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When Meb Keflezighi won the 2014 Boston Marathon using a bold and well-timed mid-race breakaway, the major story was his becoming the first American man to win the race in 31 years.
Not far behind on the attention-grabbing scale, though, was the fact that Meb had accomplished the feat just two weeks shy of his 39th birthday, making him the oldest person to win the race since 1931.
Approaching his 40th birthday this year, there was plenty of chatter about Meb’s chances of remaining at the world-class level as a masters runner. And sure enough, while Meb struggled in the last 10K of this year’s Boston Marathon and finished eighth, he rebounded to run 1:02:29 at the Rock ‘n’ Roll San Diego Half Marathon on May 31 a few weeks after his 40th birthday, good for second overall. While his time—54 seconds under the U.S. masters mark—couldn’t replace Mbarak Hussein’s name in the record books because of the course’s net elevation drop, Meb was still credited with American masters records of 44:23 for 15K and 47:39 for 10 miles.
Keflezighi is not alone in recently blurring the line between “elite” and “age-group elite.” Bernard Lagat turned 40 last December, and wasted no time in setting three world indoor masters records: 3:54.91 for the mile, 7:37.71 for 3,000 meters and 8:17.05 for 2 miles. In May, in a rare foray onto the roads, Lagat blitzed a 27:48 10K, which was not only a new masters world record but tied Marc Nenow’s 33-year-old American open record. Outdoors this year, Lagat has set world 40-plus records of 3:41.87 for 1,500 meters and 13:14.97 for 5,000 meters.
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Internationally, there is no shortage of elite runners who have marched into mastershood without interruption. Haile Gebrselassie, who announced his retirement in May at age 42 after a two-decade career as probably the best all-around distance runner in history, set masters world records at 10K (28:00, since broken by Lagat), 10 miles (47:00) and the half-marathon (1:01:09). Great Britain’s Jo Pavey won the 10,000m at last year’s European Track and Field Championships. New Zealander Lorraine Moller’s career at the highest level spanned close to 30 years and four Olympics, concluding with her appearance in marathon at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta at age 44.
Stateside, however, the masters scene has traditionally been left in large part to athletes who competed either sparingly or not at all in their post-collegiate years. Pete Magill, who ran a 14:45 5K at 49, is an archetypal example. Though Magill’s path to becoming an elite master was roguish in spots—the now-53-year-old former screenwriter once smoked up to four packs a day—it was typical in many respects: He was a solid prep and All-American junior-college runner, then stepped away from running for nearly two decades before picking it up again at 39 chiefly for health reasons. Within two years, Magill had run 3:56 for 1,500 meters and 8:31 for 3,000 meters, and was later nearly unbeatable in the 45-to-49 division.
So what’s driving the shift toward older elites refusing to hang ‘em up in their mid-30s like in the past? Simply, it seems to be America’s best are finding fewer and fewer reasons to quit as they age.
Deena Kastor, who holds U.S. half-marathon (1:07:34) and marathon (2:19:36) records as well as an Olympic marathon bronze medal, has goals that are as pragmatic as ever, even now at 42.
“My focus isn’t on age-group winning or even winning itself, but in embracing the challenge every day,” she says. “There is such a thrill to pursue unending improvement and even greater value in sharing it within the running community I cherish. In the height of my career I was very goal-oriented and focused on that goal to bring out the best in my training. Now, I focus on making the most of each day and the lessons a good long run can teach us about ourselves.”
After turning 40 in February 2013, Kastor finished third at the 2013 LA Marathon and ninth at the IAAF World Championship Marathon later that year in Moscow, and last September established a world masters half-marathon record, running 1:09:39 at Rock ‘n’ Roll Philadelphia.
Three-time Olympian Jen Rhines, who turned 41 last month, says that despite making adjustments owing to getting older, she still has her eye on chasing the overall leaders.
“For me, the act of actually turning 40 reinforced the idea of taking the easy days a little easier and not going to the well in every workout,” she says. “I can still do the hard workouts but they don’t occur as frequently. Stepping on the line fresh and ready to go has helped me be a much more consistent competitor.”
Rhines has attempted to balance a modicum of realism with maintaining high aspirations. “My fastest days may be behind me, but I still enjoy setting big goals and going after them,” she says. “Competing against the open women is what drives me to my best performances, such as setting the U.S. Masters 10K record at the Tufts 10K in Boston last fall (32:32). Placing third at the U.S. Cross-Country Championships this year was probably the hardest I’ve run in a really long time.”
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Sonja Friend-Uhl , a 44-year-old mother of two, has earned a slew of masters titles and set numerous records since joining the 40-and-over ranks. Despite focusing on traditionally age-unfriendly events such as the 1,500 meters, she shows few signs of slowing down, and echoes many of her peers’ sentiments.
“The source of my motivation to continue to train and race as I age is really no different than it ever has been,” says the Nashville-based athlete who set an American outdoor mile record (4:45.68) in June to go with her indoor mile AR of 4:44.81 from 2012. “It’s that insatiable, never-ending quest to find the best in myself, to do better than yesterday or last season—or maybe even better than ever.”
While she acknowledges that “better than ever” may be out of reach at this point, she notes that it’s just as fulfilling to at least try and see what she can do and push her mental, physical, and sometimes emotional limits. “I’m proud of being a top masters runner,” she admits, “but it’s not what defines me or my goals. I am simply a runner, a track athlete, just as I always have been.”
The most recent addition to the American elite masters scene is multi-time national cross-country champion and 2008 Olympian Blake Russell, who turned 40 on July 24 after winning the 2015 U.S. Marathon Championship in Los Angeles in March. Unlike others, Russell’s training adjustments have stemmed more from lifestyle considerations than physical ones. Russell has two young children, and with a working husband and childcare an issue, she’s not running her accustomed doubles these days. Otherwise, she remains focused on competing at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon, which will also be held in Los Angeles next February.
Thanks to Keflezighi and other 40-somethings who have refused to slow down, a clear picture is emerging within the elite crowd. Like in other sports, people realize that not only is turning 35 no reason to start drawing up retirement papers, but you can run surprisingly close to your best lifetime performances in your late 30s and early 40s given the right combination of training, attitude, recovery and luck. It’s not out of the question that the U.S. could have one or more Olympic runner in the 40-and-older age range in 2016.
While the battle cry “age is just a number!” is surely overstated, that number need not be limiting or frightening. And if something is working for elite runners, there’s no reason it can’t work for the rank and file, too.