More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
See Jane Run. See Her Run Faster and Faster.
By GINA KOLATA, New York Times
August 30, 2007

ONE day, about two years ago, my son asked me a probing question. ?Are you running just to run,? he asked, ?or do you have some purpose in mind?? I?d been running for years but never thought to ask myself why. His question made me realize I wanted a goal. And it led me to pick one that now sounds kind of ludicrous, a five-kilometer race that was to be run in two weeks.

I started to train.

It was a revelation ? I got much faster with that little bit of training. I ran the race, won my age group, came home with a trophy, and decided to race again.

Of course, there are lots of reasons to run, and not everyone cares about winning a race or winning his or her age group. There is nothing wrong with running for fun or to clear your head after a long day. But serious running is very different from the more casual running I used to do. And now that I?ve grown more committed, I am starting to notice something odd about women and running.

Men, as might be expected, get slower as they age. At a recent five-kilometer race in Pine Beach, N.J., which drew nearly 1,000 runners, the fastest man was 24 years old and the men?s times increased with each five-year age group.

But the women were different ? their times were all over the place with older women beating younger women in almost every age category. The fastest woman was 37 years old; the fastest woman in the 45 to 49 age group beat the fastest woman in the 20 to 24 and the 40 to 44 age groups.

The same thing happened in another five-kilometer local race, the Eden Family Run, in Princeton, N.J.

There, the top female runner in the 50 to 54 age group beat the top females in the 20 to 24, 25 to 29, and 40 to 44 age groups.

And it?s not just a New Jersey effect. Others have noticed it elsewhere and when I did a random check of race results in California, I saw it there too. On Aug. 8, in a 10-kilometer race in Alameda, the 53-year-old woman who won in the 50 to 54 age group was faster than the woman who won in the 25 to 29 group. A 38-year-old woman beat every other woman in the race.

Results like those made me wonder: Are women really trying in these races and, if they are, why are older women beating younger women?

Mary Wittenberg, president of New York Road Runners, thinks part of the answer is that most female runners shortchange themselves. Look at them before races she said. Men warm up and do strides, short runs to prepare to take off at the starting line. A lot of women hang back, often because they are embarrassed to be out there with the men, acting like determined athletes, Ms. Wittenberg said.

?They are too inhibited to put their full passion out there,? she said. ?They are almost afraid to be serious about a sport. They think that if they?re not the best, they shouldn?t care so much.?

Other women have no idea what they are capable of or how to get faster, said Dr. Vonda Wright, an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

Dr. Wright, who holds running clinics for beginners and for those who want to compete, said women often get the impression that they should not put much effort into runs. That?s the message of some ads and magazine articles telling people to run easy, and that, Dr. Wright said, ?can be negative information? for women who might like to compete. It is too tempting, she said, ?to be lulled into thinking that?s enough.?

Ms. Wittenberg feels the same way. A run-easy message is fine if it helps get people started in the sport. But, she added, there is also a risk, ?in that it sneers at hard work and pushing to limits.?

Dr. Wright said she knows from experience the difference between going easy and challenging training. A few years ago, Dr. Wright, 40, was living in New York and running in Central Park. ?I was jogging around at 9 ? to 10 minutes a mile,? she said, and she had been doing the same unhurried run for years.

One day, she says, she asked herself, ?What am I capable of?? In a few months of training, she got much stronger and faster and ended up running a 10-kilometer race at a speed of 7:44 a mile.

?After 10 years of running at 9:30 I felt so amazing when I realized my time,? she said.

Ralph Vernacchia, who directs the Center for Performance Excellence at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash., has worked with elite runners including Olympians. And with elite runners, there is no question about competitive drive.

But with average runners, he said, older women may be faster because, oddly enough, they are trying harder than younger women and discovering for the first time what they are capable of.

Most middle-aged women grew up when track and cross-country teams were for men only. Some of those women, who had no opportunity to race when they were young, are just learning to be athletes and are running faster than younger women who may not care as much.

He described the experience for women as ?a kind of wakening, an epiphany.?

That is not to say that training is easy, he added. Being an athlete requires dedication and training, Dr. Vernacchia explained.

?It?s a mindset and once you know the method, it?s a real achievement. It takes emotional energy, spiritual energy and physical energy. There?s a difference between being involved and being committed. To be an athlete you must be committed.?

?Commitment is a state you find yourself in when the gun goes off,? Dr. Vernacchia said.

Then, if you are lucky, you beat all those younger women.
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