Vincent Cafferty always dreamed of running a marathon.
He gave it a try 25 years ago, lacing up his running shoes for eight weeks. But work as a cabinetmaker was too much to balance with training, and he let the dream and his interest in running fade.
Fast forward to a Saturday morning in 2007. Cafferty had turned 56, and his wife mentioned a road race she saw in the newspaper. The nudge was enough to get him out the door of his Wesley Chapel home right then, at 7 a.m.
"I thought, 'I'm running out of time here. I better get running,' " he says.
That first day, Cafferty's neighborhood run lasted 100 yards before he had to slow to a walk. But he stayed at it and gradually worked up to where he could run 4 miles, and he signed up for his first event.
Cafferty now has more than 100 short-distance races under his belt, and he's placed in the top two in his age group in nearly all of them. In November, he was the first man in his age group to finish all 26.2 miles of the Space Coast Marathon in Cocoa, even though he had a painful leg injury.
Now healed, Cafferty says the pain didn't diminish his passion for running. He now averages 40 miles a week. "I'm happy," he says. "I enjoy every second of it."
His perspective isn't that different from the estimated 1.3 million Americans 55 years and older who finished a road race in 2012. Sure, it would be fantastic to zip past younger, swifter runners, they say. And, yes, their aches last a little bit longer. But there's still plenty of reason to hit the road.
"I would emphatically state that 50 to 55 is not old. It's only old if people let it be," says Joe Burgasser, 74, the director and coach of the Forerunners Track Club in St. Petersburg. "It's only old if people let it be by stagnating, no longer exercising or no longer learning."
Some older runners, who are trying to regain the inner athlete they knew decades ago, grow frustrated and quit, says Larry Collins, an assistant professor with the University of South Florida Health department of Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine. Or they do it after being somewhat dormant and get hurt.
Neither is realistic.
"They remember what they used to do, and that's not appropriate," he says. "You can't go back to where you were before."
But that's not a reason to avoid running. A lot of middle-aged and older adults will hook onto the myth that running specifically damages knees or leads to arthritis, Collins says. Genetics and overuse are more to blame.
Physiologically, older body parts need to be prepared for a little discomfort. "Anytime you start an exercise regimen, there will be pain," he says.
The key is to know your body and spot potential injuries. For example, joints shouldn't hurt during workouts and sharp pains should serve as red flags, Collins says. Prolonged stiffness should be handled with ice and stretching.
Burgasser, age group winner of the Gasparilla Distance Classic 15K in 2012 and countless previous years, says rest is the key to being able to recover and run well into your golden years. It takes determination, desire and discipline, he says.
"Getting back to where you were is very difficult," Burgasser says. "Recovery is much more difficult for athletes as we age. … A lot of patience is required for older issues."
The longtime elite master's level marathoner has been living this out since tearing his hamstring last summer. He stopped running, but jumped in the pool, rode his bike and lifted weights as he spent months resting and recovering.
Today's Gasparilla 15K will be Burgasser's first race in nearly eight months. It's not a matter of pride, says Burgasser who finished 161st among more than 5,000 racers of all ages last year. It's a way of life.
"Quitting exercising is not an option for me," the retired engineer and fulltime coach says. "I won't ever give up my fitness as long as I am able."
Keeping your head into running is another aspect older runners need to consider, Burgasser and other runners say. Men and women who used to be first to complete races in their 20s sometimes give up when they drop down in the rankings.
Instead focus less on the finish and more on your time within age groups ranked by gender and five-year age clusters. Burgasser says signing up and participating in road races is an excellent motivation for runners of all ages and skills.
"Very likely you will meet people in that race who are older than you, slower than you and more overweight than you," Burgasser says. "But they are so excited to be there, and you go home inspired."
Jim Keppeler, 64, started running to get rid of a beer belly. Thirty-three years later, he counts among his accomplishments a personal best marathon time of two hours, 30 minutes at the legendary Boston Marathon.
Although he runs only every other day, Keppeler still logs about 3,000 miles of running a year. And he's careful to tape up his feet and wear his orthotic inserts so he can stay on the road and avoid injuries, including his personal nemesis: plantar fasciitis.
"I don't compete. That doesn't motivate me anymore," the Tampa resident says. "It's about staying on your feet and staying active. If I sit too much, I get antsy."
Collins says there's too much value in exercise to avoid it all together. If running isn't your thing, just slow it down and walk. You may surprise yourself and start aiming higher, he says.
"Set goals you know you will meet," he says. … "You want to finish thinking, 'I could have done more.' "
Keppeler says aging isn't a reason to slow down; it's cause to keep moving. He may not be finishing first, but his day-to-day experiences are better thanks to his passion for running.
"Keep at it. It keeps you healthy and active," he says. "So what if you aren't winning an award? Life is the reward."