Young Blood

I first met Dakota Jones in September of 2009, when he was 18. I had just finished racing The Bear 100 and randomly ended up catching a ride back to the start in the same vehicle as him. I was exhausted, and don’t remember much of our conversation on that car ride. The fact that he was only 18 years old stuck with me much more than anything we talked about.

I had been running ultras for a few years at that point and had not met a single other ultrarunner under 20. I was 33 at the time, and the majority of the people I knew in the sport were older than me. Dakota was just getting into racing then. He hadn’t run the race that weekend, but he had run an ultra or two earlier that year, and talked about how he really wanted to do a lot more of them. He seemed to have an interest and a motivation in the sport that I had rarely seen in anyone. But again, the thing that left the most impression on me was his age.

Fast forward three or four years, and now I feel like I meet ‘the next Dakota Jones’ at nearly every race I go to: a talented, motivated, energetic, teenager who is in the process of jumping into a sport that has historically been dominated by people twice their age. Certainly, there have been a handful of people in their teens running ultras for decades, but the number of people doing so today seems like it has grown tenfold in just the past few years. Beyond seeing this at several races in the past year or two, I have also seen in it in the people signing up to attend my Alaska Mountain Ultrarunning Camp. This summer will be my fourth season doing these camps. The number of people under the age of 25 signing up for camp has gone from zero the first year, to two the second year, to three or four last year, to half a dozen so far this year!

Admittedly, these examples are of a small sample size, but to me it seems likely that the number of people under 25 (or even 30) participating in ultrarunning has ballooned by several hundred percent in the past three or four years. Yes, the sport as a whole has been growing rapidly for nearly a decade, but the current growth by percentage in the younger age groups seems to be dwarfing the growth of other ages. Unfortunately, I don’t know of any research or statistics that I can point to that back up these statements, but from an anecdotal standpoint it certainly seems like this is most definitely the case.

What, then, are the potential influences that this wave of youngsters are having, or may have on the future of the sport?

Conventionally, endurance sports are considered to be dominated by ‘older’ athletes. We all know that we are more capable at shorter distance athletics when we are in our teens and 20s, but for some reason in endurance athletics it seems to be the norm to see people excelling in their 30s, 40s, or beyond. What, then, will this mean to have more and more teenagers and twentysomethings taking up endurance sports like ultrarunning? Will the average age of the top racers still tend to be in their 30s and 40s? Will the bulk of the racers still tend to be in their 40s and 50s? And will these ‘kids’ taking up the sport at such a young age continue to grow and improve as runners for the next couple decades or will it still only be those who start much later in life who are still running strong as they move into their 40s or 50s?

This last question is the one that I think is the most interesting. Typically, it seems like ultrarunners tend to have a ‘shelf life’ of time in which they can perform at or near their top level. For the average runner this seems to be somewhere in the five-to-ten-year range. Now and then you get someone like Karl Meltzer who seems to have been able to race at a high level for 15 years and is still performing nearly as well as he ever has. Karl is certainly the exception though. For most runners, their performance seems to drop off quite considerably after five-to-ten years of consistent racing (especially so among those racing near the top of the sport). In many cases this seems to simply be a function of age, but often times you see this occur between the ages of 35 and 40, a time when many folks in endurance sports seem to be just coming into their prime. In this sense, it seems like your peak-performance years might have more to do with what age you are when you started running ultras, and not as much to do with what age you are at the time.

Because of this, I think it will be very interesting to follow what occurs with this new wave of runners coming into the sport at such a young age. Are we going to see the majority of them start to fade after five-to-ten years in the sport, such that just as they are coming into the age that historically most people have started to run ultras, they are beginning to slow and fade from the sport? Or rather, are we going to start seeing several folks a decade from now who are barely into their 30s, and who have already been running ultras for 10 or 12 years who are continuing to grow and improve as runners because they are just barely coming into the age that seems to historically be the most capable at endurance sports? Twenty or even 30 years from now, will we see ultrarunners who have been racing for two or three decades who are still able to perform nearly as well as they ever could (something which is more or less currently unheard of)?

Obviously, not everyone will fit into one distinct pattern, but I do think we will see some trends start to form. I have always been a believer of the ‘shelf-life’ theory as to why so many of the top ultrarunners seem to be in their 30s and 40s. It’s not that 35 or 40 is the prime age for ultrarunning potential, but rather that many people don’t historically start running ultras until they are 30 or 35, and that it takes five or so years to make all the micro-adaptations one needs to make to reach their full potential as a long-distance runner. Unfortunately, the five years of consistent running and racing that is typically needed to reach this potential also takes a large toll on the body, such that in another five or so years, most runners start to see fairly distinct decline in their performance ability. Again, it’s not so much about the age that you are at the time, but rather just a function of how long you’ve been doing it.

In subscribing to these beliefs, then, it should play out that as more and more people start to jump into the sport in their teens, we should start to see more and more runners in their low to mid-20s performing as some of the top athletes in the sport (not unlike Dakota is doing right now). Conversely, if this ‘shelf-life’ theory proves accurate, we might also start to see a lot of runners whose performances start to decline around age 30–the age that historically has been such a common starting point for many of the top runners in the sport.

Only time will tell what will ultimately prove to be the case in this regard, but the large wave of young runners coming into the sport will undoubtedly have an impact on these trends in the next five-to-ten years. We will almost certainly either see a shift to a much younger age at which people seem to reach their potential, or we will see a shift in the amount of time that people conventionally seem to be able to remain at or near their top potential.

The way Karl Meltzer has been going strong for 15 years is most certainly unusual in the sport today, but perhaps 15 years from now we will think of this as fairly normal, and have a whole bunch of folks who have been going strong for 15 years and are just coming into their primes between 30 and 35. In my mind though, we will be a lot more likely to have a new idea of what the prime age is. I think a decade from now 25 will be the new 35, and we will have a lot of runners who at age 30 or 35 are unable to run anywhere near the level they were when they were 20 or 25. I think Karl’s longevity as a top-level runner will prove to be unusual for as long as this sport exists, even if there are more and more runners coming into the sport who are 10-plus years younger than Karl was when he started.

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • What do you think of the trend toward competitive ultrarunners in their late teens or early 20s? What might be the reason behind it?
  • Anyone out there start running ultras young (say before age 25)? What’s been your evolution in the sport through the years?
  • What do you think of Geoff’s ultrarunning shelf-life theory?

There are 26 comments

  1. @Baristing

    I'm 25. Volunteered at my first 100 at 23, then raced my first 50 mostly on the residual inspiration from that. Didn't go too well, but sometimes the worst ideas are really the best ideas, and I'm still around. I'm certainly more capable now, and my results reflect that. I think the primary benefit, for me, is that I can combine what is now three years of experience with a body that's still young enough to recover basically by default. That will change, in time, as these things do. Whether at 30, 40, 50… we'll see.

  2. crowther

    Hi Geoff — Interesting thoughts, as usual. My version of the "shelf life" hypothesis would be what I call the "limited warranty" hypothesis (in reference to most car warranties being phrased as, e.g., "5 years or 50,000 miles." The idea is that there are two main factors affecting performance of the "vehicle" — its age and its usage. I think you're right that the years of hard training and racing (i.e., usage) cause both improvement and, ultimately, long-term decline as the wear and tear takes its toll. So the basic trajectory of that curve — improvement followed by a plateau and decline — cannot fundamentally be changed. However, if we treat our bodies well (e.g., by avoiding overracing), we may be able to "stretch out" the curve, with more years of near-peak performance until the aging process says, "No more PRs for you!" I think of Howard Nippert as a good model in this respect. He had a full decade (1998-2007) of racing only once or twice a year and doing quite well nearly every time out. If more of us limited our serious racing more, we might see more people lasting longer near the top of the sport. UltraRunning magazine may be indirectly, unintentionally promoting burnout by rewarding FREQUENT high-profile victories in its "ultrarunner of the year" rankings, and by annually publishing a list of people with 4 or more victories in the previous year.

  3. dotkaye

    the 5-10 years to peak performance is common in road running too. I ran my best marathon and best 35miler at age 25, after starting serious distance training at 15 and first marathon at 17. A large variety of injuries from 25-30 produced a significant decline, from 2:40 to 2:55 marathons. The decline was gradual after that, mostly just age-related.

    Look at the single-age marathon records, http://www.arrs.net/SA_Mara.htm
    Ed Whitlock aside, there aren't many names that appear more than once, those that do are not far apart in time. So I think Geoff is quite right here..

  4. Greg

    Loved the article, but it’s worth pointing out that we’ve had youth in ultra running for quite some time now; it isn’t really new. In 1997 some 25 year old guy showed up crushed the course record at Western States. And in 1999 another 25 year old guy named Jurek won the same race. Both of those guys are still running at a very high level, especially Morton. While Jurek is no longer running at a truly elite level, I think it is fair to say that he’s still running incredibly well. Another guy who has been racing at a high level since young age who is still around: Hal Koerner. Just food for thought.

    1. grroes

      Good points for sure, but there is a big difference between starting at 25 and starting at 17. A decade ago you were notably young to start at 25 (as you pointed out with the examples of Morton, Jurek, and Koerner), but now it seems to me like 17 is the new 25. in terms of how these guys relate to my "shelf life" example, I think Morton is a unique case in that he basically ran hard for 4 years, took 10 years off, and has now been going hard again for a few years. He's basically only raced for 7 years. would he be racing at the level he is now had he not taken those 10 years more or less off? highly unlikely. Jurek basically ran hard and steady for 10 years and is now still a great runner, but not nearly the runner he was 5 years ago. What if he had started at 30 instead of 25? of course we have no way of knowing, but my guess is he'd be running stronger now than he is having started at 25. I think Hal comes closer to being a Meltzer like exception in that he's been going strong for a long time and that he's still running pretty much as strong as ever. I used Karl as an example because he has been going at it a couple years longer than Hal though… but yes, i would agree that Hal, like Karl, is pretty much an exception to my "shelf life" theory. Morton and Jurek in my mind reinforce the theory.

  5. ericsenseman

    I've been (unknowingly) tracking Geoff's so-called shelf-life theory over the past two years using data from UltraRunning Magazine. I ran the numbers for different purposes than that of Geoff's, but the data could be informative for his theory as well — at least, in the long run after years of data are collected.

    The 2013 data (which contains a link to the 2012 data) can be found on my blog: http://ericsenseman.blogspot.com/2014/01/by-numbe

    It's hard to tell much from two years of data. The only seemingly clear trend I found is that top times at shorter ultra distances (50m, 50k) have been achieved by younger ultrarunners (earlier 30s or younger). Longer distance ultras (100k, 100m) continue to be dominated by men and women in their 30s (mostly late 30s). Of course, these trends may be due to what Geoff has pointed out: it's about when you start running ultra distance races rather than the supposed ideal age at which you peak (often thought to be in one's 30s or 40s, as I surmised on my blog). So the data might actually support what Geoff is claiming: the reason that older (relatively speaking!) folks are performing well at longer ultras is that there are far fewer young runners attempting the distance. In any case, more years of data will probably tell a more full story.

    Excellent article, Geoff!

  6. jasonhynd

    My two cents. Karl has great talent, but he doesn't train a lot. 70 miles per week more or less max from what I understand. Think about the difference in recovery between that, and a guy training well over 100, or 20 hours per week. Perhaps you need that kind of training impulse to beat a Geoff, Anton, Killian at their peak, but the way to be a constant threat for 20 years is to respect your body, train hard, but BELOW maximum ability? That's my plan anyway.

    1. grroes

      I think Karl's relatively low mileage is a HUGE reason why he's still going as strong as he is. Mackey is another guy that has been going strong for a long time and doesn't seem to be slowing down too much. Like Karl, he too has never been a huge mileage guy. Couldn't agree with you more.

  7. dragorbedragged

    This article points out why Karl should be the #1 choice to coach eager young Ultra Runners. Seriously, if I were a parent of a teen wanting to pursue UltraRunning as a career, I would for sure beg Karl to coach my young one! Look at how much influence a coach has on their clients. "Be like Karl!"

    Do trends really matter though? How much influence have 80's parachute pants had on what you chose to wear today? The trendy will cling to the next new thing, the kids bribed to race by having a new pet or $100 bill dangled in front of them will go on to resent their parents, and the podium poachers will fade away within their shelf life.

    Those whom have been running before the attention came around, well before their ages hit the double digits? They will still be at it, whether they are on the podium or in the middle of the pack, it will not matter to them and those runners will influence the next generation. Isn't that cool?

    As an aside, what the heck is up with that rating? Negative 31? I haven't even posted anything negative in any way!

    1. AtomLawrence

      I have no idea by what black magic these ratings are produced. My posts will sometimes show a +1 the moment I post them, sometimes a 0, before anyone has had a chance to up/down vote me. It's truly arcane, and probably not worth worrying about!

  8. LGarten

    This is also mentioned in the book The Lore of Running. It mentions that the top level elite marathoners only have a few top races in them. They will still run fast but most will not be able to achieve the same race times that they peaked at. The book also mentions that most runners last about 20 years when training at high amounts all the time. the auther mentions the rare cases like Ann Trason being able to compete at top level for such a long time. It is a good book to read.

  9. @Evan_Outdoors

    I'm 18. I ran my first Ultra last year (46m) which was the first race I had ever competed in (and still is). Despite not training nearly enough (think 20 miles a week) I finished pretty much exactly mid-table (85 out of 174 starters). I appeared to be the youngest competitor by a long way. On the way around I was chatting to someone at an aid station who mentioned that the leader was "very" young, i expected it to be someone in their early 20s but they turned out to be about 32. I've got six ultras lined up this year and have no intention of racing any shorter distances.
    I don't know if starting young gives me any advantage as to when or how long I will be at peak performance levels but for the moment I'm just going to keep enjoying running and hope to be the best I can for as long as I can.

  10. @PatrickDLyons

    I always thought getting into the world of ultra running was more of a function of slower marathon times for folks in their 30's and beyond. I don't have any statistics, but realisticall,y marathon times can plateau, then drop off at a certain point as we age. Instead of busting one's hump and working harder than ever, a man in his 40/50's might not get the return he/she was hoping for and end up with a slowe-than-PR marathon time. That's life, but it doesn't seem fair. Enter the ultra.

    1. grroes

      I think this is the progression for many folks who start ultras in their 30's or 40's, but I also know lots of runners who have started running ultras at a somewhat "older" age who had never run a marathon in their life when they ran their first ultra (myself included).

  11. rutemill

    As a leader of the Virginia Tech ultrarunning team/club, I think the flux of us youngsters into the sport is simply due to exposure. Most kids play football of just party four nights a week–they've never gotten out on the trails and experienced something different (humbling, awe-inspiring, you know those feelings that ultras can give). The exposure of the sport is unreal; us youngsters now have a whole set of role models. Trails and long distance running isn't for every kid, but the vast majority of friends I've introduced to the trails love it. Then they see the community at a race and are enamored. The passion quickly developed is attractive and other kids see it and are intrigued. At least I think that's whats happened here in Blacksburg. At the end of the day it still comes down to having fun in different forms with friends. As for shelf life, who knows, I say I want to still be Gary Knipling when I'm 60, but we don't really care because we're enjoying ourselves now. Cheers!

    1. Bascom

      Rudy,

      I was crewing Brad Hinton right behind you when you chased down Eric at hellgate a few years ago. I think you hold the fastest marathon on that course. You looked like you were cranking out 5 minute miles when you came through Bearwallow and I am certain the group over 25 just couldn’t find that kind of speed….. What advantage did Frank and Erik have over you in the first half?

      Most of your VA tech successors were not out supporting you that day. I make a point of telling them how inspired I was to see you reel Eric in over the last three hours.

      My 14 year old now wants to follow in your footsteps.

  12. AtomLawrence

    Well fitness will always be paramount, in trail ultras there seems to be more of an opportunity for non-physiological factors (maturity, pacing, fuelling, toughness) to close the fitness gap than in road marathons, where a runner has to be hammering at high speed each and every mile in order to be in contention. That's not to say ultras are any easier or harder than road races, just that the kind of non-physiological factors that accumulate with age and experience might have more of an opportunity to make up for a lower threshold speed. It may also be relevant that for road and track distances up to the marathon, it's pretty easy for a runner to simulate the race in training and get a pretty good idea of what they'll be able to do. In ultras, on the other hand, pretty much everybody is going farther and climbing more than they ever do in a single training run, so people who have a lot of races under their belt (who are often older) are likely to have an advantage.

    1. grroes

      Couldn't agree with you more. No matter how many really young people start running ultras I think, because of the reasons you mention, the top performers will always skew towards a somewhat older age than shorter distances.

  13. inarush

    In Australia, seventeen year old Lucy Bartholomew is one to watch. She'll be racing New Zealand's Tarawera 100k in 2 weeks time. With 2 big wins already this year, keep an eye on the podium for her even in this very deep field.

  14. Forestjeep

    I notice young sub-elite marathon runners doing ultras.They burn hot and fast and usually stay under 50 miles as this distance ,and under, jives mentally with their over-trained marathon periodization routines.They do well, and I am happy to see anyone outside in the mountains other than the mountain lions, but 100 miles ceases to be about that kind of physical viewpoint.Older people have a physical advantage in my mind when it comes to long endurance events because of the continuing growth of mitochondria in those slow twitch muscles and because lactate threshold can be improved for decades the more one runs but the real edge comes in the brain.The mind of the average youngster is extremely fragile under true duress ive noticed,as well as addicted to a playground mentality of "racing". I am 37 and am just getting started and I can tell you that i know exactly where I belong and it aint out seriously competing at a 5k[we're talking barely sub 20 here on my best day].Exceptions exist, however if I were say 20 years old I would be asking this question:If a "window of peaking "exists and if mitochondria increase with age/time @stimulus,and if lactate threshold increases with age/stimulus and if the average 35 plus year old person has a stronger mind[that can only be had by life's trials[no matter how stubborn you are], similar to mental exercise] then WHEN should I CHOOSE to experience my peak?….If I were 20 again[thank God im not} id ask myself this question. The horror would be to choose to "peak "say from 22-32 and then spend the rest of my life wondering how much better I could have been had I waited 10 years for say a 32-42.Afterall when we say endurance what we are really saying is vision + physicality, and isn't a human lifespan itself an endurance event?Isnt starting too much too young really just failing to properly pace yourself @ the starting gun and then having less left for the finish? Anyway I do think the young and determined can do great things with little knowledge[I was one of em]but to me the question is timing of peak potential.

    1. Bascom

      That is NOT what the 20 year old is thinking. the 20 year old wants to know why he cannot bring his faster regenerating physique to the race and find the ability to work as hard consistantly as his older peers do. He wants to show up and achieve something great.

  15. @mjlaye

    I wonder how much of the decline that we perceive is merely the introduction of more talent. Also the way decline is presented it makes it seem inevitable when I think you must also consider that some people are actively choosing to train less and take things less seriously. This could be for any number of reasons unrelated to athletic ability. Without much data this is a hypothesis that requires many alternatives to be disproven first.

  16. Go_Longer

    I have been training for distance running since I was 14, ran my first ultra at 21 (50 mile trail race), my first multi-day at 23, and a trans-America run at 24. From 21 to 34 I trained 60 – 90 miles a week and raced frequently at distances from 5 km through multi-day races. At 35 the bottom dropped out just about overnight. Went from a 16:00 5 km to a 19:00 5 km in one year. Since then no amount of strength training, speed work, rest-work ratio has prevented a persistent decline in my speed/endurance. Oh, I still enjoy running 35 – 45 miles a week and hop in the occasional trail 50 km (which at 46, I finish almost 1.5 to 2 hours slower than in my prime), but no doubt my "use by" date is in the distant past. Ultra shelf-life at a reasonably competitive level: about 13 years.

  17. Shelby_

    I'm so glad you wrote about this subject, Geoff. I've been thinking about this and musing over the same things. I do think there is something to your shelf life theory. The younger ones who are "strategically" mature and learn quickly from their mistakes might be able to avoid this decline. I hope so, because it's wonderful to see so many of them bringing their enthusiasm, energy and talents to the sport.

  18. @SageCanaday

    I started racing when I was 12….at the 100meter hurdles and the 400m on the track. Over the last 16 years of training and racing year-round my race distance has slowly increased. But I am careful to wait to jump up to the 100-mile distance. Much like when I jumped up from the 10km to the marathon (in college) I wanted to "respect the distance." The sheer amount of miles humbles you- and so you have to be patient with the progression. One can only go deep into the dark wells of pain so often…

    I think genetics play a strong role with "shelf-life." Obviously biomechanics, bone density, diet and other life stresses are going to influence this. The training and racing you do (think volume, intensity, frequency) will turn on and off genes and affect you physically. Vo2max and Lactate Threshold may become limited with training age (and of course actual age), but Running Economy still yields the biggest gains for long-term development in distance running.

    I love the sport of running and have always been passionate about the long-term process of training (racing is the icing on the cake because training is the main reward). The challenge is there…the mountains beckon…that's why I've moved into MUT Running. (But I still love the shorter distances…well, maybe not the track – but the marathon is a good mix and change of pace). For me It's about having fun, training at a variety of speeds on a wide-range of surfaces. I'd love to be one of those awesome runners in their 60s, 70s and 80s still rocking it out on the trails one day but I know there's also a chance I'll have to have a hip replacement by then! Running is a lifestyle.

  19. @jhnnyk

    I think how you look at the sport has a lot to do with how hard you push and therefore your personal shelf life. For example a lot of people have certain expectations for races. And they push accordingly both in training and goal events to get those results. But like @SageCanaday says, "One can only go into the dark wells of pain so often." I think at a certain point people push to a level that's not sustainable long term… so hard that at some point mentally it's not worth it anymore or their bodies break down.

    On the other hand if you come in to the sport with the idea that it's something you want to do for the rest of your life, I think that attitude keeps a lot of things in balance. Maybe it keeps you inside when you know you've already done enough that week. Or you pay more attention to that niggle in your knee because you think about running next week, month, year, not just about how bad you want to win some race next week. I think that balance keeps you healthier, mentally and physically, longer.

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