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Women Outrun the Aging Process: UltraLadies Have Energy to Spare

by Michael Rosenthal (Los Angeles Times)

Pat DeVita's life changed forever when she picked up a book written by the late running guru Jim Fixx. She started working out on a neighborhood track, graduated to longer distances on the streets and ended up training hours at a time in the mountains to prepare herself for anything from 5-kilometer races to 50 and 100-mile pain-athons. Impressive? To say the least: DeVita is 63.

The Granada Hills resident is just one of the “UltraLadies”, a group of not-so-young but very serious women --- and a handful of men --- who took up running relatively late in life and have taken it to extreme lengths. The bulk of the group will be running in the Los Angeles Marathon on Sunday, a short 26.2-mile jaunt.

“Some people look at me like I'm crazy”, said DeVita, who started running seriously 18 years ago. “My grandson is in the Navy. He tells the guys there that his grandma runs 50 miles (at a time). They think he's lying. Others just say it's great, that there are younger people who can't do what you do”. At one time, many of the runners could never have imagined they would be running as many as 100 miles.

Nancy Shura, a 47-year-old Agoura resident, remembers trying to run after her brother and sister to photograph them as they ran in a race. She was humiliated that she couldn't keep up. At 39 and in lousy shape, she made a decision to take action. She started by walking, walking evolved into hiking, hiking evolved into running, and running evolved into a passion. She now runs 60-70 miles a week and couldn't imagine life without it. “It's kind of like looking through a foggy window”, Shura said, referring to the possibilities she saw for herself when she started running. “You can't always imagine what's on the other side”. “...At one point, a friend and I were entertaining the idea of running a 10K and I could only laugh. I told my friend, “I could never run six miles”. I said, “I couldn't make it if you held a gun to my kid's head at the finish line”. “She still throws that in my face.” She says, “That's the woman who said she couldn't run six miles!”.

Of course, the benefits of running are many, no more so when one is younger than when one is older. From fitness to an empowering sense of purpose, the camaraderie of training --- and socializing --- with the team, to plain old fun, members of this group swear by their unusual but immensely healthful lifestyle. Older runners have unique problems. For example, DeVita can't run every day because it takes longer than it once did for her to recover from workouts. Several of the runners have knee problems. To avoid them, they favor running in the hills, where they're able to enjoy the scenic beauty, and dirt roads take less of a toll than concrete streets on their bodies. They insist a 50-mile race on dirt is less demanding than a 26.2-mile marathon on streets. And the older runners cautioned peers interesting in hitting the road to take it very slowly. The ones who take on too much too soon, they say, are the ones who don't stick with it.

However, the positives far outweigh the negatives. Most profoundly, regular roadwork can slow down the aging process. Runners keep their weight down, build muscle tone, maintain a strong heart and avoid a common pitfall of aging, weak bones. And unless they're running themselves into the ground, they often have the energy level of their grandchildren. Shura, who wears her long hair in a ponytail, said she's often mistaken for a much younger woman --- particularly from behind. “I look great in running shorts”, she said with a giggle, “great in a pair of jeans. I'd say I look my age. The package people see running up a mountain doesn't look like a lady approaching 50, though. No way!”.

Clearly, the perception of aging is evolving. A person in an age group labeled “old” a generation ago might me taking part in prohibitively long races today. Take Shura's 60-year-old boyfriend Larry, who obliterates any perceived limitations applied to him and his peers. “I remember when grandfathers who might not have even been 60 were thought of as old”, Shura said. “They were too old to work, too old to do anything because they were thought of as old. And then here's Larry, who's running 3:30, 3:35 in the marathon. Things have changed”.

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