded me of a campfire discussion on a climbing trip last fall in Joshua Tree. As is often the case on climbing trips, except for me, the group was early 40’s or younger. Talk turned to the “when I’m 40 (or 50, or whatever age) I won’t be climbing, or snowboarding, or (insert activity here).” I added my two cents pretty quickly. I said that you can continue to do anything you love as long as you really want to. I’m 56, soon to be 57. I run, rock climb, ice climb, snowboard, backpack, and scull. I don’t care whether people my age typically do what I want to do. And, I stay fit so I can do what I want to do. The trick is having realistic expectations. However, to be completely clear, age is not a barrier to outstanding athletic performance and experiences. Just check out some of the senior results on the USA Masters Track and Field website. Men and women in their 90s are still running, jumping, pole vaulting, and throwing. I continue to meet senior athletes in all the sports I participate in. They are so vital and active. I have committed myself to be like them for the rest of my life.
Except for what I call “The Lost Years” of my early to mid-thirties, I have always been at least a moderately active person. I started backpacking in 1974 and I fell in love with the Sierra. I started running to get in shape for backpacking. And I discovered that I liked running. I didn’t run races. I didn’t even know road races existed except for the Boston Marathon. I continued to run after the birth of my oldest daughter when I was 24. My second and third daughters were born 17 months apart when I was 29 and 31. I was on bed rest with both of them, which led to quite a bit of weight gain and lack of exercise. By 1994, at age 38, I was inactive and at my heaviest–185 pounds and a size 18. My flexibility was shot. I remember thinking, “Ok, I guess I’m getting old…” After I uttered that to myself I was shocked. I was already a cancer survivor. How could I squander the life that I was worried I would not have by thinking I was “old” at 38!
Immediately after my “I’m getting old epiphany” I began walking at lunch with a co-worker. We walked for a few months, and then we started to run/walk (way before Galloway’s book was published!). In short order, I lost 40 pounds. I read about training plans, I ran a few road races, but my real goal was to run a marathon. The California International Marathon (CIM) is held in Sacramento, Calif. in December. No travel cost, I could sleep in my own bed and eat my own food. Deal. The 2000 CIM would be my first marathon. I followed a marathon training plan put together by my daughter’s running coach. I finished the 2000 CIM in 4:20:25, and I was hooked. I started to think about qualifying for the Boston Marathon (a BQ). I increased my training using plans on the Hal Higdon website. I ran the Chicago Marathon several times and then returned to CIM. I knew I could qualify on my home course. I built up to Advanced Plans, topping out at 60 miles per week. It would take me six marathons. In 2005, at age 49, I finally trained myself to a BQ at the CIM – 3:58:23. I ran Boston in 2007. I ran a total of 11 marathons before I shifted my focus to rock climbing. My last marathon was Napa in 2010. However, I am training right now for the 2013 CIM using my BQ training plan. The day Boston bombing happened I decided I wanted to be part of the marathon community again.
I had my share of injuries early on as I became a middle aged marathoner. I’ve had two stress fractures. After the second one, in 2003, I got custom orthotics. I have run injury free since. But I pay close attention to my training. I get fit for shoes at Fleet Feet because the staff is trained to evaluate the right shoe for my gait. I keep track of how many miles are on a pair of shoes – no more than 500 miles. Never run on worn out shoes! And I usually have two different brands of shoes that I swap every other run. I have learned just where the sharp edge of training is and how not to tip over that edge to injury. If I’m tired I skip the easy runs in my plan. After many years of marathons I have a deep enough fitness base that I can tolerate what looks to some people like a ridiculous level of activity. But it’s normal for me – I know when to say “when.” Everything I do to optimize my training is no different for me than someone in their 20’s. That doesn’t change with age.
I have found marathon training to be good for all my activities. To be successful at the marathon you need to be able to focus on the moment – not the miles you have already run or the miles left to run. Focusing on the moment allows complete immersion in the task at hand. Very similar to climbing, it turns out. My advice to anyone, of any age, is to just start doing. I was really, really out of shape at 38. It took years. Be patient. It’s worth it. Don’t compare yourself to anyone else. If you don’t enjoy an activity then don’t do it, find an alternative. You have to like what you do or you won’t stick with it. Set reasonable expectations and goals. Break your workouts into manageable pieces and work towards putting the pieces together as your fitness improves. Walk/run. Climb easy laps to build endurance. Stay on track. Each person must take an honest look at what kind of support system they need to succeed. If you need a group to stick with something then join a group! As the saying goes, fitness, like life, is not a race, it’s a journey.