Ever wonder if you're too old to train for a new sport? Consider the case of R. Laurence Macon, a trial lawyer from Dallas, Tex. who recently broke a world record for the number of marathons completed in a single year, with 113 certified races in 2011 alone. According to Reuters, Macon completed his final marathon of the year on New Year's Eve day, which was also the day he turned 67. Although the feat hasn't yet been submitted to the Guinness Book of World Records, his advanced age has gotten a great deal of attention. Though he insists he's no elite athlete. Reuters reported:
Macon, who said he is in "lousy" physical shape for 67, said he just "goes out there and puts one foot in front of the other" and doesn't attempt speed records. In fact, he said his fastest marathon time is four hours, 45 minutes -- twice the usual winning time.
The story is certainly an inspiration to many would-be older marathoners, but Macon isn't the only Social Security recipient who tears up the track. A growing number of senior citizens -- or even just those who've aged out of conventional sport -- are competing at major athletic events like marathons, and some are outperforming athletes half their age.
But even for older adults who are in "lousy" shape, the process of training in a sport can be excellent for health. Studies show that regular exercise and training can slow the degeneration of bone density, muscular development and balance in older adults -- three physical functions that decline with age. And although aging inevitably has a negative effect on sport performance, one 2008 study of competitors in the Senior Olympics -- age 50 to 85 -- from the American Journal of Sports Medicine, found that major declines in performance time don't occur until after age 75.
The next time a new gym class or sport seems intimidating, consider the accomplishments of some elite senior athletes, who show that aging doesn't have to be an impediment to achieving fitness goals. And you don't have to look like an elite athlete either: consider the case of John Whittemore, the oldest competing athlete, according to Ken Stone, editor of masterstrack.com and a leading expert on masters track athletes (and the editor of La Mesa Patch!): the discus and javelin thrower, competed until the age of 104 and used his walker to approach the arena during his final years of competition.
Here are seven other competitive athletes, aged 51 to 96, who are breaking records and reshaping our concept of what elite athletes looks like:
Don Pellman, age 96, holds four U.S. track records in his age group, including the 100-meter dash, and four world records. Although he did high jump in college, he told masterstrack.com that he didn't participate in dedicated exercise or sports for 58 years, save for occasional social activities like bowling, golf and softball. When he took up track events and running after retirement, he quickly moved up the rankings, though he said there's no big secret to his success: just sensible exercise and a balanced diet. "I feel you have to keep in training 365 days a year. No off-season. I do something every day, if nothing but long brisk walks," he explained, also revealing a once-weekly shot-put or discus-throwing practice in a local park.
The 92-year-old Canadian super-athlete holds 23 world records and 17 in the 90 to 95 age bracket for track and field events, according to a 2010 story in New York Times Magazine. Since that time, she picked up seven wins at the 2011 World Masters Athletics Championships in July. Her feats of athleticism are so surprising that a team of doctors from the Montreal Neurological Institute and McGill University are studying her. They've found that her muscle tissue is deteriorating at a far slower rate than would be expected for her age. "I still have the energy I had at 50," she told the New York Times. "More. Where is it coming from? Honestly, I don't know. It's a mystery even to me."
Aside from advanced age and geographical proximity, Stroebe and Wambach have little in common as athletes. The friends were the co-subjects of a recent documentary, Mary and Bill which follows their attempts to reach the tops of their specific events. Wambach, age 83 and a heart attack survivor, is a senior Olympian and a record-holder in the high jump. Stroebe, meanwhile, was a lifelong skier who took up triathlons at the age of 77. Even after a collision on the slopes that left her with a broken left leg in January 2009, she continued to compete in triathlons until the age of 91.
At age 80, Whitlock ran a marathon in 3:25:04 -- a respectable time for a man one-quarter his age. His fastest recorded time, at age 73, was 2:54, according to Running Times Magazine. While he was a track star back in high school and college in his native England, Whitlock dropped the sport when he moved to northern Ontario for work. He took it back up at the age of 41 at the urging of his wife. But it isn't a virtuous dedication to his cardiovascular system that gets him out training each morning: "I run to race," he insists to the Running Times reporter. "I don't do it primarily for my health or anything else."
It seems unlikely that a nearly 65-year-old accountant could be compared to the likes of Usain Bolt, LeBron James and Apolo Ohno for her athleticism. But Raschker, who holds 68 gold medals at the World Masters Athletics Championships and 22 World Masters Records for both outdoor and indoor events, is considered one of the best athletes in the world -- of any age. She's also a two-time Sullivan Award finalist and a motivator for competitors: "She's an inspiration," Mary Trotto, age 64, told ESPN. "When I compete with her, I'm actually faster."
Although he's recently been in the news for his SEC lawsuit the 51-year-old former NFL star is also a Masters Track champion. According to Stone, Gault's fame has given a big boost to senior athletics in the public eye. He recently set world records in his 50 to 54 age group in the 100- and 200-meter dashes, clocking in at 10.88 and 22.44 respectively. "He's certainly the fastest man in the world over 50," says Stone. "His records would beat the vast majority of high school kids on the track today. In fact, he would beat the vast majority of elite women on track today: if his records were entered, he would qualify for the Olympic finals for women."
For more on aging gracefully, click here.