It was freshman year of high school, I was the new girl, and the only reason I was on the soccer field was because of a sports requirement: Six seasons of sports in order to graduate. It was, by all appearances, a progressive idea at the time to order students to participate in sports in order to receive a diploma.
When it came time to run laps around the soccer field as part of our late-summer training, I took the easy way out and pretended to hyperventilate so I didn’t have to run. In another school I might have been kicked off the team or not made it in the first place, but because of the school’s requirements, I was stuck. In my sophomore season, in an attempt to figure out a way around the whole running aspect of soccer, I volunteered for the position I believed required the least amount of running: goalkeeper.
Fast forward to senior year of high school. Now at a different school, a friend convinced me that I should try out for the soccer team again. Wanting desperately to fit in somewhere, I tried out. When the day arrived for the teams to be posted—I looked straight at the JV team list. As I scrolled the list, I didn’t see my name. My heart skipped a beat and for a moment, I thought I had made it in life. I had taken a leap of athletic faith and it had paid off. I walked over to the list posted for the varsity team and didn’t see my name there either. The coaches pulled me aside and explained that they thought I was a good fit for varsity, except for the fact that I was a senior and it was too late for them to help me develop in to a player that would really make a difference on their team. I could come to the practices to help other players develop, but during games I would ride the bench. I packed up my bag and said, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
Too late. Those words would become anchors in my life and they would drag me down.
As a freshman in college, I quickly gained the freshman 15 and more. Late nights of pizza and too much beer quickly added up on the scale. In an attempt to burn calories and fit into something other than sweatpants, I turned to running.
Junior year I hit rock bottom. At the urging of my parents I started to run/walk more often. I felt lost emotionally and physically. Out of desperation, I kept running, slowly adding miles to my weekly routine. The summer before my senior year I ran my first half marathon, finishing just under 2 hours. I still didn’t love running, but my sub-2-hour finish made me feel like I was good at something for the first time in a long time.
When I graduated from college, a family member suggested that training for and running a marathon would change my life. I didn’t understand how running that far could change your life, but I didn’t have much to lose, so I tried. The moment I crossed the finish line of that marathon I became a different person. In the 4 hours and 20 minutes that it took me to run 26.2 miles that day, I gained back the confidence I had lost in high school. I’ve gone on to run 33 marathons since then, with a personal best of 3 hours and 11 minutes.
The girl who faked hyperventilating so she didn’t have to run now runs for fun. A lot. And as it turns out, it wasn’t too late to start running.
These days it’s not the former high school or collegiate runners who make up the majority of participants in races. It’s men and women like me who started running later in life. Men and women who have found that though they might not have particularly liked running in the beginning, it’s become something they can’t imagine living without.
Kimberly Williams, age 61, took up running at 25 because of a fitness requirement for a job she wanted. What started as something she had to do quickly turned into something she wanted to do. As a so-called late bloomer, she ran her personal best half-marathon time of 1:34 at age 49, and her best marathon time of 3:24 at 50.
Sean Robbins took up running at 21 after playing basketball and lacrosse throughout much of his life. At the suggestion of his mother he signed up for a local turkey trot thinking that his athletic abilities would easily transfer over to running. After starting out too fast and finishing the last mile in what he considered some version of hell, he was motivated to take running seriously and train for a race. Now 34 and the father of two children, Robbins has completed the Boston Marathon and boasts a 20:15 5K PR. Looking back, he wishes he had started running earlier.
“Running teaches a lot about goal-setting and sticking to plans,” Robbins says. “In team sports, if you lose there are always ways to spread the blame. In running, if you set a realistic goal and don’t achieve it, the buck stops with you. That’s a pretty big mental shift and solid life lesson.” Though Robbins wishes he had started earlier, he is quick to point out that one of the many benefits of not starting running at a younger age is that he has been able to continue to set PR’s year after year. His friends who ran in high school and college, though still faster than him, aren’t setting any new personal records.
Marielle Fusaro started running at age 28; now at 30, she is training for her first half marathon. When she first began running she slowly built up her endurance by running laps around her house while her sons napped inside. After giving birth to her third son she decided that it was as good a time as any to take the distance up a notch and sign up for that half marathon. Running is her built-in “me-time” that she looks forward to every week.
Bil Speidel started running at age 53, four days after his mother passed away. Speidel needed some alone time while helping his father in the period after his mother’s passing. He had never run a day in his life, but figured that it was as good a time as any. He measured his progress by counting how many mailboxes he had passed that day. A year and a half has passed since that first run and Speidel run a 5K every other day with a long run of 7-plus miles every weekend. That decision to take up running has helped him lose 20 pounds while simultaneously helping him feel like he is in his 30s again.
These stories invite you to challenge your preconceptions of age and running just like I have done. You can benefit from the physical and emotional changes that inevitably come with being a runner—no matter how old you are when you start.