‘Age-Old Runners’ is an article series where we explore runners’ performance potential after the age of 45 by interviewing excellent middle-aged runners. Is there still potential to improve? What roles do motivation, mindset, and specific training and recovery techniques play in allowing runners in their mid-40s to mid-60s to continue to excel? To learn more about this series’ goals, check out its introductory article.
Meghan Laws is 58 years old. She ran her first ultramarathon when she was 35, but didn’t run her second until she was 42. Since then, she’s podiumed more than 40 times. She won the 2013 Way Too Cool 50k at the age of 51. Meghan ran her first Western States 100 when she was 45, and she’s finished in the top 10 ten times since then. She has been on nine consecutive U.S. teams at the IAU 100k World Championships and holds the following American age-group records:
- 45-49 100k road – 7:52:21
- 50-54 50-mile road – 6:19:06
- 50-54 100k road – 7:41:52
- 55-59 50k track – 3:56:52 (also an age-group world record)
- 55-59 50-mile track – 6:44:50
- 55-59 100k track – 8:41:21
- 55-59 100k road – 8:02:01 (also an age-group world record)
The following is a transcript of a phone interview with Meghan. It has been edited for brevity and clarity and does not capture our laughter.
Nathan Sports made a video of you recently and Craig Thornley talked in it about how you were already in your forties when you started running ultramarathons. You were 45 when you were named runner-up for UltraRunning Magazine’s North American Ultrarunner of the Year. He said that when he congratulated you, your response was something like, “Well, maybe next year I’ll do better.” And he said that he’d actually been thinking that you’d likely slowly decline after that year. Why did you think you still had potential?
I don’t know if there’s really an answer. I just do have potential. It’s more like, why wouldn’t I think that?
Did you ever think, I’m 45 years old, I should be setting my sights lower. Nobody else who’s 45 is doing this?
Oh, no. No, no, no. I love to compete and to test myself. I’m driven by curiosity. How long can I keep doing this? What do I need to do to keep doing it?
Did other runners ever tell you that you wouldn’t be able to accomplish a goal because of your age?
I tend to not listen to people when they say that because they don’t know. Nobody knows.
On the differences in performance potential between men and women as they age.
You see men decline pretty rapidly after 40. I know Pam Smith talked once about the effects of the decrease in testosterone in men. Well, we don’t experience that…. I don’t know that that’s ever really been studied. [Author’s Note: Does the idea of an inflection point after which there’s an obvious performance decline reflect the male runner’s experience more than the female’s?]
Do you see yourself as an outlier as a runner?
I do because people point it out to me. If you put me on a scatter plot, I’m going to stick out somewhere. I wonder if that will change…? There are just so many people doing it now… women in their thirties and forties. There are a lot more of them than when I was in my thirties and forties. It’ll be interesting to see if my records hold or not. And it’d be great if they don’t because that says more about what women are able to do.
In that Nathan Sports video, Stephanie Howe pointed out that you were as old as her parents, and she said age is just not a factor for you. Is that true?
Mostly. I know I’m getting a little slower. I know my maximum heart rate is not as high as it used to be. I’m running out of room in terms of how fast I can run at a long distance. I don’t think it’s huge. I think it’s always going to be this gradual decline. I’ve done menopause. [Author’s Note: Meghan started menopause at 49 and finished at 54.] I won’t see any more physiological or hormonal changes. I think it’s just going to be the fact that my body does get old.
Do you think about your age when you’re racing? Does it weigh on you when you’re jockeying for position with younger runners?
No. Well, maybe. I don’t know. I don’t dwell on it a lot…. In 2013, I won the Way Too Cool 50k. I passed Rory [Bosio] with about half a mile to go [to take the lead]. I mean, it was insane. People kept telling me, “You’re going to catch her! You’re going to catch her!” And I was like, You guys don’t know what you’re talking about! And when I did catch her, I almost started to cry. I thought, I’m fucking 51 years old and I’m winning Way Too Cool. That was the coolest thing ever. You know? But I don’t really think about my age when I’m racing. I think it’s weird that I’m in my fifties. I’m almost 59. That’s almost 60. It sounds so old. And that’s not me.
Do you think you could PR at the marathon distance? Or match your PR?
I don’t think I could run a 2:45, but I’m not sure. I just haven’t explored that for so long. Now what will be interesting to see is if I can run close to eight hours for the 100k. I failed miserably at my last two attempts at that. But they were definitely affected by other things. I mean, you saw me in Croatia.
Yeah, that wasn’t age. [Author’s Note: Meghan and I were on the U.S. team together, competing at the 2018 IAU 100k World Championships in Croatia. Meghan suffered severe gastrointestinal distress during the race.]
I felt awful. I felt terrible.
And then at the 2019 Desert Solstice, I had food poisoning the weekend before. I started eating well again on Thursday, and I raced Desert Solstice on Saturday. I would like to think that was a factor in my performance. I don’t like to make excuses. Also, when [my coach] Stephanie [Howe] got all my data and looked at it… I mean, I ran the Javelina Jundred [in October], The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championships [in November], and then I went to Desert Solstice [in December]. She looked at my data and said, “You were really tired.” And I totally agreed. I feel good right now. It’s been a little bit of a comeback.
Do you still love to race?
I do! I love to race. I love pushing myself that hard for that long. It’s the only time I do it. I do hard workouts on the track and the trail. But I never trash myself like I do in a race. And that’s why I love it. It’s like, I really annihilated myself out there! Yay!
In general, I think of myself as racing the clock. If it’s a road race, and it’s a 5k, I set my sights for: I’m going to break 19:30 or I’m going to break 20. Or if I’m real fit: I‘m going to break 19. I’m going to go for it. I don’t care who else is there. And the same in the marathon. It was always about a time because, most of the time, I wasn’t going to win a marathon or reach an A standard [Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier.] But I could get a B standard. And that, for me, is super motivating. If it’s Western States, I want to break 20 hours. That would get me top 10. I don’t have to think who’s ahead of me as much. If I can get in under 20 hours, I’ll probably be top 10.
Are age-group records motivating?
Do you think the male age-group records are harder?
The male records probably are harder because I’m just on the cusp of the Title IX babies. Men have been able to compete for a lot longer. I mean, maybe my records will stand for a long time. But for the men, I think the age-group records are a lot harder.
How old were you when you started running?
I like to say 25. When Ruby, [my daughter], was born, that’s when I started to be more consistent…. I did run before that, but it was in fits and starts. It was never consistent. I would run for six months, and then I would do a 5k. And then I wouldn’t run for another six months. I ran maybe 20 miles a week. [Author’s Note: Meghan is 33 years old as a runner.]
You started running ultras when you were 35 in 1996?
I have two ‘first ultras.’ My first ‘first ultra’ was the 1996 MacDonald Forest 50k in Corvallis, Oregon. And I really hated it. It was right there where I lived, and I knew the guy who put it on, and I trained with everybody who was doing it. But I was into road marathons and getting my time down. And I ran every step of that race. I had no idea how to hike. I was babystepping up these steep climbs. I made all kinds of stupid mistakes. I went out way too hard. I changed shoes halfway through and put on shoes that were too small. It was miserable. I was so miserable. I finished that race and the race director was like, “You did it!” And I yelled at him, “That was terrible!” And I didn’t do another ultra until 2003.
My second ‘first ultra’ was the 2003 Siskiyou 50k when I was 41. I had qualified for the Olympic Marathon Trials twice by then. I had run the 2000 Trials, and I’d qualified for 2004. I was getting more on the trails and enjoying that more, and I thought, I’m going to give this another shot. So I did that 50k. And it was real runnable and beautiful, and from then on, I was hooked.
How has your training changed since you started running?
For at least 10 years, I ran by reading books and following Runner’s World magazine programs…. And then I did my first marathon, I think I was 33…. I read books on how to run marathons, and I broke three hours on my third try three years later. I ran one a year. Someone mentioned the Olympic Marathon Trials to me, and I didn’t even know what that meant. I realized I just didn’t know what I was doing, so I hired a coach…. And it was great because he taught me all about how to run hard and how to run easy, all about speed and all about distance, and when to do them all. The formula worked really well and I developed my aerobic engine. It was pretty high volume, 90 to 100 miles a week, maybe more.
When I got into ultras, I was mentored by Craig Thornley. That worked well, but I didn’t know what to do for speedwork. So I got another coach. He just gave me two speed workouts a week, and I planned all of the distance. That’s when I was running 100 to 120 miles a week when I was training for either for Western States or for the IAU 100k World Championships.
That went on for a few years, then I got into the overreaching place. That’s what we call it now. Then I hired Ian Torrence because he is an ultra coach, and I needed someone to take over the whole thing. I was doing too much. He set my volume back down.
Now most recently, I started working with Stephanie Howe. I was tired of trying to write my own program because I’m not objective with myself. I don’t listen to me. I wanted someone to take over, someone to whom I could be accountable. Steph makes sure I don’t do too much, which is my default mode. I’m already feeling better than I have for years, so I’m very encouraged.
From the genesis: I started with small mileage, then got really big with lots of volume. Then it was too much, and I came back down to more like 80 to 100 miles per week. That’s where I am now: 60 to 100 miles a week. Occasionally there will be 110-mile weeks if there’s a big weekend or an ultra. It’s been pretty much the same formula as for anybody. I still do speed. I still do distance. I workout once a day. I don’t do two runs or anything like that.
Do you do back-to-back runs?
Yes, but I don’t do a lot of them anymore. I think they’re important for the developing ultrarunner. I think it’s a really good mental exercise to run when you’re tired. I don’t need to do that anymore. I know my craft. I can probably get by running three hours for a long run. I don’t really think I need more than that anymore, but I still do it. If I’m going to go run in the canyons [on the Western States 100 course], it’s going to take me six hours, and I love that run.
Actually, I was doing back-to-backs last summer getting ready for the 2019 Folsom Lake Trail 110k. I figured I’d run the first half of the course one day and then run the second half of the course the next day. I’ve done that so many times over my career. I was thinking, Well, that works, so that’s what I’m going to do. And now I’m thinking that I don’t need to do that. I don’t think it really benefits my fitness much [anymore].
Tell me about the speedwork you do.
Recently, I did three weeks of two VO2max workouts. They were either 6 x 3 minutes or 4 x 4 minutes. I did them on the track, so actually I did 6 x 800 meters all out, which were brutal, and then the 4 x 4 minutes were 4 x 1,200 meters, and they were even worse. But they definitely got more manageable, and I got faster each time. After recovering from those, I did three weeks of lactate-threshold workouts, and those I love. Two times a week, 3 x 12 minutes. I did those on runnable trail. Next up, I’ll be slowing down even more into some steady-state intervals leading up to the 2020 Mad City 100k.
What do you do to stay uninjured?
Strength training, I started last summer. I hired a trainer to give me two upper-body and two lower-body routines. When I started doing VO2max workouts recently, I was just exhausted, so I haven’t been to the gym for probably three weeks. But when I first started doing it, I’d go two to three times a week. And I get a massage every other week. And when I get little niggles, I’ll go see a physical therapist (PT)…. Honestly, at 49, I was ready to retire because I had a hip injury that I just couldn’t get over, and it was just painful to run. I thought, I’ll make it to 50, and then I’m out. But I found a really good PT, and ever since then, I’ve felt good.
Do you follow a particular diet regimen or nutritional plan?
You eat everything?
How do you fuel yourself during races?
Mostly liquid calories or GU gels. I’m still learning. New stuff always comes out, and you want to stay on top of that. If something is supposed to be amazing, you want to try it…. I’ll usually bring some S!Caps with me. If I feel a little crampy, or if it sounds good, I take an S!Cap.
How many hours of sleep do you get?
I am horizontal for about 10 hours, but I’m not a very good sleeper. That came with menopause. I do take medication for restless legs syndrome. And it makes me sleepy, and I do fall asleep. But I wake up anywhere between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m., and then sleep is intermittent until I get up around 7 a.m. It’s not awesome.
At 58, do you need more time to recover from long runs or hard speed workouts than you did when you started running?
I don’t know. Not really.
Is racing less stressful now than when you started running?
I don’t get near as nervous as I used to. Sometimes there’s a little bit of dread. For 100k on the road, you think, This is going to suck so bad at some point and I hope it isn’t until at least 60k. Please at least 60k! Because if it’s 40k and I’ve got 60k more to go, that hurts.
Why do you think people stop racing as they get older?
I think that after a while they lose interest in the actual event. It’s a lot of hype, money, and time…. If you’ve tested yourself a bunch of times and the results are the same or getting worse, maybe you don’t want to know anymore.
What distresses you about aging as an athlete?
Wrinkles on my face. When I look at my race pictures, I’m like, Oh god! I look kind of old. I don’t like that. I don’t feel like that. I don’t feel like I’m wrinkled on the inside.
Your soul is not wrinkled.
What are your running goals?
Really, right now it’s just to get a 100k qualifier [to be on the U.S. team for the IAU 100k World Championships in September, which requires running 8:40 for 100k.] I’m not going to try to race into the Western States 100 this year.
I did not get a 100k qualifying time at Desert Solstice [in December.] My halfway split is usually 3:45 at 100k, so I’d thought, I’m going to go to Desert Solstice to run a qualifying time for Worlds, and along the way, I’ll get an age-group world record for the 50k by running a 3:45. That should be easy peasy-ish. I made it by three seconds, but then I just kept slowing down. [Author’s Note: Meghan ran 3:56:52.] I came around the track, and I stopped and I said to Mark, [my husband,] “I don’t even know if I should keep going. If I run an 8:30, I don’t think I even want to be on the 100k team. That’s not worthy.” Nicole Bitter was there and she told me to just keep going, “You’ve got this!”
So I kept going. Then my watch died, and I had no idea how many laps I had to go. I thought I had a half a mile to go, and I had five minutes to do it. But they told me I had three laps to go, and I stopped and said, “I can’t run three laps in five minutes. Why should I keep going?” They told me to keep going because I was going to get the American 55-59 age-group 100k track record anyway. I ran an 8:41.
I’m so glad I finished because I would have just hated myself if I had stopped with three laps to go. Afterward, I was just like “Whatever!” about Worlds. But then I had a call three days later with my coach, Steph, about my goals, and as soon as she said hi, I just started bawling. I guess being on the 100k team is more important to me than I thought. So I’m not going to try to get a [Western States 100] Golden Ticket this year. I’m going to run the Mad City 100k in April [to try and qualify again]. That’s all I’m going to train for. I don’t want to go there having tried [to qualify for Western States at] the Georgia Death Race [just three weeks before]. Then I’d have an excuse. This way, I know either I’ve got it, or I don’t. So that’s where I am, and I’m excited about it.
- Weekly running volume: Sixty to 100 miles
- Strength training: One to three times per week
- Off-season: No
- Sleep: Ten restless hours/night
- Race nutrition: GU Energy Drink Mix and Gels
- Recovery: Varies, goes by feel
Three factors Meghan attributes her running performance to:
- Internal drive
- Good biomechanics
Call for Comments (from Meghan Hicks)
Calling all Meghan Laws stories! Got one?! Leave a comment to share your story of running with Meghan or following her running career.