Older women leave young'uns in the dust

Are younger women slower runners because they're psyching themselves out?

Published August 31, 2007 5:25PM (EDT)

Gina Kolata's story in Thursday's New York Times questioning why older women often outrun their younger counterparts left me wondering about my many paths not taken. Kolata observed that unlike men, who get slower as they age, in any given race older women sometimes beat women 20 years younger than they are.

I was waiting for a physiological explanation about older women producing slower twitch muscles or fewer stress hormones or some scrap of science to suggest my lethargic thrice-weekly jogs around the neighborhood would miraculously evolve into adrenaline-pumped ultramarathons as I aged. But, what do you know, the experts didn't even touch on the aging female body as maelstrom of escalating power and vitality. Apparently, the problem is all in my mind.

Instead, they observed that women tend to underestimate their physical potential, hold back from pushing themselves, declining to feel the burn. Mary Wittenberg, president of New York Road Runners, thinks most female runners "shortchange themselves." Vonda Wright, an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, suggests women are told to not put too much effort into running. Ralph Vernacchia, director of the Center for Performance Excellence at Western Washington University, speculated that older women may be faster because they try harder than younger women. Kolata theorizes that because older women grew up in a time when it wasn't as acceptable for women to run seriously, many are just embracing being athletes for the first time and feeling the full fervor of conversion.

But are younger female runners really so free from competitive drive? And does it even make sense that most of the serious older runners never ran when they were younger? The two concrete examples in the article actually contradict this theory: Both Wright and Kolata herself had been running at the same slow pace for years when they decided to challenge themselves and turned competitive in their middle years.

Part of me wonders if there's not another side to this story. It's well known that women are far more successful as ultramarathoners than shorter-distance runners. Owen Andersen, editor in chief of Running Research News, told Muscle and Fitness that while men run marathons 10 percent faster than women, their times in ultramarathons exceed women's only by 5 percent. And some women actually win ultramarathons -- a phenomenon that just doesn't happen in shorter races. In 2002 Pam Reed, a 42-year-old mother of five, became the first woman to win the prestigious Badwater 135-mile ultra ... by a margin of nearly five hours. (Such female triumphs haven't made ultramarathoning a bastion of evolved thinking. Reed is the same woman who beat ultramarathon celebrity Dean Karnazes in a race at the Badwater Ultramarathon not once but twice. Karnazes failed to mention Reed's ass-whuppin' performance but bragged about sending a tampon to a male friend for his less-than-impressive run.)

One study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise suggested that, at runs of 66 miles and more, women may actually enjoy a physiological edge because of their superior endurance. Since older men and women do better than younger runners in ultras, I can't help wondering if there's not some physical change that allows some older women's bodies to pick up their speed and at least leave their younger selves behind.

Or maybe I'm just in denial about the prevailing laziness and low standards that keep me stuck in a young woman's jogging stupor. Maybe I've internalized a fear of competitiveness and sense of inferiority that only age will cure. Either way, I guess there's still hope that the 50-year-old me will kick my ass and leave me in the dust.

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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