A Runner For Life

I’ve always had a fascination with people who are into their later years of life and are still out running on a regular basis. It seems like every running community has one or two (or more) folks well over 60 who are out running and/or racing on a regular basis. Our modern age of hyper communication via the internet has only made the accomplishments of these folks all the more obvious. One only needs to scroll through the results of almost any major race to find proof of a generous number of people in their sixties, seventies, or even eighties who are regularly taking part in a wide variety of trail races.

Despite a deep respect and admiration for these runners I have always felt that I will not likely be one of them 20 or 30 years from now. It’s never been in my psyche to take on any hobby or habit as a lifelong thing. I’ve instead almost always cycled through interests in about 5 years and then moved on to something else.

I think this has been part of the reason I’ve always had so much fascination and respect for people who have run for 30 or 40 years, as many of these folks who are running at age 60 or 70 have. There seems to be a level of patience, passion, and determination that goes into this that has always felt a bit intimidating, elusive and in some ways unappealing to me. I’ve always felt like running is something that I want to put 100% of my energy into for a given period of time and then move on to something else, not necessarily turning my back on running completely, but also not keeping it as a major priority in my life.

Slowly though, over the past few years I think my views on all of this have changed a decent bit. I still have as much or more respect and admiration for older runners as I have always had, but I have also felt myself moving more in the direction of possibly being one of these runners some day. As my running has become somewhat less structured and regular as a result of not racing nearly as much, I have begun to get a glimpse of what it would be like to stop running altogether. I have taken a few longer stretches off from running in the past few years and each time I have known with completely certainty that it was only a temporary thing, that I would begin running again in the not-so-distant future.

Through these sequences it has become clear to me that there is something different in my relationship with running than with any other activity I’ve ever participated in. Nothing else seems to have ever gotten my prolonged attention the way that running does. I’ve taken on a handful of new hobbies since becoming a runner, but none of them have done anything to lessen my affinity for running. No matter how much time I take away from running it always feels completely familiar and completely comfortable to me.

I think a lot of this has to do with the simplicity of running. There is the adage that once you know how to ride a bike you always know how to ride a bike, but I think this is even more true in running. I always feel a little awkward when I get back on a bike for the first time in awhile, especially on technical trails, but with running it all feels so familiar and comfortable almost instantly. Maybe this is part of the reason there seems to be a relatively high number of older runners. Perhaps this simplicity, and thus the familiarity and comfort, is a large part of the appeal. I know that this familiarity and comfort is a huge part of the reason I have continued to run for much longer than any other activity I have ever taken part in.

My local running community has a group of runners called ‘The Smokin’ Old Geezers.’ Nine years ago when I first met this group of generally older men and women I figured there was little to no chance I would still be running when I was their age, as the majority of them are at least 15 years older than me. I think a big part of me didn’t even believe I’d still be running today. Now though, as I find myself moving closer and closer to ‘geezerhood,’ I find myself becoming more and more drawn to the possibility of still being a runner 20 or even 30 years from now. Running has become so comfortable and so familiar to me that I feel quite certain that I will continue to run in some capacity for as long as my body allows me to. This might not get me to age 70 or 80, but if it does I would be honored to be one of the folks that are still out at that age getting after it on the trails.

My response at seeing a 70 or 80 year old out running used to be, “Wow, that is super impressive, but there’s no way I’ll be doing that at that age.” Now though, my response is more in line with, “Wow, that is super impressive. I hope I’m fortunate enough to be doing that at that age.”

I’m sure I will have a lot of experiences in the remainder of my life that might change my feelings about running, as well as my options as a runner, but more and more I am coming to realize that I am very drawn to the possibility of being a runner for life.

I’m curious as to what other runners’ thoughts are on this? I’d love to hear from some of those who are still out getting after it at age 60, 70, or 80. Is there something specific about running that appeals to you at this age, and has kept you running for so long? How much longer do you hope to run? I’m also curious what folks who are still 20 or more years away from being 60 or older think about all of this? Is running something you hope to still be doing when you are that age, or is it something you envision moving on from well before then?

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

There are 9 comments

  1. northacrosseurope

    Great piece Geoff! I hope you get some good replies from the veteran runners out there!

    I'm 45… and starting to feel it… but if I'm not still running several times a week in 20 years time I'll be sorely disappointed with myself!

    Retirement is a long way off, but when it comes I want it to be a return to how I lived in my twenties, with multi-month backpacking trips and runs runs runs! So maybe the mileage will be significantly lower, and the speeds I move at will be more 'ponderous', but based on how I still feel now (still 20 at heart!) the enthusiasm will remain. Some of us never grow up completely, and I don't see that as a bad thing.

    Running is such a part of who I've become that to decide not to run would be like deciding to cut off one of my arms, or refusing to ever listen to music again. Of course, fate and health may thwart capabilities, but because I've been using my body all my life the odds remain in my favor…

  2. dennisdschaefer

    I started running, the first time, in the late 70's. I ran competitively- 6:00/mile or less for up to 30K-until the early 90's when persistent tendonitis became unbearable, along with the accompanying realization that I would have to be content further and further back in the pack. I stopped running. I had run 9 marathons, dropping out of the 10th attempt, the only race I ever dropped out of, and didn't think I would ever do the 10th. I started Taekwondo and competitive sparring in 1999. I won the National AAU age group sparring title in 2008, then opponents in my age group started drying up. By 2011, I was ready to test for my 4th Dan Black Belt and had to choose a challenge as part of my test. I chose finishing a 50 mile run. I finished my 10th marathon in 2013, 22 years after dropping out of my last attempt. Since then I have finished 8 more marathons, four 50k's and have attempted to finish a 50 miler 3 times- lost on the course 2 times and failed to meet cut-off times. Now, age 64, I am back on the course. The question is not if I will finish a 50 miler, its when.

  3. @lunamiapico

    I've been running about 30 years. Six or seven in middle and HS and the first year of college and then I wasn't running for about 12 or 13 years (which was a really big mistake for mental reasons, though it was because of persistent injuries when I was younger). Like many HS runners of that period of the late 70s, I think, I got into it because of Frank Shorter in the '72 Olympics, Snoopy in the comic strips (jogging) when I was a child, and after a while because it got me out of a troubled home life, didn't require any or much equipment (no running shoes or specialty clothes then, just sneakers and gym shorts and cotton t-shirts and cotton long johns for the winter–burr!!!), and it didn't require anyone to do it with. I have to say that it probably saved my life; it gave me endurance when things got rough and gave me an outlet for too much energy and stress. I'm very grateful to my coaches for giving me this life skill. I'm 56 now, with hip problems and such, but I'm still going and hope to be going in the years ahead, at least a few miles every day then. Racing is definitely out and things over 14 or so miles just are too hard on the body, but I still do them some times. How long will I keep running? Just like the rest of life–as long as I can. I do it every day or nearly and have done so for those 30 years. It isn't a hobby. It's just a habit that keeps me sane and reasonably sane. Without it, life is much sadder and I'm less of a happy person. It's that simple. As one gets older you learn a lot more patience and you come to grips with your limitations and your strengths, the last which decreases over time, and you go in and out of and sometimes just into injuries and you come to deal with these. And if one lives long enough, one of the real joys is seeing and appreciating how beautiful and graceful and powerful the young athletes are; this is one of the few things worth the crap of aging, believe me. So, keep running as long as you can; why not? You don't need to race or even run with anyone else (I rarely do). The fun of it is not only the exercise, but really it's utter pointlessness in a way. With all the unpleasant stuff one has to do in life there is a lot to be said for one constant that is otherwise pointless in a sense, but does have the benefits of mental and some physical health. And if you can't run when you get in your 60s, Geoff, consider racewalking. It may not be enough exertion for you now, but by then you might mix it in with your running to keep or replace your mileage and it will be exerting enough at that age. My racewalking friends have gone strong through their 80s and even 90s. Thanks so much for your article.

  4. Vascopampa

    Hi Geoff. Im Federico from Argentina. Im 36. Me too move in cycles of interests that last 4 or 5 years. In my case they were electric guitar in my twenties, adventure racing in my mid to late twenties followed by electric guitar again, next a short period of running (pr 1:34 for 21k and 11:38 for 50mile TNF Endurance Challenge, just for reference!). Now, being a father of two (8 and 5), a husband and a lawyer, sometimes its no easy to be fully comitted to run. For about 3 years I left running but I come to realize how much I needed it in my life. In my case now I know that racing its just an excuse to train hard because that kind of daily exhaustion bring balance to my life, work and personal relationships. So I dont care anymore or maybe to just a certain degree how good can I be or why Im not naturally born talented. I only want to train and race some events and have fun running… Sometimes being the best I can be in certain period of my life or others times pretending to emulate our heroes when no one see us, being the Geoff's or the Kilian's playing j n the forests. Keep running! You are and inspiration to many and this is a great gift. Maybe even greater than the awesome athlete that you really are. Sorry for my writings mistakes

  5. senelly

    Thanks for a great piece Geoff. Here are my running thoughts at age 71:

    So (that's how soooo many people start a sentence today) when I turned 30 in 1974, I did my first marathon. This, after months of "mega mile" training (25-mile weeks!) and a series of 4-5 mile "races" with a local running club. I was of the Frank Shorter-inspired generation. I didn't know then that I had begun a 40+ year voyage of discovery on my own two feet. I really believed I'd be done with the craziness after that first marathon. What I didn't know was that once launched on that voyage, the journey would take over.

    I thought running was just a thing to do, a new hobby. I found out that it was integral with who I was, that it was a requisite like breathing, a part of my operating system, not an app or an accessory. Seriously. It dawned on me that running was always in me, lurking like some primeval and innate skill that had brought me here through evolution to be upright, to hunt, to experience the joy of movement through the forest, etc. I ran on and spent several satisfying years coaching young people in XC and T&F. I told them that, among other things, running made brains bigger (from a Harvard study of running mice from around 1995). They bought it… and all went on to college, some to successful collegiate running. I helped to start a trail running club (HURT) that conducts lots of unique races. I started a North Texas running group (T-Rex, Trophyclub Runners Extreme) to bring folks out on trails. I have had fun!

    So (there it is again) today, after saking my seemingly unquenchable running thirst on the road and trail, in distances from 100 meters to and beyond 100 miles… including the WS100, AC100, and Hardrock, I am still running. I may never see under 40 minutes for a road 10k again or even under 24 hours for 100 miles on the trail, but I am loving every mile. The truth is that unless I race, I hardly notice that I have slowed (considerably).

    For me, running is NOT a hobby; it is part of who (and what) I am.

  6. marathonemployee

    Hi Geoff,
    I am one of those old geezers and have been running since 1980. The simplicity of the sport was what drew me in after playing team sports in high school and college. I ran competitively through the 80's and for enjoyment while my children grew up and left to go out on their own. I started pushing things again about 10 years ago and have finished a few marathons and 6 hour, 12 hour and 100 mile races and I am enjoying it now more than ever. The times slow down but being able to still go out for a run every morning is great. The key I think is varying your runs and trying different types of events and terrain. Go out for a run at night under a full moon or go up into the mountains with a group of friends. Do some point to point runs or run on the beach if you can. There are so many ways to enjoy this great sport as you get older….Greg

  7. dotkaye

    Although a mere 55 years old, I've been taking running (too) seriously for 40 years this year..
    That first summer of running I knew I would run as long as my body allowed me to. Like Roger Bannister "I had found a new source of power and beauty". Running isn't an hobby or an habit, it is a way of being in the world, a meditation in movement.

    Even for mere hobbies, I've never understood the five year cycle that many people are on. As years go by I've accumulated more and more hobbies, but never mastered any: so they are all continually fascinating, with something new to learn or attempt at every turn. How can this pall ?

  8. Steve Pero

    I have been running since 1975, road running until the late 80's, ultras since the late 90's, first Hardrock in 2001 to which I have attended all since but 2 (way down on the wait list). I am planning on entering this year at age 64 and won't be the oldest! It is the rare Hardrocker that will still be running Hardrock like John Dewalt was in his 70's.

    As for changes over the years….slower, yeah, but it feels the same. I probably run a third of my mileage I was running in my 30's, but that's only because I now take a couple of days a week off, my length of my runs hasn't changed. Still get in an hour during the week on 4 days and multiple hours on Saturday.

    My prediction is now that you have slowed it down a bit and put health ahead of racing, you'll be around for many more years, possibly into your 70's, but that's really out of our control.

  9. @grimatongueworm

    Turning 49 in a week and hope to run my first 50 miler a week after that. I've noticed that over the past couple of years, my obsession with PR's has been replaced by an appreciation for consistency and gratefulness of being able to disappear into the woods for a block of time on the weekends.

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