I finished the Portland Marathon last weekend. It was my first marathon in 10 years (not counting the Ironman‘s shortly after). Glad I did it but boy was it tough! Leading up to the race I had a lot of people ask me how I thought it would go. I really didn’t have a clue. I ran 3:10 in my last marathon on a tougher course. This time, running under 4 hours would be nice and I set that as a realistic goal. Having only run 16 miles in training leading up to the race it was really unclear what my body would actually be capable of doing. I ended up finishing in 3:54.
I definitely feel like I am far tougher now (age 31) than I was when I ran my first marathon (age 21). People say all kinds of things about how younger athletes are stronger, recover faster and have some sort of edge. I think it is completely untrue. While science shows that lung capacity and strength do begin to decline beyond the late twenties (some say the decline starts as early as age 25) there are so many other factors at play. I know for certain I am mentally tougher than I was 21 years ago. I know how to handle discomfort and pain much better. I know how to not go out too fast (though sometimes I still do!) in a long race. I focus more on nutrition and hydration strategy. I also have a more well-rounded approach to training. I’m not as fixated on mileage on more on overall fitness. This means I do a ton of cross-training (yoga, bodyweight exercises, hiking, etc.).
I think the biggest distinction that I’ve gained with age is the ability to just endure. For my marathon, the final 10 miles were incredibly painful – not just tiring. My feet were swollen and I was freezing cold (it was pouring rain the entire race). It felt like I was running on stumps due to the swelling (first time I have ever experiences this). My hands were also swollen and hurt. I am still not sure what caused the swelling – the cold, the fact that I was soaking wet or some allergic reaction to something I ate. I slowed down a lot in those final miles but was able to stay mentally clear enough to reassess how I was doing and change-up my strategy. Instead of trying to run non-stop, I decided to walk the aid stations and then jog at a consistent pace in between. I ended up finishing strong and with a smile on my face. 10 years ago I would have definitely pushed it hard and probably ended up with massive cramping (as happened in my last marathon 10 years ago, and at my last Ironman race 7 years ago).
Hydration and nutrition is also another benefit. I used to think that stopping for water and food was lame and just an excuse to take a break. I used to speed up at aid stations just so I could pass people who were slowing down to get some food and water! I take the other approach now. I think it will help me out in a big way as I start racing longer distances – I am doing my first ultra-marathon in December at the North Face Endurance 50K in the San Francisco area Marin Headlands park.
I am convinced that when it comes to endurance sports we improve with age – especially when you count things beyond just finishing time/speed. I don’t know how far this will go….but I do know that when I hiked the Inca trail in 2003 – one of the strongest porters (hiking the entire trail barefoot in shorts and a t-shirt with 70 lbs on his back) was also the oldest. Nobody really knew his age…but it was definitely well over 50. Everyone respected him. All the guides, all the porters, everyone. I want to be like that guy!