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RADJournals: Martha Aarons started running at 58 years young & raced her first marathon at 68

I was a nerdy kid, the type who enthusiastically raised her hand in elementary school when she knew the answer, so naturally I was somewhat bullied by the time I was in 5th grade. And equally predictably, I was always the last one chosen for the softball team. I was already shaping up to perceive myself as an athletic clod and this persisted through junior high. By that time, my “nerdiness” was progressing exponentially as my passion for classical music also developed. I couldn’t wait to get out of PE by joining the marching band in junior high! 

Of no interest to me at the time, the running boom was proliferating, but even had I known I would love running, there was no track and field or XC for girls—not even when I was in high school. So, any aptitude detected would have gone un-nurtured. 

Fast forward to around 2010: A music colleague/friend who adored running told me in exasperation “You walk so damn fast, you might as well just run”. She was far from the first person who complained about my fast walk! But she did pique my interest in running when I visited her in Milwaukee and she proposed “Let’s go to the final mile of the Lakefront Marathon to cheer on the finishers”. The excitement and energy there was intriguing and made me “running curious”. So, at age 58 I decided to give running a shot, even though the very thought of sweating and physical exertion had always been anathema to me!

It didn’t take long to discover how good I felt after a run and soon I was racing 5K’s, nearly always finishing 1st in my age group, even though I didn’t train other than by simply running. Being in a cut-throat competitive profession (a flutist in the Cleveland Orchestra), I loved the aspect that I was competing with myself. I also loved how exhilarated I felt after running, and the sense of power when running fast, though I considered marathons to be insane and foreswore the very idea.

My husband (a violinist in the orchestra) and I started going to a wonderful fitness spa, Rancho la Puerta, where we performed chamber music in exchange for one-week stays several times a year. It was there in early 2019 that a pivotal week changed my life. It was a “running week” and the guest presenters included Dean Karnazes and my future coach, Tom Flahavan and his wife Donnie. At one point, Tom pulled me aside and said, “I’ve seen a lot of runners, but as soon as I saw you run, I saw talent…so I just want to say, you can probably do a lot with it if you want”. He had guessed my age as a good 10 years younger than I was, so he encouraged me to think about running a marathon and qualifying for Boston. That was all it took for me to sign on for coaching with him! Dean Karnazes’ new book, Road to Sparta, had just been released. When he signed it for me, he inscribed “See you in Boston”, and that sealed the deal. 

Now I was properly terrified with this commitment, but within weeks of gaining the structure, accountability, motivation, and inspiration I got from Tom, I hit a new 5K PR in a small San Diego race at the age of 68. My “tune-up” Half Marathon a few months later was also a new PR and my first sub-2:00 Half. I went on to finish my first marathon in August 2019 with a fast enough BQ to gain entry to the 2020 Boston Marathon. Along with everyone else during the pandemic, I went on the roller-coaster ride of postponement, cancelation, and re-scheduling, but finally experienced the utter joy of running the in-person 125th Boston Marathon. As with my first marathon, my goals were modest: to finish intact and have fun. I still tend to underestimate my potential, but I’m a compliant person so I followed all the conventional wisdom. To my surprise I finished 5th in my age group and re-qualified with 12 minutes to spare. And now I’m truly addicted. 

What do I adore most about running? First and foremost, the wholesome, down-to-earth, supportive spirit and whacky fun-loving sense of humor that is nearly universal in the running community. I’m also nourished by the feedback I get from younger runners who say, “I want to be you when I grow up”. Nothing could be better than providing inspiration to others while simply doing something I love. It has also been amazing to me to redefine myself as an athlete (I still feel imposter-syndrome using that word!) after winding down in my professional career from full-time to freelance. I can’t help wondering what I missed in my earlier years when I age-grade my times, but it’s a blessing to have this new life I never envisioned for myself. Especially poignant is the fact I wasn’t guaranteed to live long enough to ever know about it. Twenty-three years ago I was diagnosed with a meningioma, a nearly always benign brain tumor, and a bad location can make it deadly. Fortunately, it was in an operable location, and I was lucky to be in the hands of the best brain surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic. So, I have extra reasons to be grateful every day I’m alive, and nothing makes me feel more alive than running. 

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