Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Ageism vs Sexism in Distance Running

I’ve been thinking a lot about my age the past couple of days.

No, it’s not because I just had a birthday recently, or the fact that someone called me “mid-thirties” for the first time yesterday (since when did the third year of a decade began to be called the middle-years?) Actually, it was the more the discrepancy between the ages of the women’s and men’s marathoners that has caused me to think about my age as it relates to the peak of athletic performance.

I don’t know if anyone else has noticed, but isn’t it surprising that all three of our representatives in the Women’s Olympic marathon are in their mid to late thirties (33, 35, 36) while all of their male counterparts entering the same distance event are in their twenties (25, 25, 29). Not only so, but the eventual winner of the women’s marathon, Constantin Tomescu, is 38, while it’s very doubtful that the men’s winner on Sunday will crack a day older than 30. You want more numbers, okay. How about Paula Radcliffe, who despite turning in a disappointing finish last week by her standards (not mine), vowed to compete in the 2012 London Olympics when she will be…38!, and even Dara Torres (yes, I’m using a non-runner here to prove my point…sue me!) won 3 silver medals in this, her 5th Olympic games, at the tender age of 41. The list of women athletes who blossom athletically at or even after their “mid-thirties” is long while for us men, if you’re still competing at any of these events at 29, as Brian Sell nicely puts it, you’re considered over the hill.

I will not venture a guess as to why my “over-the-hill” 33 is considered a “coming-to-fruition” number for a woman, because in a sense, the phenomena exists contrary to what I can explain medically. It is safe to assume that an interplay of health, genetics, hormones and tenacious and hard training must be at work here to bring about these changes.

As for me, I am saddened by the realization that because I’m male, no matter how stoked I am about my marathon time or be jubilant over my last PRs, it is physiologically impossible for me to improve my speed and my time after a certain point. I’m not sure when I will get to that point, but there will come a time that running fast will no longer be an option. That sucks. After my last race, I can feel that I’m fast approaching that asymptotic limit. It is a humbling thought to say the least. As a result, although it’s never been my style, I’m teaching myself not to take PRs for granted, but savor and enjoy every one as if it were my last. I am sure I will find another challenge once I get to the point that I can no longer PR, but until then I must enjoy the speed, the journey and the scenery.

Welcome to life in the mid-thirties, for me!


Andrew is getting fit said...

You really made me stop and think with this post!

I only just started running and I'm already on the way down. :)

*aron* said...

i guess that is good news for me being a woman in my mid-twenties... the prime (hopefully) is still a ways away!

Non-Runner Nancy said...

Interesting, Lam. These women truly are amazing, not sure why the men are washed up by 33. :D At least you are smoking fast -- many people would love to hit 33 running the times you run.

Just found out I might *might* be in NYC at the end of September. Maybe you could speed walk while I run (or you could just run laps around me).

Meg said...

That is interesting. I don't even have a hypothesis as to why, unless their bodies peak in strength later...maybe it's a confidence or discipline issue but I'd assume men would be similar.
But, did you just refer to 36 as late 30s? :)

P.O.M. said...

Hey, we (women) have a lot of negative stuff to deal with. At least our athletic performance peaks later. I kid. I kid.

(I was going to make an easy wise-crack about women peaking older at other things, but I'll leave that alone.)

Newly and Forever, Tamantha said...

I certainly hope I haven't hit my peak, I'm 32 and to be 33 in about 6 months....I'm just getting started! Although I AM in somewhat of a denial about how my body hurts more than it used to doing the things I have always done, I want to be running well into life! Thanks for your perspective. Those women are an inspiration to me!

Xenia said...

Sweet! There's still hope for me yet. :)

N.D. said...

Try having to slow down for 9+ months to carry a kid, this is why they give us extra time.

Anonymous said...

Don't forget that Carlos Lopes won the 1984 Olympic marathon at age 37, then went on to set the world record the following year.

Kiwi Jack Foster ran 2:11 at age 40.

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