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.

View Comments (92)

  • I think your napkin drawing is exactly it! I always think of it as, sure, maybe getting training/racing/life 95% correct as a runner later in life might not get you to the same performance level that getting all of those things 95% correct as a 20-year-old would have, but that doesn't mean that getting them 95% correct as a 50-year-old can't put you ahead of where you made it to by getting them, say, 80% correct as a 20-year-old.

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    • Thanks, Alicia! It just seems like our bodies are so strong, and barring illness and injury, they're capable of doing more than we tend to expect from them.

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    • I see AJW on here. Please interview Andy Jones-Wilkins. Even with hip surgeries, Andy is amazing. And attitude- wonderful. I'm 64 and slow, but love getting out there!

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      • Thanks for the suggestion, Janet! Ultrarunning broadens the definition of good running -- it's not limited to speed.

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  • Oh I'm looking forward to this series. 52 and wondering if I'm getting slower after a couple of problem races. My image of my age-performance graph has a lower slope after the apex, wishful thinking perhaps but the plan is to apply the learnings of the past and future, to tune training effectiveness, avoid injury and optimize race schedule (and balance family needs!). No magic bullets, just the will to last.

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    • Amen! about the will to last. And the slope of that graph is affected more by the difficulties of drawing on napkins than anything else. :)

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  • Liza, interview Tim Mosbacher! He's run a marathon in almost every state and just ran his PR earlier this year, a 2:48 at age 53. I think his magic elixir is Mountain Dew. I'd like to know if age-old runners think taking years off of running helps with longevity. Or if starting running later in life is maybe more beneficial for speed in the later years than being a consistent runner from a young age. I'm excited for this series!

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    • Thanks so much for the recommendation, Jeff! And thanks for the questions. Those are good ones. Mountain Dew, eh? We need to compile a secret elixir list -- just for fun.

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  • Whatever Jeff Browning is doing, something is working!!

    He appears to focus on consistency, not so much intense training blocks, strength and mobility, and his diet is pretty dialed in, whether you agree with it or not..something is aligning well with his genetics..

    Power on!

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    • Very true. Would it be wrong to omit people from the interview list if it turns out their clean diets don't support my donut-eating habits?

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      • I like donuts.

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        • I can only hope you were gifted some Krispy Kreme chocolate glazed donuts while you were on your AT FKT!!

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  • Look forward to this. As a 55 year old with about 20 years of running and 10 years of ultras behind me I've definitely been slowing down the last few years and devolving from mid-packer into cutoff chaser (or worse, timer outer!), despite mixing speed work into my regular training. Blaming it on age but who knows? As for runners worth talking to, there are so many, but Beast Coast legend Jack Pilla comes to mind - 61 and still racing regularly and placing top 20 (or better) at all distances.

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    • Thanks for that suggestion, Andy! This is going to be fun. I've been thinking a lot about race time cutoffs and what makes sense -- when they're not dictated by safety, permitting or volunteer power.

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  • I'm 53 now and I was running very well at 47, 48 and even at 49. Close to my all-time PRs. Not quite there, but close. It's easy to get delusional and to start thinking that it will last forever. However, since I hit 50 I was slowing down every year, and significantly. Same (if not harder) training, same weight, everything is the same, except my times. Just my two cents

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    • Thanks, Alexander. I sure don't mean to say that we can continue to get faster as we age -- though that seems like a book title that would sell well. But it seems like we don't know exactly when the slowing will start and how steep the decline will be. I'm curious about the body's potential as we get older and what seems reasonable to aim for. And, more importantly, what value running hard can continue to have for someone.

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  • This is awesome, Liza! You should interview the timeless champ, Sophie Speidel. She's so strong, wise, and beats people half her age.

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    • Love it! Thanks, Sabrina!

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  • What a great idea for a series! Can't wait to read these pieces.

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    • Thanks, AJW. Can't wait to pick these folks' brains. :)

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  • This is a wonderful idea. I wouldn't consider her middle age, but obviously Darcy Piceu is doing something right with the season she had in 2018.

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    • Darcy might just squeak into a qualifying age if I interview her at the very end of the series. I'm sure she'll be thrilled. ;)

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  • I love you & your writing, Liza!
    FWIW I turned 50 this year, and I feel a difference between ultrarunning & road marathoning. I feel I’m still fulfilling my potential in mountain/ultra/trail. But, last March, I trained hard & seriously for a marathon, and my time was way slower than when I PRed at the same marathon 10 years earlier (3:42 v. 3:05).
    Thanks for starting this column! I second the nomination of Sophie S.

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    • First off, congratulations on Grand to Grand!! Yeah, it seems like the ultra potential napkin graph and the road sub-ultra potential napkin graph are different. It's a good question to add. And thanks for the nomination second. :)

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  • Oddball I've always been, speed never really interested me much, but distance and endurance (say 2-3 ultras per month?) has fascinated me from the start (recently finished my 8th year) and "holding steady" seems to work?

    The name Scotty Mills comes to mind pretty quick when this topic comes up...

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    • Agreed about Scotty and agreed about exploring endurance and not just speed. Thanks, John!

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  • Of course we typically measure 'getting better' in terms of absolute times, but I prefer to think of getting better as a runner as whether I think I am learning to be a better runner and making progress towards my absolute potential. So far, at 56, that progress is not impeded by any (potential/likely) declines in absolute potential. My belief is that more often the motivation to progress as a runner (that is, do the hard work) begins to taper before the true physical realities of age actually become the limiting factor.
    As an aside, Joe Friel's book, 'Faster after 50', is a great starting point for any master's athlete.

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    • I have that one on my bookshelf! I need to pull it out again. What you wrote about motivation rings true to me too. It's a good question to ask. I like your idea of looking at potential more holistically too -- with speed as just one aspect of a runner's potential. :)

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  • My friend and guy I definitely want to be when I grow up, Drew Meyer, in Fort Worth TX. He’s 72 and still crushing 100 milers. Super data driven and willing to try damn near anything. He didn’t start ultras till he was in his 50s (I think) and was a serious bodybuilder before that.

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    • Thanks for the recommendation, Buddy!

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    • I had to look up his resume when I saw he is 72, WOW..he really is a trail OG..I just pray I am alive in 40 years let alone still running 100's..huge respect!!

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  • Ruperto Romero, just look at his Ultra Signup, and a sub 20hr AC100 win this year at 55yo. This will be an inspiring series.

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    • Thanks, Travis! Agreed about Ruperto.

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  • Liza -- you may enjoy "Roar" by Stacy Sims, PhD...she looks at how training as a woman is different from training as a man and particularly goes over the peri/pre/full on menopause issues and provides solutions...may be a nice union between her studies and your undertaking (I am a 44 year old marathoner/ultramarathoner and definitely feel like I am in the weeds right now trying to get "fit" again so find your article inspiring...thank you).

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    • Thanks so much for that recommendation, Lesley. I will check that book out tonight.

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  • Well, this hit the spot for me. Being 54 years old and just having started my running career a meer 4 years ago, I still struggle with "Is that hamstring issue due to me pushing to far too fast or is it because I'm getting old?". I'm inclined to chalk it up to "pushing to far too fast" because I'll be damned if I let age define me!

    I'll definitely be following this series as I would love to know the secrets of those who are out there laying it down. I've moved from a back of the pack to somewhere in the middle and would love to figure out how to get to the front!

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    • Wonderful, Virginia! It'll be interesting to see when some of these folks started running too -- and how that's impacted their development as runners.

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  • I'm in my mid-30's, but didn't start running until my late 20's. I'm at the point where I want to see what I'm capable of, because I don't think I have many good years left to see what my potential is. This gives me a bit more hope that I can probably have many more good years into my 40's and 50's (as long as I'm healthy).

    This also reminded me of runners like Bernd Heinrich, who didn't start running until his late 30's, and his marathon PR came at 41 (I believe), around 2:20. He went on to set ultra records into his late 40's and 50's.

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    • 2:20! Dang! It feels more hopeful and interesting to me to think of it as "What is my body's potential this age?" rather than "How long can I maintain my 20 and 30 year old speed?"

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  • I PR'd 50K, 50 mile, and 100K at the ripe old age of 56. I did have some solid training, but nothing really out of the ordinary for me. Now that I'm 60, I have slowed down some, but I still have this idea that I can get some of my speed (speed being a relative term) back provided I have some training focus. Looking forward to more in this series and also looking forward to many more years of showing young whippersnappers how to run :-)

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    • Amen! Thanks for the comment, Jim. Watch out whippersnappers!!

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  • all the fast middle-aged or older runners that I know of, fit one of two profiles:
    - started running seriously late in life
    - ran seriously earlier, then took an extended break from running before coming back.

    There are vanishingly few fast older runners who have been running seriously all their lives.. it wears you out, simply.
    It takes about 5-10 years from starting training seriously to PR times, can maybe hold on until 15 years.
    I'd really like to hear of any counterexamples, but haven't seen any in my forty-odd years of running and following running..

    Up to age 50, I could still run a 20min 5k off of about 5 hours a week of working out, bike swim and 5-10 miles/week of running as injuries permit. Here's how it has gone since 50 (in 2010), on the same or increased training, a 5k race I try to do every year,
    2010 20:31,
    2013 22:37,
    2015 23:25,
    2018 24:27,
    2019 25:50

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    • Doug, It'll be interesting to see where the folks I interview fall into that breakdown. What qualifies as running seriously? Is there a particular volume? Speed? Thanks for sharing your experience and knowledge. :)

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      • 'serious' is not a question of volume or speed I think, more about the sustained work load. Typically 'serious runner' means there are some kind of performance goals, meeting those requires training, training is then done according to whatever notions are currently prevalent. But typically this will mean running 5-7 days a week with a weekly long run in there somewhere, and probably too much speedwork and tempo running. Do that for enough years without a break, and the training response appears to be blunted, as well as an accumulation of chronic injuries.

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    • That's consistent with my non-scientific observations, too. I often think the fast older folks have "young legs" compared to mine. I'm not so old yet (51 next month), but I've been running pretty consistently for over 25 years.

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  • Thank you for this article and the upcoming ones. I am 65 and I liked the napkin graph too.
    It is lovely to see all the blogs and articles noting that collecting (years of) consistent and healthy training is key. As an aside but maybe would be a good research or article topic... "Onset of age when one starts long-distance running, and how that affects longevity and performance in ultra running."
    I was 54 when I started, menopause at 42 (Oh no!), and now 10 yrs later, I am still loving it and running very well some of the time. Happily so.
    For those in their late 40's and 50's, the super good news is that you can always be strategic in your racing. And you can exercise the multiple outcomes of those long long races and what the different outcomes have and will teach you. These are very enriching experiences later in life. And remember... when you have to walk or slow your running for any reason, you meet more people, and you take better photos!

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