Over the years, I've given myself a thousand reasons to keep running, but it always comes back to where it started. It comes down to self-satisfaction and a sense of achievement. -- Steve Prefontaine
Long-term success in endurance sports requires resilience. Athletes must remain consistent and disciplined in training and other aspects of life. They must work through injuries and adapt to the inevitable changes occasioned by aging.
Brenda Estlack epitomizes resilience. The 60-year-old Wilmington runner can complete a half-marathon at a pace faster than most people half her age. She holds four North Carolina age group state records, at distances ranging from 800 meters to the half-marathon. She won gold and silver medals at the National Senior Games in Albuquerque, New Mexico, last June.
"I competed in high school, but after graduation I didn't run competitively again until my brother passed away at age 56," she says. "I was 47 and couldn't even make the 2.5 miles around Wrightsville Beach Loop without stopping."
Not to be defeated, Estlack kept training and improved rapidly. She entered many local races, primarily 5- and 10-kilometers in distance, finding success in consistent podium finishes for her age group.
"Ten kilometers is my favorite race distance, because it combines just the right amount of speed and endurance," she says.
The distance has fallen somewhat out of favor recently. Race directors, trying to attract more runners, have opted for the less-difficult 5k.
She ran her first half-marathon at 50, finishing in just over an hour and 40 minutes. Typically, athletes see little if any improvement after reaching the half-century mark, but this is not the case for Estlack. She bested that time nine years later, setting a state record in the process.
Estlack ran her first full marathon when she was 56. Her time of three hours, 40 minutes qualified her for the prestigious Boston Marathon with over 25 minutes to spare. She has since, not surprisingly, improved. She won her age group in the 2019 Nashville Marathon with a blistering 3:32.58 performance.
She then set her sights on the National Senior Games, an Olympic-style track and field competition open to athletes 50 and over. After competing at local and state qualification events, athletes have an opportunity to compete on the national stage.
"My biggest challenge was switching from marathon training back to the track training needed to train for 800 meter and 1500-meter distances," she says.
Marathon training entails very high weekly mileage, but at paces much more moderate than those required to effectively train for track distances. The drastic change of focus requires an extreme level of resilience, uncommon in runners of any age.
Estlack triumphed on the track.
"After breaking state records in both events at the state meet, I had to go to nationals, especially since the event takes place only every other year," she says.
The 2019 national meet took place in Albuquerque over several days in June.
"There was a record number of competitors, from all 50 states and Trinidad and Tobago," she says.
Despite intimidating competition and the effects of Albuquerque's higher altitude, Estlack won gold in the 1500, barely missing a top-10 all-time mark for the meet.
"I led the entire race but almost got caught in the last stretch!" she says. "I didn't realize she was so close until my good friend, who was watching, warned me."
She followed her victory with a silver medal in the 800, with a time that ranked as the fourth-best in the history of the meet.
Estlack considers herself fortunate to be a late bloomer.
"You don't have to compete with your former self. Everything is new and exciting," she says. "Being an older runner makes me more grateful for the gift."
She trains consistently, holding herself accountable to her many friends in her running club.
"My weekly workouts include long runs, hill workouts, and speed sessions with the Wilmington Roadrunners Club," she says.
Regular strength work, cross training and recovery runs, and good nutrition are also crucial to maintaining conditioning and minimizing injuries. Her disciplined approach to training translates into consistent, and fast, race results.
While Estlack has not suffered any long-term debilitating injuries, she is vigilant about staying healthy and listening to her body. She suffers low-grade Achilles tendonitis, which she manages by knowing when to stop pushing.
"I could probably heal it if I took several weeks off, but that's tough," she says.
Endurance athletes know the serenity and well-being they experience while engaged in their sport cannot be found elsewhere. Hard-core competitive endurance athletes typically exhibit Type-A tendencies that can be tempered with the endorphin-induced high that accompanies hard exercise.
Why does Estlack push herself so hard?
"I run because I don't quit; I may want to quit, but somehow I am able to keep going and that is so satisfying," she says. "Besides, people are so nice to me!"
She knows that being able to perform at such incredible levels at her age inspires others, and she considers it her responsibility to continue as a role model.
Just having celebrated her 60th birthday, going forward she will undoubtedly claim more records in her new age group, not only because she has talent and resilience, but primarily because she has the attitude of a champion, in sports and in life.