Is it possible to achieve personal bests after 50? When I crossed that mind-bending threshold last year, I ran as if willing time to flip backward, and produced faster times in every distance I attempted, including slashing 11 minutes off my best in a marathon.
I set aggressive goals, the major one being to avoid turning 50 – biologically, at least – by running my way into the physical fitness of a 20-year-old athlete.
Contemplating my 51st year, I pondered "what next" for perhaps five minutes, the time I would like to slice off last year's marathon time. And why stop there, asked my endorphin-addled brain?
Which is when the idea of a "do-over year" lodged itself in my head: I would repeat every target race to see if I could improve on last year's substantial personal bests.
It's not unusual for runners to repeat the same races every season as a way of gauging their fitness, according to my coach, Elaine McCrae, who runs race clinics out of The Runners Shop in Toronto. "It keeps them motivated, all things being equal," she says. Equal means not just the course, but also the weather conditions, injury issues and race-day fortunes.
Worried that I had become myopically focused on time goals to the exclusion of everything beautiful about running, I discussed my plan with one of Canada's top sports psychologists, Kim Dawson. The Wilfrid Laurier University professor has worked with Guelph's Speed River Track and Field Club, which sent four runners to the 2012 Olympics.
To my surprise, Dawson says it's better to think about achieving personal bests over a year rather than targeting one race. "It's about a commitment to a process," says Dawson. "You're saying, 'I'm going to look for a percentage improvement over this year.' You'll have an increased probability of a successful outcome over the year than in one race, where anything can go wrong."
Things did go wrong in the first do-over race of my do-over year: the Hamilton Half Marathon, earlier this month – I ran despite a strained left ankle and a fierce headwind. Before that race, I didn't fear those unexpected things as much as the expected: I am getting older, at least chronologically. I joined a running club 10 years ago and, after training hard for marathons the past four years, I may be reaching my potential.
While I can't control aging, Dawson says, I can control my response to it. "We can train our brain to go. Whether getting up to train on a rainy morning or deciding to push harder in a race, the answer is always to go." And in the race against aging, rather than easing up, I can continue "to go" by maintaining my training intensity. Hopefully, improved times will follow.
While my strained left ankle plagued training heading into the half-marathon and that wind scuttled my speed, the base of fitness I had built up over the past year of consistent training still enabled me to set a new personal best, albeit by just 40 seconds. So although I am a year older, I am also a year fitter.
Musing about personal bests, running philosopher and writer George Sheehan wrote: "Aging brings its problems. But it also brings solutions. For every disadvantage, there is an advantage."
Put another way, aging is a problem. But the solution to aging is exercise.
Margaret Webb's book of reflections on running, Older, Faster, Stronger, will be published in 2014 by Rodale Books.