Slowing down faster



A couple of days ago, I observed a milestone that I had been dreading for a while: I turned 59 ½.


The fact that I was even thinking of 59½ as a milestone isn’t as strange as it might seem. To begin with, when our kids were growing up, we initiated the custom of celebrating half-birthdays (with a half cake, naturally). Now that they and we are older, we’ve fallen out of the habit of having cake, or anything else special, but we still half-heartedly congratulate the honoree on reaching a semi-important date.

My reason for being concerned about this particular half-birthday was a little strange. Some years ago, I had read a book called “Predicting Presidential Elections and Other Things,” by Yale Economics Professor Ray C Fair. The book is a mostly non-technical introduction to the tools of econometrics, which, when used with large amounts of relevant data, can be used to evaluate how certain variables affect the likelihood of certain outcomes, for example, how economic data affects presidential elections.

After introducing the tools and methods for econometric analysis, the author then applies those tools to a number of topics, showing how one can make informed predictions about college football games, college grades (based on class attendance), wine quality (based on weather patterns), and so on. As an avid runner, the author also included a chapter on predicting how marathon race times decline with age. The chapter was meant to encourage aging runners, giving them a way of competing with their younger selves based on predictable rates of decline. We know this concept as “age-grading,” and it does provide some comfort when one can say that a race performance is equal or superior to one achieved in one’s youth based on being better than predicted after age is considered.

But when I had read the first edition of the book ten years ago, I had become focused on what struck me as an ominous observation in Fair’s analysis. After age 35 or so, the predicted rate of decline for race times is slow and steady. In other words, runners are expected to slow down at a constant rate of slightly less than 1% per year. But at a certain point, the rate of decline begins to accelerate. The author calls this the transition age, and it is at this point that things begin to get worse faster.

I had recalled from the first edition of the book that the transition age was 59½. It was at that point that a runner’s slow down would pick up speed, so to speak. The image of a cliff also came to mind.

Now at this point you might be growing impatient with this whole analysis. While the tools are useful for predicting average rates of decline and the downward curve of age group records, they cannot with any certainty predict how an individual’s performance will change over the years. An individual might be far more successful resisting aging than his or her peers, for a variety of reasons. Why be obsessed with averages, and with this virtual “cliff” when one could bend one’s own personal curve with smarter training and better decisions? All valid points, and yet they failed to dispel the dark clouds that seemed to gather as my half birthday grew closer.

Already preparing to be in mourning, I decided that I ought to re-read the book that had warned me about this phenomenon in the first place, so I went to my local library, and checked out the second edition “Predicting Presidential Elections.”

The first edition had been published in 2002, and the second edition had come out in 2012. In the 10 years between editions, the author had taken advantage of much more data, including several new world age group bests from Ed Whitlock, and had re-run the analysis of marathon times. I was stunned to read that the “transition age” – the age at which we begin to get worse much faster – was set at 75, not 59½. I had 15½ years to go before I headed over the cliff!

Had I, for all these years, misremembered the original transition age? It didn’t matter and I didn’t care. I had been given a reprieve, and could look forward to slow and steady declines of 0.8% per year for another decade and a half.

And fifteen years from now, as I approach another imaginary cliff, maybe the author will have published a third edition!

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for more than thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. Sixteen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past ten years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts. I've been writing about running for almost as long as I've been running, dating back to high school, when I would write meet summaries for the Amherst Record for about $0.33 per column inch. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. Until recently I also had a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. But I am now on what might turn out to be a permanent sabbatical. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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2 Responses to Slowing down faster

  1. I don’t know about that cliff, but I can attest to the slowing down part :-). I have you by about half a year, I hit that next milestone in a couple of weeks and the biggest place that I notice the slowing down is going up hills, I just can’t get enough air in to keep a good pace up. Although loosing about 15 pounds would counter-act gravity quite a bit too ;-).

    I have a feeling as the younger baby boomer generation ages that the cliff will change because there are more than a few fighting the aging process tooth and nail. I know that I am doing my part. However, I have a feeling that subsequent generations will have that cliff move to younger ages again. Unfortunately, the statistics that seem to be getting published lately show a disturbing trend that is not all that rosy for the younger generations.

    All we can do is keep on pushing the envelope and being outliers. 🙂

  2. Jon Waldron says:

    Thanks for the wise words, Harold!

    Looking back, I feel that I’ve had fairly long periods of very minor decline, punctuated by sudden “thuds” when I hit some bump in the road and got a lot slower in a hurry. But the general trend has averaged out, I suppose. I hope I can keep resisting the cliff for as long as possible.

    Your comment about the next generation is very interesting, and I tend to agree with you, although I’m not sure that it’s inevitable. Actually, I’m planning to write something about those statistics that show that the population seems to be slowing down. But I agree with you: all we can do is keep ourselves fit and healthy for as long as we can.

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