Last summer, I was soundly beaten in a 60-metre sprint by a 76-year-old great-grandmother. I expected the trouncing; after all, I was up against the world's fastest 75-plus female sprinter, Christa Bortignon. The Canadian was named World Masters Athletics Female Athlete of the Year for 2013, after breaking 14 world records over the past two years.
What impresses me as much as her speed is her motivation to keep training so intensely into the eighth decade of her life. She holds world records in virtually everything she participates in – sprints, jumps, hurdles and multievent pentathlon – but not all. Of course, her goal this year is to go after those.
The West Vancouverite is big on goal setting, calling it a key motivator, but she has developed an entire arsenal. "I found 10 good reasons to go into track and field," says Bortignon, who switched from tennis to track at age 72 when she developed arthritis in her wrists.
Some include keeping fit and youthful, making friends, learning new skills (she wants to take up pole vaulting!), challenging herself (she bested her own 200-metre world record eight times last year), travelling to competitions and having fun. Making it fun is the most important thing. "It really has to be," she emphasizes, "or it's a drag on motivation."
Still, she has days when she doesn't feel like training. That's when she gives herself "the talk," reminding herself that consistency, above all else, will help her achieve her goals. And she'll feel great after.
While we may be in the grip of Olympic fever, researchers are increasingly turning to older athletes such as Bortignon to understand motivation – not only to get us active but do the more difficult thing of staying active over a lifetime.
Bradley Young, a professor at University of Ottawa, told me that athletes over 50 can be more serious about their sport than even serious university athletes, especially runners. "They score slightly higher in measures of intrinsic motivation." By that he means they're not doing it for outside reward or attention, but for sheer love of the sport.
He also says many take up an activity for an extrinsic reason – say to get fit – then develop more passions that keep them at it. Women in particular tend to get deeply invested – making friends, deriving a sense of identity and empowerment – so their sport becomes almost like a personal relationship they can't let down.
While I was competing in the half marathon at the World Masters Games in Italy this past summer, York University professor Dr. Joseph Baker and a team of researchers were fanning out to interview athletes about motivation. Baker says masters athletes are far from homogeneous.
Some are extremely competitive, driven to win medals or measure their fitness against those in their age group. Social factors keep others in sports, like a women's softball team, all over 60, who planned to tour Italy together. Or a men's former national basketball team, who still play together decades later as way of maintaining their friendship.
Then there's the 94-year-old who took up competitive swimming after her husband died, to swim the same events he did as an Olympian in the 1930s. And the 60-year-old who took up weightlifting after being diagnosed with osteoporosis: Ten years later she was a champion with the bone density of a 25-year-old.
On these tough-running winter days, stories like that get me thinking about my own motivation for running – and also ways to thicken it.
Margaret Webb's book of reflections on running, Older, Faster, Stronger, will be published later this month by Rodale Books.