Age Is Just a Number. It Doesn’t Define Us in Racing or in Business. When We Embrace Age with the Right Mindset, We Can Achieve Great Things.

This blog is the story of my turning 55 in 2018.  Some people dread milestone birthdays (ones that end in 0 or 5.) My mother loved them, so I have always loved them.  She referred to them as “big birthdays.” And she made a big deal out of them.

As an age group athlete, big birthdays are a big deal to me because I am one of the youngest in my age group…such as 50 to 54 or 55 to 59.  When you’re one of the youngest in the age group, you are sometimes more competitive.  Being more competitive can mean placing in your age group, which earns you an additional medal, plaque or other prize.  I’m all about the racing bling, and I have several walls full of finishers medals to prove it. However, age group placement had eluded me until this year.

My journey for my big birthday year began in January when I ran the Dopey Challenge at Walt Disney World.  You run a 5k on Thursday, a 10k on Friday, a half marathon on Saturday and a full marathon on Sunday.  They call it the Dopey Challenge because there wasn’t an eighth dwarf named Crazy.   I ran the Goofy Challenge five years ago (half marathon on Saturday and full marathon on Sunday) and enjoyed it.  This year, I wanted to up my game and go for broke with Dopey.  The other bonus of running Dopey this year was it was an anniversary year…fifth anniversary of the Dopey Challenge and 25th anniversary of the marathon.  This means better bling and swag.  You earn six gorgeous medals, six great shirts and lots of other surprises when you commit to running Dopey.  I was grateful that my friend in Kansas City who had run Dopey before, wanted to run it again because of the anniversaries.  In 2017, my friend Margaret and I would talk about our training, our excitement about the Challenge and the fun we were going to have on our trip.  I developed our motto for 2017: “Nothing dopey before Dopey!”  This meant, don’t get injured, don’t get sick or don’t do anything that could derail our journey and our big goal.  We accomplished that.

Margaret and I didn’t run the races together, but we met up before the races to wish each other well and met afterwards to talk about how things went.  It was a magical trip and we both finished sore, but very happy.  My motto afterwards was: “Friends don’t let friends do Dopey again!”  That precious dwarf with the big blue eyes and the beguiling smile, kicked my butt…literally.  I didn’t realize it until I ran a few races in February.

I ran two 5ks on consecutive days in February, less than a month after completing Dopey.  They were glorious.  I placed in my age group…first in one race and second in the other.  Keep in mind, I was still 54 years old in February, so that was thrilling for me because I was one of the oldest people in my age group.

In the first race, I ran with one of my favorite pacers, Molly, who had paced me in several races over the past two years.  She was pacing the half marathon that day, but I decided to try to keep up with her until I hit the 5k turnaround.  As I hit the turnaround on this out and back course, I experienced something I’d seen but never experienced myself.  I was near the front of the pack heading to the finish line.  People in the middle and back of the pack were cheering me on…just like I’ve cheered for hundreds of front runners over the last ten years.  It was surreal and exhilarating.  The 5k the next day wasn’t an out and back, but my pace felt fast and comfortable.  The weather that day was bitter cold and windy.  I think I ran faster just to get done and get warm!  Placing in my age group was new to me, much less two races back to back!  I was elated.

That elation tapered when I realized my right glut was very grumpy and so was my right hip flexor.  I’m a huge believer in muscle maintenance.  I was going to my ART (Active Release Techniques) chiropractor regularly after Dopey to work out those muscles.  Both ART practitioners that have treated my grumpy muscles over the last 10 years are amazed by two things: my threshold for pain and my body’s ability to heal so quickly.  Both are a blessing, especially the latter!  But after those two 5ks in February, I wasn’t healing.  For the first time, I had a treatment that was so uncomfortable I told the doctor he needed to stop a moment for me to take a breath.  At that point, he knew I had a problem and it wasn’t going to heal in a week like usual.  He asked me if I thought I’d torn something.  I told him there was no way.  I would have felt it or heard it. He told me that isn’t always the case.  We talked about my symptoms. He and my deep tissue sports massage therapist came to the same conclusion.  I had almost all the symptoms of a labral tear in my hip.  If they were right, that would mean no running, require major surgery and six months to a year of recovery.  I was terrified.  Running is my life…it’s part of how I make my living and it’s one of the great joys I look forward to each week. It’s how I spend my “me time.” It’s my mental health break three days a week. Being a runner is who I am. It is the core of my being, and it nourishes my soul.

My next step was to see a specialist.  He examined me to determine my range of motion in my right leg compared to my left.  When he was done, he sent me to get x-rays and an MRI.  The radiologist and his staff were amazing.  The radiologist that did my MRI prep was a runner…not just a runner, an Ironman!  He knew what this diagnosis might mean.  The day I got my MRI, I saw my ART chiropractor.  He was working on muscles that didn’t send me into orbit.  I told him I’d had the MRI that morning.  His reply was, “Wouldn’t it be funny if everyone was wrong and this wasn’t a labral tear?”  I looked at him and asked if he thought that was going to be the case.  He looked down for a moment, and said, “No. But if anyone’s body is going to fool us, it’s going to be yours.”

Thank God, my body fooled everyone.  There was no labral tear and no hip impingement. I had a grumpy glut and hip flexor, most likely from running more than 1,000 miles in both 2016 and 2017.  I spent six weeks in physical therapy and was not allowed to do any exercise.  After I completed my physical therapy, I went back to the specialist for him to reexamine my range of motion.  I was cleared for all exercise.  The doctor told me to take it easy this year. I told him I had signed up for close to 30 races.  He told me, “This is not about speed, racing and mileage.”  I smiled and said, “Speed left the building for me years ago.  But it is about racing and mileage.”  I promised him I would make 2018 a recovery year and reduce my weekly mileage. His idea of a recovery year and mine probably aren’t the same.  My idea of a recovery year meant I wouldn’t train for or run a fall marathon.  I’d stick with shorter distances of 5k to half marathons. I was off and running again!

During the physical therapy, I gained 15 pounds from not being allowed to do any exercise…not even walk for fitness.  Once I started running again, it was a slow process. I’d lost my fitness and my pace was slower than it had ever been. I remember telling Marty, my ART chiropractor, how frustrated I was with my pace and that my body felt sluggish.  Marty said, “Be patient.  Your speed will come back. Just give it time.” Regardless of my pace and lack of fitness, I was grateful to be running again, and I was committed to getting back to where I was before Dopey.   My races in March, April and May were rough.  I had to take walk breaks during every race…even the 5ks. It was humbling and disheartening, but I refused to give up.  I just kept running and trying to regain my fitness.

By June, I was back to my racing weight and my body was feeling good.  I was able to run entire races without walk breaks again.  Then something amazing happened.  My speed came back!  Not only did it come back…it came back faster than when I was running my fastest race times more than seven years ago. I was placing in my age group in nearly every race.  I was stunned! I couldn’t believe what my body was able to do, especially after struggling for the first six months of the year.

Sometime in July, when I was feeling the best I’ve ever felt during training runs and races. I thought to myself that I needed to set a big goal for 2018 since it was a big birthday year.  When I turned 50, I ran a 50 mile ultra marathon in high elevation in Nevada.  I am a woman of my word, and I keep my promises. That meant running a 55 mile ultra was out of the question since I promised to make this a recovery year and not run a fall marathon…much less a fall ultra marathon.  After a bit of pondering, I came up with this great idea…some said it was crazy. I would run 55 races in celebration of turning 55!  All I had to do was sign up for 25 more races.  What that meant was I would be racing two or three consecutive days almost every weekend until the middle of December.  Because I’m a planner and I know how unpredictable weather can be in Kansas City, I signed up for two additional races just in case one or two were cancelled due to weather.

Through the summer and fall, I would post on Facebook where I was in the journey and how I did in each race.  My friends would post, call, text and email congratulations and encouragement as I got closer to my goal.  As a planner, I tried to make the 50th and 55th races ones that were personal favorites of mine.  The weather cooperated.

Race #50 is my favorite fall half marathon, called Gobbler Grind. It’s a beautiful course and a lot of fun.  Two of my favorite pacers, Molly and Sheree, were pacing that race. Both had paced me before. Both are amazing athletes.  They were pacing runners that hoped to finish in 2:20 and 2:25.

As an RRCA Certified Running Coach, I use recent race times to help clients gauge how they will perform in future races.  My calculations said if I really pushed myself, I could finish the half marathon in 2:10 (two hours and 10 minutes.)  To put this into perspective, my half marathon finishing times in 2017 and 2018 ran between 2:30 and 3:00.  To compare apples to apples, I ran Gobbler Grind in 2:16 in 2015, in 2:35 in 2016 and 2:44 in 2017.  You don’t have to be a math genius to see I’d gotten slower, not faster the last few years.  However, my 5k and 10k times over the previous few months were my fastest times ever!  I set a 5k and 10 PR (personal record) prior to Gobbler Grind this year. Using those finishing times, the chart predicted 2:10 if I went for broke or 2:15 if I pushed hard but didn’t leave it all on the course.  Either of those times would have been a course PR for me at Gobbler Grind.

Race day came, and I got to see my two favorite pacers.  I told them I was aiming for a 2:10 finishing time and my goal was not to see them on the course, but to see them bring their runners in after I’d already finished.  They both commented on how well my races had been going the last few months and wished me good luck.  I got into the corral, we heard the National Anthem sung and then we were off!  The first 10 miles felt great. I was pushing myself, trying to maintain a pace below my goal finishing time pace.  I was golden.  The last three miles felt harder.  I could feel myself slowing down, but I was confident I would finish in under 2:16, my previous best finishing time on that course.  At mile 11, there was a man and his young daughter standing by their truck with a sound system in the back.  The song playing was “Aint No Mountain High Enough.”  My mother loved that song.  I love it too.  I started singing as I ran by and felt myself tearing up a bit.  Then, my heart rate shot through the roof.  If I didn’t know better, I would have thought I was having a heart attack.  I couldn’t sing. I couldn’t breathe.  That lasted less than a minute, is my guess.  I realize this may sound crazy, but I felt my mother’s presence as if she was right there with me during that minute.  Then, my heart rate and breathing returned to normal and I knew what I had to do. I picked up my pace and kept reminding myself I was on track to finish in 2:10. As I made a turn less than a mile from the finish line, I could see the 2:10 pacer on a bridge above me.  He was behind me, but not far behind me.  I kicked it up another notch and was at the finish line in under 2:10. That time earned me a beautiful plaque, some other great swag and a gift certificate to a local running store for placing second in my age group.  I picked up my prizes and headed to the finish line to greet my pacer friends.  We were all smiles as I joked about how glad I was to see them at the finish line and not passing me on the course.  They wished me luck on my next five races and said they looked forward to seeing my posts on this race and the 55th on Facebook.

Race 55 was on December 8 and the weather forecasts early that week looked ugly.  It’s a night time Christmas themed run.  I’d run it two previous years and just loved the energy and fun of a night race at Christmas.  I really wanted that race to be my goal race, but the forecast was nasty.  By mid-week the forecast was looking better and by Friday, the night before, all the forecasters seemed certain the nasty storm was going south of Kansas City and it would be very cold, but dry on race night.  They were right.  The evening started off great.  I got to see many of my running friends who wished me luck knowing this was my big race.  I ran at a fast pace, but didn’t push too hard.  I wanted to enjoy the sights of the streets and homes lit for Christmas and rejoice in knowing my goal was only 5k away.  When I finished, the race director knew this was my 55th race, and as I crossed the finish line, he announced my name and that it was my 55th race this year.  I silently mouthed a Shalane Flanagan utterance as the realization of my goal washed over me.  I was overjoyed.

When I finished my racing year on December 15th, I ran 57 races ranging from 5k to marathon distance and placed in my age group 34 times.  I also qualified to join the Kansas City Running Club’s Max Running Team comprised of some of the city’s fastest runners.  My 5k, 10k and half marathon finishing times over the last few months qualified me for my gender and age group.  I was ecstatic to be able to join this group of extraordinary runners. The most mind-boggling thing this year was that my VO2 Max reached a level in the top 1% for women my age and was the equivalent of a 20 year old in excellent health!  VO2 Max is a common measurement used to establish the aerobic endurance of an athlete prior to or during the course of training. It directly correlates to fitness capacity.

 This journey exceeded all my hopes and expectations. I achieved my big goal, earned some great age group awards, qualified for the Max team and made a lot of wonderful new running friends during this adventure.  The support from my friends across the country and the world was heart-warming.

For those that follow this blog, which I call Lessons from the Road…Things I Learn While Running and Racing, you know I always end the blog with how the lessons I’ve learned apply to business.

So, what does this story have to do with business?

More than you might think and much more than I would have thought prior to embarking on this adventure.

Statistics say that runners slow down gradually after 40.  However, I am living proof that you can defy the odds.  Age doesn’t define us as runners and it doesn’t define us in the workforce…at least it shouldn’t.  I often say talented professionals are like fine wine…they improve with age.

I have several close friends that are in their 40s, 50s and 60s that keep getting turned down for jobs.  Some are reentering the workforce after raising children.  Others have been downsized and are looking for new opportunities and challenges.  All of them are talented professionals with great work ethic and impressive resumes.  My friends tell me the people being hired are primarily in their 20s and 30s.  My middle-age friends tell me age discrimination is alive and well and ask me how I was able to defy the odds.

For those that don’t know me personally, let me give you some background.  I was an entrepreneur for 25 years and owned several successful businesses in Cincinnati.  When my mother died suddenly, I moved to Kansas City in 2014 to care for my father.  I thought I’d run my companies in KC and build a new client base there while maintaining my Cincinnati client base.  Within six months it was apparent to me that it would take years for me to build my business in Kansas City to a level half as successful as what I’d built in Cincinnati.  I knew I needed to get a “traditional job.”

During my search, I experienced the same situation many of my friends have experienced.  My potential boss and other people interviewing me were half my age.  I wondered if I wasn’t getting job offers because they were concerned that I might try to go after their job. I wondered if they didn’t think they could afford me.  I wondered if they thought I wouldn’t take direction well because I’d been my own boss for so long. When you get the call or email that you were not chosen for the position, they don’t tell you why, or the full reason why, you weren’t offered the job.

Then, I interviewed with the company I currently work for and that was a game changer.  From the very first interview, it was different.  I knew their culture was one where I would fit in, and they saw my passion and dedication to the wellness industry and the company’s mission and purpose.  They didn’t see me as a number…an in my 50’s number.  They saw what I had achieved, that I was a team player and the knowledge, skills and energy I would bring to their company.  I was hired, and I am grateful for that every day.  They saw beyond my age and the 25 years I’d been my own boss.  They saw the value I would bring to our company and our clients.  I love the company I work for, the client I serve and being a health coach for their employees.  My employer didn’t assume, like some people and companies do, that former entrepreneurs or highly experienced professionals, especially middle-aged ones, can’t play well with others and won’t be happy if they’re not calling the shots.

I often hear from friends that they’re being passed over in the final interview stages for younger workers because companies can pay younger workers less.  As someone that has owned several companies, I know you get what you pay for when it comes to employees and contractors.  The team of contractors I worked with in Cincinnati was a group of extraordinarily talented middle-aged professionals.  They worked hard, never missed a deadline and produced work that exceeded clients’ expectations.  They were worth what they charged because they had honed their skills to a level that far surpassed younger professionals and they had a work ethic that was unstoppable. I didn’t have to micro manage them and remind them about upcoming deadlines. They got the job done, and they did it right the first time.  I knew I could count on them.  I respected them, their knowledge and their experience.  They made my job easier as the business owner and they made my clients happy.  That’s real value.

I’m not saying that younger workers don’t do high quality work and bring value to companies.  They can, and they do. But the adage “with age comes wisdom” is true.  Don’t take my word for it.  Research shows that older workers make better decisions, see multiple points of view more easily, are more interested in searching for compromise and are better at resolving conflicts than younger workers.  This is due to having more experience.  In the business world these qualities are crucial to success, and they save companies money in the long run.  Years of wisdom are something you can’t buy, but they have great value.

So, the next time you’re looking at a potential employee, don’t judge that book by its cover.  Look deeper.  That middle-aged professional will most likely run circles around most younger ones, and middle-aged professionals have lots of good, productive miles left to contribute to your company.  Middle-age professionals are winning team members that will get you to the finish line faster and successfully.

And to the middle-aged professionals looking for new career opportunities, you can defy the odds.  Look for a team, a company, that is the right culture fit and one that sees your value.  When you find one, you’ll know you’re on track to achieve a personal record. Godspeed!

 

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2 Responses to “Age Is Just a Number. It Doesn’t Define Us in Racing or in Business. When We Embrace Age with the Right Mindset, We Can Achieve Great Things.”

  1. Bill Menrath Says:

    An amazing and informative piece. Keep up the great work.

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