Men, as might be expected, get slower as they age. At a recent five-kilometer race in Pine Beach, N.J., which drew nearly 1,000 runners, the fastest man was 24 years old and the men’s times increased with each five-year age group.
But the women were different — their times were all over the place with older women beating younger women in almost every age category. The fastest woman was 37 years old; the fastest woman in the 45 to 49 age group beat the fastest woman in the 20 to 24 and the 40 to 44 age groups.
The same thing happened in another five-kilometer local race, the Eden Family Run, in Princeton, N.J.
There, the top female runner in the 50 to 54 age group beat the top females in the 20 to 24, 25 to 29, and 40 to 44 age groups.
And it’s not just a New Jersey effect. Others have noticed it elsewhere and when I did a random check of race results in California, I saw it there too. On Aug. 8, in a 10-kilometer race in Alameda, the 53-year-old woman who won in the 50 to 54 age group was faster than the woman who won in the 25 to 29 group. A 38-year-old woman beat every other woman in the race.
Results like those made me wonder, Are women really trying in these races and, if they are, why are older women beating younger women?
Mary Wittenberg, president of New York Road Runners, thinks part of the answer is that most female runners shortchange themselves. Look at them before races she said. Men warm up and do strides, short runs to prepare to take off at the starting line. A lot of women hang back, often because they are embarrassed to be out there with the men, acting like determined athletes, Ms. Wittenberg said.
“They are too inhibited to put their full passion out there,” she said. “They are almost afraid to be serious about a sport. They think that if they’re not the best, they shouldn’t care so much.”
"... with average runners, older women may be faster because, oddly enough, they are trying harder than younger women and discovering for the first time what they are capable of.
Most middle-aged women grew up when track and cross-country teams were for men only. Some of those women, who had no opportunity to race when they were young, are just learning to be athletes and are running faster than younger women who may not care as much.
He described the experience for women as “a kind of wakening, an epiphany.”