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Never Too Old to Run

Sunday was the 2018 Chicago Marathon.  Congratulations to the Tallahassee runners who successfully completed the marathon .

It was a day to test out some new statistical models. The headline grabbed my attention.  “We Slow as We Age, but May Not Need to Slow Too Much.” This joyful line was followed by a subline that said, “Although declines in running and other activities are unavoidable, they may be less steep than many of us fear.”  Once runners reach the golden age of 40, they begin looking at age group competition and ways of handicapping finish times to offset (at least in their finishing times) the impact of aging on runners.  Teams that compete in the Tallahassee Turkey Trot are scored using age graded factors?
It was also the day that Joan Benoit Samuelson climbed to the very top of my sports heroes. She has always been very close to the top. She did not of course win the Chicago Marathon.  However, the 61-year-old marathoner finished the race in a time of 3:12:13. Rumor was she was trying to break the world best for the 60-64-year-old age group which remains 3:01:30.  Her real goal is to break three hours again – this time while more than 60 years old.  Dropping 12:13 from your marathon time is no easy task, but who would bet against this woman who estimates she has run “around 50 marathons” and has never lost her love for the sport.

The headline was for an article written by Gretchen Reynolds for the running section of the New York Times. She describes the work of Yale Professors Ray Fair and Edward H. Kaplan to verify or update work done by Dr. Fair in 2007 attempting to estimate through statistical modeling the impact of age on runners’ ability to run.  The original study, according to an abstract in PubMed, estimated age effects in various track and field events, road running, swimming events and chess by a statistical model that used record best times by age.

Surprisingly, chess showed “much less decline” than the other activities which were physical.  I was sure that I was declining faster mentally, then physically so I was surprised by that finding. The estimates from the 2007 study showed a “linear percent decline between age 35 and about 70 and then quadratic decline after that.”  I think quadratic decline means “catastrophic crash.”

For the recent test and validation, they found that, over all, age-adjusted finishing times are slightly slower now than in the 2007 version, rising about 1 percent a year. But perhaps more importantly, depending on your age, runners seem to be maintaining the new slower rate of decline for a longer period of time at least until age 80, when slowness drastically intensifies.

But even for 90-year-olds, the decline is limited, Dr. Fair points out.  Nonagenarians can expect to be “about twice as slow as they were in their prime,” he says, “which I think is encouraging.”

What I found most amazing and inspiring about Samuelson’s performance at Chicago was her passion for running long after the Olympics were possible.  In a time when everyone cross trains, she remains first and foremost an unapologetic runner.  And she has remained a competitive one.

Samuelson won the Chicago Marathon in 1985, in a then-American record of 2:21:21, still the fifth-fastest U.S. time on record. She has a gold medal for winning the very first woman’s Olympic marathon. The list of accomplishments is long – and yet, she never tires of the sport. The woman who shrugged off knee surgery to stand on the highest platform at the Olympics, held the American and World Records is now willing to show that she can still break 3:00, hopefully with her daughter right beside her.

At age 50 she ran sub 2:50 at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. In 2010, at age 53, she ran 2:47:50 in Chicago, a record for that single age. She ran 2:50:33 in Boston two years later to claim the 55–59 all conditions age-group record. In 2010, at age 53, she ran 2:47:50 in Chicago, a record for that single age.

There is more, but I think maybe the following quotes from Samuelson tell more than the clock ever could.

“My Love for this sport, you can’t instill it in someone else.”

“I tell people to follow your dream, follow your heart, follow your passion, run your own race.”

“And with every finish line, there is a new opportunity: an age group or a course record.”

Deena Kastor said: “She is timeless in this sport and one of the most powerful inspirations for runners of all ages.”

And I think I will just go for a run.

 

Jack McDermott – 3:06:43; Hong-Guo Yu – 3:14:28; Laura McDermott - 3:38:27; Nancy Stedman – 3:40:27; Hal Davis 3:51:28; Paul Guyas – 3:52:22; Birgit Maier-Katkin – 3:53:12; and Ludmila De Faria - 4:12:03.