It’s a raw December morning and I’m huddled with hundreds of other mostly middle-aged Baltimoreans in a makeshift tent, trying to stay warm. I’m a little nervous; it’s been about a decade since I’ve participated in a running event, and just as long since I’ve logged five miles in one run — the length of the Baltimore’s Celtic Solstice Run, starting momentarily in Druid Hill Park. Not in shape for it, I agreed to run the course only because I’m reporting on it for a local tourism magazine. Observing the scores of runners wearing skintight Spandex and intense expressions, I can tell five miles is a mere warm-up for a lot of these folks.
One woman says breezily to another: “Joining us for a bike ride after the race?” I’ll be lucky if I can hobble back to my parking space uninjured. I don’t necessarily want to be a part of this subculture of the super fit, but I’m curious about what drives so many to embrace it, and how they stick it out.
To crack the code, I go to the source. Through friends of friends, I am introduced to a handful of Baltimore’s uber-athletes who train and perform in events that require extreme physical and mental stamina. Grilling them about how they ended up as diehard runners, bikers, and swimmers, I am struck by the power of their camaraderie — a connection built with their training partners has helped all of these 30-to-60-somethings stay the course.
Each athlete who spoke to me trains regularly with a group of like-minded folks that spurs them on to more intense physical heights than they could reach alone. Of course, these athletes have traveled wildly divergent paths before finding stamina in “group think” and pounding the road to hardcore fitness. A former smoker who could barely walk up the hilly university campus as a young graduate student has now, in his mid-60s, rocketed through the hills of Hawaii in four Iron Man events. A dolphin-turned-running trainer loves pushing others to run long distances. A self-described tomboy approaching 50 races mountain bikes like nobody’s business. Then there’s the 50-something breast cancer survivor, the good Samaritan who got her start helping homeless guys get back on their feet, and a restaurant owner who accepted a bet to complete a triathlon before learning to swim.
Diverse backgrounds aside, the stories these athletes tell of how they got hooked on endurance events share a common thread. In fact, they each sound a lot like a drug addict’s first high.
Consider the first time 44-year-old John Gilligan, owner of the BMA’s restaurant Gertrude’s, competed in a mini-triathlon (400-yard swim, eight-mile bike ride, two-mile run). His brother dared him to do it. He’d never done much in the way of formal racing events beyond his high school cross country team. In fact, he didn’t know how to swim.
No wonder his body literally shook with nerves prior to the race. But things changed after the race began. “Something happened on the bike. I fell in love with it. I thought to myself, ‘This is the most incredible feeling I’ve had,'” he says. He never looked back. He’s not the only one.
Stacey Seabrook, a 49-year-old Baltimore city resident, had been a sporadic exerciser her entire adult life. But when she started running as a volunteer with Back on Your Feet, a nonprofit that promotes self-sufficiency for the city’s homeless men, the team spirit moved her and she began training with a group for her first marathon, completed in the fall of 2011. “It was the best day of my life. The energy was amazing. It was just so much fun,” she says.
Debra Nelson had a similar experience. When she turned 50, she decided to participate in a century bike ride benefiting juvenile diabetes research, a cause the nurse and diabetes educator believes in. What happened at the finish line propelled her onward.
“The cow bells went off, they put a medal around my neck,” she recalls enthusiastically. Two years later Nelson developed breast cancer, but she still wanted to relive that finish-line experience. “I said to myself, ‘I want another one of those,'” she says.
In February of 2011, shortly after recovering from breast cancer, Nelson crossed the finish line of the Disney Princess half marathon. While the medal served as a nice reward, something much bigger than that got her to the finish.
Sticking with It
Nelson was part of a running group that trained with a coach from Charm City Run’s Timonium location. “To have the camaraderie of my training group was really important,” says Nelson who, prior to training for the half marathon, had never run longer than four miles. “They said everybody would find somebody at their own pace, and that was true,” she says.
While Nelson finds the social support of her coach and fellow runners invaluable, as a married working mother she compartmentalizes the fitness part of her life to a much greater degree than most of the endurance athletes I spoke to.
Consider Theresa Morningstar. Single and 50, she holds down a full time job at a local law firm while teaching spinning classes a few times a week and training for bike, running, and racing events with a close-knit group of friends.
“Instead of doing happy hour, we might go for a bike ride and grab a bite to eat afterwards,” Morningstar says.
Though she makes her athletic endeavors sound almost frivolous, Morningstar is an accomplished athlete who performs competitively in Iron Man races (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, 26.2-mile run), extreme mountain bike racing, and days-long adventure races that involve several components — from kayaking to hiking to biking — while navigating unknown territory. But it’s not necessarily the physical challenge that keeps her going.
“What I love about racing is doing it with your friends,” says Morningstar, echoing the refrain of camaraderie keeping them going.
Thirty-one-year-old Baltimore City resident Deirdre Weadock grew tired of training dolphins for the National Aquarium and, as an employee of Charm City Running, started coaching people for running races instead. Now she’s planning the opening of a Locust Point Charm City Run store this April and helping to bring Sole City, a 10-kilometer race, to Baltimore this spring. For Weadock, her new career also opened doors to a new social support network.
“When I moved back to Baltimore six years ago, I would do the bar scene because I felt like that’s what I was supposed to do,” says Weadock. Now, she and her friends sometimes try to be to bed by 9:30 p.m. on Friday nights so they can wake up early for training runs.
Though training groups aren’t necessarily the most efficient way to prepare for an event, these athletes wouldn’t give them up. “The social aspect is a huge part of it,” says Gilligan, who admits he would probably have better bike workouts going solo but would miss the people in his spinning class too much.
Training together is one thing. But on race day, these athletes must dig deep within themselves to succeed.
Accomplished triathlete Ray Plotecia has completed more than 100 triathlons in his 65 years and experienced just about every type of challenge doing so. Hallucinating and close to kidney failure during one Ironman, he soldiered on.
“When you do the Iron Man, you’re making deals with God and people and everybody else. Then you get back into town and, for that last half mile, with the crowd there, all of that goes away. And in the last couple hundred yards, you’re planning your next one,” Plotecia says.