by Dante Zappala
After 20 years with the Yankees, in the last at bat of his last home game, Derek Jeter hit a game winning single. It was the perfect end to a career.
This same type of story has been unfolding in the running world this year, except that none of the players seem like they are ready to call it quits.
In March, 39-year-old Bernard Lagat finished second in the 3,000 meters at the World Indoor Championships. He would go on to win the U.S. National 5,000 meter outdoor title. He actually set an American road record at 5k this year as well, but it was disallowed, as it turns out the race was mismeaured and was about 4 feet short.
At the Boston Marathon in April, Meb Keflezhigi did the improbable and won the race just twoweeks before his 39th birthday. You’d have to go back more than 80 years to find a winner at Boston who was possibly older than Meb.
In August, a perennial runner-up from England named Jo Pavey earned her first gold medal at a major championship by winning the 10,000 meters at the European Athletics Championships. She did this a month shy of turning 41.
And here, in Philadelphia last week, 41 year old Deena Kastor broke the Master’s world record in the half marathon by a stunning 20 seconds en route to a third place finish overall. Just a year ago after finishing 9th at the World Championships Marathon, Kastor talked about it being the most painful race of her career and she even suggested hanging it up. But it’s now plausible that she could make the Olympics in 2016 in the marathon, an event where she already earned a bronze medal in 2004. The qualifying race to make the Olympic team will be held the day before she turns 43.
After setting the world record last week, Kastor said something very revealing while recounting what was going through her mind during the race: “I don’t have it, I do have it, no I don’t have it. I kept having that mental battle, am I on or am I off? Give up or should I dig down?”
Even after 15 years of professional running, doubt still crept in. But one of the benefits of age is that you know what it is to go to the well. You’ve done it before and you can do it again.
Eventually, the well starts drying up. Faster times and records will become impossible. But even then, it just means digging a little deeper to find water. I know people in their 70s still competing and winning nationally against others in their age groups.
What’s at the root of this success? All of these people have challenged conventions with a simple belief that they can continue to perform well. They’ve paired that with hard work and a little bit of luck.
I can jump on this bandwagon as well. This year, I ran my fastest 5k in probably 18 years. I set a new PR in the marathon by 22 minutes. I attribute a lot of this to the training I do with the kids (at this point in my life, anyone under 25 is a kid). A few times a week, I meet up with aptly named Juventus Track Club, a local group that includes two professional female runners as well as several on the brink of joining their ranks. Throw in the high school and junior high kids who are among the tops in the nation and I pretty much have my hands full with every workout.
They have definitely made me better, particularly by getting me into situations I would otherwise avoid at all costs. As runners, we generally like to control most aspects of what we do. Especially as we get older, life in general becomes more planned and more conservative. So it goes also with running. Off-the-shelf running plans are overly precise and most advice you’ll find is incredibly structured. While these may be sound training principles, they can also quickly limit how we perceive our abilities.
These kids have forced me to get over my newfound doubts and hesitations. “This pace isn’t in the right target zone,” I might hear myself saying. “Such-and-such book thinks this is too much.”
I’ve relearned what it is to let go. Running is, by nature, uncomfortable, so you have to be willing to embrace that in training. Otherwise, when you find yourself in an uncomfortable spot in a race, you’ll be hard pressed on what to do. So I am submitting to the workouts and even leading them in some cases. The major difference between me and the kids is that I can’t rebound as quickly as they do. Youth has its advantages. So I might have to skip a workout with them to be ready for the next.
The results have been fantastic. I’ve certainly had a fitness breakthrough. I’m running better now than I have at any point in the last four years since I refocused my efforts on the sport.
But the real benefit has been mentally. I’m finding great confidence through the acknowledgment that fear has infiltrated my understanding of the world. My real success has been in embracing that reality and then going out and conquering it, be it with some ridiculous hill interval workout or just by taking a fresh look at what I am trying to do as a parent.
I’ve had to face that tough realization that reframes the sense of arrival one feels at this age to one of potentially being stuck. It’s not always pretty to come to terms with, but it’s liberating to do something about it.
Conventional wisdom can be overwhelming in its demand for us to conform and to act our age. But breaking through it reveals an inherent truth much closer to our real potential.