Marathon Training for Aging Dummies with appeal for runners and non-runners alike!

This post will appeal to anyone who has ever training for any road race, especially a marathon. It may appeal even more to runners’ friends and relatives who think running is nuts, especially spouses of these crazy runners. I am posting this NY Times article by Jeré Longman in its entirety along with its link because I don’t want you to miss any of it by mistake. Jeré is running his eighth marathon tomorrow in NYC at age 65; 8 years ago I ran my first marathon (of two), also the amazing NYC Marathon and also at age 65. He says he knows that it will take him more than 5 hours; for me that was a given, but I did come in under 6 hours!

Running the 2011 NYC Marathon with my brother and running buddy, Phil. Image credit: Howard Fritz

I hope you enjoy this article as much as I did, both you runners and non-runners. The runners can fondly reminisce about similar struggles; the non-runners can shake their heads in despair at such madness.  A perfect argument for why nobody should ever attempt long-distance running, you’ll say!  I will be following Jeré Longman during his run tomorrow. I wish him an awesome race experience and a quick – or at least eventual – recovery!

Marathon Training for Aging Dummies

So this 65-year-old sportswriter decided to train for a marathon. His knees wanted to call an Uber.

NYC Marathon, 2018. This year’s marathon takes place tomorrow, Nov 3, 2019. Image credit: Benjamin Norman for The New York Times

On Sunday, I’ll run the New York City Marathon at age 65, having trained on a strict diet of edamame and mixed vegetables.

O.K., I didn’t eat a ton of these foods. I iced my knees with packs of them.

Debby, my wife, was not sold on the idea.

“Who trains for a marathon out of the frozen food case?” she said.

Debby is not, shall we say, smitten with the idea of my running 26.2 miles. On the application for my first marathon, New York in 1991, she suggested I list my occupation as “organ donor.”

Finally, she did manage some bleak enthusiasm.

“Too bad they don’t give a trophy for hairiest competitor.”

Seven marathons later, I’ve become the oldest person in The New York Times sports department. But I’m much healthier at 65 than at 25, when I was 70 pounds heavier, tipping the scales at 240. It was not a good sign that after I rafted through the Grand Canyon and prepared to hike out, the guide said, “Sorry, sir, you’re too fat to ride the donkeys.”

After nearly 40 years of running, I have a resting heart rate of 44 to 48 beats per minute. Sixty to 100 is average. Still, my physiological and cardiovascular markers are trending downward, hastened by my own foolishness. Of the 1,421 entrants 65 and older in a marathon field of about 52,000, I’ll surely be among the slowest, with floorboards creaking and joists sagging. Debby has begun calling me “Mr. This Old House.”

My training began sensibly enough. I planned to follow Hal Higdon’s marathon program for seniors. The plan is designed for experienced runners who want modest weekly mileage, between 24 and 32 miles, with weekend runs of 12 to 20 miles. Each week calls for three days of running, two days of stretching or gym work, two days of rest and, oddly enough, five episodes of “The Golden Girls.”

The race would be a 65th birthday present to myself. Things went well until April, when I traveled to the Sahara in Morocco to cover a six-day race called the Marathon des Sables. Just after the race started, I fell on a pile of rocks and landed on my right knee.

There was some bleeding but no real swelling. So, naturally, I ignored it.

“The old runners’ denial,” Bill Rodgers, a four-time winner of the marathons in both New York and Boston, cackled into the phone months later.

Through the summer, I kept running, wearing a strap below my right knee, feeling no sharp pain, just discomfort that I tried to disregard. The knee didn’t get worse, but it also didn’t get better. Every time I went for a long run, it tried to call for an Uber.

Eventually, my form began to alarm passing motorists. In late August, as I warmed up with a short walk in my hometown in Louisiana, a guy drove alongside me, rolled down his window and said, “Going to therapy?”

By then, I had switched to ultra-cushioned Hoka running shoes. They leave my ankles feeling somewhat unstable on long runs, but the sensation is like running on marshmallows. After Sunday’s race, I plan to tear off the soles and make S’mores.

The pillowy shoes didn’t cure my knee discomfort, though. So I finally sought professional treatment in suburban Philadelphia, where I live. Every other week, my chiropractor leaned on me as if I were a parked car, grabbing and yanking and giving my hips a front-end alignment. In a previous job, he must have wrestled bears.

Last week, I went to see Danny Singles, a physical therapist. My left calf had seized after a 20-mile run, then again after a four-miler. In his estimation, I had aggravated some arthritis with my fall in April, experienced a bone bruise or perhaps fractured the kneecap. In any case, my stride had become crabbed as the right knee tried to protect itself. This led to compensatory injuries in my left leg.

Danny’s aim was to loosen my clenched muscles, restoring fluidity to my stride. Usually, healing takes six to eight weeks. With me, he had eight to 10 days.

A marathon runner himself, he had seen my type many times and perfectly described the mind-set: “I will keep running and running until I’m physically dragging my leg behind me, and then I’ll seek out multiple opinions to find the person that tells me not to stop running.”

I’m pretty sure that Danny went to work on me with a rake and a cheese grater. Not that it hurt or anything, but several times I found myself whimpering and suddenly able to speak Portuguese.

But my right knee developed a greater range of motion. I began running without a knee strap. My calf stopped seizing.

Still, why not skip Sunday’s race and rest until I’m fully healed? Danny has this theory about private versus public exercise. Race days are shared among runners, but training is mostly done in small groups or alone, without observers.

“People are much more passionate and much more driven to keep doing it, because it’s an activity they are more privately, heavily invested in,” Danny said.

Last weekend, I got my first deep-tissue massage. This was serious business. At one point, I think my masseuse rode across my back on a mountain bike or jumped from a small ladder. Possibly, she threw lawn darts. Finally, she rubbed my right Achilles’ tendon as if re-enacting the discovery of fire. It hurt nearly to the point of tears, and then everything felt relaxed, my back, my tendon, my fear about getting to the start line.

Through my imprudent training, I still completed five runs between 20 and 22 miles. But let’s be honest. Sunday’s marathon will take at least five hours. I could probably make wiser use of my time binge-watching “Poldark.” Running downhill will hurt. Long before the finish, my knees will crave edamame and mixed vegetables. But here I go.

“Aging gracefully is very difficult” for an athlete, Danny said. “There’s no such thing.”


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8 Responses to Marathon Training for Aging Dummies with appeal for runners and non-runners alike!

  1. barryh says:

    Crazy, and hilarious!

  2. candidkay says:

    Wow! I’m so impressed you ran the marathon! And you’re smiling:) I recently saw Brittany Runs a Marathon and it gave me newfound respect for people like you who tough it out.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Taking up long distance running was one of my retirement projects. The amazing thing is that it’s totally doable, you just have to be willing to put in A LOT of time on the trail … and spend a lot of time figuring out how to recover from various running injuries that you never knew existed! It is such an overwhelming feeling to cross the finish line … until a few minutes later when you realize that your legs don’t want to move forward anymore! 😏

  3. Jean says:

    Ok, I’m not a jogger…even though in Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary I’ve lived/live near major bike-pedestrian park paths that seem to have a jogging event nearly every weekend in spring to fall.

    My hats off to the joggers….I bike along while they trudge along in rain, snow and sun.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Lol. You have to keep in mind that most of those joggers don’t see themselves as trudging along. They see themselves as gliding along, filled with hope of fulfilling their aspirations! 😏

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