This morning we talked about one of the youngest marathoners around, 14 year-old Winter Vinecki. While she’s doing some amazingly cool things, when we think of the best marathon performances, we think of a woman a little older, probably in her early to mid-thirties. Why do we think that? Deena Kastor. Kara Goucher. Shalane Flanagan. Paula Radcliffe. They have all hit that 30 year barrier and BOOM! Dropped crazy fast marathon times. And now comes word that Tirunesh Dibaba, the winner of the 10,000meter gold at the 2012 Olympics, plans to move up to the marathon for the 2016 games when she’ll be – you guessed it – 30 years old!
As several of us Salties approach or surpass that big 3-0, I was thinking if there’s something about the 30s that leads to our peak running performances. Is it the age, itself? Or something else? I decided to investigate.
Do us non-elites tend to peak a bit later in age, too? I think we do, but I think it has more to do with life experiences, especially in the longer distances like the marathon and ultras. Here are some thoughts on the matter.
Childbirth: Because 26.2 is chopped liver. I’m not speaking from experience (Chime in here: Salty? Mint? Bueller?), but theories exist that say child birthing and the pain of having an a grapefruit-sized head come out of a Cheerio-sized opening pretty much desensitizes the body from other, perhaps more tolerable, pain. Placing one foot in front of the other and remembering to breathe might not seem as daunting after the birthing experience. While preggers, women become progressively more pain tolerant. Natural painkillers, like endorphines, elevate and help get one to the finish line, pun intended. Once giving birth, do the endorphins stick around? Is the body more accustomed to kicking into that mode and making you more tolerant of that inevitable painful last few miles?
Kara Goucher explained how the last 8 miles of the 2012 Olympic marathon was actually quite similar to what she felt in childbirth. The cramping that crept up her right calf and into her back felt familiar. Was she able to keep going though, despite the driving rain and pain, because she had been through worse? Giving birth in fall of 2010 to her son, Colt, was no easy feat, with 15 hours of labor.
The mental toughness that comes with life experience. I don’t know of may 14-year-olds that run marathons – besides Winter Vinecki, of course. Dominating endurance races takes tenacity and mental toughness. I’m not saying that teenagers and 20-somethings don’t have the mental capability, but I am saying that life experiences enrichen one’s determination and tolerance. Job rejections. Speeding tickets. Deaths in the family. Mean people. Bad break-ups. The longer our life, the more ups and downs we experience and the same is true with races. Your skin gets thicker as the years go on, and your ability to stick with it when the going gets tough in a race, seems to follow suit.
I remember getting so nervous before cross county and track meets when I was younger and being so jealous of the parents who were there just hanging out as spectators and not having to deal with the pressure of performing. I’d literally go to the bathroom 15 times before the third and final call and distinctly remember having to have the school bus pull over as I dry heaved before a regional meet! I was mortified! Oh, if I knew then what I know now. Even in college, each race seemed like such a HUGE deal, and I was so worried about what others thought if I didn’t run my best. Now, I run for me. That came with age.
I don’t know about you, but as I’ve experienced more of life, racing and pushing myself to my own potential are little treasures in a life full of work, money and just “adult-life-in general” types of stresses! Running a marathon is all about ME! Don’t get me wrong: I still get jittery before big races and sometimes have a hard time getting down my pre-race peanut butter bar, but I have a greater perspective nowadays. It takes a while to get the nerves under control and feel confident, especially in a 3+ hour-long race, but after a while, it becomes more natural.
Timing is Everything. As Tirunesh Dibaba, Shalane Flanagan, et. al. demonstrate, it’s probably not their age, but rather a product of their career path. All these women first found enormous track or cross country success, running the shorter distances. As they peaked in one distance, they moved up to the next.
Additionally, it typically takes a while to perfect the marathon distance. If an athlete makes her first attempt at age 25, it may take 10 marathons and five years of practicing before hitting that personal record, surpassing that 20 mile bonking point, and learning that Raisin Bran does not fare well with the marathoning digestive tract. You really can’t prepare for the feeling of hitting the wall for the first time in a marathon; you’ve gotta experience it yourself.
How many marathons does it typically take to peak? I’ve run six marathons- the first when I was 23 and the last at 27. My fastest was a 3:19. From there, my times actually got progressively slower. It may have been because three of them were in Boston, where Heartbreak Hill, well, broke me and I bonked two of the three times due to nutritional reasons related to my eating disorder. But that’s pretty unique to me. For most runners, it seems, the opposite happens: with each marathon, your time gets a little faster. How many marathons did you race before your peak performance?
Like with other things in life, practice makes perfect, right? It takes fine tuning and systematic training to perfect a race. From incorporating Yasso 800s to fighting the bonk, how many years should one race before reaching her peak? Along the same lines of timing being everything, it seems veteran runners are, in general, more successful in dominating the course. Obviously, there’s a fine line of when years of training work in your favor and years of aging begin breaking down the body and muscle mass … not to be a Debbie Downer or anything!
So what do you think? Is it just coincidence that the world’s best marathoners tend to be in their 30s? Or does it more so have to do with life circumstances? When did you peak at 26.2? Or are you still waiting to break on through?