When Keith Cartwright played football in high school, he never ran more than 200 yards at one time. He was a running back, so he didn’t have to do more than a sprint.
“My buddies know me as an anti-distance runner,” Cartwright said.
Now 52 years old, Cartwright, who lives near Richmond, has become a long-distance runner in large part because of Meg’s Miles, a group that came together after the passing of Meg Menzies. Menzies died after being hit by a car while training for the Boston Marathon. Cartwright is friends with Meg’s husband, Scott, and because of her life and example, he took up running and now is training for the Richmond Marathon.
“In the past two to three months, I’ve been training, and I use training loosely,” Cartwright said. “I’m not a fast guy. I’m just committed to getting it done so I can say I ran a full marathon.”
Starting long-distance running during middle age may seem like an exercise in futility, yet getting a late start has certain advantages. Lisa Reichmann and Julie Sapper, running coaches at Run Farther and Faster, said running longevity relates to how old you were when you started.
“Whether you start running at age 40 or 45, or in some cases 50, you’ve got about 10 to 15 really good [running] years,” Sapper said. “If someone is running their first marathon in their 40s and 50s actively but have been running since their 20s, they’re not going to have as much ‘shelf life’ as compared to someone who completely started from scratch.”
Marathon training doesn’t get easier with age, and the coaches say it can be more of a challenge because it’s added on top of the stresses of work and family. Consistency of training sessions and efficiency in each session become critical to success.
After his mother’s passing in 2014, Adam Hudson, now 42, knew it was time to get fit. “I was going to do everything I could to be around as long as I could,” he said. He lost close to 100 pounds and took up running. Hudson discovered that he was fast and excelled at 5K and 10K races. But for longer distances, he struggled to find a balance. “When I started, I had no idea what I was doing, so I went out as hard as I could. I was trying to be faster than the day prior,” he said.
With the help of Reichmann and Sapper, Hudson created a training plan to prepare for the 2016 Marine Corps Marathon. His coaches said his dedication to his training is paying off.
It’s true that the aches and pains of daily living start to catch up with people in middle age. What you ignored in your 20s cannot be ignored in your 40s, and when it comes to running, it means knowing your limits.
Manuel “Manny” Romero, who lives in New York City, took up running at age 42 to get over a romantic breakup and deal with the stresses of moving to the Big Apple. After quickly ramping up to five to six miles a day every day, he suffered a stress fracture. Romero ran a half-marathon and made the fracture worse. He spent eight months in a support boot and on crutches.
He wrote via email that “my doctor told me (and I agree) that my injury was due to excessive running.”
“My muscles needed more time to recover, and I also needed to increase my intake of protein. I have since been able to make adjustments to my running workouts so I run smarter. Before, I was just running to get the miles in without thinking about time to recover.”
Running success during middle age comes down to perspective and understanding of what it takes to complete a marathon. Romero finished the New York City Marathon in 2014, his first, and now at age 45 has already qualified for the 2017 Boston Marathon. He said an advantage to running in his 40s is a greater enjoyment of running as an end in and of itself.
“I think if I had started running competitively at a younger age, I would find myself getting disappointed because I would constantly be comparing my results/performance to my younger days,” Romero wrote.
Hudson finds himself visualizing the Marine Corps Marathon as he trains. He expects the completion of the race to be emotional for him and his family.
“At the very end, when crossing the finish line, I’ll be saying, ‘Mom, we did it.’ Because that’s something that does drive me,” Hudson said.
Cartwright will join about a dozen first-time middle-aged marathoners who will run in honor of Meg Menzies, including Meg’s mother, Pam. Running isn’t pleasant for him. “I tell folks all the time, I’m miserable the entire time I’m running,” he said.
Yet he knows the challenge of going farther than the previous run makes it worth the struggle.
“There’s nothing I do in my life outside the things I do with my kids where I get this feeling at the end that says, ‘Wow! I just did something.’ And it makes it worth it, that one moment at the end, whether it’s a training run or the finish at the half-marathon. I just did something that I’m not capable of doing. You get to relive that frequently.”
Advice from experts
If you’re hitting your stride at middle age and want to conquer long-distance races, Reichmann and Sapper recommend the following:
Do not underestimate the importance of sleep. The coaches say if you compromise sleep for more training, it’s all going to fall apart. “If it’s a choice between running an extra mile in the morning or getting a bit of extra sleep, always choose sleep,” Sapper said.
Don’t neglect strength training and flexibility. “People think, ‘Oh, I’m training to run, so all I need to do is run.’ But as we get older, we lose that muscular strength and the flexibility decreases, and both of those will significantly impact your likelihood of injury,” Reichmann said.
Hire a coach or join a running group. Not only will coaching or a running group help with form and pacing, but the social elements also make the long-mile runs go by faster.
Comparison is the thief of joy. It’s easy to compare yourself to another person, but that’s not productive. And don’t compare your new running self to how you were at a younger age.
“Really try to enjoy the moment you’re in and recognize that running is a hobby, it’s a joy,” Sapper said. “Don’t dwell on the past but focus on the present and the future and enjoy that your body is able to do something that you love.”