Is 40 the new 30? Not for me.

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Good things come slow, especially in distance running.

Bill Dellinger

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Today is my birthday. I am 35 years old.  And while previously I would have avoided admitting my age, these days a simple google search will tell you pretty much everything there is to know about me (there’s even stuff online I don’t know about myself).  Secrecy (or rather, privacy), in an era dominated by social media, seems to be a thing of the past.

At age 35, I have been running for just over 25 years.  Like most children, junior school was an opportunity to blow off steam.  I ran everything I was told to do, from 80m as an under 8, to the 1200m and cross country in senior prep.  The longer the distance: the better I did.  In high school, I focused on other things, typically as a fish, earning myself a medal or two at SA School Champs and a couple of school swimming records… I’d spend up to four hours a day ploughing up and down the pool, practicing over and over the perfect backstroke technique and occasionally dabbling in the individual medley.  Running was what I did in the off-season to keep fit.  

In the winter terms I’d take part in inter-school, inter-district and inter-provincial cross country, as well as our local inter-school athletics meets.  Being a girl from Natal, focused on swimming, I didn’t do particularly well anytime my athletic team travelled outside the province.  I think a second or third in the 1500m at the annual Menlo Park Athletics Meeting, held in Pretoria in February each year (the peak of my swimming season), was as good as it ever got for me.  Certainly, nothing to write home about.  At university, things were much the same.  

It was only after my Dad died in 2005 that I entered my first marathon, intent on running the Two Oceans Ultra the following year.  Following a 16-week training program I’d found in Runner’s World, I committed to running South Africa’s most beautiful race as a tribute to my Dad. A week after my 22nd birthday I completed the race in 4h23, placing 23rd… I was officially hooked on long distance running.

To date, I have run 7 Comrades Marathons, 2 Two Oceans Ultras, the 100km London to Brighton trail run, the Legends 68km, 4 Om Die Dam’s and 4 Loskop Ultras.  I haven’t kept a record of how many marathons I have run, but I’d guess somewhere between 50 and 100.  I’ve travelled to marathons in Belgium, France, England and Spain, and like any fun-loving running South African, I’ve even tried my hand at trail running (the Wildland’s Mont-Aux-Sources 50km has to be one of my most favourite races in the world).

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Renata Vosloo, Katy Van Meter and I running in Clarens.

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Before last year, and certainly before I started training with Col. Coach John Hamlett, I had no conception that I would ever win something as prestigious as the Comrades Marathon.  Prior to crossing the timing mat in Valencia in December, I had no idea that my running a 2h35 marathon was even possible.  Belatedly, and at a time when my non-running peers are building their careers or starting a family, I seem to have hit my running peak.  So what now?  Do I just go with it – see where this road leads?

Optimistically, I think I have about 2 years of good running left in me.  Notwithstanding the fact that I have only very recently started to realise my full potential, the fact remains that I have been putting my body through its paces for quite a few years now.  I ran my first Comrades in 2008 after all.  I’m also starting to “feel old”.  My body doesn’t recover quite as quickly as it did when I first started running, my niggles take longer to resolve, and I have to work far harder at my strength and cross training than I did in the past.  I need more sleep. Training at an elite level for an ultra distance event is flipping hard work.

And while its true that for many athletes, particularly icons such as Charne Bosman, Tanith Maxwell and Yolande Maclean, age really is just a number and they continue to improve and succeed at their running well after they turn 40, that’s not necessarily true for everyone and certainly not for me.  I’ve had some hard years burning the midnight oil, working around the clock in a high stress environment.  I haven’t always been careful with my diet, I’ve drunk far too much alcohol and at one stage regarded caffeine as one of my 6 essential nutrients.  Perhaps that’s why I’m starting to feel my age (aided and abetted by my latest Vitality Health Assessment which estimated my “real feel” age to be closer to 40).

It’s also probably about time that I start “adulting”.  In 2011, I cashed out my retirement annuity to undertake my Masters in London.  In 2017, one of my best friends and mentor cashed out his retirement annuity to cover my bond while I completed pupillage (retraining as an advocate).  This year I am able to chase dreams with the very generous assistance and support of my sponsor Massmart and its private label brand Trojan Health.  I’m living the dream… all I have to do is run!  What a blessing!!  But there’s also a small voice in the back of my head which tells me that I’m not being business savvy.  I need a job, a house and a retirement annuity.  There is soon going to come a time when I’ll need to start acting my age. 

And finally, it’s about time my darling husband, the man who has always sacrificed his own needs (and his own running) in order to allow me to chase my dreams, had a chance to shoot the lights out. He is an incredibly talented athlete and one so hungry for success. Just once I need to sit things out and give him the kind of support he has always given me. David has more than earned it.

So… this will be my last Comrades Marathon.  I’m going to keep running and have set new goals for myself over the marathon and half marathon distances.  I’m definitely going to get the most I can out of the next 18 months.  I’ll also still mentor, coach and manage the fantastic team of ladies within Team Massmart – something I regard to be one of my greatest achievements to date.  

And yes… I know it seems as though my running is going backwards (most athletes start at the half marathon and work up to Comrades, not the other way around) … but better late than never, right?!.  

And who knows, maybe I’ll line up for the 100th Comrades… there’s no expiry date on chasing dreams.  

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1 thought on “Is 40 the new 30? Not for me.”

  1. Liane Fourie says:

    “There’s no expiry date on chasing dreams” – how true! Have you heard of Dr Paul Lurie? He taught himself to swim at age 90? and took his first lesson at age 91/93 (I forget which) with the late Terry Laughlin (Total Immersion). At age 97 his times were still improving! If you ever have time to listen to a podcast I highly recommend the last interview Terry Laughlin did with Tim Ferris before he died. From what you wrote, you have two of the three skills needed for a Triathlon- don’t know how good your cycling is (I have never ridden a bike, so I make no assumptions!) – if you can ride then I guess you can second your hubby and get some training in at the same time – win-win . Hope the next 18 months give back to you everything you put in!

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