Running a Marathon at Age 69

Marlene Cimons, a 69-year old veteran marathoner and former columnist for Runner’s World, wrote an interesting article for the Washington Post entitled “Tale of an Ancient Marathoner.” Ms. Cimons had 12 marathons under her belt, and a best of 3:44.49 (in 1982), before toeing the line for the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington this past October.

She had not run a marathon in 14 years, but was motivated by the loss of a beloved dog. She ran to raise money for two animal welfare organizations.

Previous to undertaking the marathon training, she had lost 30 lbs by changing her eating habits, swimming a mile a day, regularly running 5-6 miles and strength-training. She took her marathon training seriously, building up to five-hour-long runs, which was the time she estimated she would be on her feet for the marathon.

As many aging runners do, Marlene felt chagrined when other runners, who looked like they were jogging, passed her on those long runs.

Marathon day in late-October started out in the 50’s, with the temperature rising through the day. Probably from her arduous base of training, she held onto a 13-minute pace for 20 miles before things started breaking down. The balls of her feet began to ache (explanation later), and her looks were pallor enough that a volunteer stopped her and did a brief test to make sure she had an adequate physical capacity to finish the race. Walking most of the last 6.2 miles, Ms. Cimons finished in 6:21.52, nearly 2 3/4 hours slower than her best, but still ahead of 1,170 others and 39th amongst 50 in the 65-69 age-group.

An analysis

First, finishing a marathon, at any age, is something to be tremendously proud of! As far as her time, I remember marathon legend Bill Rodgers commenting on how hard an effort the marathon was, back when he was winning multiple New York and Boston marathons in sub 2:10.00 pace. “Hey, I’m done in two hours,” the self-effacing ex-Olympian said. “How about those people who are out there for five or six hours!”

For me personally, at age 56, my times have slowed too, despite a lifetime working in fitness. My best half-marathon was a 1:17 at Jersey Shore when I was about 30. My last? A 1:34, at the Long Branch Half last May, and with all the injuries I’ve battled since, I would do anything to just match that this year! My marathon best was a 2:43, also at Jersey Shore, in 1981. Now, if I were to attempt another, I’d be happy to break 3:30.

Professor Scott Trappe of the Human Performance Laboratory at Ball State University, was quoted extensively in Ms. Cimon’s article. He explained that the heart becomes smaller as we age, the pumping capacity decreases, total blood volume drops, and blood vessels become less supple (all very logical!). Thus, the amount of oxygen we use during intense exercise (our V02 Max) decreases. We lose muscle as we age (another thing I’m noticing), and, a fact I wasn’t aware of, we lose fat on the balls of our feet, which results in more running pain and injury (as Ms. Cimons, at 20 miles, would attest to)!

The good news

Running slows the effects of aging. There is data that that 80-year olds who exercise regularly have cardiovascular systems that look like 40-year olds. Or, as Professor Trappe says; “From an exercise standpoint, 80 is the new 40!”

Okay, I guess we’ll keep plugging, then!

Ed Halper has been part of the New Jersey road-racing community since the late 1970’s.  Ed competed at Monmouth College from 1977-1980, and coached the Monmouth track and cross-country teams from 1980-1983. His marathon best is 2:43.06 at Jersey Shore in 1981.Ed is the proprietor of Mountain Fitness in Warren, NJ and holds a Master’s Degree in Education (concentration in Physical Education) from Trenton State College. He is also a certified Personal Trainer and an accomplished running author. Be sure to check Ed’s blog at: “Let’s Get Fit”

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