Commentary: Running against the clock, in more ways than one

There it is.

Chapter 5 of Owen Barder's "Running for Fitness" describes age-related declines in muscle mass, lung elasticity and stride length and a loss of 9% to 10% aerobic capacity per decade. All this points to slowing down as we age.

So when I enter a race, recently Race for the Cure, it is with the goal of maintaining my time, not placing or beating anybody. The sport of running is a contest with oneself, rebellion against age drag.

Having said all that, goals for Race for the Cure differ from all other races. I run to honor survivors among my friends and remember others I've lost.

I meet my retired teaching friends Marilyn, Judy and Sherry at 6 a.m. in the parking lot off Irvine Terrace. We walk with the early-morning crowd, past the post-race tables of bananas, and meet Marilyn's family by the Survivor's Tent.

I'm the only teacher who runs, so I leave early to line up for the 5K. I find Saturday Runners near the start, ready for take-off. Hats in hands, we hear the national anthem, and the starter gun sounds.

My strategy is simply to run, nothing technical. Soon, I'm struggling. I never noticed the hill driving from East Coast Highway up Newport Center Drive. Running the first mile of Race for the Cure, I notice. Then too soon, I have to chug up Avocado Avenue and climb San Miguel Drive.

Back on Newport Center Drive, I hear a runner say, "It's flat from here!" "Good," I mutter.

We turn around past Santa Cruz Drive and begin the drive to the blessed finish line. By then, I've passed all the Saturday Runners, even Evie, who's been at my side and come in at 26 minutes 30 seconds. Race for the Cure does not time runners, so we approximate our finish times. My pace is about an 8 1/2-minute mile.

And here is where I measure myself. Am I slowing with age? In 1997 I ran three miles in 24 minutes, but since 2001 I've maintained 26-plus-minute finishes. I'm getting slower but I haven't dropped to 27 minutes for a 5K yet.

I've described aging runners' physiological breakdowns. Here's the other side. In Jeff Gaudette's online coach's forum, RunnersConnect, we are told, "The drop in race times [as we age] is much slower than you might think."

In fact, it's only seconds per mile, per year. He advises interval training and weight and flexibility training — the combination I've stumbled upon.

Most people don't care about seconds in a race, but Gaudette's advice is for all of us. Aerobic exercise, lifting and stretching are part of the recipe for a long, vital life, whether you watch football, golf or garden.

At Race for the Cure, we celebrated a friend's healthy recovery from cancer and dedicated contributions to those we've lost. We walk and run to maintain something we all have — the privilege of being alive, surrounded by friends on a warm October morning.

Newport Beach resident CARRIE LUGER SLAYBACK is training to run the Los Angeles Marathon at age 70.

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