In Again to Carthage, the sequel to John Parker’s Once a Runner, Quentin Cassidy, the fictional Olympic Silver Medalist miler turned marathoner, suggests the allure to racing is “when you’re a competitive runner in training, you are constantly in a process of ascending.” He muses this is true in various endeavors as we age, including running prowess, but eventually things level off – and then decline. Moving “up” to the marathon gave Cassidy another chance to ascend and a driving force in his obsessive training regimen. Parker is a compelling author, who draws on his own experiences as a competitive runner and the last couple of chapters of Carthage are riveting.
Unless we change sports, the time will come when we run (literally!) out of options to move up. For any given distance, our times will erode. Assuming running is an important part of our lives, this is the masters runner’s dilemma. Our success and happiness in life depends upon finding ways to accept declines in those things we love to do and feel competent doing. In The Master’s Athlete, Peter Reaburn suggests age-grading (AG), developed by Alan Jones and adopted by World Master’s Athletics (WMA), serves to provide such an opportunity.
An AG% is the ratio of one’s time compared to the all-time world record for a specific age in any particular distance. For example, a 46 year-old male running an 1:18:33 half marathon (6:00 minute pace) would age-grade at a very respectable 80%, considered national class level. The tables also suggest this is equivalent to a 1:12:31, meaning that athlete in his prime would have been expected to run that fast. Respectable at any age! However, when that runner is 70, an 80.0% would be 1:38:28, a 20-minute decline from age 46. However, if he can muster a 1:36:03, a 17:30 change, that goes up to 82%. That’s ascension!
It might be good to clarify what an 80% AG means. Or what it doesn’t mean. First, an 80% age grading for a male marathoner in his prime would be about 2:25 (20% off the 2:01 world record just set in Berlin by Eliud Kipchoge) and a 5K would be 15:45 (12:37 world record/.80). Clearly, an 80% AG does not mean a runner is finishing in the 80th percentile. A 2:25 will win many smaller marathons and be in the top 10 of many mid-size events. And a 15:45 5K often breaks the tape in local races. Two recent examples: In the 2022 New Bedford Half Marathon, a USATF-NE Grand Prix event attracting many of the top runners in the region, the 56th male ran 1:12:35 out of 878 men finishers. Thus, he was in the top 6.4% of men. In the 2022 BAA 5K, the 41st male finisher (Mario Fraioli, host of The Morning Shakeout Podcast), ran 15:59 out of 3,602 men finishers – he was in the top 1.1% of men finishers (and achieved an 84% age grading!) Bottom line, 80% is nothing to sneeze at and even 70% or 75% a notable accomplishment for most of us.
In any event, the tables do not sugar-coat the accelerated changes that happen later in life. For example, a 75-year old would attain 80% with a 1:45:13, a nearly seven minute drop from an 80% age grading at age 70, or a loss of 1 minute 22 seconds per year, whereas the average change between age 46 and 70 is expected to be about 50 seconds a year. Of course, there are large individual differences depending on a whole host of things, including one’s history of training volume and intensity, resistance training to retain muscle, chronic injuries, and number of training years (i.e., how long we’ve been pounding the pavement!)
There are many ways to view our changing personal worlds. Some suggest it’s best to always look at the bright side. Others promote the half-full vs. half-empty metaphor. However we choose to proceed through life, there will be notable changes, especially in our later years. It is important to do what we can to stay healthy, which naturally impacts our ability to run. Plenty of books, websites, blogs, etc., expound constructive strategies. But, I do agree with Parker’s premise that it’s in our nature to want to improve — in some way ascend. While there are religious meanings attached to this word, Webster’s includes rise, rising, climbing, and soaring as synonyms. If age-grading helps us do any of those things as we navigate our aging running lives, I’m in!