(This piece is for my latest book titled Pacesetters: Runners Who Informed Me Best and Inspired Me Most. I am posting an excerpt here each week, this one from August 1989.)
NUN BETTER. To this six-year-old girl, no one at the mountain resort’s swimming pool was a stranger. She talked with anyone who would talk back. When a woman with curly gray hair stood up to leave, the little girl demanded to know, “Where are you going?”
“To run,” said the woman.
“Run?” the girl said. “Young people run. Old ones jog.”
“How old do you think I am?” asked the tall, lean woman. “Sixty,” the girl guessed, almost correctly.
Marion Irvine – Sister Marion, the Catholic nun of 1984 Olympic Trials fame – will turn 60 in October. This fact distresses her, not because she’s getting older but because she was barely too young for a new age group at the recent World Veterans Championships.
Sister Marion laughs when she recalls talking with the six-year-old at Jeff Galloway’s Lake Tahoe running camp this summer: “She knew better than I what I should do.”
Marion never was a jogger. Almost at once she went from obesity and two-pack-a-day smoking to racing. That was 11 years, many successes and one big setback ago.
After discovering racing, she indulged often. “I loved three-day holiday weekends,” she says, “because I could race on Saturday, Sunday and Monday.”
Even when running alone, she raced against herself. Her training plan: “Always run as far as possible, as fast as possible.”
Marion ran 16 marathons in four years. In late 1983 she qualified for the Trials with 2:51:01. At Olympia she ran 2:52:02.
She was 54 then. No one that age has yet run faster.
But neither has Marion herself tried another marathon since 1984. Her biggest setback immediately followed her greatest success.
“I thought I was invincible after the Trials,” she says. “I started training hard again the next day and tried for a 10K PR two weeks later.”
During that race she suddenly thought, “I’m not enjoying this.” Finding no ready reason to go on, she dropped out.
Guilt quickly replaced her weariness. “I began berating myself,” she recalls. “I told myself I wasn’t a quitter.”
The way to prove it was to jump in her car and drive to another race the same day. She finished that one but two days later suffered a hamstring tear. Its after-effects lasted almost three years.
You don’t really become a runner until you’ve had a serious, career-threatening injury. It makes you appreciate what you had and examine what went wrong.
“I’ve become a runner,” says Marion. “I saw that if I intended to be competing in the 95-plus age group, I needed to be better balanced in my running.
“I made a bargain with God: just get me through this injury, and I’ll do things right next time.”
She still trains and races hard, just not as often. She races less than before, subscribes to the hard/easy system, and limits herself to one long run, one in the hills and one session of intervals a week.
Marion doesn’t races as fast as before, or as far. But she says, “I’m just so happy to be out there running without pain.”
Today’s pains most often come from non-running causes, but hurt no less for that. In one incredible streak of bad luck this winter and spring, she: (1) dislocated a thumb, (2) spent nine weeks with the flu, (3) tripped and fell on a shoulder, (4) broke a toe, and (5) bruised and cut her face in a bike wreck.
Still, she ran the World Veterans Championships in Eugene, winning five gold medals while at the high end of her age group. But she skipped the meet’s longest race.
“I can enter 10K’s, run three or four minutes slower than my PR and be satisfied,” she says. “I can’t do that in the marathon.
“I still think of myself as top class in that event, and can’t yet imagine going to a race, running 3:25 or 3:30 and having people ask what was wrong. I know I finally will have arrived as a runner when I can run a marathon just to finish and be happy with that.”
UPDATE. Now past her 86th birthday, Sister Marion Irvine no longer runs but stays active in other ways. She still speaks at Jeff Galloway’s camp each summer, and works on social-justice causes for her religious order.
She remains the oldest runner ever to qualify for an Olympic Trials. Joan Samuelson ran faster than Marion had at age 54, but Joan didn’t reach the 2012 Trials because the standard was higher by then.
[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. Latest released was Miles to Go. Other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Memory Laps, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]