Pushing the Limit

By Jim Brennan

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Share this statistic with the next person who gives you an “Over the Hill” birthday card: more than 90,000 runners over the age of 50 finished a marathon in 2010.

That’s right, a whopping 18 per cent of all marathon finishers who completed a 26.2-mile, 42.2-kilometre foot race were half-centurions. If that’s not enough to humble your would-be antagonist, just remind them that less than one per cent of the earth’s total population even attempts to run a marathon.

In my early running years, I idolized seniors who would show up and compete at distance races. Then, one day, after a half-marathon, my buddy Ed and I were at a post-race gathering enjoying a cold beer when he asked, “Did you ever notice there aren’t that many runners our age competing in these races anymore?” I looked around and said, “Not until you mentioned it.” Now that I’ve joined the senior ranks myself, it seems things have changed.

I’d always considered age a function of the way I felt rather than a number attached to my name; and I tend to be somewhat oblivious to wrinkles, graying or missing hair, and a paunch. That I had run my first marathon over 30 years ago doesn’t make me feel old; instead, I am grateful that I am still able to participate in a sport that has been with me most of my life.

People of any age who take up running rarely do so with the intention of running a marathon. Typically, beginners start by jogging short distances to shed a few pounds, and then find they enjoy the feeling of perspiration dripping from their body and clarity of mind that comes with being immersed in sweat.

The usual progression for a beginner runner is to enter a short race, usually a 5K (five kilometre or 3.1 miles), eventually progress to a 10K, and then to mid-distance races, which are anywhere from half-marathon to 25K or 30K. A common tale among long-distance runners is that, at some point, they became fascinated by the marathon, as if lured to the 26.2-mile race by a sort of gravitational pull.

Infatuation with the marathon is surpassed only by the allure of the granddaddy of them all — the Boston Marathon. Boston is the most recognizable road race in the world, not only because of its rich history dating back to 1897, but because a runner must qualify to run.

To qualify, a runner must complete a USA Track & Field sanctioned marathon in a predetermined time based upon age and gender. For example, a 60-year-old male must complete a sanctioned marathon in 3:55:00 and 60-year-old woman in 4:25:00. This equates to running at an 8:58-per-mile pace for men and 10:07 for women. Such a pace is impressive and to maintain that pace for over 26 miles is incredible. The ability for seniors to sustain that pace for such a distance is downright mind-boggling.

But it has become so common for seniors to participate in distance races that it no longer turns heads. The legendary John Kelley finished 58 Boston Marathons, winning in 1935 and 1945. He finished in second place seven times, and placed in the Top Ten 18 times. He ran his final Boston Marathon in 1992 at the age of 84. Three thousand more runners over the age of 55 ran the Boston Marathon this past April than in the previous year.

I recall running through the Hills of Newton, a series of three hills that begin at Mile 17 and climaxes near Heartbreak Hill at Mile 20, in the 2005 Boston Marathon. A runner many years my senior wearing a bucket hat came up from behind and steadily strided ahead of me. I repeated my mantra loud enough for him to hear, “Slow and steady.” The seasoned runner turned and gave me a shifty-eyed smile. I saw the back of his head for another minute or two, and then he disappeared down the other side of Heartbreak Hill.

Another year slipped by recently, my 58th, and I realized I’d been doing this 26.2-mile thing for a long time. In fact, based on finishing times recorded at marathonguide.com, I ran my first marathon before 27 per cent of the runners who completed a marathon in 2010 were born. Nevertheless, the road is the great equalizer, and I am merely one in a community of runners.

This summer, I watched my son compete in the Philadelphia Triathlon. I positioned myself near the finish line and listened as the athletes’ names were announced when they crossed. More than a few were in their 60s, and some were in their 70s. These are the men and women who give me energy and inspiration, and assurance many good years lie ahead.

I’ve outlasted the days when family and friends would warn me I’d better start acting my age. I prefer to live the motto of humourist Dave Barry: “What I look forward to is continued immaturity followed by death.”



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