Cruising at 56; or, How She Attempts to Rage Against the Dying of the Flight

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I have run 14 half marathons in a span of 12 years. Each training cycle moves me out of my comfortable routine of regular five milers, prodding me to go further and faster. But though several of my training cycles–especially the one that preceded my one and only marathon–were more difficult in terms of mileage accumulated and even speed attained, none were as demanding as the training I put in for the half marathon I ran this past weekend.

What made the difference? Fifty-five and fifty-six. The steep drop off I experienced in my speed, endurance, and ability to bounce back from workouts was unexpected. At age fifty-one, I was actually increasing in all these areas, running longer and harder and recording my best speeds. With no change in the number or frequency of my workouts, however, when I hit fifty-five I not only could no longer maintain my levels, as I could from age 52-54, but I was working just as hard to run thirty seconds slower per mile.

Ok. So I get that this happens, that no former Olympian can compete with the new crop twenty years later. Well, except for Dara Torres. But she’s a freak. I had less of an issue with losing speed, because that’s never been much of a focus in my goals anyway, but it did bother me that  I was losing steadiness in my endurance. It was unbelievably harder to maintain even the slower pace over longer distances. Was it just mental softness that was responsible for my not being able to run without walk breaks even over seven miles? That was a part of it, I think, but my body quit cooperating as well. Hips were stiffer, legs felt heavier, the back of my left knee became less flexible.

Absolutely not fair, my mind raged. Shouldn’t my consistency in training, my unfaltering discipline in cranking out three to four runs a week, my annual new year’s goal of 1000 miles a year be rewarded with equally consistent results. Nope.

So I entered this training cycle mad. I would show this stupid body who was boss. I would be that woman I always claimed I’d be–the one who kept running, even if I got slower. Oddly, two nearly contradictory things happened. First, I felt more of a sense of progress than I’ve ever felt during training. Before, it was more like I adapted unproblematically to the increased mileage–it didn’t really challenge me. This time, I felt the real pain of upped mileage, the struggle in reaching for a few extra miles tacked onto my comfortable five, but near the end of the training period, I really felt improvement in the increasing adaptation to the extra miles. Yet simultaneously, this training period was fraught with more depressing, agonizing runs than I’d ever had, far more times when I felt I had to stop to walk. More runs felt like Epic Fails than Age-Calibrated Successes.

So, approaching this half marathon, my goals shifted radically. Instead of aiming for a 2:08 or better finish, the mark that said to me that I was Maintaining, Staying Steady, my goal was much more basic: Keep. Running. Don’t. Walk. The worst part, however, is that I really didn’t think I could do it. (Spoiler alert: as if you couldn’t see this coming, I did  do it, or I’d be too ashamed to write this blog entry, right? Now all you’re waiting for is the Self-Congratulations at the end.) After all, I’d never done it in training, at least over that mileage. But it was a noble goal, I thought, and I was going to try. Hopefully, the energy of the race and the presence of over 2000 competitors to urge me on would be just the impetuses that could make it happen.

But then, milling around before the race began, searching for my corral, I saw pacers with their slender sticks, sporting signs with times: 2:30. 2:20. Hmmm. Could I try for a time too? Not 2:08, certainly. Those days were gone. I’m not that stubborn. But something to work for beyond Keep. Running? 2:30 seemed a nice round number, but only 2:20 seemed a challenge. At 10.40 pace, it was depressing to think that was my new challenge, but it is what it is. So I settled in beside this loud, boisterous, encouraging group of women for whom, judging from their whooping at bystanders, encouraging shouts to the gasping runners beside them, and their ability to talk in full sentences, this pace was slumming it for them.

My goal now became two-fold. Keep. Running. and “keep a few steps in front of the pace group,” a cushion that deflated multiple times during the race, the group sometimes surging to pass me. But then the Angry Middle-Aged Woman in me kicked in, and even at mile nine, when I literally had to will each leg to move forward, I refused to let the gap widen. Nobody would give a rip if I let them slide out of sight. Just me.

As I entered the stadium for the final one-tenth (which always manages to feel like an additional mile), I was right beside the pacer, feeling pretty good about myself. Then she kicked it in. I mean seriously kicked it in (see two paragraphs back). And somehow, legs that were less than a mile ago receiving instructions from my brain in how to move, now got an Epipen of adrenaline and were racing ahead, while my brain was faltering, saying, “Wait. What’s happening?”

I crossed the line at almost exactly 2:20. When I received my results print out, I had finished in 1291st place. (Is that even a thing?) That could still be depressing. But then I looked at my age group placing: 22. Yes! So out of the 61 women aged 55-59 who, like me, were trying to stave off age and prove something to themselves by entering this race, I had been a contender. And best of all, I had Kept. Running.

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