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‘You Don’t Necessarily Hit Your Limit at Any Given Age’

BOSTON — Last summer, Natasha Wodak exceeded her expectations when she pushed through molten conditions to place 13th in the women’s marathon at the Tokyo Olympics, finishing not far behind Malindi Elmore, her Canadian teammate, in ninth. At the time, Wodak considered the possibility that her run through the streets of Sapporo signified the end of her career. Perhaps, she thought, it was the right moment to move on. A two-time Olympian, she was a few months from turning 40. And her life in the sport had been fulfilling.

But when Wodak shared her feelings with Elmore, her plans suddenly changed.

“No, we’re going to try to do Paris,” Elmore told her, referring to the 2024 Olympic Games.

Wodak laughed last week as she recalled their conversation.

“I was just like, ‘OK!’” she said. “Malindi is so confident that we don’t have an expiry date. So I’m going to keep going until I can’t anymore.”

On Monday, Wodak, 40, and Elmore, 42, will be together again, on the start line for the Boston Marathon. Their paths have been intertwined for decades, dating to when they were teenagers competing for secondary school championships in British Columbia. Now, they are two of the women who are proving, again, that marathoners of a more refined vintage can compete at the highest level.

“I’m going to run regardless, and I’m going to run the best I can,” Elmore said in an interview. “If that means that I get to run world marathon majors and that I get to run in the Olympics, that’s pretty awesome. And to do it with someone like Natasha makes it even more meaningful.”

The women’s field for Boston is loaded, led by a pair of Kenyans: Peres Jepchirchir, the Olympic and New York City Marathon champion, and Joyciline Jepkosgei, who won last year’s London Marathon. The top Americans include Molly Seidel, the Olympic bronze medalist, and Des Linden, who won Boston in 2018.

But in addition to vying for the master’s division crown for runners over 40, Wodak and Elmore expect to be in the mix among the elites, and for good reason. A slew of — how to put this? — more experienced runners have been doing big things lately. In January, Sara Hall, now 39, set an American record for the women’s half-marathon, while Keira D’Amato, a 37-year-old mother of two, broke the longstanding American record for the women’s marathon, both in Houston. A few weeks later, Nick Willis, 38, ran a sub-four-minute mile for the 20th consecutive year, breaking his own record.

“I think there used to be this feeling that there was a ‘best before’ date, and once you hit that age, you move on — especially, in many cases, for women,” Elmore said. “But you don’t necessarily hit your limit at any given age. And if things are going well and you’re running well, why stop?”

An All-American at Stanford, Elmore was a middle-distance specialist who competed in the 1,500 meters at the 2004 Olympic Games. She did not make her marathon debut until 2019. A year later, she set the Canadian national record when she placed third in the Houston Marathon in 2 hours 24 minutes 50 seconds.

Wodak, the Canadian record-holder for 10,000 meters, did not run her first marathon until 2013, then went seven years before doing another.

“I think I have more in me,” said Wodak, whose personal best is 2:26:19. “I can get faster, definitely.”

Malindi Elmore drinks water while competing in the women’s marathon final during the Tokyo Games last summer.Credit…Pool photo by Yasuyuki Kiriake

In the process, both athletes have shown that there is nothing wrong with stepping away from the sport before returning to it. In fact, a break — for whatever reason — can even be beneficial.

“If you lose the passion, you’re going to burn yourself out,” Wodak said. “But it’s never too late to come back — ever.”

She would know. After graduating from Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, she stopped running competitively for several years. In the meantime, she applied to join the police force in Vancouver, but when she was deferred, she found herself contemplating what she would do next. She was also going through a divorce. As she coped with change, she dug out her sneakers.

“I really threw myself full throttle back into running when I was going through that time in my life,” she recalled.

By 2010, Wodak had shown enough promise to make her first national team, joining a Canadian contingent in Japan for a mixed-gender road racing event known as the Chiba Ekiden Relay. Elmore was one of her teammates. It was a reunion years in the making that forged an even closer bond between them.

“I always looked up to her,” Wodak said.

Yet as Wodak continued to improve, going on to compete in the 10,000 meters at the 2016 Olympic Games, Elmore took her own hiatus. In 2012, after falling bitterly short of running the Olympic standard in the 1,500 meters that would have allowed her to compete in London, she announced her retirement. “I was pretty heartbroken, honestly,” she said.

She also wanted to start a family with her husband, the Olympic runner Graham Hood. After giving birth to their first child in 2014, she began training again and even competed as a professional triathlete for a few years. But after the birth of her second child in 2018, she found that her time was more limited: How was she supposed to train for triathlons while raising two sons? So, in 2019, after a seven-year absence from competitive running, she returned — as a marathoner.

“I really just got back into running for the fun of it, and to do it with friends,” Elmore said.

Last summer, at the start line in Sapporo, she reconnected with one of them.

“If you’d told us when we were in high school 25 years ago that we would be running the Olympic marathon together, I would’ve thought you were crazy,” Wodak said.

They recently spent about a week training together in Southern California. Wodak said her preparation for Boston had gone well, or about as well as any marathon preparation can go. The miles are long and sometimes solitary. And in Vancouver, where she lives, the weather is often unpredictable. (She ran through a snowstorm last week.)

Wodak and Elmore will be making their Boston debuts, a sort of bucket-list item for both of them. “We’ve always joked that you’re not a real marathoner until you’ve done Boston,” Elmore said.

The dynamic between them is unique. Wodak said she was grateful for Elmore’s presence in her life, for helping to inspire her to keep running. But they are also competitive, and Wodak acknowledged that she had been monitoring Elmore’s workouts on Strava, the online exercise-tracking tool, before they met up in Toronto last week for their flight to Boston.

“She’s had some killer workouts in the last few weeks, and I’m like, ‘Oh, man, she’s so fit!’” Wodak said. “She’s one of the toughest runners I’ve ever met.”

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