The Value and Disillusionment of Age Group Rankings

I am new to this sport, with just over 3 years of experience under my belt. Soccer and weight lifting were my outlet for a decade before I got into the endurance world. I grew up on a farm, which provided me with a strong work ethic and introduced the idea early in my life that women can step up and work just as hard as men. Bailing hay with my daddy, gutting a fish with my uncle, and lifting with the high school football team taught me a unique sense of character that’s still hard to put into words. I hope this snapshot sets the background for the upcoming content in this article.

            Of my 10 + years as a fitness professional, I’ve had the pleasure of training a variety of people: old and young; secure and insecure; divorced, single, and married; skinny and overweight, weak and strong, dedicated and somewhat lazy. It’s no surprise that as I’ve focused my personal goals on endurance training and racing that my clientele has shifted towards that demographic, too.

            At first, I was thrilled! An opportunity to use my passion in this new endeavor to help a new demographic of people, what could be better? Unfortunately, the world is not always sunshine and rainbows, and quickly a sense of defeat replaced my enthusiasm. The root cause of my frustrations? The rampant obsession with age group placements.

            Age group placing has value, without a doubt, in running, cycling, swimming, and multisport competition. It brings a sense of competition to the field, and can provide an extra push in workouts. In what other sport can a 25-year- old place 3rd in her field, while her father at 63 can also place 3rd in his field?! It’s an awesome way stay positive and competitive throughout the training and racing years. It levels the playing field between the youth and senior. For that, I am thankful!

            However, I have seen people completely demoralized when their dreams of placing in an event, or qualifying for something with an age group win, are dashed in one race. What kind of absolute rubbish is that? Sports are a LIFESTYLE, a celebration of hard work and dedication that most of us thrive on. Athletes that throw in the towel after a race that didn’t go the way they wanted it to remind me of pouting children that need an attitude check. Clearly, the intentions of training and racing are not to be a better person with an active lifestyle. Rather, it seems these people are “age group champions, or not athletes at all.” This all or nothing mentality is exhausting to witness, so I cannot imagine how exhausting it would be to live under such pressures.

            Athletes, I strongly encourage you to think about your training and racing intentions. Each session should have a focus, mentally and physically. Each race should have process (emotion-based) and outcome (results-based) goals. Why do you want to get faster? How do you feel when you train hard? What emotions are you seeking from completing a race or a workout? What makes you feel better about yourself? (fueling well, being organized with family/work/ training, hitting numbers you never thought you could, etc)

Age group placements and rankings are an awesome thing to check after a race to see if executing a plan aligned with beating people that happen to share the same birth year as you. How silly to allow self-worth to be determined by a sport, let alone a birthday. Don’t let that uncontrollable factor dictate how you feel about yourself. You can’t control who comes to a race, just like you can’t control weather and mechanical issues.

For me, training and racing next to men reminds me a bit of childhood activities, like learning to hunt with my cousins. I smile as I share a course that’s open to males and females alike. I know I’d make my high school boys proud as I pound the run hard and chick the field. Sure, it helps to be a strong, youthful athlete, but the sense of joy I feel by training and competing at my best is essential to my lifestyle. I respect my body, so I train it in a way that brings the best out of each muscle. I bond with my husband by sharing miles with him, and the emotional ups and downs training brings. Am I happier when I place highly at a race? Yes and no. I have finished quite well in my age group in some races, but been completely disappointed with my execution. I knew I could have done better. Placement is bonus, a detail that matters very little. My process goals, which consist of taking risks at certain points in a race or pushing through certain adversities, dictate how I feel about a performance 100x’s more.

How about we try to take some pressure of that pressure off? Try to think about your intentions: If an age group placing is important to you- awesome! I hope you can use that to develop yourself in a deeper way. If qualifying for an event is a MUST, list some reasons why training, racing, qualifying, and racing that event will make you a better person. What opportunities will you have, what risks will you need to take that will lead to you being a better you? Talk to some people who share your goals, and have successfully achieved them. This may help keep you, your ego, and your timeline in check.

Life is much too short to spend it comparing splits to people in a 5-year age category. Yes, a world championship event, or Boston, would be cool to compete in. I won’t deny that (though it’s not personally appealing to me, I acknowledge it is an awesome motivator) Sports are so much more meaningful than the sole “tunnel vision” drive of AG placing or qualifications. The process driving you to each workout or finish line should be so apparent. I hope that the character you develop, the audience you attract, the teams you build, the lives you change (including your own) drives you more than a medal that you share with thousands. Define what lifestyle means to you, and how sports fit into it. Figure out what drives YOU to push the pedals, lace up the shoes, zip up the wetsuit.

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