There is a long-overdue phenomenon currently taking place in the endurance sports community. Regular, average, nonathletic middle-aged women of all shapes and sizes are hitting the pavement in stride, and they have plenty of company. What was once considered a men’s sport (until 1967, when Kathrine Switzer became the first woman to run the once male-only Boston Marathon as a numbered entrant and never looked back), long-distance running for women now is what step aerobics and jazzercise was for them in 1985. Except unlike the latter — which appeared to be reserved only for lean 20- and 30-something women, long-distance running seems to be the perfect fit for midlife women, and they’re taking to it in literal packs.
Women currently represent 57 percent of all race finishers, and the numbers have been on a steady rise for the past several years — especially among the over-40 crowd. This specific cohort of runners between age 45 and 55 (please don’t call them joggers) is turning the running industry on its head, as well as spurning athletic retailers and race directors to finally take notice of them and to provide both age-appropriate running gear (sports bra industry, listen up!) and female-centered running events aimed toward midlife women.
But why have so many women at this age suddenly found a healthy zest for long-distance running and other sporting events once considered “extreme,” or reserved only for professionals and semiprofessionals? Well, let’s just say women these days are not having your grandma’s midlife crisis. The natural midlife malaise and subsequent dip in our health and happiness in our late 40s and early 50s are no longer easily cured by a two-week trip to Europe, and we aren’t willing to just accept the older and less-functional bodies that are looking back at us in the mirror. The mere notion of aging gracefully nowadays has less and less to do with slowing down, and more and more to do with picking up the pace — and in the case of running after 40, we mean that literally.
Of course, it’s also at midlife when we really begin to focus on the what-ifs, as well as the what-to-comes. As we begin to face our own mortality, it’s a time when we finally realize that living a healthy lifestyle and practicing self-care aren’t selfish notions at all. On the contrary, when we remember this body we’ve been given has done amazing things already (like made people), we suddenly want to see more of what it can do — and running 26.2 miles in a marathon suddenly doesn’t seem that crazy anymore.
Considered a “masters” runner because she is 52 years old, Sarah Bowen Shea, the cofounder of the popular online running community for women Another Mother Runner (www.anothermotherrunner.com), believes that midlife is the perfect time to take up running, and would never allow her masters designation to be permission or license for slowing down. Her competitive juices are still flowing strong and have yet to be replaced by complacency cocktails simply because she is over age 50. She states, “I think runners in their 40s and early 50s think, ‘It’s now or never!!’ Plus, so many facets of society write off women once they hit middle age, whether in the workplace or social settings. The athletic realm is where we can push ourselves and prove something to ourselves — showing them we’re still very much in the game!”
Perhaps after hearing for decades all the things we can’t do, we’re finally ready to explore (and conquer in epic fashion) all the things we can do, and that includes athletic endeavors once thought impossible. It also means switching our thought perspective from “This is going to really make me feel my age” to “I want something that makes me feel alive again.” For Shea and so many other middle-age runners, it’s that feeling of feeling something (whether it is pain, soreness or exhaustion from endurance training) that doesn’t make us feel old, and reminds us our bodies and spirit are still alive and kicking.
Shea adds, “As a woman in this age group, I know I’m now more resolute in taking time for myself and putting myself first on my to-do list on a nearly daily basis, so it’s ‘easier’ to stick to a training plan and strive toward my athletic goals. Women of all ages should spend more time on self-care — something we strongly espouse at Another Mother Runner — but sometimes we don’t commit to it until we hit a certain age.”
It’s becoming clearer that the “certain-age” group of women runners is no longer something to scoff at. As a matter of fact, these runners are something to chase after — because they’re finally leading the pack.
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