By Dr Kamal Jabbour, Contributing Writer
It was a rainy morning. Runners jogged and stretched in preparation for the race. Dressed in bike shorts, an old race T-shirt and running shoes that have seen better days, Jenn looked around for familiar faces. There was only one, that of a colleague who had encouraged her to run this race.
Jenn ran track and cross-country in high school. She was a good runner who contributed to many of her team victories. However, like most athletes, she stopped racing when she went to college. The demands of an engineering education took a toll on her running. The occasional morning run became an exceptional treat, far from the norm of her teen age years.
After graduating with honors and starting graduate school, the hesitation of the freshman gave way to the confidence of the graduate. Office talk of racing and a friendly nudge gave her the courage to toe another starting line. So, there she was, among a hundred faces, waiting for the starter's horn, soaking the morning rain.
The roar of runners and the rush of blood brought back scenes of past races. Jenn ran the first mile faster than she had planned. Race regulars noticed the newcomer in their midst. They welcomed her with small chatter and simple questions. They passed her as the reality of atrophied muscles replaced the confidence of a vivid memory.
Jenn finished her race slower than she had hoped, but faster than she had feared. The sweat and the rain took her on a journey through time, to the trails of Shenendehowa where she had raced so often. The sense of relief for finishing the race soon gave way to a sense of achievement.
After the race, Jenn mingled in the crowd and met fellow racers. She applauded politely as the race director called unfamiliar names who won age group awards. To her surprise, he called her name for second place in the 20-24 year old age group, for which she earned a coffee mug. She made no attempt to hide her euphoria, as she danced back through the crowd, proudly showing her mug.
As the racers departed and the clouds dissipated, the significance of Jenn's victory became more evident. A close look at the race results showed that fewer runners were in their twenties than in their teens, thirties, forties, fifties or even sixties. Analyzing the results of other races confirmed this finding. The twenty-something runner had indeed become a rare phenomenon.
Research on running performance shows that speed varies with age. On average, young runners get faster as they grow older, reaching their peak around the age of 27 years. Performance remains steady through the early thirties, then declines rapidly in the forties and through the twilight years. The twenties are the best years to race, as evidenced by numerous amazing world record performances.
If the twenties are the best years to run, how can we explain the dichotomy resulting from the absence of twenty-something runners from road races? The answer may be a product of attitudes and expectations.
Very few high school athletes have an opportunity to run and race on a college team. The majority stop running, overwhelmed by the demands of college life and the lack of opportunity. Upon graduation from college, a budding profession and a young family leave little time for running. It may take another decade before a new reality sets in, sending hoards of thirty-something professionals back to the tracks and the roads.
As another academic year ended, many graduates packed away their racing flats and team memories, and contemplated life without running. In the meantime, Jenn celebrated new friendships through competition, and joyfully scanned the calendar for upcoming races.
Running and racing need not be an "all or none" proposition. At the foundation of every successful varsity track team lies a community running program. As scholastic and collegiate graduates prepare for life in new surroundings, it behooves them to check the local running club, join the occasional training run, and keep alive that competitive flame that brightened many rainy fall mornings.
Kamal Jabbour regrets living sedentary twenties, as he tries to make up in his forties. His RUNNING Column appears in The Post-Standard on Mondays. He maintains The Syracuse Running Page and receives email at firstname.lastname@example.org.