Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Mon, 5 Apr 2004 08:15:23 -0400

Ten-Year Tenure

RUNNING COMMENTARY 513

(rerun from April 1999 RW)

Joan Ullyot first told me about the 10-year rule. It might have originated with her -- a medical doctor, a pioneering woman runner and the author of Women's Running.

"No matter what your age when you start racing," said Joan, "you can expect about 10 years of improvement. That's how long it takes to learn the game."

This is true, she added, whether you start at 15 or 35 or 55. The 10-year clock clicks on whenever we start to race.

Some runners beat the calendar, but usually not by much. Through the guile of one with medical training, plus a last big upping of her training, Joan herself PRed (with 2:47) in her 12th year of marathoning (at age 48).

The best-known beater of the 10-year rule was Carlos Lopes. He had raced for almost 20 years when he won the Olympic Marathon and shortly thereafter set a world record. But his clock had stopped for many years during that period for injuries.

For every Ullyot and Lopes who exceed the 10-year improvement norm, others fall short of it to correct the average. Jack Foster and Priscilla Welch both began racing in their mid-30s, and both set long-standing world masters marathon records seven to eight years later.

As an average figure, 10 years seems to work well. I like quoting this rule of thumb because it fit me perfectly.

Long before I knew Joan Ullyot or realized that improvement wasn't indefinite, I ran out of room to run faster. I'd started racing shortly before my 15th birthday. My last PR of note came at 25.

Once the improvement warranty expires, then what -- quit? Some runners do, but not many.

Climbing to a peak in this sport doesn't mean that, after arriving at the top of our game, we suddenly fall off a cliff. More likely there's a high plateau up there, where many runners camp for a long time before starting a gradual decline.

Others set off immediately to climb new and different peaks after reaching the first one. This was my choice.

My first decade held the Fast Years. Permanent PRs came during this period at nearly all distances (including the first and fastest marathon in the last year of that cycle).

The second 10 were my Long Years. More than half of my lifetime marathons, and all of my ultra attempts, fell into these years -- as did my most career-threatening injury.

Then followed 10 Lean Years. Family and job complications sent me into semi-retirement -- where races were few and generally slow, and runs were regular but mainly short.

Running and racing revived in my fourth decade. These have been the Mixed Years of balancing long runs (marathons again after a long lull), fast runs (races as short as a mile) and easy days (often taken as voluntary rests, which I'd resisted in all the earlier cycles).

This latest cycle began in 1998. I don't know yet what changes might come in this fifth decade, but I'm eager as ever to find out what it will be called.

All of this warns you that your years of running fast times are limited. And assures you that the good years roll on long after your PRs run out.

UPDATE. More than halfway through my fifth cycle, these have become the Simple Years. I'm content to take almost the same run almost every day and hardly ever a race.

While editing this piece for reprinting, I heard from Joan Ullyot. She's 15 years past her fastest marathon, still running and "thinking of getting started on reminiscences and collected columns for a book titled Revenge of the Creampuff."

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