‘Age-Old Runners’ is an article series where we explore runners’ performance potential after the age of 45 by interviewing excellent middle-aged runners. Is there still potential to improve? What roles do motivation, mindset, and specific training and recovery techniques play in allowing runners in their mid-forties to mid-sixties–and beyond–to continue to excel? To learn more about this series’ goals, check out its introductory article.
Seventy-one-year-old Roy Pirrung ran the Jackpot 100 Mile in 22:47 earlier this year. He plans to run it again this coming February. UltraSignup documents 143 of Roy’s races (and counting), but he started running ultramarathons before UltraSignup, so many of his earlier results aren’t online. After turning his back on smoking and other unhealthy habits in his early 30s, he won three USATF national ultrarunning titles and 77 masters titles. He holds over 50 masters age-group records, and he was inducted into the American Ultrarunning Hall of Fame in 2016. UltraRunning magazine describes his long and successful career.
I first crossed paths with Roy years ago at the Bandera 100k in the Texas Hill Country. The event was the USATF 100k Trail National Championships, and he was the USATF representative on site. I did my very best not to vomit on him while he asked me questions about my race. I think he had an easier time with this interview.
Roy has been a running mentor to military veterans attending the Team RWB and Band of Runners trail running camps since 2012. This year, he took a good fall on some technical terrain and he could not have been more casual when he presented his bloody arm to me. He took it like a kid who’d been playing and scraped his knee might–a kid who wanted go back out and keep playing. In that moment, Roy epitomized a common thread that runs through the athletes interviewed in the ‘Age-Old Runners’ series so far: they don’t feel old. And they all still love running and racing.
The following is a transcript of a phone interview with Roy. It has been edited for brevity and clarity.
How long have you been training at your current volume and intensity? What is your ‘running age?’ I’ve read your blog, so I know you ran some in high school…
It was just sporadically then. I was not a regular runner until age 32. [Author’s Note: So Roy is about 39 years old as a runner.] My first race was in 1981. It was a marathon, and it was the first time I had ever run with anybody. I lined up with about 700 or 750 guys and gals and took off running and said, “Wow, this is fun.” I talked one guy’s ear off, and when it was over, we crossed the finish line holding a bottle of Smirnoff vodka and had a slug of that. There were some revelers with some vodka and we asked them if they’d save us some. And they did. We actually raced to get the bottle and we grabbed it at the same time. We had 200 meters to go and we ran across the finish line with it.
My first trail race and ultramarathon was the 1985 Ice Age Trail 50 Mile.
When did your times stop improving? Is there a point where you can say, “After this age, I was slower?”
Maybe in my mid-50s.
But that wasn’t true for your 100 milers, right? You just ran 22:47 at the 2019 Jackpot 100 Mile.
The roads I do a lot better on. The trails I slowed down quite a bit. I don’t have the balance [I once had], so I have more hesitancy and less confidence now on the trails.
I just did my 25th Ice Age Trail 50 Mile, and I said, “This is probably going to be my last one.” I can still do it, it’s just that I have a wish list of other things I want to do. I want to run on all the continents. I want to run the World Marathon Majors. I want to run in all 50 states.
Four of the races I did in 2019 were for the 25th time or longer. I did the Ice Age Trail 50 Mile, the Paavo Nurmi Marathon, and the USATF 24-Hour National Championships 25 times. And I did the Milwaukee Lakefront Marathon for the 31st time. [Author’s Note: Wow!]
Was it difficult for you to accept that you were getting slower?
Well, no. You just see it on the clock. It doesn’t feel slow, especially on a trail. It’s really hard to gauge how fast you’re going.
So slowing wasn’t a blow to you?
Not at all. I mean, it’s not like a sudden drop off. It’s like you’re running out of gas, not like falling off a cliff.
But there are folks who have been successful like you and when their times get slower, it’s really difficult for them.
[The question is,] “Are you still enjoying it?” If you’re not enjoying it, then you have to walk away. I still enjoy it.
Why do you run?
I’ve always loved running. I love being outside. I love the joy of being alone sometimes, the solo runs. I helped start a running club, and I love being a social butterfly, as well. You can have the best of both worlds that way. Train solo and then you go to a race and you’re with everybody. What’s really kept me going is racing. I like to compete. And even though your level of competition goes down–as far as your ability to run those same times you did when you were in your peak years–you have age groups and they’re competitive. That’s what I go for now. Occasionally I’ll get lucky and get in the top 10 [overall]. Twice in the last year, I’ve been in the top 10.
Has your willingness to hurt during a race changed? Has your desire to put yourself through the suffering ebbed at all?
I suffer better now than ever. I welcome it. To me, that’s where you learn what you’ve still got left. My last really long race was across Italy [in 2011]. I had more pain and suffering in that race than I’ve done in any race ever. It was over six days between Turin and Rome. You’re running in a foreign country, you can’t read the language, you’re just basically out there running. I was joyful. I was like, “Wow! This is cool.” [Author’s Note: The Torino-Roma No Stop 712k race took Roy six days, 19 hours, and 20 minutes.]
I’m a good sufferer. I can tolerate more and more pain. [But] there are times I don’t really want to be out there that long. When I did the 2019 Bandera 50k, that was a sufferfest for me. It was nine hours and 49 minutes. It wasn’t that I was tired or wasn’t fast enough. I don’t train on that terrain, so I was not used to the footing. Age changes that too. You lose a little bit of balance and therefore confidence when you run on terrain that you’re not used to. I think if I would train on that I’d have no problem.
Why do you think people stop running as they get older?
Well, to me, [racing] is the carrot. I have to be in shape if I want to do a good race. But not everybody has that. You know, some people run their same five miles on the same route every day. I think it gets kind of boring.
What has your weekly mileage been over the course of your running career?
Probably 85 to 100 miles a week.
In peak mileage, if I was training for something like Spartathlon, I’d bump it up to between 200 to 250. [Author’s Note: Oh my god!] [In a week,] I used to do 20 miles, 30 miles, 40 miles, 30 miles, 20 miles, 30 miles, and 40 miles. And I would do that for six weeks straight. That was my peaking. I learned that from Ted Corbitt and his ultramarathon training. You’ve got to experiment with yourself and see how it works for you. But to me, I felt like the big mileage really helped me when I did things like Spartathlon.
What is your weekly mileage now?
I’m probably running closer to 65 miles a week, which for my age still isn’t that bad. [Author’s Note: Which for most anyone is great!] I did 13 yesterday, and 13 the day before. Today, because I traveled and was gone, I only managed to get in about six. I like being consistent. I think getting those 10- to 15-mile runs in a couple of times a week is really beneficial for an ultrarunner instead of doing a 20 miler and then doing an easy two miles the next day for recovery. I like being in that 15- or 18-mile range more consistently.
Are your long runs longer than 18 miles?
No, not too much. I peak at 20-ish miles now [when I’m training] for an ultra.
What has changed about how you train over the course of your career?
Gradually, my mileage. My weekly, monthly, and yearly mileage has gone down. Once you’ve run for 20 or 25 years, you don’t need to put in 260 miles per week. Your body is set. You can go out there and put the governor on and run a steady pace for 24 hours or whatever without doing those big miles.
My wife is amazed that sometimes I’ll tell her, “I’m going to do this 100 miler.” She says, “When was your last long training run?” I say, “The last 100 miler I did.” I might only be running 50 to 60 miles a week, but I have no problem running 100 miles. My body has adapted to ultrarunning.
What would you change about how you trained knowing all that you know now?
I probably would have kept the mileage a little lower. [Author’s Note: Than 250!] I don’t know that it was all that much more beneficial. I just felt better after doing a long race. I was less sore. There’s a lot of pounding, and if your body is adapted when you do the race, it’s not much different.
One thing that I don’t do that I used to is tapering. When I was in my fifties, I started doing a reverse thing where my race was my peak. I didn’t peak in training and taper and then race. I peaked into the race. I had very few days off before, so I didn’t feel stale when I went there. It just felt like a long training run.
You think you could have had the same success you did without the high volume?
Were you injured much?
Very rarely. My injuries tend to be from stopping suddenly with a hard object like the ground.
I’ve had plantar fasciitis in each foot at one point. I’ve had chondromalacia patella once, but I got over that pretty easily.
What is the longest break you’ve taken off from running since you started in the 1980s?
In 2015, I broke my arm in a trail race at mile four. And from it, I got viral arthritis. The virus went away and then I got an autoimmune blood disorder. It took me about eight months [to recover.]
I take days off occasionally, but I’ve never taken any more than maybe a week or two off. I learned that from Yiannis Kouros. He said, “Every year, I take a couple of weeks off straight and let my body regenerate.” I didn’t like taking that long off. To me, taking a day off once a week for a month was time off.
Besides not falling, what do you do to stay uninjured?
I stretch after practically every run for 20 to 30 minutes. When I finish my run, I go into the steam room to keep the muscles warm while stretching.
I lifted weights [for about 10 years in my thirties and forties and again when I was about 60]. I just didn’t feel it was much of a benefit. So I started doing push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups, and stuff like that. And now I’ve gotten away from that, too. In 2018, I broke my elbow, and now it’s almost impossible for me to do a decent push-up anymore.
In the summer, we like to bike. I’ve done triathlon, so I like to swim.
What is your recovery like after a 50- or 100-mile race?
I run the next day. After Spartathlon, I went out and ran the next day. You have to see what you broke the day before, see if the bumper falls off or if you lose a wheel. I test the body and see where I have trouble spots and concentrate on whether I need to stretch this area more or if I need rest.
One year after Spartathlon, I ran into Yiannis Kouros. He hadn’t run that year. He was like, “What are you doing out here?” I said, “Going for a run.” He replied, “You just ran 150 miles yesterday! Well, come with me, I’ll show you around.” He took me to the ruins, and we ran five miles together.
I normally have an hour massage every other week and will use different therapists. I believe each therapist has different methods to help me recover. If things are not feeling right, I will have one weekly for several weeks to assist in healing. I also employ the Dolphin Neurostim device.
A lot of times after a big race, I’ll use swimming as recovery. Besides swimming, I use my bike during appropriate weather or an Airdyne bike.
Do you incorporate speedwork into your training?
My favorite race is a 5k. That’s my speedwork. I put the pedal to the metal, go as fast as I can. Sometimes it’s good, and sometimes it’s not so good. But it’s a good form of speedwork.
Through the summer, I probably do two a month, sometimes more often. It depends what the weather’s like [where I live in Plymouth, Wisconsin]. When it’s really hot, I don’t really care to run long. I like to run hard and short. So I do 5ks, 10ks, and up to a half marathon in the summertime.
Tell me about your diet.
Most of the time it’s pretty good. I tend to live by a Mediterranean-style diet–lots of fruits, vegetables, and fish. I stay away from cow–no beef or dairy products. I supplement with a B complex vitamin.
How much sleep do you get at night?
Now? Oh, I love to sleep. I’m getting probably seven-and-a-half to eight hours. [But] my entire working career, I got five-and-a-half to six hours. [Author’s Note: Oh my god!] I had a physical job at a manufacturing company. It chewed up a lot of my time. I was up at 3:45 a.m. and would get to bed at 11 p.m. It was great when you went into a 24-hour run, you didn’t need a whole lot of sleep.
To what do you attribute your longevity in the sport?
I think attitude is one thing and genetics is another.
At an exercise physiology lab, I got a bone- and muscle-composition test and a symmetry analysis. And they said, “You’re in perfect symmetry.” And I said, “What do you mean?” And they said, “You’re no different on one side than you are on the other. If we split you down the middle one half is just like the other half, which is very unusual.” I attribute that to not getting injured.
Where can you still grow as a runner?
There’s always something to learn. It’s maybe smaller amounts, but I reach for things. I look for a way of improving. I’m a lot more conscious of those tangents on the road. I’m taking care of my body a little bit better, making sure I get the right nutrition.
What mistakes do you see runners making?
Some people are too rigid. I was speaking to an Olympic decathlete. He said, “I’m amazed at what you’re still doing at your age.” I said, “What’s the problem?” He said, “I have a hard time training. I just I can’t stick to the training.” I said, “Screw the training plan! Do the things that make you feel good. If you feel good doing it, you’re going to keep doing it.”
I think a lot of runners are too rigid in their training plan especially newbies to marathon running. You go online and you see the plan. I mean, I did that when I started. That’s the first thing I did. I picked up a Runner’s World magazine, and there was a training plan, and I was religious about it. I was like, “I don’t feel that good today, but it’s just 10 miles. I gotta’ do 10 miles.” And then the next day it’s even hard to do four miles. The biggest lesson I learned when I started running was to literally listen to your body.
What do you think about getting older as a runner?
Getting old is not the same as aging. Getting old is an attitude. I don’t feel old.
For me it was like, “I can’t wait to turn 40 and get into a new age group.” I looked at it in a different respect, I guess, because it was another form of competition. You’re leaving the open competition and getting in the masters competition.
And the guys that get into it are thinking the same way. I don’t think it really ever gets any easier because the competition is still there. People still enjoy competition. You might have fewer masters runners, but it’s still competitive.
I did the Peachtree Road Race and there were 50,000 runners. My goal was to finish top 10 in my age group and I finished ninth. There were 850 runners or so in my 70 to 74 age group. [Author’s Note: Dang!]
I consider myself an age-group runner. That’s where I am now. I’ll always be in an age group, whenever I get there.
- Weekly running volume: Sixty-five miles a week
- Speedwork: 5k races
- Strength training: Plank work 2 to 3 times/week on a soft surface to protect his previously injured elbow
- Sleep: Seven-and-a-half to 8 hours a night
- Race nutrition: Aid-station food and drinks including fruit and potatoes, S!Caps
- Recovery: Test run post-race and then either short runs or days off
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
Have you run or raced with Roy Pirrung? Can you share a story of doing so?