Blue herons are a common sight at Salem Lake.
The Dipsea Race, the oldest trail race in America, is legendary for its stairs and steep trails. Within a few blocks of the starting line in Mill Valley, California, runners confront three flights of stairs that rise as tall as a 50-story building, and, by the time, they arrive at the finish line in Stinson Beach, they have run 7.4 miles for a total elevation gain and loss or 2,200 feet.
Given the challenges of the course, you might be surprised to learn that the 2015 winner was a 58-year-old by the name of Brian Pilcher.
How did a middle-age man beat his younger competitors in such a grueling race?
Besides Pilcher’s stellar performance, the race’s format also had a role. The Dipsea Race is one of the few races that uses a handicapping system—in the form of a head start based on age and gender—that levels the playing field for older and very young runners. As a result, winners have included adults as old as 72 and children as young as eight.
A more common way of handicapping races is age-grading. It also levels the playing field for older runners.
Take Ed Whitlock, for instance, the first person over the age of 70 to run a marathon in less than three hours with a time of 2:59:10. That’s a strong performance at any age, but with age grading it translates to a near world record time of 2:03:57. (Whitlock recently set a new master’s world record for 85-year-olds in the half-marathon with a time of 1:50:47, which translates to 1:00.23 as an age-graded time.)
How does it work? The explanation on the Runner’s World age-grade calculator says that it is a two-step process. First, the calculator derives your age-graded score by determining the ratio of the approximate world-record time for your age and gender and dividing it by your actual race time. The calculator then takes that score and converts it into a finish time for a runner in the open-division category by using a factor for age and gender. Whitlock, for instance, would have had to run a time of 1:47:06 to match the current world record in the half-marathon of 58:23.
While age-grading is not widely used to determine overall winners (nor should it), a few races do award age-graded winners in a separate category. More to the point, age-grading is a great motivator as it compensates for the diminishing abilities that come with age and allows older runners to compete with their younger selves.
I have to admit that I was skeptical at first. Then I plugged in my times and ages for two 5Ks runs that I ran more than 20 years apart. Much to my surprise, I found that my performances—once age grading took my different ages into account—were nearly identical. Relative to age-group records, I was at exactly the same percentile in both cases. Both times looked even better once they had been converted using the age-grading scale that showed what these times would have hypothetically been in my youth. When a few months later, I ran an even faster race, I found that I had jumped three percentile points in my age-group, and using the age-grading formula, I found that I had just run the best 5K of my life, which accorded well with my subjective experience of the race.
Running my best 5K at the age of 56—even if it was only an extrapolation—was very satisfying and it carried me through months of training.
If you’re an older running and haven’t tried age-grading, I encourage you to give it a test run. You can find several age-grade calculators online, including Runner’s World and Heartbreak Hill Striders Boston. —Mark Caskie
Best Long Run 1: Atlantic & Yadkin Greenway (northern section)/Battleground Park/Country Park, 13.1 miles. Bright blue sky etched with chalky contrails, four pines fallen in a clump across trail, had to climb over; mallard couple in pond; lily pads covering most of small pond; view of glistening Country Park lake from high on hill through trees; 30 small children’s tombstones in a row with just a few gaps in cemetery near Atlantic & Yadkin Greenway, each with a carved lamb on top, left me wondering about the local mortality rate of children in earlier times.
Best Long Run 2: Salem Lake, 13.25 miles. Saw two blue herons, one flying out of a cove with its neck curved back, and the other right beside the trail, fully visible at about 10 feet, standing on a branch, stock-still; numerous butterflies including eastern tiger swallowtails and black swallowtails, some seemed to fly along with me for short distances as if they were drafting off on my pace; a small (3 inches or less), brownish lizard on the trail, lots of turtle sunning themselves on fallen trunks with one more than a foot above the water on a flat part of a branch; ferns on the bank in dappled sunlight; wave ripples passing through reed beds and heavy shade beneath trees creating striations of light and dark; and a long train crossing the railroad bridge that is situated on one of the arms of the lake with its graffiti from distant cities. Air moist and cool, more than once I could smell the water. Heard a woodpecker hammering away at a tree in the forest.
Race: Next week!
Other Running Blog Entries:
“A Tip for Running-Life Balance”
“The Rhythm of the Run”
“Micro-Terrains Make Hills Manageable”
“Thoughts from the Finish Line”