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First marathon at 50!

Updated: Mar 25, 2023


In 2020, I had listened to a lot of endurance athletes on the Rich Roll Podcast. I started to realize that I could be accomplishing a lot more, even at age 49 approaching 50 years old. I had also become certified in plant-based nutrition which helped me realize that fueling the body for endurance was a good portion of what it takes to succeed at long-distance.

So, I started thinking that I hadn't added a marathon to my list of accomplishments yet. As much as I might be able to say that I had accomplished multiple half-marathons and Ragnar Relays, where I ran up to 23 miles in 3 or 4 segments, I hadn't done a marathon, because I thought it was going to be too painful or possibly cause lasting damage. I thought that maybe it would hurt the body for the long-term. So, I just decided that I didn't want to do it. However, listening to ultra-athletes I realized that a marathon should be possible, based on my nutrition improvements and my increasing knowledge of recovery and injury prevention. I had played a lot of sports and even half marathons seemed easy. A marathon should be at least achievable.

So, I set out on a quest to do my first marathon before I was 50. Then, I only accomplished up to 15 miles. It was the first time that I made it beyond a half-marathon in one run. So, I had some success.

My first step in September of 2021 was to try to get healthy. I kept having recurring calf strains - at least that's what they felt like. I did not have an official diagnosis but from everything that I read it seemed like that's what they were. And, it seemed like rest was a key component of recovery.

The Journey

In June of 2020, I started running consistently and I mixed in some bike rides. I created different routes around North Providence, RI. At first, I was nervous about riding since it was a high-traffic area. I decided to become committed to the loving the area that I had recently moved too. I created routes using the Garmin Connect app. I had a route that I called Reach the Beach. It went to a local park with a small beach. A good opportunity to see water. I would incorporate that run into short and longer versions. The app helped me explore different roads, areas and neighborhoods. I grew to love some of the runs and rides, including great road routes and some bike paths. Unfortunately, it seemed that no matter where I ran that I had to deal with hills. It did not take long for my left calf to strain when I pushed it up a steep hill trying to get faster.

July of 2020, I took time off from running to let my calves heal. I played tennis until the calves strained again. They seemed to be chronically on the verge of injuring again. My understanding was that they typically required several weeks to heal not just the two or three that I was giving them.

However, in August of 2020, I started mixing in some runs again and started to improve consistency.

September of 2020, I also was fairly consistent and working towards marathon distance. I had a 10 mile run in the middle of the month. I had another calve strain on September 24th.

October of 2020, I tried a few runs again, I made it to my furthest single run of 15 miles in Lincoln Woods on October 11th. Unfortunately, I twisted my ankle when ran on a trail to mix it up from the road. Then, I ran again October 24 th when the calf-strain returned. I think it was mostly my left calf again that was the problem. To keep moving, my wife and I hiked, and I did some bike rides. Frustrated, my quest for a marathon during 2020 was over.

November of 2020, I tried to run some more and still struggled with calf-strains, including during a beautiful run in Rockport Maine. I stopped and had to limp along to meet my wife and good friend that were walking while I was running.

December 2020, I ran some short lunch runs of about 3 miles – trying not to stress the calves.

January 2021, I barely ran during the month. Instead, we just did some hiking in New Hampshire.

February 2021, I did not run until the end of the month when I found a marathon plan to follow on Garmin Connect.

March 2021, I ran a few times and biked when I could. Needing a new challenge, I signed up for 300 miles of biking for the American Cancer Society in April.

April 2021 was all about biking. I decided I would bike and try to stay fit versus beat up on my legs by trying to run and hopefully that would give my calves a break. Three hundred miles in a month may not sound like much, until you factor in the cold, rain, and any other conditions that limit the days available. It’s challenging to bike that much from scratch and deal with the weather and work schedule. It is also still cold, especially on a bike which adds more wind-chill factor.

During the month, I completed a metric century with a friend - 64 miles. Unfortunately, I forgot my helmet and with no stores around, I wore my work hard hat. It was a funny site for many people that saw me ride that day. Some people honked or gave me a thumbs-up. As bad as it was, I did not want to let my friend down. He came a long way to do that ride and the hard hat was better than nothing. I know that, if I had a good crash, the hard hat would not have done much to protect me. I also had some nice rides on Cape Cod with my wife along the Cape Cod Rail Trail and a fun rolling ride through Nickerson State Park on the bike paths.

Following all the biking, I realized that it felt like my hip flexor complex was somewhat strained from doing all that cycling in a short amount of time with no gradual load buildup. It was a strange uncomfortable feeling between both hips. I think the area became overactive with all of the biking.

So, I started increasing and tracking the yoga that I did with my wife to improve flexibility and add a meditative element to my routines. This was another replacement for running, since my calf-strained seemed to remain a chronic problem.

During that spring my wife and I were looking for a new home in a rural area rather than the city. The interest rates were historically very low, and it seemed like a great time to purchase. While on the National Seashore of Cape Cod, my wife and I found out that our offer on a great log home in a quieter town was accepted.

May 2021, this month was dedicated to planning for the new house. We were packing and purging our house in Rhode Island and preparing for a move to Massachusetts.

June of 2021, this was moving month. My wife and I packed more and purged more. Almost nothing on the training calendar completed.

July of 2021, having moved into the new house. It was time to get settled into the new house and get used to the area. I traded out running for tennis. The challenging thing was that both my opponents were much more skilled than I was. So, my ego was taking a major hit. This was an opportunity to work on getting better at something and not giving up regardless of how big the challenge is. It’s much more about playing hard and working hard regardless of whether you are on the winning side. Winning is the progress and improvement. It is also important to be graceful and fun for your opponent. I would rather be more like Roger Federer in defeat than angry and upset. There are times that I failed at that when I lost matches to my friend and only won a game or two. Tennis is unique in that way. You can play well and still not get on the score board. Not my proudest moments.

August 2021, this was another month that I traded out running for tennis. Just like basketball was for me for years, tennis has been great, since I can use my body in multiple directions and utilize quickness.

September of 2021, everything changed.

I ran with another friend in Estes Park, Colorado on September 25th during a Rocky Mountain National Park vacation with my wife. It was a great run. We ran 5 miles around a reservoir but changed direction when a large elk blocked our path. It was rutting season and elk were in the area putting on a show of dominance. I was quite out of breath. I had not been able to run that far in a while.

I mentioned to my friend that I had the goal of completing a marathon by 50 years of age and was not able to accomplish it. He invited me to join him for a marathon the following June. It felt like an honor for him to ask me. He was a great guy and someone that I admire for his physical achievements. He suggested that I have a physician officially diagnose the calf problems then recover. I had to figure out how to remain injury-free. The calf strains had been a big problem.

Instead, I took the knowledge that I was gaining as a personal trainer and decided it would be my job to manage my injuries and recovery. I did not want to let him down, if the opportunity to run with him was being offered. Therefore, I began foam-rolling, stretching, and icing consistently to both get ready for runs and recover faster.

The plant -based diet that I've adopted has been great for fueling and recovery. And it seems like, if I take a good hot shower when my body temperature may be dropping after long endurance exercise and sleep for an hour or so, I am heading towards good recovery. Once, I made the mistake of trying a cold shower thinking that would help combat any inflammation. When I got out of the shower and into bed, my body temperature seemed to take too much of a dip and I was shivering in the bed. It seemed that the best thing I could do to warm back up was get back into a hot shower. That worked. I was able to get some good sleep and recover.

To reduce the load on my legs, I read about keeping my strides short and increase my cadence. Also, I try to make sure I foam roll and stretch immediately following a run. I roll my calves, quadriceps and hamstring. I then stretch my calves, quadriceps, and hamstrings, including a runners lunge to stretch the groin area. The rolling takes out the tightness and the stretching helps to elongate the muscles again.

October through December 2021

Then, after it seemed like I was able to run, I started running 10 percent further each week on my long weekend runs. Roughly, I used a 12-week and 16-week marathon plans by Greg McMillan that I found on Strava and Garmin Connect. I compared the two plans and combined what seemed to work best for my schedule. That began a steady build of fitness.

Basically, a beginner plan involved 3 runs a week, a short and easy run, an intermediate or threshold level run, and a long weekend run of increasing distance each week. Each run included warm up and cool down. At my age, it was important not to push hard without a warm up and not to stop fast. Gears of a car are a good analogy. Take it one gear a time on the way up and the way down.

I ran on Tuesdays and Thursday along the Charles River in Boston and Cambridge, MA. Then, I would run long distance near my house, in New Hampshire or with my friend Chris near his house. Sometimes, we chose interesting destinations like good bike paths.

For the longer runs, I realized that I was running too fast while listening to upbeat music and the music was too familiar to be interesting. That led to a lot of walking at the end and some boredom. I made the change to listening to podcasts and books. I was already enjoying both on my long drives. It enabled me to get myself into more of a conversation pace versus too much speed and higher heart rate. This would be considered mostly Zone 2 training.

At some point, I was not happy with my Camelback with pockets in the rear. If I needed to get to my phone it was difficult. If I wanted to listen to something, it was too far in the back to hear and headphones were a struggle both with the cord or wireless, due to sweat from the ears or my hand catching the cord. Therefore, I switched to a running vest with pockets in the front and along the side. Scott Jurek was marketing one and said that he was much happier with having everything accessible in the front and on the sides. I have loved using it ever since and now have two vests.

To keep from getting bored, I put together interesting routes, including a route along the Mountain Washington Base Station Road, up to the Cog Railway, up to the front of the Mount Washington Hotel and finishing at Crawford Notch Highland Center. Even though it was 31 degrees, snow on the ground, slushy and slippery on Mt Clinton Road, this 16.6 mile run was a personal record for me. With commitment, I continued building by the 10 percent each week. Each longer run was a new personal record 18, 20, and 22.

I was fortunate that my wife supported me on some of these runs. She met me in some good locations every 4 to 6 miles and provided warm and dry clothing and some nutrition. She joined me for the finish of some of the long runs, including finishing in the dark on a narrow back road. That was an adventure but it was dangerous and I would not recommended it.

On December 12th, I ran my first marathon. I created for myself near my house. This was a confidence building measure. It was 43 degrees, cold, windy, and hilly. I ran and walked for almost exactly 5 hours at an 11:05min/mile pace. This answered the question “could I do it?” The answer was “yes.” I had gone from approximately zero running, due to injuries to a marathon in 11 weeks.

My next goal was time to find an official marathon and run it better. So, I decided that if visited family in the San Diego area in California that I could combine the visit with a warm weather marathon. Fortunately, I found the Carlsbad Marathon that would be on January 16th of 2022. About a month from my unofficial marathon.

I was on the right track. However, I wanted some help and someone to discuss training with. So, I hired my running coach Jean Gillis. She was able to affirm a lot of what I was doing and offer suggestions for improvements. She gave me instruction on Chi running, coached my form, helped me race plan, suggested Chia gels, and set me up with the Training Peaks application which is a great planning and analytical tool.

Carlsbad, Marathon

My wife and I arrived in the San Diego area with a day or two for relaxing with my family and getting used to the time difference. The night before the race Andrea and I ran an easy3 miles to loosen up for the marathon.

January 16, 2022, I woke up around 4 am to get a good breakfast. That way I could make sure I used the restroom before I left to get to Carlsbad which was about 45 minutes away.

We arrived in Carlsbad in the dark. It was a little challenging to orient where the start of the race was. A lot of runners and spectators walking in different directions. I stopped for a restroom break and was ready to go. I said goodbye to Andrea and thanked her. Then, I placed myself in the line near the 4 hours and 30 min group.

I spoke with someone that ran my pace, and we ran together for the first 15 miles. The darkness before sunrise was nice. Maybe a little cold. We were along the ocean when the sun really started to come over the horizon. We both realized that the sun getting higher was bad news. It was going to get a lot warmer.

I made a good decision. I wanted to be self-supporting. I took food with me and my own hydration. This was good because, the marathon organization sent an email that some of the food had not arrived the night before the marathon and that runners should bring what they needed. A lot of runners like to travel as lite as possibly. Fortunately, I had enough food for myself and some to share. I brought figs, dates, chia gels and SIS gels and a cliff bar or two. My hiking background and being prepared probably helped me with this decision.

For 15 miles we were going a steady comfortable pace. However, at 15 miles and hitting a long uphill, I realized that we were going too fast for me to sustain, and the temperature was warm. My heart rate was climbing to the highest it had been, since having my Garmin Fenix 6 watch that gave me heart rate data. I told the other runner to go ahead without. I needed to slow down.

Andrea was on an adventure of her own trying to find a place along the course to cheer me on. She had to do a bit of running herself to get to a good spot. I met Andrea at the top of hill at 15 miles. It was great to see her. Then, the rest of the marathon was a battle of run and walk and trying to keep my heart rate from getting too high. I had another 11 miles to go.

I had told my running coach that the rolling hills would not bother me, since it was so hilly where I lived. But, they were a challenge given that my heart rate was already high and it was getting warmer. I basically ran intervals the rest of the race - running the downhills and walking some of the uphill segments. I would later understand this to be a form of the run-walk method. But that was not my plan, and it was frustrating to be in that position. Someday I would want to finish strong.

Struggling, passing runners, runners passing me, other pace groups including the 4 hour 30 min pace group that I had tried to stay ahead of passed me. However, I kept moving.

I tried to enjoy the scenery - the beautiful coast of California. I had enjoyed the sunrise, the views of the ocean, the seaside houses and businesses. It was really a privilege to be running in that location.

At mile 19, Andrea called me. I was surprised. She was concerned that my chip was no longer saying where I was for tracking. "Had I stopped?" "Was I ok?" I missed running over a sensor - something else to be aware of in the future. There are multiple tracking sensors along marathons. But, you need to be in the right place for them to track you. I reassured her that I was still progressing. At one point during the run my phone yelled "Yabba Dabba Doo" by Fred Flintstone. It was Andrea and others cheering me on through the tracking app when I reached a milestone. But, at the time, I had no idea why my phone had done that.

Mile by mile. I was looking forward to getting the run over with. I tried to walk enough to put myself in a position to run through the finish. I drank water at the end - maybe too much, since there was not much benefit. It would not make me feel better and maybe it would just fill up my system.

With the finish in site, I gave it all I could and ran through. Unfortunately, I forget about the photo at the finish and just run through unaware of cameras. It would be better to smile and celebrate like some runners do. But, I finished!! I ran through the finish and heard Andrea congratulating me on my left. I was relieved that it was over.

She asked how I was doing. I shook my head saying "not good." Then, I laid down on the ground with my cap over my eyes to wait for her while she came around the fencing. When she arrived, she said that it was probably a bad idea to lay down. I agreed and stood up. Uninterested in the food provided at the finish line and a bit nauseous, we headed right for the car after a restroom stop. I wanted to dry off and get some clean clothes on. Unfortunately, I got sick in the car. It may have been a combination of too much water near the end of the marathon, lying down, and stopping suddenly rather than keeping moving so that my body could cool down slowly. It was very uncomfortable for a few minutes.

Even though I had a really bad few minutes in the car and I was totally exhausted, it was a great day! I had run almost a minute per mile faster than a month before, had a really good run cadence, ran all of my fastest times for distances over five miles including my fastest half-marathon, and took 20 minutes off of my previous marathon. I was happy with that. I was getting better. I had completed two marathons within four months of starting and within about a month of each other. Unfortunately, not by 50 years old. However, I did get them during my 50th year.

I had proved to myself and, hopefully, to others that with care of the body, good nutrition and careful training, endurance events like a marathon are possible even as we are getting older. I hope this story inspires others to go after their goals!

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