The Shrinkage Factor: Aging And Ultrarunning

[Editor’s Note: Idaho-based ultrarunner Sada Crawford asked iRunFar if she could write about the concept of aging (or, seemingly sometimes, the lack thereof) in trail and ultrarunning. Here is what she wrote.]

Hi, my name is Sada and I’m an ultraholic and I’m struggling with my race-goal times. (This is where we insert the Serenity Prayer, especially the part about “…the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.“) Ah, the wisdom part. It’s so damn intangible.

I am 47 years old to date. At race starts, I’m a fiery 32! Trying on bikinis in dressing rooms, I’m 80. But sometimes, really, maybe, 11. From behind, I’m 13 (and apparently of a different gender, but this was from someone being mean). After a 100-mile race, I’m nine million. Actually, I’m past-dead. The spark of life that re-ignites is a miracle.

I’ve been running since the fourth grade, with a somewhat embarrassing competitive streak this entire time. The first run I did was a mile with my dad. (Okay, this is really going to date me.) We were inspired by Frank Shorter’s marathon silver in the 1976 summer Olympics, Rocky had just come out, and those shoes with the swish were finally available at the local mall. I had shiny new ones on my feet and and I wanted to go, but the run quickly seemed like child abuse.

Nevertheless, the next day we went two miles, and I wanted to beat Dad by the end of the week. He thoroughly encouraged it! Competagenetics. Title XI had passed in 1972 and was slowly being integrated into our rural schools. Both parents insisted that I pursue team sports, because the right to do so was a long-fought victory. There was a ‘real’ girls’ track team in the junior high, finally, and I swear to god I started ‘training’ with that in the back of my mind, though I was a scrawny nine years old and it was four years away. I get as punch drunk on the glorious beauty of trail runs as much as anyone, but I’ve also always wanted to explore my limits. Running is fun. Running faster and farther is funner. I’m foreshadowing the article with this because it explains my Type-A, lifelong obsession with numbers and goals.

Sada Crawford - age 20

Sada running in San Francisco at age 20. Photo courtesy of Sada Crawford.

As I grew older, there was, of course, a birthday-candle-to-race-performance ratio going in my favor. And I crossed to the dark side a mere few years ago and have even had luck with ultra performances. In my mind, the party’s just starting. (But dang, who’s the jerk that invited Father Time?) I like to race and am still competitive. I’m not elite or anything, but I train to win. Coveted races–the ‘epic classics’–are hopefully on the horizon, but now I’m at the opposite end of the spectrum. So many candles on the cake these days means it–or I–could could blow up and/or fizzle out any moment now. Or does it? I started considering this when a coach told me that I’d better race a certain race by a certain year or it would soon be too late to try to win it. Well, pooey. When IS the ‘expiration date?’

Here comes the intangible part: at what age do you go, “Yeah, I’m gettin’ kinda’ old… could I really win that next race?” And, “Can I really meet my goals, or should I re-think them? Can I think more positively and self-talk my way into turning this around, or is the door closing?” It’s not fair, dammit. I mean, I don’t have verygross veins, I don’t have to fold my ass like origami into my tights yet, but I do look in the mirror and negotiate with body parts. “Oh, god my face is wrinkling and my foot bones ache. But look! I don’t have cataracts and I can still touch my knees!” And then there are the morning’s daily non-cereal-type snapcracklepops. After how many merry-go-rounds on this planet do you logically accept, er, larger race and training times and wonder, is it the years? Is there a formula? Do you factor in ‘X’ number of sucky runs plus ‘Y’ number of missed goals plus a few bad falls* and five or more niggling ouchies and divide it by 12 or something?

*Concussions do age you! Don’t ask me by how many years, because I think I broke that part of my brain. ;)

THIS IS SUCH A TABOO SUBJECT in the ultra world! We are hardwired to ignore any physical or mental glitches that might for a zillionth of a moment bring us down. Our culture emphasizes–okay, demands–that we chin up and re-frame any bummer thought through the rosey-glasses lens. People like me bringing shit like this up are ostracized. It’s mental leprosy to start allowing doubtful thoughts to crack one’s rock-solid confidence veneer. Right? I know. I agree. It can be a murky topic.

I train to perform at and to reach my genetic potential. You can’t get any better than that, correct? At some point, inevitably those DNA strands start unraveling and turning to slush. You can’t will or Pollyanna positive-think or train harder to outrun that process, literally. It sucks, but you’re just not going to race as well at 70 as you did at 50. I am guessing that it has something to do with cellular regeneration beginning to lag far behind cellular destruction, and probably a hormonal shift that makes your muscles shrivel. Or something like that. When your DNA starts to go haywire and ends your heyday. Or maybe the running fairies go, “Time’s up. hon’.” But can you race as well at 50 as you did at 40? There are some damn good athletes out there who are proving we can. Some, indeed, still smoke courses, set new records. More importantly, they’re playing by their own game and ignoring the universal hourglass. That Type-A-geek-scientist in me wants to know, for how long? What do they think?

I had the opportunity to ponder the subject with my friends, ultrarunners Jorge Pacheco, 46, and 43-year-old Sarah Vlach, MD, Board Certified in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. I knew that I could count on writer and coach Matt Hart, 38, to add insight from a knowledgeable, science-based point of view, and legendary athlete/coach, 52-year-old Meghan Arbogast, to approach the topic with her dignity, grace, and wisdom. For a vantage point from the youngsters, I asked elites Dakota Jones, 23, (a great columnist, too) and Rory Bosio, 29, what they thought as well. I’m grateful to them all for taking the time to respond with thoughtful perceptions.

Their answers are all over the map, which was actually uplifting!

iRunFar: Explain what you think the aging process is for athletes.

Jorge Pacheco: To me, an athlete gets older when injuries tend to appear more often and it takes a lot longer to get rid of them and sometimes they just refuse to completely go away. And after many years of competing and getting great results in the open category of any race, suddenly they start focusing more or entirely in winning their ‘age group.’

Meghan Arbogast: For athletes who take care of their of bodies and adopt a lifestyle that supports their activities, the aging process is much slower than the inactive human. Most fit athletes that I know look 10 or more years younger than their chronological age, and I believe have the physiology of someone much younger as well.

Sarah Vlach: You are not going to like this!!! There is a decrease in total muscle mass, and decreased muscle fiber number and size. Vo2max decreases by 9 to 10% per decade. Muscle mass decreases 1.25% per year after age 35; regular resistance training may decrease the rate of loss by as much as half. Decreases occur in myofibril size, and number and ratio of type II to type I fibers. Overall this decreases strength. Strength of each muscle fiber remains the same; however the overall body strength diminishes due to smaller cross-sectional area of each muscle group. One also experiences decreased cardiac output stroke volume and maximal heart rate (10 beats per minute per decade).

Rory Bosio: It’s obviously an individual process, but in general it seems that most female ultrarunners peak in their mid-thirties to early forties and men maybe a little bit earlier. This is a simplification and in no way scientific, just my observation. Of course there are many exceptions. Endurance sports tend to favor a more experienced athlete, which I find encouraging. It means that you just get better with age!

Matt Hart: It’s multifactorial issue, but I’ll try to be concise. Research shows that after the age of 26 we lose about 1% of our vo2max each year. Our maximum heart rate starts to decrease as we age, losing its ability to pump blood to working muscles. Upstream from that, as we age our lungs lose intake capacity, as well as their ability to move oxygen to the bloodstream. Our muscles lose strength and mass as we age also. Luckily it’s a slow degradation each year, so most of these things go unnoticed.

iRunFar: Do you think a positive attitude can slow the process down? Happy people have more feel-good hormones flowing, etceteras?

Dakota Jones: I don’t know. Maybe? I’d certainly like to think so, but I don’t understand any of the science behind this, so I don’t have much to say about it. It sounds like you’re referring to a placebo effect, in which happier people can do more because they believe they can. I don’t know if being happy can slow aging, but I’m pretty sure it can make the process more enjoyable.

Pacheco: Yes, I definitely think so. Even though getting older is an uphill battle, I believe that a positive attitude leads to a healthier life. Therefore the athlete can have more years of racing, especially in the sport of ultrarunning, in which a positive attitude is very important in order to keep up with the long hours of training.

Arbogast: Hmmm. I don’t really think so. I think a positive attitude can help one maintain the joy that running brings in and of itself, gradually replacing the joy one gets from setting new PRs or placing well in a race.

Vlach: Well, I am a pretty alternative-based doc, but no, I think there is some physiology you cannot argue with nor [can you] will yourself into not losing muscle mass. There are, however, obviously things you can do to reduce the impact of aging (i.e., strength training).

Hart: I can’t say that a positive attitude will slow aging on a physiological level, no. Theoretically, I love the idea that being positive can keep my testosterone and serotonin from declining as I age, or my cortisol in check when I’m training. But I think you’d be better off focusing on appropriate sleep, intelligent training, and quality nutrition. You’ll find that more effective than simply trying to ‘stay positive.’

iRunFar: Do you think that the number and/or severity of periods of overtraining that an athlete has endured can ultimately add up to a faster decline toward the end of their top-performing days (years?)?

Pacheco: I think the combination of severe overtraining and overracing can greatly affect how long an athlete can last competing at a high level, particularly when there are nagging injuries and the lack of motivation as a result of this.

Vlach: Hmm, I am not sure. I am not aware of any data on this, although the topic of overtraining is certainly very hot and pertinent right now. I think people are pushing so hard we are only starting to see the first wave of overtaining, and so we don’t know.

Arbogast: Sure. Some athletes get into overtraining and stay there, plateauing, and perhaps giving up completely because they are always tired and not improving.

iRunFar: Do the accomplishments that some of the older runners in the sport (let’s say age 50-plus) are still achieving surprise you, or do you think they could still compete with runners of any age and continue to win for years to come?

Bosio: When I first started doing ultras it was surprising, but not anymore. There are so many talented, fast runners who are 50-plus that it doesn’t seem like an aberration anymore. Again, I wouldn’t be shocked if some people continue to win or compete at high levels as they age.

Jones: As the sport becomes more popular and more competitive, the margin for error will decrease. If I make a small training mistake, miss some workouts, overdo some workouts, or get injured, I will be a percentage weaker when I compete. As competition increases, weaknesses show more. And like it or not, getting older makes you weaker. Obviously, many ultrarunners can still compete at a high level well into their fifties, which is extremely inspiring for someone like me who hopes to have similar abilities at that age. But sooner or later, old age will slow people down, and as the level of competition in the sport increases, the people able to compete will be in their prime, or close to it. That’s my thought. I’d love to be proven wrong, though.

Arbogast: I’m surprised myself sometimes. :-) I enjoy and want to be considered an open competitor for as long as I’m placing high and have the cardiovascular condition and the physical strength. The few that are in their fifties and still placing well tend to be quite durable, able to maintain a great base over the years.

Pacheco: The achievements of the older runners never cease to amaze me, I get a great deal of motivation from them. I think that as an older runner, they learn to adjust to physical changes and adapt, and of course, some of them are very competitive and capable of winning races.

iRunFar: When you first started running, at what age did you think you’d ‘peak?’ I thought it would probably be 35, for instance. I guess that’s a hard question, because people’s running interests change. I know I probably couldn’t run as fast a 5k or 10k time as I did at 20, but my marathon times are getting better. The effort seems harder, though. Specific training also factors in. I guess just answer that question either from a general standpoint, or at what age do you/did you think you’d peak at ultras.

Arbogast: I didn’t really think about when I’d peak, until I had been running about 20 years. I would state that I want to peak when I’m 50, and then start to coast. Well, I had a great year that year, and haven’t really slowed down in the ultras. Not sure about the marathon yet–still seem to be hovering around 2:50, but am curious if I can run another 2:45.

Vlach: [I] started so late in life [that] I don’t think I’ve peaked yet. Probably 45.

Pacheco: When I was young I never really thought or planned at what age I was going to ‘peak’ at races, it was more of a year-to-year evaluation. In ultrarunning, I thought it would be at 40.

Bosio: I never think about when I’ll peak. I guess it’s something you can only know in hindsight. When I first started, I assumed I would get better as I gained experience. For the most part I think I’ve progressed every year but not necessarily in a step-wise or obvious fashion. I think my endurance has improved, [but] my speed and fast-twitch capabilities have plateaued if not dropped off completely.

Jones: As someone who wants to compete for a long time, I can’t think like this. If I tell myself I’m going to peak at, say 27, and if I truly believe that, then I could be limiting myself for the time before and after that. I need to always believe that each year I can be better than the last, or else the motivation to train–which is all about trying to improve–will seem pointless. Someday I’ll decline and be able to look back and say, “I peaked at this age,” but that’s more about reflection. The knowledge of when I will peak would now only hinder me. I try not to worry about it.

iRunFar (to Dakota and Rory): Do you think that you’ll maintain the same level of intensity and desire to compete well in the sport for years to come? For decades to come?

Jones: It’s hard to say. Right now, I love running and competing and I feel like I am able to improve each year. Knowing general trends and knowing myself, I think that physically I will be able to improve and compete hard for at least 10 more years, if not more. And I do think that I will enter races my whole life, just because I love being part of the racing scene and community. But the desire to compete will likely be the harbinger of the end of my racing career before my physical ability declines. I think that eventually I will recognize that I have either done all that I wanted to or could, and I’ll be ready to move on to other projects, whether in the mountains or elsewhere. The point is that I want to have fun and feel like I am always progressing, even if I someday reach a point where I can no longer progress physically. I want to be dynamic, always growing and improving, whether physically or emotionally or anything else. And I can’t predict how my desires will change as I grow older, but I do see myself competing for a long time to come and then gradually shifting to a more participatory role as my ability and interests change.

Bosio: I hope not! Running will always occupy an important space in my life. Right now it is close to top priority, but I think it’s important to experience different things in life and find more of a balance than I have right now. I see myself being part of the ultra community for years to come but I’m not sure that I will always train in the same manner. It’s good to mix it up now and then! That said, running means more to me than I ever imagined it would and the more I do it, the more I want to keep doing it. Highly addictive. Good thing I found ultras before hard-core street drugs because apparently I have what psychology types call an addictive personality.

iRunFar: At what age do you think you’ll stop being able to expect the same results from your training and racing efforts as you do now? Nobody wants to talk about it. I’m guessing for me it’s 48.5. (Ha.) Agh. I know that this, too, is a touchy subject that some people might not want to answer. If so, then in what half-decade of your life?

Arbogast: I love talking about this. I’m not afraid of getting slower. That is like being afraid of dying. No one gets out alive. Carpe Diem. I already expected to slow down. I may have–I have gone to the track a few times and been slower than I like. Not that it didn’t frustrate me, but I decided to let it go and wonder if it is the beginning of the decline. Still not sure, but I do know that I love to run, and the only time I’ll really be worried about aging, slowing, etceteras, [is] if I lose my love of it.

Bosio: 65! Wishful thinking! In reality probably in my forties but that’s like predicting the future, something I’ve never been good at. I don’t mind thinking about aging. It is a natural process and fighting it seems futile. I accept that there will be a point (hopefully in the distant future but who knows) when my running abilities and general fitness will start to decline but that doesn’t bother me. I still get an immense enjoyment out of being outdoors either running/biking/skiing/skipping/etceteras even when my fitness is lacking.

Pacheco: At 51 (I hope).

Vlach: Probably within two or three years (age 46 to 48)?

Jones: I’d rather not worry about it. Someday my physical abilities will decline and I won’t be able to compete. And when that happens I’ll be happy to recognize it, trust that I made the most of my youth and health, and then move forward in my new role, excited for new possibilities. But right now I don’t need to think about when I won’t be able to compete, except in a career sense. (How will I make money after I can’t compete?) I see no point in fatalistic speculation.

Hart: I think it changes year to year. With all the variables, it’s almost impossible to say. For fast-twitch sports it’s earlier than for ultrarunning certainly. I hate to point to Karl Meltzer—because he’s an anomaly—but he’s still winning hundreds into his forties. So, don’t limit what you think is possible.

For me personally, I’m already quite a bit slower than I was 10 years ago. But I train smarter, I understand nutrition and pacing better, and I’ve cultivated a resilient attitude toward adversity. I think the steady pace of the aging body can be somewhat offset by experience. An older athlete, for example, is more likely to be mentally strong, which is obviously a huge asset for ultrarunners.

iRunFar: If you didn’t know how old you were, what age would you guess that you are?

Pacheco: 40.

Jones: I’d probably say I’m about the age I am. I can tell from how I feel and think that I’m young, strong, and idealistic. I can do whatever I want, and that prospect never ceases to excite and inspire me. My only fear is that I won’t make the most of all this youth and health.

Arbogast: I would say I feel as young as if I were in my thirties, but I have a 27-year-old daughter so it’s a bit challenging to think that way.

Hart: I still feel like I’m in my twenties. My body fat and muscle mass are as good, possibly better than 10 years ago. Again with age brings experience and knowledge—I simply take better care of myself. More sleep, no drugs, no more blacking out drunk. Probably the best thing I’ve done for my own health (as well as my clients) is to become a student of nutrition science. Introducing Paleo or Ancestral health principles has made all the difference for me. Basically, I eat better, train smarter (and way less), and sleep more.

Vlach: Honestly? Probably 25. I feel stronger now, by far, than I did then. The strength training particularly has made a huge difference.

Bosio: I have the mentality and sense of humor of a pre-teen boy, so 12? Ha. I think I feel my age. Hard to say.

iRunFar: Are there race distances, certain races, time goals, etceteras that you want to run before or after a certain age? (You don’t have to be specific.)

Bosio: No. I think my days of running a fast track mile are long gone but so is my ego when it comes to wanting to be speedy and have an impressive PR. I always run my age on my birthday which is only getting harder as I age but maybe I’ll just switch from miles to kilometers and eventually when I’m an octogenarian to meters. Hopefully I can run 80 meters in 50 years.

Pacheco: I would like to try new races, but no one in particular. It is always fun and challenging to run in a different place. In terms of time goals, I believe that I still can better some of my ultrarunning personal times before I turn 50.

Arbogast: Nothing before a certain age. Just PRs. I would like to run a 2:42:59 marathon. 18:25 at Western States. 7:30 for the road 100k.

Jones: Age doesn’t play much of a factor into my goals, except in the sense that I want to accomplish all my goals and so many more before I get too old to do so. But that’s so general as to not be a factor, and there are so many older people doing awesome things that the prospects of being shut down by old age seem too far away to worry about. I know it’ll come eventually, but you know what? Right now I’m young and I get to make the most of it. So I’ll focus on that.

iRunFar: Imagine yourself as the runner you were when you started. What’s a short snippet of advice that you’d give him/ her?

Arbogast: Get a coach.

iRunFar: As a coach, what advice do you give people who are discouraged because of age-related declines in training and racing abilities?

Hart: The same thing I tell athletes who aren’t genetically gifted (which is most of us). Quit whining and do the best you can with what you got.

Arbogast: First of all, perspective. This is what we do for fun. Play the glad game for a little while. (“I’m glad I live where running is a luxury, not a means of survival; I’m glad I have two legs; I’m glad I have food on the table; I’m glad I have friends who like to run with me…” [courtesy of Stephanie Howe].) Then take a step back and reevaluate running and racing goals and how they might be better off adjusted to the circumstances–be it fewer miles, more time lifting or doing yoga, cross training [on] some normal running days. Finally, remain curious about what the future holds, how long will one be able to do what they are currently doing, at what point will there be another decline, and is it the end of the world when it happens?

iRunFar: Wow. As usual, Meghan delivers these cataclysmic, body-blow type truths with a gentleness that is disarming. I asked five out of six of my interviewees if they had any final comments, and she alone responded with this wonderful summary:

Arbogast: I feel like I am setting an example for aging runners, especially for women, and I hope I’m inspiring them to keep moving. I’m glad I can make a mark, but what I really want to be remembered for is being a good, nice, kindhearted person, who happens to be a pretty decent runner. At the end of the day, no one but me really cares or remembers my places, times, and PRs, but they will remember my character, so it had better be good!

Meghan Arbogast - aging

Meghan Arbogast cruising along at the 2013 TNF UTMB. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

* * * * *

Amen! Now for the part about the “…courage to change the things I can…” (and some cookies):

I pledge to push extremes, live out loud, ignore age, and adventure to places where I might indeed slip and fall or endure worse… and appreciate every friggin’ minute of it. I pledge to NOT worry about slipping and falling and breaking my hip and needing a cane, for at least another 100 years. And to install soft lighting in the bathroom!

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you think about how old you feel versus your actual age? What is the age difference?
  • Does your actual age impact the choices you make in trail and ultrarunning? Maybe how you train, which races you run, and with whom you choose to spend your time?
  • There are certainly ultrarunners who seem to defy logic in terms of their ages and performances, with Jorge Pacheco and Meghan Arbogast as this article’s examples. Who else in our community do you look at as a masters role model?