In May of 2009, I entered my second race, a small 5K. I was still a newbie to running with only six months under my belt, but the other two members of my family who also entered were even newer. My 11 year-old son had started running with me and had quickly found the ability to cover 3.1 miles. My wife had also begun to run a bit. Now that I knew a bit more about racing and age groups, I decided to enter my son in this 5K, hoping he’d earn a medal and receive that whole positive reinforcement thing. I’m not sure how we talked my wife into running the race.
Well, that day turned out to be the highest medal count ever recorded by Team Fowler. As luck would have it, my son won his age group, receiving his first medal and some non-dad encouragement to keep going. My wife completed her first and only 5K and brought home 3rd place in her age group. Then there was me…
I remember running the first two miles faster than I ever had for two miles, in something like 15 minutes. Since this was too fast for my abilities, my body hit the wall hard, and I struggled the last 1.1 miles to finish with a 23:37. Turns out, this was good enough for first place in the 40-44 age group, and I was pretty pleased with myself. Maybe I was pretty good at this for a 41 year-old. Maybe the whole family was good!
Later, as I looked over the results online, something caught my eye – the overall winner was another 41 year-old. His name was Eric Ashton, and unbeknownst to me at the time, he was a local running superstar. Eric ran the race in about 15:30, crossing the finish line about the time I started my crash and burn third mile. Bubble burst.
So, I wasn’t the fastest 41 year-old around. For the moment, I was the fastest in the family, but that was going to be short-lived and could be the subject of future blog posts.
I suppose at that point, I was probably naive enough, with perhaps some of my 1985 ego lurking deep inside, to think I could work hard and achieve those kind of 5K results. Turns out, I would have been wrong. I did improve in my 5K’s a bit, but I was more successful in extending my same speed out to longer distances. For example, my pace per mile in my 2016 Lexington Half Marathon was faster than my mile pace that day in 2009.
In golf, there’s a concept called handicap. This is a complicated formula based on your scores that basically tells everyone how good you are. For instance, if you’re a 3 handicap, it means you are much better than an 18. This system also gives golfers of unequal talents a chance to compete against each other.
Let’s take our 3 and 18 handicap golfers. If they just went out and played head to head with no handicap involved, the lower handicap golfer is likely to shoot 75 or better. The 18 handicap, though, is more likely to shoot around 90 and lose. However, let’s say they play with handicaps. The 3 handicap might have a ho-hum day and shoot 77. Subtracting his 3 handicap, his net total is 74. Suppose the 18 handicapper breaks 90 for the first time in a long time with an 88. Subtract 18 from 88 and you have 70. Our match is 74 to 70, and the high handicapper takes a few bucks from his buddy.
Running doesn’t work this way. Races have multiple categories. There’s always an overall winner, and sometimes there are categories called Masters and Super Masters for competitors over 40 and 50 respectively. Then there are the age groups, which are usually 5 year increments. For instance, my category is now male 50-54. If I’m not the overall or one of the master’s winners, then I’m competing against the men from age 50 to 54.
Just because running competitions don’t currently work this way, it doesn’t mean they couldn’t. Some researchers have put together formulas that take your age into account and show their idea of what your time would be if you’re under 30. This is basically handicapping running. Check out the article and calculator from Runner’s World here:
In 2016, at age 48, I had been working on improving my 5K time as part of my Boston Marathon qualifying strategy. That may seem a little odd, but the collective wisdom in the running community was you had to be able to run a 5K around 21 minutes (for my age) to show you had the speed needed to run 26.2 miles at the Boston qualifying pace. I had been stuck at 21:30 for a few years.
My coach had been putting me through the 5K training ringer for about three months when I toed the starting line at the 2016 Jailbreak 5K in Lexington, SC. In front of me at the starting line was a now familiar 48 year-old face – Eric Ashton. Next to him were some much younger elite runners from out of town, hoping to claim the prize money.
We took off and after one mile, I had run my fastest competitive mile ever – a 6:03. If I could keep that pace, I’d shatter my goal of 21 minutes. Heck, I’d beat 19 minutes. Alas, just like in 2009, my body reminded me that I was not in that kind of shape, and I struggled the last mile. However, I came in at 20:03, shattering both my 21 minute goal and the mental barrier telling me a didn’t have the speed for Boston.
That day, I also won my age group again, definitely a rarity, but extremely special that day, given the size and popularity of the Jailbreak race. As in 2009, I still wasn’t the fastest person my age, though. Eric was showing signs that even legends cannot completely outrun Father Time. He was bested by the younger elites for the overall title, but he still managed a crazy fast time of 16:03 and earned the Master’s award, and, thus, allowing me to take the 45-49 age group.
In seven years, Eric had slowed 30 seconds, and I had improved 3 1/2 minutes in the 5K. By my estimate, looks like if we both maintain the same progression, I will catch him about age 55. (Hope you had a big laugh at that!)
So here are your takeaways from this little story:
- There’s always someone cooler (or better) than you. Therefore, don’t compare yourself to others if you’re just beginning.
- If you take up running a bit later in life, like I did, you may not ever be super fast, but you can likely stretch out that pace to distances you never dreamed possible.
- If you’re thinking about starting running or triathlon, try to involve the family or at least have their support.
Thanks for reading,
PS – Despite her bling from the 5K, my wife wasn’t hooked that day in 2009, and she didn’t continue running. Her running retirement wasn’t permanent, though. A few years later she started again, and went on to complete a half marathon in 2014 and then re-retired. Unfortunately, this retirement seems to be permanent, but there’s always 2019? LOL.