Does Age Matter in the Marathon?

by Karl Gruber
When asked if they think they could run a marathon, many people will usually answer, “Oh man, I don’t know. That is an awfully long way to run, and I don’t think I’m fit enough to do it.” 
Generally speaking, those who may take this question more seriously are often younger people. They may not be far removed from high school or college sports activities, feeling fairly confident that with the proper training they would be able to conquer the 26.2 mile monster. Even many middle-aged people tend to contemplate running and completing a half marathon — which is a good stepping stone before moving up to run 26.2 miles by the way.
Senior citizens, however, are more likely to say no and believe that running a full marathon is simply not an option for them. I suppose this would be the probable response because there can be lots of wear and tear on the body from years of daily work, injuries from sports or accidents, or maybe a lack of health and fitness activities. The societal mindset of “oh you’re supposed to get old, weary and worn-out” leads them to believe they can’t do it. Fortunately, more and more older runners are shunning this mindset, adopting a youthful “I can do it” attitude, and successfully running 13.1 or 26.2 miles. 
Some of the best examples older runners overcoming doubts include:
  • Canadian Ed Whitlock’s finishing time of 2:54:48 (or 6:40 pace per mile) at the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon set the world record for the 70+ age group. He then continued to rack up marathon records for the senior age group for many years after that — even running a 3:56:34 at the age of 85, only six months before he passed away. 
  • More recently, 70-year-old Gene Dykes of Pennsylvania unofficially broke Whitlock’s record by running an incredible 2:54:23 (or 6:39 mile pace per mile) at the 2018 Jacksonville Florida Marathon! 
  • In the women’s senior running division, perhaps the most outstanding runner is Kathryn Martin. Martin’s running performances are mostly focused on shorter road races and on the track, though she has demonstrated her running prowess at both the half marathon and 25K race distances. To date, she holds 17 F65 U.S. records, eight track world records and four road race world records.
  • Even in my own running club, 65-year-old Mary Jablonski recently ran a 10K in 47:15 (or 7:37 pace per mile) and was the second place female overall! She was only beaten by a 28-year-old woman and bested the second place women in the 65+ age group by 29 minutes! 
These senior runners should be an inspiration and example to all older runners that, with proper training and commitment to fitness, it is not only possible but quite feasible to run well at an older age. 
But do not let these blazingly fast times intimidate you! Please know that no matter your age, you do NOT have to set world records or win your age group to run well and enjoy the journey, especially at the half and full marathon distances. The purpose of training for and then running a half or full marathon race is to successfully get from point A (the starting line) to point B (the finish line) — no matter how fast or slow you run.
If you’re wondering whether age plays a factor in your ability to successfully run a long distance, I’ll let Baseball Hall of Fame member Yogi Berra answer that question: “Baseball is 90% mental, the other half is physical.” Yogisms aside, I think you get the picture — if you decide you can’t run a marathon, then you won’t, and if you decide that you can do it, then you will. Ed Whitlock, Gene Dykes, Kathryn Martin and Mary Jablonski all are proof that it can be done at any age!
Whether you’re 20-years-old or 70-years-old, no matter what roadblocks may hinder you in the pursuit of running a marathon, you can always find inspiration and motivation. From double amputee Scott Rigsby, who has not only run the Boston Marathon but also completed the Iron Man World Triathlon Championship. Or from Dan Leite, President of the Columbus Ohio Marathon Board of Directors, who had heart replacement surgery two years ago and came back to complete the 2018 Nationwide Children’s Columbus Marathon.

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