It seemed the height of ignorance that so many people expressed amazement of Meb Keflezighi’s age as he became the first American in 31 years to win the famous Boston Marathon earlier this year.
It reminds me of baseball commentators lamenting over a 30 something ballplayer’s aging legs having something to do with a less than stellar performance. Meb at 38 is just a youngster. News reporters in general tend to be clueless. If you remember the Rosie Ruiz incident at the Boston Marathon several years ago whom people saw cross the finish line as the first woman to win the event and got her face plastered across newspapers and on TV at the time. There was not a runner alive who didn’t know she was a fraud from the get-go. The media still was convinced Rosie won even after several notable runners reported the obvious truth. Even slim people have a “fleshiness” that real runners don’t have—turned out that Rosie jumped in a mile from the finish.
Keflezighi didn’t come out of nowhere—world class runners never do. He is a former winner of the New York Marathon and several international marathons. In the world of distance runners, 38 is not old. Abibi Bikila, the famous Ethiopian marathoner won his first Olympic gold medal in 1960 at age 34, which he ran barefoot, and his second in the 1964 Olympics at age 38. Upon his untimely death, his running mate, Mamo Wolde, at the age of 36, won Olympic gold in 1968 to honor his friend Abibi.
Many 60 and 70 year olds turn in marathon times in the 2 hour and 40 to 50 minute range—times that would have won marathons only decades ago. They run at a 6:30 mile pace and below for the entire 26.2 miles while the average teenager can’t run one mile in eight or even 10 minutes. A few people have finished the 26.2 miles at the age of 100.
In other sports, Gordie Howe, played on the front line of a professional hockey team with his sons at age 52. Hockey has to be one of the fastest moving most grueling sports. John Hevlicek, the Boston Celtic basketball great, played at full steam at age 39. He, of course, was a runner and kept in shape all year long. George Blanda, the Oakland Raiders quarterback, was competing at age 48 and kicked field goals into his 50s.
I began running at age 37 in response to some derogatory remarks about my fitness from several younger colleagues in the flooring industry. My first marathon time was 3 hours and 21 minutes. In three years I was in the 2 hour and 50 minute realm headed for the 2:30s. When asked about my goals at age 42, I mentioned competing in the Ironman Triathalon at age 50 because I didn’t think that anyone could be in shape until they reached that age. People thought I was being sarcastic, but I was dead serious. Running had reached such a high level at that time in New England that my personal best of 27:35 for five miles (5:30 per mile) only got me a third place in the Masters category.
Retail like many other jobs can be overwhelming. Things come in bunches: The mill calls and an important piece of merchandise isn’t going the make the truck, an installer runs short on a job, somehow an appointment gets missed and a salesperson figures a job wrong costing several hundred dollars, a check that was supposed to be there isn’t, all happening simultaneously. After having to suck it up for the last six miles of a marathon, these things actually seem manageable.
I truly believe that people who have never competed in a sport as grueling and painful as marathoning operate at a disadvantage in life. I know it was a godsend to any success I enjoyed in the flooring business. After a competitive runner hits the so-called wall at twenty miles, where your muscles refuse to move another step, emotions are screaming stop and your brain yells; “For goodness sake walk off the course!” you have to run the remaining 6.2 miles at a pace as fast or faster than the previous 20 miles in order to obtain any semblance of a good time.
Many competitive women marathoners with children have been asked which is more painful, childbirth or the last six miles, and the unanimous answer is, “The last 6.2 miles.”
This is why I believe athletes are able to overcome the physical, emotional and intellectual obstacles thrown at them throughout their lives. The reason women have more than one child and runners run more than one marathon (27 in my case) is we have an extremely short memory span.
In sales, a customer is persistently standoffish even though you know you can help her. A competitor says something to your customer that has her thinking she may go with them, a price is cheaper on the Internet, why can Lumber Liquidaters sell laminate for $.29 and a husband shows up returning samples for his wife (a sure sign the sales is lost)—all happening within an hour. How do you cope?
Without having the experience of doing the impossible emotionally, physically and intellectually during the last six miles, there would seem for the average person there is no way to overcome these obstacles. Running makes it possible.
My Ironman goals diminished when I was diagnosed with cancer requiring two operations in November of 1982 and intensive dosages of radiotherapy, which started in January of 1983. The radiation had the effect of keeping me nauseous throughout the day and night. However, I found that if I could force myself out the door and walk/run for two to three hours, it would give me several hours of respite. Without my running experience, this would have been impossible, it was just too painful and the exhaustion was overwhelming. I never considered myself a patient; rather this was just another competition.
After therapy was completed and being I was already qualified to run Boston again, I commenced training for the big day. Early in April I came down with a severe case of the flu, which is a definite sign of overtraining. I never ran another competitive race.
Unlike many runners, I experienced no runner’s withdrawal; rather a sense that I was on a perpetual vacation not having to lace up every morning and slog 10 to 15 miles a day. The good news was that all my previous work was not in vain because there was a definite residual training effect enabling me to take the occasional relaxing five to 10 mile run with my dog well into my 60s. It also enabled me to remain competitive with my teenaged sons until my double heart valve operation three years ago. Once again, the open heart surgery was nothing compared to the last 6.2 miles.
Age has very little to do with lifetime fitness as long as you stay active. It even got so that I never trusted an idea that came to me or a decision made while not on a run where fresh blood was rushing through my brain. I truly feel that if my pig valve replacements were as effective as my original equipment pumping blood in and out of my heart I could be still running 2:50 to 3:00 at my current age of 75.
Warren Tyler is a former flooring retail store owner and salesman, and is the author of several industry training books, CDs and DVDs and has been a columnist for the trade press. He is available for keynotes and sales seminars at (804) 384 7588, or firstname.lastname@example.org.