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Fleet feet: Older runners keep pace with 20-somethings

Sometimes, even in running, people get better with age — and three area women are examples of that
By Holly Vanorse Spicer | Sep 02, 2020
Courtesy of: Facebook/Barbara Daggett From left, Emily McDevitt, Barbara Daggett and Jala Tooley.

Runners often hear the expression “it’s all downhill from here,” and it always is not in reference to an actual downhill, but, age.

For as long as people have been running for sport, or leisure, as they age, the understanding has been they would slow down. Their pace times would begin to stretch, their legs tire more quickly.

However, thanks to wearable technology, and phone apps, it is being discovered that is actually not the case.

While the data this technology provides is not 100 percent accurate, the error margins are small.

Each year, some of the most popular phone apps that sync with wearable technology like smartwatches, chest bands, and the like, release their annual data for the sports they track.

Over the years, the only data that was accessible was the finish times of runners during races. So to have more in-depth data that includes training cycles of runners in all age groups, it opens the door on just when the average runner hits peak.

Strava releases its data from users annually, so when it released the user data in 2019, which included the training for, and running of the London Marathon, it had quite a few people scratching their heads.

The data showed runners in their 40s, and 50s, were outpacing the runners of the marathon in their 20s.

For the London Marathon specifically, runners in the 50-59 age group held the average finish time of four hours and 34 minutes, and the 40-49 age group averaged four hours and 30 minutes. The 20-29 age group averaged four hours and 37 minutes.

Some seasoned runners, and coaches have suggested the training methods of older versus younger. Something the numbers, in relation to training, could suggest is true.

Training data for marathon runs shows older runners are logging an average of 28 miles each week throughout the typical 13 weeks a runner trains for the 26.2-mile marathon trek. Runners in their 20s are logging an average of 25 miles each week during the same time.

Patience was another suggestion.

Author of the book "Feet in the Clouds," Richard Askwith, said runners become more patient with their training and racing.

“Rather than fretting about the distance, we just cruise along in a more relaxed frame of mind,” Askwith said.

In looking at the mile splits throughout the race, the agreement among the run coaching community is younger runners run harder, sooner, and are unable to sustain the pace throughout the long courses.

However, in a study done by Gerald Zavorsky, Kelly Tomko, and James Smoliga that analyzed 16 years of marathon data from the Chicago, Boston, and New York marathons, may have the answers.

The study looked at the data from all finishers, from the elite runners, and the average marathoner. The conclusion was that, while elite runners may see their peak running come and go in their early 30s before beginning to slow, the average marathoner does not.

The peak for those runners does not come until around the age of 50. In turn, that means that someone can continuously improve their times through their 30s, and 40s, and potentially run their fastest marathon time in their early-50s.

Zavorsky, a respiratory exercise physiologist, and supervisor for Pulmonary Services at University of California Davis Medical Center, said in an interview that average runners might push themselves much later in life even though their physical peak has passed.

“Because they never pushed themselves when they were younger, they can hold themselves longer,” he said.

Smoliga, an associate professor in the department of physical therapy at High Point University in North Carolina, said age is not an excuse.

“If a 40-year-old says he’s slower than a 25-year-old, I’m not sure that counts anymore,” Smoliga said in an interview.

He added human bodies are capable of performing at a high level later in life than people think.

A 2017 study at Liverpool John Moores University, published in Journal of Applied Physiology, determined runners who consistently log more weekly miles, an average of 30 miles, improved their running efficiency as the results of neuromuscular changes.

The leg muscles of higher-mileage runners did not have to work as hard as runners logging 10 miles or fewer a week.

Efficiency also creates a level of endurance, meaning a high-mileage runner's legs will not fatigue as quickly.

Of course, all conversations surrounding those in their 40s and older making it through the paces faster than their younger competition, are in relation to the average runner.

Knox County runners, Jala Tooley, Emily McDevitt and Barbara Daggett, all over the age of 40, offered their running statistics, and training for comparison to the study.

Jala Tooley

Tooley, 41, of Camden, started running at age 17 after being recruited by a peer, and her school’s cross-country coach.

More than two decades later, she still runs.

“It’s my outlet for everything. I get ‘rangry’ if I haven’t been able to get a run in for a couple days,” she said.

The Sugarloaf Marathon was her first distance race. She was 32 when she did her first, and her finish time was 3:47:08.

She ran the marathon again in 2017, with the goal of qualifying for the Boston Marathon, and took over 10 minutes off her total time, finishing in 3:34:47. The time did qualify her for Boston.

In 2018, Tooley raced in her dream race, the Boston Marathon. That race, was an incredibly soggy 26.2 miles, and one of the wettest in 30 years.

“I was just happy to be there, and ran just under my goal time of four hours,” she said.

Her total finish time was 3:58:32. Despite the weather, her overall finish time still put Tooley on pace with the median finish times of the 20-29 age bracket for women.

Over years of race data analyzed by the Zavorsky, Tomko, and Smoliga study, the median finish times for the 20-29 age group of women range from three hours and 45 minutes, to four hours and 20 minutes.

When she is not training for a race, Tooley averages around 25 miles a week. During her training seasons, she logs around 35 to 40 miles a week. Which is significantly more than the 20-somethings averaged for London’s race day training.

Emily McDevitt

McDevitt, 55, of Camden, started running in 1981, the summer before she began her junior year of high school.

“My dad, in his 50s at the time, got caught up in the running craze of the 1970s, and was a local legend in Presque Isle, as long-distance running wasn’t a mainstream activity,” she said.

She added he tried to get her to run with him early on, but as a rebellious, teenage girl, doing something her father wanted her to do, was the last thing she wanted to do. She would not pick up running for a few more years.

“I became the girlfriend of a running boy, and guess who started running? It is a whole different thing when your boyfriend wants you to run,” she said.

In the nearly four decades McDevitt has run, she has completed nine road marathons, 11 road, and trail half-marathons, two trail 25K distance events, and two 100-mile trail races where she completed 20-miles in each as part of a relay team.

Her fastest marathon time was her first marathon in 1991, the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., and it remains her fastest with a finish time of 3:23:08.

“My first and my fastest marathon to date. I was 26 years old, and I had no idea what I was doing. I just ran my heart out until I reached the finish line,” she said.

In 2013, McDevitt ran the Sugarloaf Marathon, as she finished in 3:31.52. Two years later, she ran the New York City Marathon in 3:51.39.

The 2013 marathon, McDevitt said, she trained for and aimed for her fastest time. The 2015 marathon, however, was for fun.

In her late 40s, her finish time for Sugarloaf bests the median finish time for the 20-29 year age group by almost 15 minutes. The New York marathon, at age 50, puts her one minute inside the median finish time for that same age group.

When it comes to training, McDevitt loves to run, but is no fan of the training for races.

When she was younger, she focused on logging miles, averaging 70 miles a week. As she got older, her training changed, and she had set a 12 week build up for her marathon training. With that training cycle, she was averaging 50-60 miles a week, with the weeks consisting of two, or three, 20 mile long runs.

Now, as she preps for a 50k trail race in September, she said that she trains more according to her family’s schedule, and her desire to run. To prep for the trail race, she has traversed portions of the course, splitting them into a 15 miler, and a 16 miler.

McDevitt said that she is also doing more hiking on technical trails.

Overall, her miles logged weekly varies between 20 and 50 miles a week.

In a reference to the Liverpool study, the decades that both Tooley, and McDevitt have logged high miles for training, and races, the fact that they’re still pacing on track with, or even outpacing the younger age group, could correlate with the data from that study.

Barbara Daggett

It also can explain how Daggett, 50, of Thomaston, who has run long distances for less than a decade, has similar pace times, and consistently has improved her times.

Daggett came into running on a considerably different track than Tooley, and McDevitt, as her running career did not begin until she was 43.

“I did run a bit in college, but then started really running about seven years ago,” she said.

Her first dip into any type of racing was a 5K, or 3.1 miles. Her finish time was 24 minutes. Daggett improved on her 5K times, attaining a personal-best time of 21 minutes. A time that is a feat at any age.

Since lacing up her shoes, she has completed three 100-mile races, along with eight half-marathons, 10 marathons, 10 50-milers, and three 50K distance races.

Her quickest marathon race time was 3:48. She also has completed a 50-mile race in nine hours and 30 minutes and a 100-miler in 27 hours and 15 minutes.

Daggett said she always is training for something. During the pandemic, she has found ways to be creative, having finished five ultra runs.

“I have finished five ultra runs in different, interesting ways,” she said.

An ultra-marathon is anything in distance longer than 26.2 miles.

Daggett said she tends to run blocks of different types of running, rather than different mileage.

“I might only run up to 60 miles in one week, even for a 100 miler,” she said.

Thanks to the variety of ways runners can plug in, and track data, that data, paired with studies now show what was once thought true, that runners slow as they age, to actually be flawed.

While runners will inevitably find they do slow down as they age, the age-old assumption that the slow down happens in the mid-30s, has been left at the start line of the race.

Jala Tooley. (Courtesy of: Joe McGurn/RaceME)
Jala Tooley. (Courtesy of: Jala Tooley)
Barbara Daggett runs in the 2018 Waldoboro Day 5-kilometer event (Photo by: Holly Vanorse Spicer)
Barbara Daggett. (Courtesy of: Barbara Daggett)
Emily McDevitt in a snowshoe race. (Courtesy of: Emily McDevitt)
Emily McDevitt. (Courtesy of: Emily McDevitt)
Emily McDevitt. (Courtesy of: Emily McDevitt)
Emily McDevitt. (Courtesy of: Emily McDevitt)
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