The 2020 Antrim Coast Half Marathon was exceptional simply by virtue of happening. It was one of the first sizeable road running events to take place after the COVID-19 pandemic swept the planet. But the race became even more exceptional when 60-year-old Irishman Tommy Hughes crossed the finish line in 1:11:09, smashing the age-group world record for the half-marathon distance.
You’re seeing this type of thing more and more these days—men and women redefining what’s possible for older endurance athletes. And it’s not just athletes like Tommy Hughes, who competed in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, who are getting in on the action. At 49, I myself am doing things at a lower rung on the talent ladder that I wouldn’t have believed possible for me. This year alone I have finished second overall in the Orange County Half Marathon in 1:15:30, finished 14th overall in the Los Angeles Marathon in 2:46:59 (on a course with more than 1,800 of elevation gain), run my fastest mile since high school (4:55), and run a 10K time trial in 33:25 (beating my official PR by nine seconds). None of these performances is anywhere near as impressive as Tommy Hughes’s world record, but that’s not the point. The point is that, as seems to be the case with so many older endurance athletes these days, age is not slowing me down nearly as much as it is supposed to be doing based on historical standards.
We’ve all heard the expression “Fifty is the new forty,” and variations thereof. It makes a cliché of the observation that older people—or subgroups of older people, anyway—are behaving or performing or presenting themselves in ways we are accustomed to seeing only younger people do. The phrase makes no effort to explain the cause or causes of the phenomenon. So, let’s ask now: Why are lots of older endurance athletes these days performing at levels heretofore unseen in athletes their age?
I see three reasons: 1) more talent competing in the older ranks of endurance sports, 2) better methods and practices, and 3) the reinforcing psychosocial effect of raising the proverbial bar. Let’s take a quick look at each.
More talent. When I say there is more talent in the older ranks of endurance sports, I mean this in two ways. First, surveys like this one are reporting that there are simply more men and women over 40 participating in running events and triathlons, in particular. Additionally, a greater number of the most talented young endurance athletes are choosing to continue competing past 40. In the old days, most of the top endurance athletes in the older age groups were late starters—folks who in their 20s were working in offices rather than racing in the Olympics like Tommy Hughes.
Case in point: When I raced the 2017 Chicago Marathon at 46, one of my goals was to not get beaten by anyone older than me. That goal was made a mockery of Martin Fiz, 54, who clocked 2:28:09 to my 2:39:30. Fiz was the 1995 marathon world champion and set a PB of 2:08:05 in winning the 1997 Lake Biwa Marathon–a top professional run in his prime still at it well into middle age.
Better methods. It’s not just over-40 endurance athletes who are performing at historically high levels. So are active professional athletes over 35. Last year’s male winner of the Ironman World Championship (Jan Frodeno) was 38 years old. This year’s winner of the U.S. Olympic Trials Men’s Marathon (Abdi Abdirahman) was 43.
Professional endurance sports careers are getting longer, and they’re doing so largely because athletes are doing more to take care of their bodies. In past generations, a lot of elite athletes ate whatever, overtrained, and eschewed ancillary practices like mobility work. Nowadays, the typical pro place as high a priority on this stuff as they do on workouts, and the rewards are plain to see. The good news for recreational athletes is that they can reap the same rewards by prioritizing these same practices. Indeed, I believe that my longtime habit of mimicking elite methods of taking care of the body is the number-two reason I’m aging more successfully as an athlete than I expected to.
The Bannister effect. Athletic performance is psychologically limited by current standards. A higher level of performance that is possible physically doesn’t seem possible to an athlete if nobody around them is actually performing at that level. But when, for whatever reason, one or more athletes break through to attain that higher level, the proverbial floodgates open. This happened famously with the quest to break the four-minute mile barrier in the one-mile run. It took nine years for Roger Bannister to lower the world record from 4:01.3 to 3:59.4. In the next 18 months, 12 other men ran sub-four-miles. I think something similar is happening now among older endurance athletes generally.
The best part about this phenomenon is that you don’t have to be a record-setter to get in on the fun. I’m no record setter, but to no lesser degree than the likes of Tommy Hughes, I’m taking advantage of the 50-is-the-new-whatever phenomenon to achieve things I never dreamed I would be able to achieve at my age. And you can too, if you’re interested (and old).
Lastly, I mentioned above that better methods are the second-biggest factor in my successful aging as an athlete. Perhaps you’re wondering what the biggest factor is. I’ll tell you: Passion! My insatiable hunger to test my limits, more than anything else, I believe, has kept me from slowing down as much as I thought I would. But the very potency of this passion has a recursive effect. By this I mean that doing better than expected for my age fires me up to keep doing better. If I could speak only two words of advice to any athlete who wishes to age successfully fitness-wise, they would be these: Stay hungry!