Patrick beat the odds in 2018. At age 68, after three years on the sidelines, he started running again. First, a few miles punctuated by walking. Next, six- to eight-mile jaunts. Last I checked on Patrick, his training runs were 14 miles and up. He was entertaining the idea of a marathon this year.
Running and aging don’t go together well. As we age, fitness slips and pace slows. PRs (personal records) fade into memory. Injuries mount. Recovery drags for weeks and then months.
In the United States, a sliver of the 25 million “regular” runners — those who run 50 times or more a year — are verging on old. Just 6 percent are ages 55 to 64, according to the National Sporting Goods Association. Less than 3 percent are 65 and up. (The percentages are nearly the same for women and men).
I have my hand raised. At 62, I’m still running three times a week, sometimes four. To a startling degree, my life is still organized around running. During the school year — I am a professor in the Business School at George Washington University — if I haven’t gotten in a run before or after class, I feel like I’ve cheated. My Saturdays are diminished if I haven’t joined the Pacemakers for a group run, usually eight to 10 miles at a pokey pace.
To satisfy me, even our family vacations incorporate some running adventure. (Case in point: next January’s Caribbean running cruise hosted by Bjorn Grass, the world record holder for marathons run completely at sea).
The hold that running has on me is common among Pacemakers, especially of a certain age. We feel lucky beyond belief. To be running at this stage of the game with much younger friends is a gift that we do not take lightly. We’re beating the odds and know it.
Sure, our ranks are thinning. That focuses us on our good fortune even more. Every couple of months, we lose a friend to a joint replacement or another health issue. Other friends just drift away, lured inexplicably by stamp-collecting and mah-jongg.
For the rest of us, quitting isn’t an option. Not yet.
Ex-baseball pitcher Jim Bouton wrote in “Ball Four,” his classic sports memoir, that “you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.” That’s as true of aging runners as washed-up knuckleballers. Mostly, we’re hooked on the community that is running — the people you meet and the bonds that are formed.
For Patrick and me, the Pacemakers are home base. Started 20 years ago by Bob Hilson, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, and several colleagues in the newsroom, the group launched over lunch hour. The newbie runners ran the street behind the newspaper building for two miles before turning around. Over the years, the group has grown steadily. Now, close to 300 runners receive Hilson’s weekly emails.
The Pacemakers have a Facebook page. We have an unofficial leisure wear line — caps, shirts and sweatshirts with the club’s watch-face logo. We don’t have dues. Any barrier, financial or otherwise, to running would be highly un-Pacemaker-like. On Saturdays at 7 a.m., 75 or more of us gather for the run and the socializing that follows, usually at a locally owned restaurant.
You never know who you’ll see. In the last year, I’ve run with a high school science teacher, the host of a Baltimore radio show, a renowned expert on child sexual abuse and a candidate for Maryland lieutenant governor.
And most surprisingly, with Patrick McCarthy.
Patrick had been running for decades before he joined our group. He started at age 30 and ran his first marathon at 54. When we met him a few years later, he impressed us all. He had a runner’s build — lean and rangy. And he was great company — funny and fun to talk to.
Starting in 2014, we saw less of Patrick on the road. Over two years, he was beset with health issues: two detached retinas and broken bones in both feet. Each injury was followed by lengthy recuperation. Patrick’s attitude was positive. But he couldn’t stay healthy.
Finally, in 2015, while lying on an examining table with an achy knee, Patrick’s orthopedic surgeon weighed in. His injuries — past and present — had been compounding for several years. If he continued running, they would probably worsen. In the doctor’s view, it was time to stop running.
“I was pretty upset,” Patrick recalls. “It wasn’t real until I got home and had to tell my wife. Then I knew this would be a major life change.”
I spoke with orthopedic surgeon Andrew Cosgarea of Johns Hopkins Hospital. Cosgarea was the Baltimore Orioles team physician from 2000 to 2010 and cares for the 24 intercollegiate sports teams at Johns Hopkins University. His practice also includes hundreds of weekend warriors — of which a growing percentage is older runners.
I asked Cosgarea about speaking with this demographic. “The conversations can be hard. It’s difficult to accept limitations for all human beings,” he says. “It’s never a matter of: You can never run again.” It’s a free country. It’s not against the law. It’s informing the patient how much damage may occur if you ignore what your body is telling you. Do you want to use up all the tread in your tires?”
Cosgarea says he encourages older runners to vary their routines. Modify running workouts to include softer surfaces or water jogging in the deep-end of a pool. Swim a few times a week.
Amby Burfoot, the 1968 Boston Marathon champ and longtime editor at Runner’s World, is Exhibit A. Burfoot has never stopped running. Last year, on the 50th anniversary of his Boston win, he completed the marathon again at age 72.
In his books, including “Run Forever: Your Complete Guide to Healthy Lifetime Running,” Burfoot dispenses advice on subjects including nutrition, warm-ups, sleep, training, even tips on buying a running shoe after 60. Some of the longevity tips are out of Burfoot’s own playbook. He has set up a recumbent bike in his home-office in Connecticut and pedals while he reads for up to an hour most mornings. His pace and weekly mileage aren’t what they used to be, but he has no plans to stop.
“I’ve thought: What if I fell at home or had some terrible accident that put me in a wheelchair? I would hope I would adjust,” he told me. “I have no idea.”
During his break from running, Patrick focused on biking and swimming. Though he wasn’t able to run, he maintained contact with friends in the Pacemakers. When we finished our Saturday runs and met at the neighborhood coffee shop, he was waiting inside at a corner table. Some of us steered conversations with Patrick away from upcoming races and PRs, not wanting to make matters worse. But last year, Bob Hilson asked: “How many doctors told you not to run?”
That question led to a second opinion and, within weeks, a comeback. It was as if our running community had laid hands on Patrick and healed him.
That hadn’t happened, of course. But that’s our story.
Mark Hyman, a professor in the business of sports program at George Washington University, is on Twitter at @gwsportsprof.