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.
"There's some research that suggests seniors should train differently. Instead of training intensely every day, they should train intensely every other day," she says. "Rest becomes essential. It takes extra time for muscles to recover from the microdamage they sustain during activity."
To prevent injury, aging athletes - men as well as women - need flexibility and strength training as well as aerobic conditioning, she says. These activities also help build a solid base of fitness - something that can take years to create.
Kathleen Weber, director of women's sports medicine at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, says middle-aged athletes, like younger ones, often fall prey to over-eagerness: They do too much, too soon.
"If someone has been active all of her life, then she may have a great fitness base. If she's making a lifestyle change, however, if she's been a couch potato, she needs to take the time to let her body slowly adapt to the fact that she's exercising."
Each year, Weber treats runners at the Chicago Marathon, an event that can draw as many as 40,000 competitors. Last year, 809 of the 13,982 female finishers - about 5 percent - were age 50 and older. The fastest, 53-year-old Luisa Rivas, finished in a time of 3:08:11 - an average pace of roughly 7 minutes per mile.
The University of Pittsburgh study of senior Olympians shows that performance does not noticeably decline because of aging until athletes reach their mid-70s.
Colin Milner, executive director of the International Council on Active Aging, recalls feeling amazed by the "sea of gray" he observed in the lobby of the Chicago Hilton before the Chicago Marathon.
"Older athletes in prime condition can still compete at a high level," he says. "You tend to think of aging people with canes and walkers as opposed to running marathons, but those perceptions are as old as the myths of aging themselves."
Margie Schlundt, 52, has twice completed the 135-mile Badwater ultramarathon that begins in Death Valley, Calif., and also finished nine 100-milers.
"I'm really not one who wins a lot, although every now and then I place in my age group category," she says. "I just try to beat a previous time. It's me against me."
Her present goal is to finish a 100-mile trail race in less than 24 hours - about two hours faster than her previous best time.
"I would have to try very hard, but I know I could do it," the Millersville runner says.
Consider it the power of experience. Sue Fenimore, 53, says one of her most important discoveries was realizing she could race well without running every day.
Consistently ranked regionally among the top female competitors in her age group, 61-year-old Judy Gilbert of Pikesville runs only 30 miles a week, yet is still setting course records for women over 60.
Many later-in-life athletes savor an opportunity for steady improvement unencumbered by memories of better youthful performances. As Laurie Amatucci puts it: "You can actually say, 'I feel really good today. I think I'm going to run faster than I've ever run before!' "
Strategies for seniors
Research shows that athletes can continue to compete in their 50s and 60s without sacrificing their health - or the opportunity to perform a sport at a high level.
Sports medicine physician Brian Krabak, assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Johns Hopkins Hospital, recommends that aging female athletes take a few extra steps to maximize their training and guard against injuries.
Schedule a cardiovascular checkup. After menopause, heart disease can become an issue for women, including athletes.
Schedule a bone density screening. Bone loss can become more pronounced after menopause and put athletes at a greater risk for stress fractures.
Schedule days of cross training and rest/recovery to avoid overuse injuries. Use those days to concentrate on flexibility programs, such as stretching or yoga, as well as weight training to increase or maintain muscle strength.