Saying I finished in the top 15% of my age group in last month's Chicago Triathlon is like bragging that I could outrun your grandpa. My age group was 50 to 54.
But against the entire sprint-distance field, I finished in the top 11%. That's right: Team Geriatric outperformed the field.
I'd love to report that this reflects the age-defying effects of triathlon. But my hair is gray, my hearing is dull and my per-mile pace is slower than it used to be, even at shorter distances.
Rather, this old-timer triumph is attributable to something that fogies throughout the ages have lamented: kids these days.
They're just not very fast. "There's not as many super-competitive athletes today as when the baby boomers were in their 20s and 30s," said Ryan Lamppa, spokesman for Running USA, an industry-funded research group. While noting the health benefits that endurance racing confers regardless of pace, Lamppa—a 54-year-old competitive runner—said, "Many new runners come from a mind-set where everyone gets a medal and it's good enough just to finish."
The last time I checked a few years ago, marathoning continued to grow in popularity but average speeds of finishers were slowing sharply.
Half Sigma likes to report on deaths during the New York City marathon to imply that marathoning is kind of crazy, which, at 42k, it sort of is. Top professional marathoners from East Africa often skip the Olympic marathon because they can only perform at their best about every six months, so they hit a paying marathon in the spring and another in the fall and skip running in the summer for free at the Olympics. In contrast, top 10k runners typically run every weekend during the high season for track meets.
So, maybe it's not such a bad thing that kids these days aren't that into driving themselves into cardiac arrest at marathons.
Changing demographics also matter. I looked at the backgrounds of the 185 top male high school cross-country runners in 2006:
Non-Hispanic White 82%
East African 9%
Spanish Surname 5%
Black American 2%
American Indian 1%
East Asian 0.7%
South Asian 0.3%
So, all non-Hispanic whites other than the tiny East African population (and maybe American Indians) aren't excelling at cross country.