Older women

Determined athletes show that aging doesn't necessarily mean slowing down

June 17, 2005|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

As Marge Burley and Margie Schlundt run the rock-studded hills in Patapsco State Park, fording streams, ducking branches, they are both sure-footed and swift. Finished with work for the day, the friends are training for Ironman triathlons and ultramarathon trail races.

Meanwhile, in the city, Laurie Amatucci and Sue Fenimore are devoting some evenings to the track at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute and Western High School. The two seasoned runners are helping novices train for their first 5K race: the Baltimore Women's Classic to be held at the Inner Harbor on June 26.

Although their physical ambitions differ, these four women share the distinction of crossing boundaries that weren't dreamed of when they were growing up in the days before Title IX required schools to provide sports programs for girls.

The fiftysomething runners are part of the growing national trend of middle-aged women athletes who are competing - and, in some cases, even improving - their performances because of advances in sports medicine, better training and the realization that growing older doesn't have to mean slowing down.

Age has left them more vulnerable to the typical overuse injuries of muscles, ligaments and tendons. But the rewards of competing can also be more gratifying.

"Crossing the finish line of the first Hawaii Ironman was something else. ... I had no idea that I could even qualify," says Burley, 59, who has completed four of the world championship triathlons since turning 50. She will try to qualify for her fifth in September when she "ages up" to 60.

When Burley grew up in the Brooklyn section of Baltimore in the 1950s, most girls didn't play sports, and neither did she. She started swimming in her 20s when she took her children to the pool. And she began running only after she decided to try a triathlon at the age of 40. Her first Hawaii Ironman - a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run - was in 1995. She returned in 1997, 2001, 2003 and has taken age group awards each time.

Laurie Amatucci, 51, started running three years ago - after she quit smoking. First she walked a 5K (3.1-mile) race. Then she ran one. Before long, she was running 5Ks regularly, challenging herself to do better each time. Last fall, she completed the Baltimore Marathon with the help of fellow mid-life athletes like Sue Fenimore. The Phoenix runner says one of the best aspects of her new sport is the camaraderie of other women, many of whom have also come to exercise later in life. She particularly enjoys helping beginners prepare for the charity race she now co-directs with her husband.

"To see the pride in the faces of women in their 50s or 60s when they actually cross the finish line, it brings tears to your eyes," she says. "It's just the coolest thing. You can tell it's a turning point in their life. Once they know they can do it, they're out there looking for that PR [personal record]. We're helping to develop late-in-life athletes."

Injuries and aging

A common view of aging athletes is that they're asking, if not begging, for injuries, and that competition only means they will hurt themselves sooner.

"Women can often take up sports in their middle years and do very well because they haven't been beaten up the way guys have," says William Howard, a surgeon and founder of Union Memorial's Sports Medicine program. "Their knees and joints are better off. When they start late like that, they start pretty much with brand new bodies - and that's a real benefit.

"Running does not cause arthritis. If you already have arthritis, running can aggravate it, but it doesn't cause it," he says. "Guys have been injured so much from playing contact sports that their joints are already damaged by the time they reach middle age. And because guys are generally heavier than women, their injured joints also have to carry more weight."

Although tendons and ligaments get stiffer with age, athletes over 50 can avoid many overuse injuries by cross-training and scheduling recovery days, says physician Vonda Wright, instructor in the department of orthopedic surgery at the University of Pittsburgh. Wright also serves as research coordinator of the 2005 Summer National Senior Games for athletes age 50 and older - an event known as the Senior Olympics.

"I think we assume wrongly that aging means slowing down and disability," she says. "There's nothing about the body that says you can't keep going if you take care of yourself. Most of the women in our clinic with horrible tendinitis or knee problems or plantar fasciitis aren't athletes. They're sedentary, often overweight, people."

After analyzing data taken from health surveys of participants in the 2001 Senior Olympics, Wright found that 60 percent of the athletes' injuries derived from overuse and that most occurred during competition when the athletes were fatigued.

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