Age-Old Runners: An Introduction

Public Notice: This is the first in a 12-part series about excellent middle-aged runners. If you’re in your twenties or thirties, but you want to run and race well when you’re not, you should keep reading. If you want to better understand how to get the most out of what running offers, you should also keep reading. And if you’ve ever used the words “chugging along” to describe the 45-plus crowd, prepare to have your ideas about your body’s potential blown.

I’m a 47-year-old runner who’s looking to PR in the marathon and the 100 miler.

That’d be a sub-2:54 and a sub-15:07.

Possible? I think so.

“But why do you think it’s possible for you to get faster?” That’s what my friend, Pam Smith, asked me back in January.  She was staying at my house after the Bandera 100k, and I’d sprung a five-year plan of my running goals on her at breakfast. Why did I think I was going to get faster as I waded deeper into middle age? She was interested, not dismissive or critical.

“I don’t know. I just do.”

She looked unimpressed. I poured us both more coffee. But that was all I had for her: a gut feeling.

I didn’t have any detailed training logs to support my belief. And I do understand that most middle-aged runners aren’t getting faster as they move toward 65 years old. I know all about the fun physical changes that happen to a runner’s body as it ages. And I’ve read the slew of recent articles and reports about ultrarunners who are making peace with the limitations of their older bodies.

But calculating probabilities has never been my strong suit. And not paying careful attention to what is probable has always served me well in running. I’ve won races and run well blissfully ignorant that I should set my sights lower. So after Pam helped me refine my racing plan, I continued training with my eyes set on PRing first in the marathon and then in 100 miles. Along the way, I wanted to qualify for the U.S. 100k team again.

Then in April, this happened in my training log.

Workout Notes: What a rotten 20 miler! I felt like dog poop on the bottom of somebody’s shoe. Ugggggh.

Coach’s Comment: You should consider that you’re perimenopausal. Running is often affected negatively before you hit menopause. (That’s the gist of the comment. My memory of the exact words are blurred by emotion.)

Perimenopausal?!?!!!

For the record, my coach is categorically wonderful, and this article won’t be about how fraught it is for a young coach to dutifully tell a 47-year-old woman that her running might be affected by perimenopause.

But, the thing is, while I meet the age requirements for perimenopause (I looked it up), it was also the first really hot day we’d had that year, so my crappy run might just have been crappy because I wasn’t acclimatized to the heat. Or it might have been just a random crappy run­–and not crappy because I was circling a menopausal drain.

Sheesh!

I called my husband Eliot at work.  “Hi, it’s your perimenopausal wife. Do you have five minutes to talk?” He navigated the landmines I set before him admirably.

Then I texted three good girlfriends. “Yeah, periMENOPAUSAL!”

I never thought I carried around much baggage about becoming an older woman, but, it turns out, of course I do. Once I was done text-venting and being soothed by unconditional support, I finally began to flesh out my thoughts about aging and running.

I know my body is aging. My hair is turning gray. The skin above my upper lip is wrinkling like an old woman on the Simpsons. And I have loose neck skin. I never noticed my neck skin before I turned 45. But when I put moisturizer on my face now, I think, Don’t forget that neck skin! The skin over my thighs is also looser. My hands look like my mother’s–which I like. Clearly, if all this is happening on the outside, things are changing on the inside too.

Author Liza Howard wanted to show you all her neck skin. All photos: Liza Howard

But two things:

  1. I don’t think I’ve reached my potential as a runner. Sure, I don’t have as much potential as I used to, but even with less potential at age 47, I still think there’s potential there. Of course, if you’ve run marathons professionally in your twenties and thirties, you’re not going to get any faster in middle age. You did reach your potential for that distance–or came pretty darn close. But a lot of us have never gotten anywhere close to running as fast as our bodies are capable of. And, as far as ultrarunning goes, we don’t have enough data to even say what a person’s potential is in middle age.
  2. More importantly, it’s not useful for me to scrutinize the impact my age has on my running performances. It’s not motivating. In fact, it’s wildly demotivating. Some people might think: Watch what a 47-year-old body can do! Not me. If I thought about it, I’d think: I’m 47, so I’m not likely to do as well as I did when I was 46; I shouldn’t try as hard. And, honestly, that’s only a few steps away from: I should just stay home and eat donuts.

Some napkin ruminations about athletic potential.

I talked my ideas over with my coach. (Let us never speak of my neck skin again!) And then I talked about aging and potential with my middle-aged running friends. I talked about it with the middle-aged runners I coach. We all wondered what other middle-aged runners who are still competing for overall wins and podium spots think about their bodies’ abilities and potential as they get older. We wondered about middle-aged runners whose performances continue to improve as they age. We wondered about older runners who are simply strong, healthy, uninjured, and running well. How are they all training? What are they all thinking? What can we learn from them? (Are there secret elixirs?)

This new article series, which we start today and which we lovingly call ‘Age-Old Runners,’ originates out of my desire to learn more. So, going forward, each month we’ll interview other middle-aged runners to see what their experiences with aging are, how they see their potential, and how they’re going about achieving it. We’ve started a list of runners to interview, but I’d like to know who you think I should talk to and what questions I should ask. Which middle-aged athletes do you admire? Whose training secrets would you like to know? Who’s achieved enlightenment? Whose story should be told? Also, I need help with my interview request wording. “Hi, I noticed your neck skin is loose…”

See you here every month for the next year as we explore these stories and more.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

Alright, here we go! Who should Liza interview in the next year? And what do you want to know from the successful middle-aged runners she speaks with?

Liza Howard

is a longtime ultrarunner who lives in San Antonio, Texas. She teaches for NOLS Wilderness Medicine, coaches, directs the non-profit Band of Runners, and drives her kids around in a minivan.

There are 91 comments

  1. Katie W

    Have to chime in to agree with all of the others giving kudos to this concept! I always appreciate when our sport’s media spends time on those who aren’t anywhere near a podium, especially if they’re putting 40 hrs/week into their career and were *never* a speedster. Those are interesting stories.

  2. Allen Hadley

    I humbly re-direct any idea of me being a worthy subject for opinions or knowledge of maturing running performance to a much more deserving person. Contact the guy who is maintaining the longest record of sub-3hour marathons….The Honorable Blake Wood from Los Alamos, NM…oh and he just happened to finish 20 Hardrock 100s in his career.

  3. Graham

    Don’t forget the older runners who don’t give up.

    I used to be quick and in my 20s and 30s could do a 60 minute 10 miler. In my 40s I moved into longer distance and ultras and whilst I noticed my times were slowing, I thought it was all the distance work. Last year I was laid up for several months after a knee injury (probably the longest layoff in nearly 40 years) and on my return I’m finding an acute lack of speed and endurance. Tim Noakes in his Lore of Running writes about long time runners getting to a point where they can no longer get any response to training stimulus and decline; as I plodded round 8 miles taking the same time as I would have done for 10 a couple of years ago today, I wondered if I’d hit that point.

    Well, if I’m not going to run fast then I’ll run slow. The effects on my head haven’t reduced anyway, even if the physical ones might have. :-)

    1. Liza

      I won’t, Graham. I’m curious about the body’s continued potential as we age, but, like you, speed is not what keeps me running or makes it valuable to keep going. Being a runner and receiving what running has to give does not require a particular speed.

  4. Lightning

    Mountain runner Nancy Pease would be a good interview. Amazing CRs 25+ years ago, and still super fast in well into her 50s (look at Bird Ridge hill climb statistics). Sheryl Loan also competitive with her too in the same age group, but came from cycling. Male mountain runner Barney Griffith is open competitive now 60+.

  5. Gregory Loomis

    I think knowing ones body, how it reacts to certain stimuli, and during races… how to push… and what to fuel with create a huge potential to improve as you age. However, a 50 year old has much less growth hormone and testosterone circulating. It is impossible for a 50 year old super-fit well trained body to beat that same level super-fit 30 year old. You lose 1% of your lean muscle mass PER YEAR starting at age 25!!!! Unless supplementing with exogenous hormones it is a SLOW slide. Luckily, in ultra running, the experience and “mental game” are so big that performance does not have to slip much. We all know plenty of 50-something runners who are still killing it. That makes me at 45 years old pretty happy. Still when I look at my peers that were running ultras strongly in 1999 ( when I started). Although many are still at it, most of us are no longer winning. Check out ultra signup results trendlines for my former Montrail teammates: Scott Jurek, Ian Torrence, Mark Godale, Hal Koerner, Rob Youngren, and especially me Gregory Loomis. We used to have a column in Ultrarunning mag called the 20-something ultra runner. It’d be fun to see a “where are they now” piece. So certainly keep at it, aim high and train hard.
    But, ultimately we all are training to be the best that we can be at whatever age we are. If you are not training to get better you are most certainly going to be getting worse….mother nature and father time are undefeated.

    1. Chuck

      Gregory, I disagree about your lean muscle mass comment. I am 51 and my lean muscle mass has never been higher. I don’t take “supplements” just incorporated a lot more strength training into my regimen. As you get older you need to adapt, not just keep doing the same old training you were doing at 30. I ran my marathon PR at 45 and my 50k PR at 46. My 20 year old Half marathon PR just went at 51. I’m not elite but my endurance has improved and my average speed has changed little over the last decade.

    2. Liza

      Thank you for this comment and insight, Gregory. “If you are not training to get better you are most certainly going to be getting worse.” I’m stealing this line. Please.

  6. CLF

    Look up Heath Hibbard on UltraSignup – still killing it at 66 in CO mountain races (marathon and shorter). Off the chart results.

    My experience –
    ***ran a marathon shortly before turning 16 in 1978. That’s what everybody does right?
    ***ran track/cc in HS and D1 collegiate (where you learn you’re not that talented after all)
    ***continued several years afterwards before the typical post-collegiate burnout
    *moved to CO, took up various mountain sports (bc skiing/skimo; MTB racing, etc…)
    ***ditched MTB for mountain running/racing a few years later, but still focus largely on skiing in the winter – 50/50 split between seasons
    ***running career part deux is now at least twice as long as part one
    ***first 100 roughly 33 years after that first marathon (when I was too young and would get injured/burnt out of course ). Never ever could have imagined I’d be here now

    All that said the wheels (speed) are definitely coming off here on the back nine of the 50’s. No loss of fitness, endurance, or training, but when you ran your easy morning runs in college faster than your 5k race times now it’s kinda sobering – absolutely no way I’ll ever approach those prime time PRs. That said, there were no mountains in sight for me back in those days so I can always set a PR at a mountain/trail race I’ve never run if I so choose, and they’re usually a lot more fun. Let the good times roll!

  7. Robert Tegtmeier

    I’m seventy and just ran the Pikes Peak Ascent for the first time in 40 years! (Wanted to run a race with my son). Guess what’s of note is I haven’t run much in the last 40 years since I was tenth overall in the 1977 Pikes Peak marathon. I ran a 2:37 flat marathon that year also. I was 810th out of over 1700 runners this year without running training. I only played singles tennis and played tennis tournaments. I cross country ski race in that season. I do some 20-30 seconds HIIT though when hiking in the mountains though when hiking with my wife and grandkids. I am on mostly Keto diet since discovering I had cancer. I wonder if there are others who have similar training or old guy experiences!

    1. Liza

      This is awesome! Congratulations! I am sorry you are dealing with cancer now. I hope the keto diet proves useful. Here’s to your strength! Do you plan to run Pikes again with your son?
      (Also, I am taking up tennis. :) )

  8. I McD

    I started running in my mid 30s. I’m no speedster by any means but I just PR’d in the 10K two weeks ago (45:11) – took 48 seconds of my previous PR. Still think I can get sub-45.
    I’m 50.

  9. Joshua Ritter

    I’d be curious to hear from runners who didn’t start winning until they hit middle age (either overall wins or age-group). He’s slightly under your target age range, but I’d be curious to hear from Ryan Smith – first ever win is at Leadville at age 40. How does that happen?

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