George Haywood, a D.C. native, won the 300-meter hurdles at the World Masters Athletic Championships this past summer in Lyon, France. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

News stories about older athletes are often a study of novelty. The implication that “old people” shouldn’t be competing at a high level — or any level — can ring through each paragraph: The fact that they are active at all should amaze us.

George Haywood has a problem with this narrative.

Haywood, a 63-year-old District native, strongly believes that high-performing athletes in their 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond are not an oddity. He should know: He won the gold medal in the 300-meter hurdles at the World Masters Athletics Championships this summer in Lyon, France, with a time of 45.31 seconds (for context, 25-year-old Nicholas Kiplagat Bett, the 400-meter hurdle winner at the IAAF Track and Field World Championship in Beijing, won in 47.79). The masters athletic championships fielded more than 8,000 runners from 98 countries in all categories of track and field.

Nancy Avitabile doesn’t feel like an oddity, either.

At 67, Avitabile, who lives in Bethesda and has competed in triathlons since her 50s, won the women’s Olympic-distance 65-69 category at the World Triathlon Championship in Chicago this September.

Gregory Chaconas wasn’t alone in running the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington as an older athlete. (This fall’s race was his 27th MCM.) More than 11,000 masters runners, as the category is known — for racers, 40 and older — finished this year. John Corbet, the most senior runner at 82, clocked in at just a few minutes over six hours.

Chaconas, 70 and also from the District, finished in 4:32:23, eighth in the men’s 70-74 category. He estimates he’s completed about 110 marathons, 90 of those after turning 40.

Masters athletes are showing it’s not a novelty to compete at an older age. Rather, it’s an opportunity to reach their potential.

“We baby boomers are very concerned with physical and mental decline,” Haywood said. “What many of us do not realize is how much of that decline is avoidable if one does the right things.”

Nancy Avitabile, 67, has competed in triathlons since her 50s, and she won the women’s Olympic-distance 65-69 category at the World Triathlon Championship in Chicago this September. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Gregory Chaconas, 70, recently completed the Marine Corps Marathon, one of about 110 marathons he has finished. His first was the inaugural Marine Corps Marathon, in 1976. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
Knowing the curve

“You are exerting a little extra effort to change your momentum. Your angular momentum is changing because running straight is easier than running around a curve.”

Haywood was explaining how he properly paces himself to clear the hurdles on both the straightaway and the curved parts of the track. Although Haywood ran hurdles in high school, it was only when he started competing in masters track at 50 that he began to understand how to train — or, as Haywood said, knowing how to use the curves, both on the track and in life, to your advantage.

It’s true that the body begins to lose its agility and strength as it ages. Studies find that VO2 max levels (the measurement of how much oxygen a person can use while exercising) begin to decline in the 30s and 40s, and it’s worse for those who lead sedentary lives. Those who engage in regular exercise help slow the breakdown of the body.

But the notion that masters athletes can feel stronger in their 60s than their 30s can be met with skepticism. Yet Haywood, a private investor in his day job, says he is faster now than he was as a student in 1969. Avitabile, who owns an accounting business, is reaching new levels in her strength training, and Chaconas, a retired federal employee, still runs 30 to 40 miles a week.

Although these individuals are in the older levels of the masters-athlete category, they aren’t late bloomers when it comes to athletics. Avitabile and Chaconas began to run marathons during the racing boom of the ’70s. Chaconas ran in the first Marine Corps Marathon, in 1976, finishing in just over three hours. In addition to running hurdles in high school, Haywood stayed active as an adult by playing tennis and swimming.

Even still, masters athletes have to adjust with age.

Charlie Brown, a sports psychologist based in Charlotte, said masters athletes have to deal with the mental shift of working smarter, not harder. “You are one of the most incredible machines, organisms, in the world, but you have to take care of the hardware,” he said. “And the hardware requires more maintenance.”

This comes in both training and recovery and knowing the value in both. Good training requires variety; for instance, interval training becomes more important as athletes get older.

Good training also includes preventive maintenance, such as warm-ups and cool-downs during workouts, stretching, hydration, and fuel-loading after a workout.

Brown said masters athletes have to come to grips with the physical changes that come with aging. Those who decide to get back into strenuous physical activity after a period of inactivity run a major risk of injury.

When Haywood first started to train for masters track, he approached his workouts with a competitive fervor. But — like those who, as he put it, “have the flashback to their glory days in high school” and go all out — he got injured. It took him two years to finally get to his first masters track race.

When it comes to injury, the question for masters athletes is not “if,” but “when” — and how long will it take to recover.

“I can’t snap back like I used to,” Chaconas said. “I tried to do two marathons close together, but I messed up and miscalculated. In the past, I could have gotten away with that, but not anymore.”

Brown says that recovery becomes more crucial to the athlete’s success.

“Training doesn’t make you stronger. It breaks you down,” Brown said. “The way you get stronger is by recovery, and a younger body recovers faster than an older body.”

Finding a coach also can help in finding the balance between what an athlete wants to do and what is realistic. Avitabile credits her coaches at Bethesda Sport&Health with helping her find that sweet spot in her training. “The thing is that as you get older, it takes a long, long time to recover from an injury, so you don’t want to do anything stupid.”

As athletes get older, time and energy are at a premium, so good management is essential. Energy management “is about understanding pacing and checking the ego,” Brown said. “If you’re serious about winning, the only time you have to be in the lead is at the finish line.”

Racing the clock

Regardless of age, the motivation for competing is the same for anyone who runs races: winning, beating your opponents, getting a faster time. What’s different for masters athletes is that life experience works on their behalf to push through.

As Avitabile said: “I’ve gotten stronger mentally as I’ve gotten older. I can push my body for longer and harder. A lot of it is physical training, and a lot of it is mental. It’s saying, ‘Yeah, I can do this, I can dig deeper.’ ”

Avitabile works on core strength training with personal trainer Geovanny J. Ardon at Bethesda Sport&Health. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

She said the mental endurance that comes with life experience is necessary because the physical endurance is harder to come by.

“When I was younger, competing came easy and I was like, ‘Meh,’ ” she said. “It’s harder to get to the finish line now. But it feels great.”

Haywood said he feels his best days are ahead of him. He plans to compete in a 400-meter dash in Florida next month. He’s always looking for ways to improve.

“It’s fascinating to lower your times. There’s always another goal out there,” Haywood said. “I don’t have any individual world records. I don’t know if I could, but I would like to try.”

Chaconas is looking to beat his Marine Corps Marathon time at the Rehoboth Beach Marathon, also next month. And Avitabile hopes to defend her triathlon title at the championships next year in Cozumel, Mexico.

But beyond the numbers and medals, these athletes recognize something important: Competing gives them a reason to push themselves. It feels good and it’s fun.

“It’s part of my routine. It’s like brushing my teeth,” Chaconas said. “Some days, I run slow or run faster. It depends on what I’ve done previously. It’s what keeps me going.”

Just keep going. There’s nothing odd about that.

Chaconas jogs along a trail near his home in the District. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

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