Millions of women have taken up running in recent decades—the first generation of women to train in great numbers. Women are qualifying for the Olympic marathon in their 50s, running 100-mile ultra marathons in their 60s, completing Ironmans in their 80s, competing for world masters records in their 90s. What are the secrets of these ageless wonders? How do they get stronger and faster long after their "athletic prime"? Is there an evolutionary reason women can maintain endurance into advanced years? Webb immerses herself in these questions as she as she trains to see just how fast she can get after 50.
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About the Author
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A YEAR AGO, at age 50, I set out on a journey to run my way into a younger self. Just as Henry David Thoreau set off for the wilds of Walden Pond to enter a solitary relationship with nature and understand how to live well, I wanted to enter a deeper relationship with my body and understand how to train it well. I wanted to see if I could run faster and stronger after 50, but more than that, I wanted to enter the second act of my life in the best shape of my life, even fitter than I was as a 20-year-old varsity athlete.
Being somewhat more compulsive than contemplative, I threw myself into this project as I would a race. I immersed myself in studies, picked the brains of leading researchers, and cajoled a team of experts into helping me reach peak conditioning. I also sought out mentors, athletes who have found ways to run strong and long into their 70s, 80s, and even 90s but are quite likely the least studied on the planet: the pioneers of the women's running boom. I tried to apply all that I learned to my own training and then, as the finale to my super-fit year, I tested myself on the world stage by competing in the half-marathon at the World Masters Games in Turin, Italy, to see where I stood amongst some of the fittest 50-year-old women in the world.
I was not the same person at the start of that race as I was at the finish. When we run hard, we live fully in our bodies and often push ourselves beyond what we thought possible. We finish knowing more about ourselves and what we are capable of--in body, mind, spirit. And in fulfilling our potential in this world.
A race expands us.
In writing this book, I have been in a yearlong race with myself, and now I hardly recognize the runner or even the writer I was at the start. To borrow a line from Bob Dylan: "Ah, but I was so much older then. I'm younger than that now."
But let me take you back to the beginning of my super-fit year, when I was older, at least physiologically, and invite you to join me on this yearlong journey toward a younger, fitter self. It matters not whether you are a runner or do some other physical activity, whether you are older or younger, male or female. For it is my greatest hope that some of the lessons I have learned, the inspiration I have taken from the pioneers of the women's running boom, will help and inspire you to chart your own individual path to greater wellness. Because at the end of my super-fit year, having crossed over the threshold to age 51, I can tell you that the finish line opens to a glorious beginning: the possibility of an entire second act of life.
I CAN'T CLAIM that I awoke one morning in September 2013, halfway through my 50th year, suddenly charged up with the bright shiny goal of getting in the best shape of my life. My appetite for this challenge, for more fitness, for more life, has been building since I took up serious running.
I can remember that day--indeed, the exact moment I made that decision. My sister, Carol, planted that initial challenge in my head, and I can still feel, nearly a decade later, how it electrified and terrified me with about equal jolts.
She was 55 at the time, me a mere 42. With 13 years between us, we were not close growing up and had developed very different personalities and interests. Sports, for instance, weren't exactly Carol's thing, while I liked to think I was the athlete. We have two brothers, born between us, and at every opportunity, I teamed up with them to play hockey, football, and soccer--and to tease our older sister about being a former beauty queen, having won third place in a local contest at age 18. She was the beauty, and I was the brawn, the jock, the tomboy. As a teenager, she was a good enough swimmer to be a lifeguard and complete a 2-mile endurance swim at a summer festival but, after that, her daily workout amounted to little more than a brisk walk with the dogs and some cross-country skiing or cycling on weekends. Then Carol had something of her own fitness awakening at age 50 and started going to the gym, determined, finally, to shed the weight she had gained during two pregnancies. A few years later, she saw an advertisement for a mini-triathlon encouraging people to "try a tri"--and gave it a try. She finished second in her age group and was hooked.
Later that year, over lunch just before Christmas, she asked me if I wanted to run a half-marathon with her.
My impulse was to say no. But how could I say no? My sister is 13 years older than I. And the beauty queen was honing in on my territory.
Yet the thought of running a half-marathon--I didn't even know how far one was at the time--seemed inconceivable, overwhelming, impossible. To explain how it boggled my mind, I'll start with my feet. They are flatter than two planks. Back then, I could not even stand on them for longer than 10 minutes without arch supports. Moving up to my head, I had no confidence that I could accomplish such a feat of endurance, even though I had stayed fairly active as an adult, at various times sailing and playing ice hockey, softball, and golf. Since the invention of orthotics (or rather my discovery of them in my late 20s), I even did a little jogging a couple of times a week, for 15 or 20 minutes at a gait I called my old lady's shuffle- -fittingly, through a local graveyard; I was terrified of lifting my knees too high, going too far, or running too fast for fear the £ding on my plank feet would ruin my knees and somehow cripple me for life.
There was every reason to worry, for in the scant 5 feet and 1 inch between the top of my head and the bottoms of my fallen arches, I weighed, at various times in my life, as much as 140 £ds, which is about 20 £ds heavier than female Olympic weight lifters of my height and a full 40 £ds heavier than the first female Olympic gold medalist in the marathon, the 5-foot-2 Joan Benoit Samuelson. Suffice it to say, mine was not a runner's body. And horror of all horrors, I had developed a social smoking habit my sister didn't even know about (or perhaps she did), which was getting more social by the day. Oh, and I liked a drink now and again, preferably now and again.
My instinctive response to my sister's challenge was to admit defeat before even trying, to declare that I was well beyond my athletic prime and saw no chance of redemption.
But there was a third set of legs under the restaurant table on that fateful day, those of my 80-year-old mother. As my sister and I contemplated our first steps toward the half-marathon, my thoughts leapt to the last steps Mom had taken on "normal" legs, before she was struck with polio at age 25, when my sister was just 6 months old. Mom spent the next 9 months in a rehabilitation hospital, determined to prove wrong the doctors who said she would never walk again. She did walk, though with braces, then a fused ankle and a cane, and always with extreme effort and a terrible limp. She had a good leg and a bad leg, though when I was a kid I never knew which was which, as both were so horribly twisted, one from muscle wasting, one from overuse. Yet the sheer exertion that it took her just to put one foot in front of her, then heft the other one up to join it, did not stop her from having three more children, or from keeping a massive vegetable garden and several flower beds, all while carrying out the hard work of a farmwife: cooking and taking meals to men working in the fields, canning and preserving vegetables, cleaning the house, and hauling herself out to the car to drive us kids to sports and school events and music and swimming lessons while Dad was busy with the farm (which seemed like almost all of the time).
To compensate for her withered left leg, my mother resolved to keep the rest of her body strong. She rode a stationary bike, pushing forward on her good leg in an effort to work her heart and keep her weight in check. Winters, she swam laps at the community pool; summers, lengths of the pond on our farm. She kept up exercises she had learned in rehab, "working out" long before it became fashionable in the city, let alone among rural housewives. She rehabbed herself back from two breaks of her bad leg and a broken hip (after falling in the church parking lot, she dragged herself into the car and drove herself to the hospital).
When my father developed Parkinson's disease and dementia at age 50 and struggled to keep the black dogs of depression at bay, keep his balance when he walked, keep even the thoughts in his head, Mom kept him home and looked after him for 2 decades. A few years after Dad passed away, I took Mom on vacation to a health spa in Canada's Rocky Mountains, where she astonished me anew. In a water aerobics class, with women a decade or two younger than my mother's 80 years, Mom was easily the fittest. She was the only one who could hoist herself up and out of the pool without using stairs or a ladder or even her legs to kick. She had a life force, a vitality, a vigor the rest could only marvel at. The other women suffered poor health and seemed deeply unhappy. Their knees and hips were bent or ruined from carrying too much weight. I saw them taking stock of my mother: her huge smile, the thrill she experienced in every physical moment of that exercise class in the water--the one medium in which she could move freely without use of her legs. And they looked embarrassed, as if just realizing that it was their inactivity, their neglect of their health, that had invited disability and even depression as inevitably as they aged.
As I write this, Mom is 88, still strong in will, still going to exercise classes, albeit in a wheelchair now, as her bad leg finally gave out. But she was right all those years ago--keeping her body functionally strong enables her now to lift herself from wheelchair to bed to bathtub to toilet and, therefore, to live somewhat independently in her own apartment at a retirement complex.
The example Mom set has inspired my sister and me our whole lives, to exercise enough to maintain at least some level of fitness--though neither of us could begin to comprehend our mother's tenacity, her determination, her sheer courage, until we took up serious training ourselves. Only when we had pushed ourselves beyond what we thought our bodies capable of and begged for the finish line could we begin to feel the gumption Mom must have mustered up every single day, pushing herself to just put one leg in front of her and pull the other one up beside it.
On the fateful day 8 years ago, with Mom sitting beside me and my beauty queen sister peering across the table at me, my sister's challenge translated in my mind in a way that could not have been more poignant: Could I not use my two perfectly good legs to train for a half-marathon? Of course I could. Of course I would.
Joining us on the challenge was Carol's daughter, Cindy, 29 at the time and an experienced runner, but also 21/2 months pregnant with her second child. During the next 5 months, we ran through a particularly stormy, cold Canadian winter, each of us in a different city, each of us seeking the support of a running clinic and never missing a single mile in our training programs because we were terrified we would never complete the distance if we did. Then my sister, the 55-year-old phenom; I, the flat-footed wonder; and Cindy, my knocked-up niece, as I nicknamed us all, travelled to Canada's capital and ran the Ottawa half-marathon. We crossed the finish line together in a "pregnancy-adjusted" 2:23, as Cindy was 71/2 months pregnant by then. But that effort neither dislodged her uterus nor sucked the oxygen from her baby's brain, as medical authorities had long threatened would happen if women ran. A month and a half later, Cindy gave birth to a very healthy baby boy, 2 ounces shy of 8 £ds. In the 2 years of training after, Cindy got faster and stronger, as often happens after a pregnancy, and ran a 3:43 marathon, coming within minutes of meeting her age group's qualifying standard for the Boston Marathon at that time.
What came next for my sister and me, what we would accomplish after that first half-marathon, was beyond anything either of us could ever have imagined.
Over the next 2 years, Carol trained her way into the body of a super-fit 19-year-old--or at least the biological equivalent of one, according to the health scales at her gym--and the beauty queen became an Ironman, completing that monster, full-length triathlon at age 57, in the same year she retired from teaching and took up a second career she could never have fathomed before, as a personal trainer.
I completed a second half-marathon that fall, not quite cracking the 2-hour mark as I had hoped, then relegated my running to 3-days-a-week maintenance mileage while I ate my way across Canada researching a book on local foods. I gained back a few £ds and reacquired a few habits, one of them that social smoking thing. I don't know how that happened--maybe the stress of my first national book tour, or the emptiness after that hoopla. Then, at age 48, staring down 50 and suddenly feeling time running out on all that I yet wanted to do and all the things I wanted to write, and fending off a depression that first arose in my teens with my father's dementia and still slithered back into my life during times of high anxiety, the idea of training for a marathon popped into my mind. I had never dreamed of doing a marathon. In fact, I had emphatically told my running friends that I would never run one. But suddenly the idea was there, and the challenge beckoned with such fierceness that I figured the marathon must have something to teach me about writing, about pushing back that dark mood, about life.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Super-Fit Me 1
Chapter 2 Training Smarter 19
Chapter 3 Eating Smarter 47
Chapter 4 Smart Things to Work On 73
Chapter 5 Motivate Me, Please 95
Chapter 6 Stronger 139
Chapter 7 Faster 173
Chapter 8 Older 201
Chapter 9 Legacy 227
Chapter 10 The Ultimate Test 263
About the Author 296