(This is 50th anniversary of my first article in Runner’s World magazine. All year I post excerpts from my book, This Runner’s World.)
April 1999. Joan Ullyot first told me about the 10-year rule. It might have originated with her – a medical doctor, a pioneering woman runner and the author of Women’s Running.
“No matter what your age when you start racing,” said Joan, “you can expect about 10 years of improvement. That’s how long it takes to learn the game.”
This is true, she added, whether you start at 15 or 35 or 55. The 10-year clock clicks on whenever we start to race.
Some runners cheat it, but usually not by much. Through the guile of one with medical training, plus a last big upping of her training, Joan herself stretched the timetable and PRed (with 2:47) in her 12th year of marathoning (at age 48).
The best-known beater of the 10-year rule was Carlos Lopes. He had raced for almost 20 years when he won the Olympic Marathon and shortly thereafter set a world record. But his clock had stopped for many years during that period for injuries.
For every Ullyot and Lopes who exceed the 10-year improvement norm, others fall short of it to correct the average. Jack Foster and Priscilla Welch both began racing in their mid-30s, and both set long-standing world masters marathon records seven to eight years later.
As an average figure, 10 years seems to work well. I like quoting this rule of thumb because it fit me perfectly.
Long before I knew Joan Ullyot or realized that improvement wasn’t indefinite, I ran out of room to run faster. I’d started racing shortly before my 15th birthday. My last PR of note came at 25.
Once the improvement warranty expires, then what – quit? Some runners do, but not many.
Climbing to a peak in this sport doesn’t mean that, after arriving at the top of our game, we suddenly fall off a cliff. More likely there’s a high plateau up there, where many runners camp for a long time before starting a gradual decline.
Others set off immediately to climb new and different peaks after reaching the first one. This was my choice.
My first decade held the Fast Years. Permanent PRs came during this period in races as brief as 100 yards and as lengthy as the marathon (with the first and fastest coming in the last year of that cycle).
The second 10 were my Long Years. More than half of my lifetime marathons, and all of my ultra attempts, fell into these years – as did my most career-threatening injury.
Then followed 10 Lean Years. Family and job complications sent me into semi-retirement – where races were few and generally slow, and runs were regular but mainly short.
Running and racing revived in my fourth decade. These have been the Mixed Years of balancing long runs (marathons again after a long lull), fast runs (races as short as a mile) and easy days (often taken as voluntary rests, which I’d resisted in all earlier cycles).
This latest cycle was due to end in 1998 and a new one to begin. I don’t know yet what changes might come in this fifth decade, but I’m eager as ever to find out.
All of this warns you that your years of running fast times are limited. And assures you that the good years roll on long after your PRs run out.
2018 Update. The biggest takeaway here, much more obvious now than 19 years ago, is that running and racing do NOT end with the last PR. Our lead subject here, Joan Ullyot, remains active in her late 70s.
[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. The titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Miles to Go, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, Starting Lines, and This Runner’s World, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]