Faster as a Master? The power (or not) of age grading

I’m 42 and have been running since junior high school, so I’ve seen a lot of ups, downs, and plateaus with training and racing. Last week, though, before the Mรผggelsee half marathon in Berlin, I got all nostalgic remembering that I’d run the same half marathon exactly ten years ago in 1:40. That was a great race. It was a PR by eight minutes. I felt wistful knowing that this year, I wouldn’t have a chance in hell of running 13 consecutive 7:40 miles; my goal this year was 8:12/mile on a good day.

Of course, there are a lot of differences between 2008 me and 2018 me. I train differently now because the way I trained back then would absolutely wreck me today. In 2008 I ran at least one half marathon per month, sometimes two, in my quest to get better at them. In between, I hammered it to the point that I sometimes could barely run because my legs were so sore; I’d hobble around the track on recovery runs because the tartan surface felt least jarring. In short, I had no idea what I was doing, and I’m pretty sure my diet was also terrible. Somehow, with the magic of relative youth, my body didn’t fall apart, but I did get sick a lot that winter.

2018 me has, in the last ten years, read all the running books, gotten herself a coach, fixed her nutrition, strength trained, cross trained. 2018 me also has been pregnant, had a baby, takes a lot long to recover from hard workouts, and is still (at least currently) not able to run as fast for as long as the 2008 version.

Would I still run and train even if I knew I’d never hit my old race times again? Yes, absolutely. I find more joy in doing the work than in attaining a specific finish time, though of course it’s fun to really nail a race once in a while. Still, people will ask “what’s your PR?” and it’s super awkward not to have an answer, or to answer that I used to be a lot faster ten years ago. That’s a weird answer, right?

Bring on age-grading

During all of this navel-gazing, it became obvious that most of the differences between 2008 and 2018 Caraway come to down to the ten-year age difference. I’m older. That’s why it takes me longer to recover; that’s why I’m slower. I don’t love this line of thought, but age grading race times is a thing for a reason, and I’m old enough to have age-graded times.

And would you look at that? Entering my 2018 predicted half marathon time of 1:46:30 into the age-grade calculator spits out an equivalent time of 1:40:25 for an “open” athlete. Wow. I sat staring at the equivalent time for several minutes, letting it sink in. My training and my body are so different now that it seems hard to even make a comparison, but if we go strictly by the calculator, that’s the story: I’m the same runner performing at the same level, just with ten more years on my body.

I’m still not sure how I feel about this. Am I really going to answer the question “what’s your PR” with a long explanation about age grading and 1:46 vs. 1:40? Probably not. Nobody cares that much, least of all me. Still, depending on the situation, it might be quite satisfying to clarify that I’m pretty much rocking it at age 42. And it’s very helpful for me, in my own head, to realize my fitness isn’t as far off from ten years ago as I sometimes think.

By the way, at the 2018 Mรผggelsee half marathon last Sunday, I ran 1:49:09 with a slow first 5k and very steady next 16k to the finish, with no fade. It wasn’t a perfect race, but I was happy with the way I ran (better a slow start than a slow finish! By the way, the photo above is the lake we ran around. So pretty.) So what’s the deal with my half marathons? Is a non age-graded 1:40 half marathon out of reach forever? No, I don’t think so. I can run at least three 7:40 miles in a row right now, so why shouldn’t I be able to add ten more to that? It’ll take a lot of work to get there, of course, and I can’t wait to get started.

Masters runners, do you look up your age-graded times? Does age grading motivate you? Or do you not really care?




I'm a 43-year-old living in Berlin, Germany and currently training for the 2020 Berlin Marathon.

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  1. What a fascinating post. As something of an adult-onset runner, I still feel like my best years and times are ahead of me (I know – the optimism of youth!) so the age-grading doesn’t even figure in my mind…yet. I can see it being a bit of a reassurance if you tend to let past performances mess with your head, though.

    What’s more interesting to me is where the age-grading standards will go as more runners, especially women, stay healthy and perform at a high level well into their senior years. Those records at the upper end of the masters scale seem to be falling all the time.

    1. I agree with Mango. I expect those AG scales will continue to change. And, yes, they are a motivation. I try to hit the 80% some charts use (80% is the cutoff between what is considered regionally competitive and nationally competitive.). I was delighted to see Jeannie Rice set a new world record for 70-year olds at the Chicago Marathon with a time of 3:27:50. I also expect that will have an impact on the AG for women 70-74. I will need to work a bit harder to hit that 80 percentile mark.