Recently I read Dara Torres' biography, Age is Just A Number. My friend Liz wrote the book and maybe it's for that reason I liked it so much. I like Liz, of course, but she is also a fantastic writer. For those of you who have read the book, I know it reads in the first person. That makes Liz's feat in writing it even more impressive, doesn't it?
Anyway. You should all read it because, like me, many of you are parents, no longer spring chickens, and mature enough to truly appreciate being an athlete. Many of you are also old enough to remember when Torres went to her first Olympics at age 15, and then her second, and her third, and her fourth, and most recently, her fifth, at age 41. The names I associate with Torres--Tracey Caulkins, Rowdy Gaines, Steve Lundquist (I had magazine cut-outs of him all over my high school bedroom walls), Matt Biondi, Janet Evans--all retired years and years and years ago. (You must admit Lundquist was rather smoking. I felt the need to travel down memory lane here...)
And she was 41.
And she is a mom.
And no, Ted, I really DON'T believe she doped.
In the past I've felt that speed and endurance are wasted on the young. They take speed for granted, use it nonchalantly, view it as a given. The younger athlete is pissed when his speed or endurance fail him and he doesn't win, or place, or beat the old dude out there. The older athlete, on the other hand, expects his speed and endurance will fail him. He doesn't expect to win anymore--or even place, except, perhaps, in his age group. He doesn't expect to beat the young dude with the attitude and the lean body.
But I'm not sure exactly WHY this is true. It certainly hasn't been true in my case. I was a fairly good swimmer in my high school years, but I am a better swimmer now--at least in terms of endurance swimming. Further, in high school and college I couldn't run at all, and I considered it an amazing success that in my mid-20s I completed my first marathon in around 4:10. Just recently I took 51 minutes off that marathon time--and I'm not nearly as proud of that accomplishment as I am of that first 4:10, which seemed positively miraculous at the time. At any rate, I wouldn't want my current self to compete against my young self. Mentally and physically my seasoned older self would kick the shit out of my self as a girl.
And it's not just me who has improved with age. Do you know the average age of the top two women runners at this year's NYC marathon? 39.5. In fact, every one of the women in the top five at NY this year was over 32; the average age for the five being 36. And did you note that the gold in the last Olympic marathon went to Constantina Tomescu-Dita, who happens to be a 38-year-old mom? And this year at Kona, every one of the women in the top ten was over 30, with the singular exception of Mirinda Carfrae, who is 28. DeDe Greisbauer has been in the top 10 at Kona for the last several years running, and this year she celebrated her 39th b-day. Even among we non-professionals I can cite examples of the older athlete kicking the younger athlete's ass. My friend Alina, a state champion in her high school years in multiple events, is now bettering the times she posted back then, and she's nearly 40. My friend Melissa, too, keeps getting better with age. She has PRed over and over again this season, and she's been competing as a runner all 44 years of her life.
Dara Torres, via Liz, put it this way:
Lifestyle, not genetics, is the primary reason older athletes tend to slow down. Most people as they reach their thirties, place more priority on their jobs and families, as well they should. But as a result they downgrade their workout goals from achieving personal bests to staying in shape. This might be the right decision for many. This might even by the right decision for you. But if you still have athletic ambitions, if you still want to compete and win, there's no reason you have to give up. Your body can still perform if you put in the effort--if you still do that 10 mile run or that long, hard quality set. You just need to be smarter about training and more time-efficient. But chances are, if you're an older athlete, you're smarter and more time-efficient anyway.
If you guessed that this whole post is just a pep talk to myself about the fact that I'm entering a new AG next year, you are right.
But it's a good pep talk. Because the more I look, the more I find examples of how peak performance often doesn't occur until our later years. The most competitive age group in triathlon is NOT 20-29, as one might guess. Often people ask if I'm excited to move into the 40-44 age group, since presumably the competition will not be so fierce. But, in fact, the 40-44ers are MORE competitive than the 35-39ers. I will actually have to improve my performance next season if I want to continue placing well in my age group.
Sometimes I find myself wistfully looking back. So many of the big chapters of my life seem finished. When you are growing up (as a girl, anyway) you often wonder about the mysteries life holds for your future: who will I marry? What will I be? How many kids will I have? Where will I settle down to live? You don't think of questions beyond those chapters. It's as if those chapters are the only chapters. Certainly when young you don't ponder when you will start your second, or third career, marriage, family, or home. You don't think about whether you will enjoy a comfortable retirement. You simply don't imagine the later chapters in life. It's hard to even fathom what they are. I think this is why 40 seems so ominous, so mortifying, so well, OLD. We haven't imagined the chapters after 40--and so it seems that the book must end when we get there.
But now I'm trying--trying very hard to embrace that over 40 holds incredible possibility, because I have no idea what chapters have still to be written. Life certainly isn't over. It's called MID-life because one is half way there.
And isn't it usually the second half of the race that holds all of the meaning and excitement--pain and joy? Isn't that where the shit really happens? Isn't that where the ones who have not given up show their stuff and pass all of the young bucks?
Well, isn't it?