“What Would Meghan Arbogast Do?” Age is No Excuse for Diminished Running Performance

“Our plan had been to run together for hopefully a couple of hours. Amy and I are similarly enough paced that it made sense to stay together as

Meghan Arbogast - Picture from sacramentorunning.com
Meghan Arbogast – Picture from sacramentorunning.com

long as possible. Working with someone on a flat paved long straight road has a lot of appeal, especially if there is any wind involved. Before long we were clicking of 7:07 miles. We didn’t need to run that fast, but we were comfortable, and I use my heart rate monitor during races to keep myself in control. For the first couple of hours it was 155 or lower, which was right on target for a sub-8 hour day.” (Meghan Arbogast, “Tokyo Shibamata 100k 2013,” Racing Through My Life)

“Even leading senior athletes can be subject to some of the fallibilities of age. At the New Zealand masters championships, I listened to a vigorous discussion between two upper age-group 10,000m contenders, tough runner talk about how hard and tactical their race had been. They sounded just like two competitive 25-year-olds – except that they couldn’t remember the names of any of the other runners. “ (Roger Robinson, “New Research on Older Runners,” Running Times, March 20,2013)

Perhaps the most worrisome thing about aging is the forgetfulness that creeps up time and again. These days Phillip and I will sit down to watch a movie that we think we’ve never watched. Partway through the movie, something will seem familiar; one of us will ask the other if perhaps we have seen the movie before. A few scenes more, and we’ll realize that yes, we have watched the movie before. Between the two of us, we’ll start to piece together the movie, remembering something or other that will come up in later scenes. Then one of us will ask the other how the movie ends, and neither of us will be able to remember the ending, so we forge ahead through the entire film just so we can see once again how it ends! Other smaller memory lapses are nuisances, such as those times I walk into a room to get something, but forget what I went into the room to retrieve. I listen to radio shows and read articles that cover issues such as recognizing the difference between normal age-related forgetfulness and more serious causes of forgetfulness such as Alzheimer’s disease. I carefully note the symptoms of each and measure my (or Phillip’s!) moments of forgetfulness against the list just to reassure myself that we’re merely dealing with the natural progress of aging.

Barton Creek Greenbelt, Austin, July 7
Barton Creek Greenbelt, Austin, July 7

Fortunately, Phillip and I have maintained an active lifestyle, so we at least have this one dementia-preventive measure in our favor. Sadly, our active lifestyle seems to be suffering in quality: we’re both running less well than we believe – we know! – we can. Our fast runs are not as fast, and our race times (with the exception of Phillip’s Hell’s Hills PR this past spring) have slowed some this past year. We could easily cast off our concern and excuse our sluggish performances as another natural progress of aging. That excuse, however, doesn’t hold when we read articles in Running Times and UltraRunning Magazine, and hear news stories, about people our age or older who are setting and breaking world records in short as well as long distance running. Just this week, in fact, a Canadian team that included Ed Whitlock (82) and Earl Fee (84) broke the world record for the 4 x 800 meter in the 80+ age group. This team of awesome octogenarians broke the record by nearly two minutes. Then we have to consider Marco Olmo, who won Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc, Europe’s top trail ultra, in 2006 at the age of 58, then came back to win again in 2007 at the age of 59. Lest we think only men excel at running as they age, we must also consider San Antonio’s own Parvaneh Moayedi, age 49, who will be running Badwater next week. Let us also consider Meghan Arbogast, who just this year, at the age of 52, blew by 29 year old Rory Bosio during the last mile of the Way Too Cool 50k to win the race, with a finish time of 4:06. Far too many examples of awesome masters runners exist for anyone to claim that with age automatically comes reduced capacity to run well.

In pondering the issue and my performance, I’ve decided I need new perspective and a coach. I have chosen Meghan Arbogast as my new coach! Meghan Arbogast does not know me, but I know her – sort of. I follow her progress as an ultrarunner and I read her blog. She and I have much in common, actually. Well, ok. We have one thing for sure in common (in addition to the fact that we’re both female). Both of us were born in 1961. I’m a month older than she, however, which may explain why I don’t run as fast and well as she: I’m the older of the two of us! Arbogast is an amazing woman. She’s an aging runner who still either wins, or places high up, in major ultra races. In her blog posts and interviews, she exudes life and vitality. Perhaps the main reason she is so admirable, though, is that she doesn’t see her age as a factor for lowering her standards for her performance as a runner. In answer to an question about her future plans in an October 2012 interview, Arbogast answers with a list of various goals:

 I want to know how much faster I can get. I want to get Ruby [Arbogast’s daughter] healthy. I look forward to moving to California. I think I  can get faster at [Western] States. I want to learn about growing vegetables in the California sun. I want to build a new massage practice after I  move. The 100k road distance is new to me, so I believe there’s room for improvement there. I want to travel. I want to swing dance. I play the flute, and I want to learn to improvise and have it sound good. I want less material things, and more time in nature.

Arbogast holds high standards for herself in all areas of her life. She certainly works to improve her performance; she’s a woman of no excuses, who recognizes no obstacles to achieving those goals she finds most important to her life.

Aging runners who continue to push themselves and perform at extraordinary reveal the myth that people naturally diminish in their ability to do things as they age. In fact, so many older runners are performing so excellently now, that Dr Tanja Taivassalo, a research kinesiologist who specializes in cellular debilitation, has begun research to study the factors that allow so many older runners to excel when their bodies should be slowing down. Arbogast is certainly among the older runners who seem to defy aging. One reason I love her so well is that at the age of 52 years old, she’s still kicking the posteriors of talented runners much younger than she. One reason I do not love Arbogast so well is that she and I are the same age and even on my fast runs, my pace is usually about 30% slower than hers! The fact is that our common age proves to me that I cannot use my age as an excuse for running slower than I can, or should. Of course things change in our bodies as we age. As our bodies age, explain Drs. Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas in their work The Runner’s Body, we begin to lose muscle mass, and our heart rates begin to slow a little every year. We also lose bone mineral density as our bodies grow older. Additionally, changes in maturing muscles make the body less efficient in delivering energy and oxygen to the muscles. Age related changes in the circulatory system negatively impact the body’s blood pressure and the heart’s ability to pump blood. As if all these dismaying changes aren’t enough for us to contend with, we must also deal with the decrease of the lungs’ capacity to move oxygen from the air into the blood and thus into the muscle. These factors impact the performance of aging runners. But these factors obviously don’t affect the performances of all older runners.

Drs. Tucker and Dugas do point out that some aging runners continue to run well. Some of this success has to do with the experience that accompanies years of training. As Christie Aschwanden notes in a an article on aging runners, older runners know to which type of training their bodies best respond, and they know how to reach their peak as runners. The good news is that this natural aging process happens at a slower pace in people who run regularly. The better news is that, as the good Drs. Tucker and Dugas state, changes in an aging runner’s performance depend upon variables in addition to aging, such as when the runner began running, her approach to training her first years of running, and her genes. The even better news is that years of training and experience can help the body trump the irreversible effects of aging on the runner’s body!

Now, where does this information leave a mid-pack runner such as I, who wants to move higher in the pack, and also run a pretty darn swift ultra some day? It leaves me a bit more optimistic, but also a bit more dismayed. I still have reason to work at improving, for sure, since my aging body isn’t the only variable that factors into my running performance. Yet I also realize that wanting it, willing it, won’t make it BE. Hard work will make it be. Making my mind rule my body will make it be. Refusing to give room to excuses that swell my mind will make it be. When I read about the training regimen the elite older runners follow, I see the contrast between what they do every week to stay in top shape, or to improve, and what I do (or don’t do!) every week. Arbogast, for example, actually increased the intensity of her training in her forties. At least in 2008, she was running 100 to 110 miles a week, and doing such speed work as 20 x 200m @ 38 seconds average with 30 seconds rest , and 10 x 1000m @ 6:00/mile pace, on alternate Fridays. The week that I run 110 miles and complete 20 x 200m @ any pace, then I can say I’m doing all I can do to improve my running ability, as well as my chances of finishing an ultra at all – much less finish it well.

According to exercise physiologist Dr. Jason Karp, factors such as “diet, body weight, time constraints, and stress” are as likely as age to negatively impact a runner’s performance. Although, as Dr. Karp points out, these factors can be changed to mitigate the damage they do to an aging runner’s performance, too often I allow these elements of life to interfere with my goal for improving my running performance. Runners who excel, whether they’re elite or simply talented non-competitive runners, are disciplined and therefore capable of working out regardless of the other demands on their time. They are able to eat as they should to fuel their bodies well, and they are able to manage their time so that they can run as they need or want to, despite the demands of their work. They don’t make excuses; they just run.

So here is how Meghan Arbogast has become my coach (quite unbeknownst to herself!). Every time I think I’m going to put off running to finish some other task, I ask myself “What would Meghan do?” I ask myself that question because I know that Meghan does her work outs no matter how she feels, no matter what other claims she has on her time, and no matter how stressed she is. Every time I think of reasons to skip hill reps or speed intervals, I ask myself “What would Meghan do?” Every time I think I’m too hot and uncomfortable (because in San Antonio and Austin we still have triple digit temperatures when I leave for runs at 7 pm) to run the number of miles I planned to run, I ask myself, “What would Meghan do.” I give myself challenges now, every week. Sometimes I don’t meet those challenges, still. But I meet more of them now than I have in the past year of my running slump, by simply asking myself, “What would Meghan do?” We may not all be cut out to be champion masters runners, but we can be better than we are. Now the pressure is on; I have no excuse for not improving. I have to work harder and better if I am to achieve my running goal of finishing an ultra marathon well. Darn.


Recent Challenges: Last week I ran five miles of unpaved trails barefoot, without the $4.99 water shoes I bought at Academy Sports. I always run pavement barefoot, even my marathons. The unpaved trails in this part of Texas are rocky enough that I wear slight protection (I removed the soles from the water shoes) when I run unpaved trails. Strava has a challenge for this month called The Dirt Search, in which runners and bikers are encouraged to run or ride as many miles as they can before July ends. The runs and rides are supposed to include new terrain. Since I already run trails as well as pavement, I decided to run trails with my bare feet. I chose the unpaved trails in the Leon Creek Greenway.

Leon Creek Greenway
Leon Creek Greenway
Leon Creek Greenway

I also ran one more hill rep, the day before yesterday, than I wanted or planned to, because I asked myself what Meghan would do, and I knew she would run past her point of wanting to stop.

In the past two weeks, I’ve met some of my running goals, but not all of them. This week I’m on course for meeting my goals. I had a really sucky run today, but that run is fodder for another post. I’m going out tomorrow to repeat the run and make it better, because I believe that’s what Meghan would do : )

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