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Some athletes hit their personal bests years after most racers

Pam LeBlanc, Fit City

Staff Writer
Austin 360
Jan LeBourgeois found that when she trained properly, she could shed minutes of her time in a half IronMan. After she finished the World Championship last year, she says, 'I've never been so proud of anything.'

Older doesn't always mean slower.

Some athletes manage to speed up, even as the years tick by. They drop seconds off 5K foot races, marathons and even long-distance triathlons.

As we age, just maintaining the same time at a particular distance gets harder to do. But setting a personal record? Unless you started running, swimming or cycling late in life, that can seem all but impossible.

Sometimes, though, it's not.

If and when you can set a personal record, otherwise known as a PR, depends on a lot of things, says Rogue Running coach Carmen Ayala Troncoso, a 52-year-old elite runner with numerous top 10 finishes at national and world cross-country races.

Every runner is different, but performance has a lot to do with your training background. "It depends on how long a person has been running, what kind of talent they have and how long they've been using it," she says.

If you ran hard for years at an early age, and spent a lot of time lifting weights or logging heavy mileage, it'll be harder to go faster later.

But if you haven't perfected your technique, you probably still can get faster.

Muscle matters, too. "We lose muscle mass as we get older, and if we lose muscle mass, we can't get as much power," Troncoso says.

Troncoso peaked as a runner about a decade ago, setting most of her PRs between the ages of 37 and 44.

"I always tell the runners ‘Don't think age is a limit,' but age is a fact. You have to know you're going to slow down a little bit per year," she says.

That's why she coaches her runners to focus on things other than pure running, too, such as flexibility, balance and strength. Just piling on miles isn't the answer.

Meet some Austin athletes who have set a PR later in life.

Dr. Brad Price, 64

Price, an obstetrician and gynecologist, set a PR at the 2009 Longhorn 70.3, 15 years after he ran his first of seven half IronMan distance triathlons.

And he didn't just squeak out a couple of extra seconds — he shaved 14 minutes off his previous best time in the 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike and 13.1-mile run.

The Longhorn was flatter and not as hot as other half IronMan triathlons he'd run, including Buffalo Springs and St. Croix, but it wasn't just that the course was easier. Price says he finally figured out his nutrition needs. He also hired six-time IronMan triathlon winner Mark Allen as his online coach.

"For once I trained properly for the distance, so that I felt I could race the whole way, not just survive, especially in the second half of the run," Price says. He wore a heart rate monitor during training, and built a strong aerobic base. He also logged plenty of "bricks," stacking workouts in two different disciplines in the same day. He didn't sprint until four weeks prior to the event.

Another thing that helped? Price was chasing down another competitor in his age group, which inspired him to push even harder. He placed second in his division.

"I never would have believed then I'd PR at this age, no way," he says. "I'd never broken five hours before. I was just off the charts ecstatic."

Jan LeBourgeois, 59

LeBourgeois, supervisor of the Department of Microbiology at St. David's North Austin Medical Center, recorded her fastest-ever half IronMan time at the IronMan World Championship 70.3 in Clearwater, Fla., last November, 16 years after she started racing the distance.

She was motivated to do well because she had to qualify to enter the race by winning another half IronMan.

"When I won the slot, I think I had the responsibility not only to the person who didn't get it, but knowing I'm going to represent an age group from the United States," she says. "That's where training came in."

She knew she couldn't "fake" a half IronMan, so she focused on preparing for it properly.

"I don't usually train the way I should, but I actually trained for Worlds," she says.

It paid off. She crossed the finish line in 5 hours, 47 minutes and 35 seconds, eighth place in her age group.

"I just had the race of my life. I felt good. I was a happy camper," she says. "I still relive it in my mind. I felt so positive and delighted ... I've never been so proud of anything."

Rich Dean, 51

Dean, a salesman, has been whittling minutes off his marathon time since he ran his first one in 2004 in just more than 4 hours and 3 minutes. When he turned 50, he crossed the finish line of the Wineglass Marathon in New York in a PR of 3 hours, 34 minutes and 26 seconds.

His main motivation was to qualify for Boston, which he did.

"I always think to myself it's best that I started late in life because I still have a long way to get better," he says. "If I had started when I was 25, I would have peaked a long time ago."

Dean thinks he still has room for another PR.

"I don't know what it feels like when your body tells you that I can't go any faster. I haven't had that feeling yet," he says. "There's so much about running that I need to get better at that I don't see the end soon."

Michael Woo, 49

Woo, an engineer at Freescale, started running in 1998. He set a slew of PRs in 2008, including a half-marathon in 1 hour, 16 minutes and 25 seconds.

"In theory, my ability has definitely not improved, but I became more efficient," he says. "That shows a faster race time."

Woo says he's learned to listen to his body more. He's also learned to do progressive runs, starting slow and speeding up as he goes.

"I might be able to get one more PR; we'll see," he says. "I'm not obsessed with getting one. I just want to run so I can run another race six months later."

Have you clocked a PR? It's something to celebrate.

Older and faster.

It's like cheating Father Time.

pleblanc@statesman.com; 445-3994