Thirty-eight isn’t terribly old – unless you’re Paula Radcliffe and you’ve just made the hard, heart-breaking decision to drop out of the 30th Summer Olympic Games. Then 38 becomes another matter entirely. If Radcliffe, arguably the greatest female marathoner ever, decides she wants to compete in the next games, she’ll be 42, a master runner.
At 42, Radcliffe will still be a formidable competitor, capable of demolishing anyone fool-hardy enough to challenge her. But will she be an Olympian? It’s unlikely.
During the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China, Romanian runner Constantina Dita Tomescu ran the marathon in 2: 26: 44, in the process setting the world’s record as the oldest woman to win that distance at the games. Her age? Thirty-eight.
Not ironic enough? In that same race, Radcliffe struggled in, in 23rd place.
The oldest individual in this year’s Olympics is a Japanese dressage rider, who is 71. It’s safe to say he’s the exception.
The fact is the Olympics are about excellence, strength, endurance, vitality and, yes, youth.
By Olympic standards, Radcliffe no longer possesses the latter quality.
Fighting arthritis in her left foot, the British runner – whom the New York Times described as the “fastest women’s marathoner in history,” announced she was pulling out of what would have been her fifth Olympics.
Radcliffe’s record speaks for itself: 2:15:25 at the 2003 London Marathon, a world record that still stands; winner twice again of that same race and twice champion of the New York Marathon and once of the Chicago Marathon.
An Olympic gold, however, looks as if it will be elusive.
Does that diminish Radcliffe in any way? Not at all. For the runner herself, it may be something that haunts her in the short-term and, possibly, longer. But Radcliffe has already left her imprint on running history.
Age and injury are cruel. Neither take into account a person’s intent, desire and will. In particular, age is inevitable and at some point all of us must accept the limitations it brings, even while we continue to fight it in pursuit of higher goals.
But there is free will – and then there is fate. Radcliffe told the New York Times: “It is hard to know that had the Olympics been six weeks earlier I could have gone out there and run confidently knowing that I was in the best shape I had been in for a while. But I am no means the first to experience something like this. No one tells us in advance where the limits of our own bodies lie, and pushing these limits is the only way we can ever achieve our highest goals and dreams.”
Inspiring words beautifully spoken – perhaps those are what sets apart the individuals who aspire and attain more than many.
Youth may offer raw energy and power, but age brings – no matter how bitter – experience and wisdom. And at some point competitors are forced to leave the Olympics and enter another arena altogether.
Like Radcliffe, we are all raging against the dying of the light. Our battles are not as public, but every bit as meaningful as we adjust our expectations and continue to joyfully test the limits of our abilities in our daily training, scheduled races and in our everyday life.
Unless she decides to retire after her Olympic disappointment, Radcliffe will likely go on to astound us with her tremendous talent for many years to come. Not everyone is destined to gain Olympic gold; some have to settle for being the best ever. Period.