By Christopher Cudworth
When you haven’t run a 5K or any other kind of running race in a while, there are all sorts of things that go through your head as you warm up. You wonder about your training prep. Was there enough speed thrown in? Should you have done even faster intervals? More intervals?
The questions are classic, and nothing novel about them. Every runner has doubts leading up to a race. There are probably only a few times in every runner’s career where you step to the line with almost absolute confidence. Even that is a risk. Running has a way of humbling even the most prepared athlete.
The odd part of racing these days is the comparative challenge of figuring out what’s possible when your PRs are so considerably faster, set at a much younger age, and you don’t know what the deleterious effects of age really are? How much do you typically lose in 5K speed over a 30 year period?
Playing soccer in my late 40s, there were frequent questions about how old (or young) I really was. Those were compliments of a sort. Compared to the other players on the field, I was not any slower, and that was amazing to players 10 or 15 years younger.
I took pride in that fact until my son showed up to play one weekend. His speed was obvious on the field. He was a full gear faster than any other player in the 30 and over league. At 20 years old he had the same build and frame that I once possessed, and he was quick and aggressive. In other words, he gave me a glimpse into my former self. He scored goal after goal that day, while I had but one, a volley off the front of the box that required no speed at all.
You go to war with the Army you have…
But like the militarily dismissive prognosticator Donald Rumsfeld once said, “As you know, ah, you go to war with the army you have—not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time…”
Not exactly a confidence builder, that Donald. But that’s how most of us do feel on the battlefields we choose to face in athletic competition. We can’t change the fact that age diminishes our skills and our endurance. Ultimately there is a decrease in performance compared to running during our athletic peak.
So when I ran a 21:51 5K leg on the tail end of a triathlon race recently, it was cause for a certain sort of celebration. Of course my PR at 5K is 14:45, about 6 minutes faster for the distance.
But it wasn’t like you could not see that coming. Practical intervals were good predictors on how fast I could legitimately run. My max interval pace was 1:30 for 400 meters, or 6:00 per mile pace. That’s not a tremendous strain to do, but going faster would create some real stress. During each interval, passing the 200 meter mark at around 45 seconds, it occurred to me what a fine line it is between what I used to run and what I can run now. At peak fitness for a 14:45 5K, I once did 8 X 400 at an average of 63 seconds or 4:12 mile pace. Now I can probably do 8 X 400 at 1:33 or 6:12 pace. I’m literally two minutes per mile slower, more than one full lap, than I was 30 years ago.
How much can you improve?
I expect to improve some, but how much is impossible to predict. Age is simply an unknown factor.
Except that it isn’t. The 55-59 age group 5km record is owned by Vic Heckler of Park Ridge, IL. He ran 16:07 in September of 1997. The 8km record is held by Norm Green, now of Naples, Florida. But I raced against Norm on the road race circuit in eastern Pennsylvania in the early 1980s. He was an age phenom even then, and he managed to run 27:00 for 8km (almost 5 miles) in January of 1990.
The 10km record for ages 55-59 is 32:27 by Jim O’Neill, set in 1993. O’Neill also holds the 10 mile masters 55-59 age group record of 54:25.
Good old Norm Green set the Half Marathon record of 1:10: 23 for the age group back in 1987. That time happens to beat my all-time best when I was at peak fitness. I ran in the mid-1:10s as well. At age 24.
The marathon record for 55-59 year old males is 2:33:49 by Norm Green, who seems to have secured his place in American distance running history.
Women’s age group marks
The women’s marks are similarly impressive. Shirley Matson set the women’s 55-59 record of 18:32, the 8Km at 30:10 and a few other marks including the Half Marathon of 1:23:09. G’ job Shirley!
S. Rae Baymiller owns the Marathon record of 2:52:14 and several other records as well.
If you want to see how you compare to road racing records for your age group, it’s rather fun to look at the USA Track and Field website.
Apparent limits and perceived efforts
The point here is that all of us sooner or later do face some apparent limits in terms of age group pace and time. The fact that 14:45 is no longer possible for me should not deter the effort, however, of getting fit enough to compete well in age group competition. You have to swallow a little competitive pride at the start when the younger athletes take off at 5:00 pace. But who says running 6:45 the first mile is the pace of a slug?
That’s what happened as I took part in a triathlon relay. Even forcing myself to slow down resulted in a faster pace than I’d planned in the first mile. Then came a 7:00 middle mile, followed by a 7:15 third mile. Not exactly even splits, but not having raced in a while meant that most of the sensations were new all over again. The flirting twitch of a potential side stitch. The reminder to stay on the midfoot and stay smooth. It all worked. The race felt fluid and smart. And I knew I could do it. That’s a great sensation too. When you hit your goal it is satisfying even if that goal is not what it might have been 30 years ago.
It’s true in cycling too. Most of us are not thinking about age on the group ride or even when racing a criterium. You don’t have time. You have to think about cadence and bike position and keeping in the draft. Only when you’re done do you have time to worry about who you were riding with. Even then it doesn’t matter. We all work to keep up or get ahead. Competing as you get older (and that happens without exception) is the tarsnake of competition as a rule. Sooner or later, you must accept some limits.
Worried about diminished performance relative to younger athletes?
Not me. Not anymore. I still like the feeling of getting on the track at twilight and running as fast as I can go for 400 meters or a mile. I’ll never run a 60 second 400M again. I know that. But grasping reality does not need to be the same as stopping in your tracks. Not by a long shot. And not in the long run.