Growing Older: Part 1, the Downsides

AJW's Taproom[Author’s Note: For my first two articles of the new year, I am reflecting on aging. As I am now firmly making my way through my 50s, this seems to be as good a time as any to share some thoughts on the ups and downs of growing older as an ultrarunner. When you’re done below, here’s Part 2, the Upsides.]

It all tends to creep up on you: month after month and then year after year, the inevitability of aging and the inexorably ticking clock.

Over the past year, I have felt my age. Flipping the calendar into my 50s has not been easy and at times it has been downright depressing. It’s not any single thing that makes what my good friend Kevin Sawchuk calls the “decade of decay” such a downer, but rather a variety of things that challenge previous assumptions and force regular reassessment.

With running, several of the downsides are obvious. First, there is the slowing down. Like many older runners, I forcefully resist the temptation to compare my present self with my younger self. But that is really, really hard, especially for those of us who always pay attention to the clock. It was not that long ago that I could make my way around a track in 75 seconds, but now I am lucky if I can break 100. Glancing at my watch on a smooth, buttery downhill, I recall a time when the mile splits dropped into the fives. Now, I am lucky to hit the sevens. And then, of course, this being the modern era, there are the constant reminders that technology provides when Strava tells me how fast I ran to the top of Jarmans Gap Road back in 2011. Ugh. Getting slower is no picnic.

Then, there is recovery. There was a time that I could bounce back quickly from a long, hard day in the mountains. Back in my early 40s, I distinctly recall jumping out of bed on a Tuesday morning after a back-to-back weekend and running a brisk tempo run on fresh legs. A 70-mile week was a piece of cake not too long ago, especially since I could run hard every day. Those days are most certainly over. Sure, I can still get out for long weekends in the mountains, but those long weekends are now followed by even longer weeks of resting on the couch, soaking in the hot tub, and three-times-a-day wrestling matches with the dreaded foam roller. Recovery, plainly and simply, has become my steady state.

The third challenge of aging is perhaps the most painful of all, injury. Out of nowhere last week on a beautiful long run in the George Washington National Forest, I clipped my toe on a rock and went flying into the air. For what felt like an eternity, I floated into a trailside rock garden and slammed my hip, elbow, and shoulder. I was a full-blown yard sale. After checking my vitals, I dragged myself back to my feet and hobbled through the last three miles to my car. I felt okay but knew the worst was yet to come. When you’re in your 50s, recovering from a fall takes weeks, sometimes months, and it is often is accompanied by aches and pains in places where you didn’t know you could have aches and pains.

All of this combined produces a domino effect which tends to discourage future trips to the big mountains which, in turn, leads to greater feelings of despair and regret. It’s basically a big downward spiral.

What the aging ultrarunner needs to do is to accept all of this. We need to come to grips with being slower, taking more time to recover, and knowing that when we get hurt it will really hurt. Then, we need to make peace with all that and find contentment within it. Along the way we will certainly find good days and bad days, but the downsides of aging can be, at times, overwhelming. To get us through those times, we must empower the mind and will to continue enjoying what we love. We must seek out the positives, the silver linings, and the golden experiences that give us all hope for something more promising down the trail, in spite of the always-ticking clock.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Grumpy Old Men Brewing in Blue Ridge, Georgia. I had the opportunity to visit their taproom last year on a trip to Florida and they make some good stuff. Only available locally, their beer is worth stopping for when you’re in the area. Of the several beers I tasted, one of the best and most unique was their Hell’s Holler Porter. Mildly reminiscent of Deschutes Brewery’s popular Black Butte Porter, Hell’s Holler Porter is dark, smoky, and rich. This beer is a perfect complement to a cold, winter day deep in the heart of Appalachia.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • As a runner, do you also experience downsides in the aging process? Can you share your experiences?
  • Like AJW, are you slowing down, recovering more slowly, or staying hurt longer as you get older?