Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

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How Old is Meb?

The celebration surrounding Meb Keflezighi’s unexpected and inspiring victory at the Boston Marathon a few weeks ago is winding down.   Beyond the social significance of his victory, his win at almost 39 years of age raises questions about just how old is “old” at the highest levels of athletic competition. I have been interested in this topic for some time, and whenever an athlete in their late 30s or early 40s does something remarkable my medical colleagues and the media start asking just how unique and exceptional performances by such “old” people are.   For example in 2008 there was a wave of interest in this topic when the then 41 year old swimmer Dara Torres was preparing for the Olympics (she won a silver in the 50m freestyle). Here are five thoughts that hopefully can put Meb’s win and age in perspective.


First, some data about Meb’s time at Boston where he ran 2:08:37. This is important because there was a nutty piece in the Wall Street Journal suggesting that a sandbagging conspiracy by the other runners let him win with a slow time.   In 1975 Bill Rogers was the first man to run the Boston in less than 2:10. Starting in 75 the winning time has been greater than 2:10 a total of 14 times, between 2:09 and 2:10 twelve times, between 2:08 and 2:09 six times, and faster than 2:08 only 6 times.   If you look at the winning times at Boston since 1975, with the exception of a couple of outlier years in 2010 and 2011, they have been remarkably stable and Meb’s time would have won 14 of the last 20 races. Over this time Kenyans and Ethiopians won 18 of 20 races. In 2011 there was also a major tailwind that clearly explains the times in the 2:03s that year. If the over/under betting line at Boston is 2:08 next year, I will bet over.


The second issue is why did the pack let Meb get away and open up a lead via high risk front running?   My guess is that many of the top runners did not realize just how fast 2:08 is at Boston, and they figured they could run Meb down later. This is problematic because the first two-thirds of the course is downhill and going downhill for that long that fast takes the snap right out of even the fastest runners legs.   There is also precedent for front running in major marathons. Frank Shorter used similar tactics when he won the gold medal at Munich in 1972, and the story of that race is told beautifully by Kenny Moore (the 4th place finisher) in a piece he wrote for Sports Illustrated. My bet is that when he took off and no one chased a sort of groupthink set into the lead pack while they waited for him to fade a few miles down the road.


Third, Meb is not the first fast old guy. The great Ethiopian Mamo Wolde was 36 or 37 when he won gold in 1968 and 40 or 41 when he won the bronze at Munich in 1972. Carlos Lopes won the 1984 Olympic marathon at age 37 and a year later was the first man under 2:08. In the 1970s Jack Foster did well in Olympics in his early 40s and won the Honolulu Marathon at 43.   At age 41 he went 2:11 and won a silver medal at the Commonwealth games. The women’s marathon in Bejing was won by 38 year old Constantina Diţă of Romania.   The current masters world record is held by Andres Espinosa of Mexico who ran 2:08:46 at age 40 in 2003. All of these performances are remarkable and a 2:08 marathon is the equivalent of a 100m time of about 10 seconds flat or a mile of about 3:51.


Fourth, how is this possible? It turns out the major determinants of distance running performance including maximal oxygen consumption can be remarkably well preserved up to about age 40 and beyond, provided there is an adequate training stimulus including a lot of fast running.   Motivation is also a key and the emergence of prize money and sponsorship over the last 20 or 30 years (Meb won $100,000 at Boston) has likely encouraged people to keep training and competing for longer.   Improvements in sports medicine also make it easier for people to recover from injuries that were once career ending.


Fifth, don’t forget aging in other sports? When you get beyond distance running all sorts of other examples emerge like Julius Boros winning the PGA golf championship when he was 48, Ted Williams hitting 388 at age 38, and Warren Spahn winning 23 games in the major leagues when he was 42.   Randy Johnson pitched a perfect game at age 40. There is also a long list of ice hockey players who have done well in their 40s, and don’t forget about boxers like Archie Moore and Bernard Hopkins who won championships in their late 40s.   You can argue that the golf and baseball examples don’t count as much because these sports are more about skill and experience than conditioning, but you have to be in shape to play hockey and box.   Incredibly, Chris Horner won the Vuelta a España cycling race at age 42 in 2013. If space were unlimited I could go on and on with examples.


Where will it all end? My guess is that we are going to see the number of people in their late 30s and early 40s who do well at the highest level of sport continue to grow, and it is just a matter of time until someone over 40 wins a major marathon or joins Mamo Wolde with an Olympic medal. It is also just a matter of time until someone over 50 wins a major golf championship (Tom Watson got 2nd at the British Open at age 59 in 2009) or perhaps pitches in and wins a World Series game.   As the original ageless athlete Satchel Paige asked, “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?” For Meb Keflezighi, and many others, the answer is we just don’t know.



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