I’m running after time before I run out of it.
Sunday a week ago, I returned to the Austin Marathon after 12 years and beat my younger self by 25 minutes. At 45, I was the Masters female champion in a time of 3:08, coming in 7th after passing two younger women in the last 10 miles.
The older the better? There is partial truth to it in long-distance running, where experience matters and late bloomers like me can continue to improve in their 30s and 40s. Some elites show the way. When U.S. champion Meb Keflezighi won the 2014 Boston Marathon two weeks before turning 39, he was a decade older than his two closest competitors. The top three women at the New York Marathon last November were 36, 35 and 37. And American marathon record holder Deena Kastor is still competing at 46.
Experience, however, will only get you so far. With age, the pressure to perform better than the previous time is compounded by the knowledge that time will eventually catch up. With age comes the loss of insouciance that makes early marathons so fresh and ecstatic, even through intense pain.
I was a running ingénue in 2007. Austin was my second marathon, five years after the first in Paris. I didn’t own a fancy watch tracking my pace. I hadn’t done any elaborate speed training and had suffered from shin splints during my preparation. I hadn’t reviewed the 26.2-mile (42.2 kilometers) course ahead of time. My goal was to improve my Paris time and run under 3:45. I was thrilled to finish in 3:33. I was so high on adrenalin near the end of the race that I twisted my ankle upon seeing the gigantic football stadium of the University of Texas, which at the time was about 3 miles from the crossing line. I will never know whether the sheer magnitude of the Texas arena distracted me, but I was able to finish while the sprain was still warm and relatively painless.
I returned in 2019 a veteran with the baggage of lessons learned from 15 marathons, including five under 3 hours, and countless injuries. My training has become more sophisticated, with speedwork, core exercises and shorter races. I stick to a stringent daily routine of yoga stretches and balances, ending each session with splits, to which I gradually, painstakingly worked my way over more than a year. I stretch my toes every day to relieve overworked calves. That’s what it takes to keep injuries at bay as the body ages. As a result, I am much stronger and more flexible than I was in 2007 — at the time, I didn’t even know what “core’’ meant.
Austin 2019 was a rebound race after a sudden mental breakdown during the Philadelphia Marathon 15 months earlier led me to drop out shortly after the halfway mark. The “did not finish’’ label, a scar on any runner’s statistics, left me emotionally drained — although physically unscathed. The phantom of Philadelphia was with me at the 7 a.m. start in Austin.
The Austin Marathon course is a beast. It starts with 4 miles uphill, before rolling its way up and down through leg-killer bridge underpasses east of the city. The terrain doesn’t give a runner a break until the course heads west after mile 18 (29 kilometers), by which time you’re too exhausted to appreciate flat roads. The city is located at the edge of a region called Texas Hill Country and it shows. While driving part of the course the day before the race with a friend, I felt rising anxieties and an urge to reset my goals downward — way downward. Based on my preparation, which was truncated to less than two months following a nose septum surgery in December, I was initially aiming for faster than 3:20, potentially closer to 3:10 on a good day. On those hills, I thought, I should be content with a 3:30. I would still beat my 2007 performance.
Letting go is difficult. Even though I had no intention of running under 3 hours –- and was in no shape to do so — I felt a pinch when the 3:00 pacers passed me around mile 7. It was a small group of half a dozen men and one woman. As I watched them gradually go, I mentally recalled the Taoist mantra I learned nine years ago: “Accepting, not wanting.’’
A less philosophical matter had been on my mind for a few miles: an urge to use the bathroom. And for the first time ever in more than a decade of racing, I did. I emerged from the portable toilet two minutes later, just as the 3:10 pacing group was passing by. That gave me a jolt of energy. I sprinted back into the race with renewed resolve, determined to keep that group behind.
Over the years, I have mastered a mental game that makes time fly faster during hourslong runs. I think in terms of what’s left relative to what’s been accomplished so far. For instance at the 15K checkpoint (9.3 miles), not long after the pit stop, I had a little bit less than two times 15 km ahead of me. That sounds a lot better than “I have been running for 1:06 and I still have 17 miles to go.’’
At other times, it seems I never learn. The 15K mark was the start of a roller-coaster portion of the course. A couple of female runners were in my vicinity and we passed each other several times over the next miles. As we approached the half marathon, one of those runners raced by me full speed, powering through a steep hill with impressive grit. Rather letting her go (mantra: “Let your body run’’), I mentally called up a text message from my husband, who had sent me this the previous night as I lamented about the course’s hills: “YOU PASS PEOPLE ON HILLS.’’ The animal in me chased her to the top and onto a plateau, when I heard crew members screaming “Half marathoners to the right, marathoners to the left.’’ The gritty female runner turned right. She was a half-marathoner. She was sprinting to the finish line.
The few of us who turned left were facing a long, low rise east of the University of Texas. For an extra challenge, we got chilly headwinds. It was about 8:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning in a college town, and few souls were out to cheer us on. Did the youth choose to sleep in after partying all night, rather than watch a marathon runner old enough to be their mother? With the half-marathoners done for the day, our numbers had thinned. Each of us was fighting our own battles, passing each other once in a while but never running as a group.
My next goal was to get to mile 18 and the flatter land. I tried not to check my watch too often. A couple of times I thought I heard the flapping sound of a little banner — a banner that would read 3:10 — but I never looked back. In the distance were a couple of runners wearing the same bright red top, a man and a woman. I knew I was slowly catching up and I eventually did, around the 30K mark. About 20 minutes later, I came by a lonely female runner in the loneliest portion of the race. She looked young, but upon checking the results after the race, she was 44. A fellow master.
The finish line was now within reach, with about half an hour to go. It’s the hardest part of the race. The mind, which until now partially blocked the pain signals from the legs, loses concentration and the pain becomes sharper. My calves and quads were screaming at me, but I managed to keep better control of my lower body than in recent races under 3 hours, where I completely fell apart at the end.
The Austin Marathon ends with fireworks in your quads: two steep hills within a mile of the finish line. On the first one, a spectator came alongside and offered to help by pacing me on the way up: “I’ll run it with you, OK?’’ (“OK,’’ I answered). As we struggled up side by side, I felt cocky and pushed the pace — just a tad. “You’re one of the top females, you deserve it!’’ he said once at the top — a heart-warming comment that made me smile and gave me a boost of energy. I had no idea what my rank was in the race, but a few minutes later I heard a woman’s voice encouraging me: “In the top 10 females, easily!’’
And thus, in spite of the hills, I finished a marathon feeling stronger than I had in many years. My pace didn’t crash in the last miles. That’s likely the positive side effect of not being as fast as usual: Austin was my slowest marathon since 2012.
In 2007, I celebrated with a margarita. This year, I had a glass of red wine. My choice of beverage is showing my age.