Running & Health Over 40

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It’s not a sprint; it’s a marathonThat age-old adage is underscored when listening to mid-state runners older than 40 who regularly participate in the region’s toughest races.Some can tell their running pace has slowed. Others admit they need more time to bounce back after a race than they did at a younger age. And yet others go full-steam ahead after crossing the finish line – enjoying dinner, doing laundry and even packing for vacation right after they compete.All run with a passion but pay particular attention to the needs and limits of their changing bodies.”My brain keeps saying go faster but my body says hell no,” laughed Hap Miller, who has participated in 33 of 35 Harrisburg – area marathons and still shoots to run one race each year. “The minute I stop then I’m going to feel old. Running helps you hold on to that younger feeling.” That age-old adage is underscored when listening to mid-state runners older than 40 who regularly participate in the region’s toughest races.Perhaps there’s truth to that. “People say I look a lot younger. They are surprised to hear I’m 64,” he said. Miller has competed in 27 other races, including nine Boston Marathons.”I now average about an hour slower than 20 years ago, but I like to get under four hours. I hope to get back (to Boston) within the next year or two,” said the Carlisle retiree. “I can’t put it off too much longer.”As Miller and other Harrisburg-area marathons adjust their running goals during their later years, they remain humble about their accomplishments, reverent about the positive changes that the sport has brought them and determined to keep running as that benchmark 40th birthday fades in the distance.Body changesRunners typically peak in their performance between age 25 an 35, said Matt Silvis, a primary care sports medicine physician with Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. “After that, you are looking at someone who no longer is going to perform at the same level.”Muscles and tendons tighten with age. Adults older than 40 start to lose bone mass and will see cartilage change in their joints. On top of that, runners often ignore nagging injuries, compounding the consequences. “It starts to add up,” Silvis said. “It can affect your performance and heighten your risk of having injuries.”Silvis cited a recent study showing that those over 40 had more muscle, hamstring, quad and calf strains than those under 40. Up to 90 percent of people preparing for a marathon will suffer training injuries that cause them to miss part of their training, he said.That’s no surprise to the folks pounding the pavement.”I get a little stiffer than what I used to,” said Marjorie Lebo, 47 of New Cumberland. “I take my fair share of Advil. I’m definitely a little slower, but I’m OK with that. …All of us are darn lucky to be running.”Lebo, a certified registered nurse practitioner at Hershey Medical Center, has been running for 30 years, with 27 marathons – including 11 in Harrisburg – under her belt. While lifting free weights combats her time loss and maintains core strength, she has adjusted her training over time. She used to run five to six days a week; now it’s four. Other runners say they’ve made changes, too. Miller cut back on weekly miles and scheduled more brisk walking.Silvis stressed that the over-40 crowed must stretch regularly, maintain good flexibility and even take off a week. “I’d rather be 90 percent in shape than 100 percent injured,” said William Demote, 55, of Hummelstown, who started marathon running 10 years ago.But why run when it can be so tough?It’s so addictiveJim Hon, 44 of Dillsburg regularly runs 80 miles a week, logging 80,000 miles over the years.”If I were a car, I’d be trading myself in right now,” joked Hon, who has racked up 78 marathons in 27 years and runs eight to 10 a year. “My doctor always told me there are only so many marathons that any one person has in his body, and I’ve already blown that curve.”Hon started running in high school to lose weight. “I fell in love with it. It totally became an addiction and part of my life.’ He hoped to compete 50 marathons before he turned 40; he did so within a month of that birthday. “So I thought, let’s see if I can double that in the next 10 years” (100 marathons before 50), he said.Hon and his wife often plan winter vacations around marathons, in scenic warm-weather climes like California’s Big Sur Marathon, billed as “Running truly has been a blessing.”Everyone began running for different reasons. With Honchar, it was weight. Miller listed weight and smoking. It served as a moms’ social activity for Elizabeth DeSousa, 45, of West Hanover Twp., until she decided to leave a legacy of sorts.Area medical professionals and marathoners offer these tips to lead you to the finish line for the first time:Get a full physical.Consider pre-training counseling with a pro who deals with runners, like sports medicine physicians.Consult www.runnersworld.com for beginner training programs.Seek quality running shoes at local shoe stores that work with runners.Build up your mile counts slowly, over four months to a year depending on your comfort level. Initially set goals at a few miles a week and include time to walk.Start with shorter races and work up to a marathon.Get involved in a running club (such as Harrisburg Area Road Runners Club) for weekly runs, support and pointers. Seewww.harrc.org for details.Eat sensibly and stay hydrated.Vary running routes to maintain interest and prevent injuries from running the same grades, ruts and bumps repeatedly.Take a day off each week from running.Getting older, Changing goalsWhile SeSousa and Honchar have yet to notice the aging process, chances are their running goals will change as they grow older.”I went from just finishing to qualifying for the Boston marathon – and today I’m back to crossing the finish line,” said Andrew O’Donnell, 62, of Hummelstown, who has run about 46 marathons since 1978, including three in Boston. “It’s back to the future.””You have to slow down as you get older,” he added. “I made a conscious decision years ago not to run for a time any more but just for the pleasure of crossing the finish line.”DeMuth started marathon running with the goal of qualifying for Boston, he said, He missed it his first time by eight minutes. “At the time it was like climbing a mountain those last few minutes,” said Demuth, who has run Boston three times and wants to qualify again. “It is physically harder. Our bodies can’t generate the speed we did years before.””I wish age didn’t make a difference, ” he lamented. “Once you hit 50, for most of us our performance will slowly decrease because our tissue changes. The biggest change is that you have to listen to your body.”Bodies speak loudly. “I learned from practical experience,” said Demuth, an orthopedic surgeon with Orthopedic Institute of Pennsylvania. “I did too much, and got injured.”Road to recoveryRecovery after a race is as individual as the runner, but growing older can change that routine, too.”The old body is sore a lot longer,” Miller said. “Sometimes it’s only a day or two recovery when you’re young. When you’re older it’s considerably longer. You lose flexibility, the soreness lingers. it’s inevitable; 26 miles of anything is taxing.”DeSousa envisions her recovery plan while running. “Once I’m through the chutes, I shower, have a margarita and steak dinner. I think about that as I run – go to that margarita in front of me.”Leaving youth behindAlthough runners compete in age groups during events, they’re all on the same course at the same time. Honchar gets a kick out of passing those half his age. “You give a nice smile and a “Hey how are you doing?” and you look like you’ve just run your first mile. They look at you like, “You’ve got to be kidding me.’ It’s a nice payback,” he said.Lebo said she would check her competition’s progress years ago. Now, she’s competing against herself to qualify for Boston, she said. “I’m far less competitive. I can be more encouraging now to other runners than I was 25 years ago.”DeMuth “just loves to be up there running,” but, he admitted, “If everyone around me looks younger than me, then that’s a pretty good day.”Finish lineRegardless of the individual goals and the hurdles overcome, crossing the finish line retains tremendous impact for marathoners.”It’s an incredible feeling of accomplishment, elation and joy,” Honchar said. “You have a feeling that you can’t be more alive at that point.”In the last few Harrisburg marathons, Lebo’s sons have run the final mile with her for moral support. “It’s such a good feeling of accomplishment, knowing you’ve got so much going on in your life and you’ve able to do this,” she said. “Knowing my kids are going to be there, I wouldn’t want to not show up. Oh, the embarrassment that would be.”While family support is crucial, marathon running is very individualized sport. “I don’t want anyone to think that running a marathon is a family event,” said O’Donnell, a part-time annuitant for the state Public Utility Commission. “Try to imagine a family coming to watch for four hours in the pouring rain. It’s important to have support but don’t expect participation.”Those adverse conditions can make the finish sweeter. “The harder it is, the move you’re going to be glad to cross the finish line” O’Dennell added.Reaping rewards after a raceLebo has channeled her love of the sport into helping others. Through the Harrisburg Area Road Runners Club, she serves as a race director, setting up 5K runs for Domestic Violence Services of Cumberland and Perry County. She has done the same to raise funds for colon cancer prevention with Hershey Medical Center.The marathoner’s confidence has carried into Honchar’s professional and personal life. “It has helped me manage emotions and really have a lot of self-esteem,” he said. “It’s let me really be thankful for every day I’m alive.””It has literally changed my life,” DeMuth concurred. “I have an intense sense of accomplishment for doing it. If you had goals that seemed insurmountable, the discipline… is instrumental in reaching those goals. It carries over into other things.”

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