Sunday, Jun 18, 2006
The Marathon Generation

If you're a middle-ager, it's increasingly likely that you or one of your friends will run a marathon. Folks in the 40-plus group are pretty much taking over the sport, accounting for a surprising 43% of all marathoners in the U.S. in 2004--up from 26% in 1980. The maturing baby-boom generation partly explains that growth. There are simply more folks over 40 out there. Yet there's more than demographics at work. Surging interest in marathons at middle age and beyond testifies to our longer, healthier lives and our growing determination to get the most out of that bonus time.

How much healthier are we? Mortality rates are going down, and our quality of life is improving. The rate of chronic disability among those over 65 has plunged to less than 20% from more than 26% two decades ago. The number of nursing homes and their occupancy rates declined over the 10 years ending in 1995, even as the population aged, according to Milken Institute Review. We're more educated than ever--and good health and education go hand in hand. For example, only 8% of Americans who have gone to graduate school smoke, compared with 34% of high school dropouts.

What are folks doing with all the extra healthy years? Many are pursuing long-forgotten passions. Patrick Bookey, 57, of North Pole, Alaska, chucked a 25-year career as a high school music teacher to pick up woodworking, which he had enjoyed in grade school. So what if he makes half his old salary? "It's the most stress-relieving thing you can do," he says. "I absolutely love it. My wife has to come get me out of the shop in the evening."

That's how a lot of older people nowadays think about marathons. "For days after running a marathon you just feel this sense of calm, of accomplishment," says Marla Rhoden, 50, a government administrator in Topeka, Kans. Her times are slower than they were 10 years ago. "But that's not hard to take," she says. "I do well for my age." She placed first among runners ages 50 to 59 in the Boston Marathon in April.

A remarkable 20% of the runners who finished in Boston were 50 or older, up from 13% of finishers 20 years ago. The numbers are similar for the Seattle Marathon, where the 50-and-up crowd is growing 10% a year. In the New York City Marathon, that group accounts for 16% of finishers, up from 4% in 1976.

What may be most interesting about the increase in the number of boomers (and in some cases even their parents) who participate in marathons is that the movement seems to have staying power. Research from Yale University, Johns Hopkins and elsewhere shows that people over 50 who train regularly gain muscle strength and can improve their performance, relative to their potential, faster than people in their 20s. Put another way, it's easier for boomers to slow their biological clock than it is for, say, their kids. Now, that's incentive.

And you don't have to be a marathoner to enjoy those benefits. Regular exercise of any kind lowers cholesterol and blood pressure, keeps weight down and improves mental outlook. It also reduces the risk of Alzheimer's disease. Those are races everyone must run.