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?

There are 15 comments

  1. krabibikenut

    I'm 47. I feel 18. In my twenties I did a lot of running races, bicycle road races, triathlons, biathlons, etc. I was plenty faster then, but it's giving me a goal to reach again. I've been improving remarkably this year as I added some vertical mountain running and running on the flat to my step climbing. I anticipate being able to keep improving until somewhere after 50 yrs of age. I think my body today looks like a healthy 30 year old. I do notice a definite lack of muscle tone and strength from twenty years ago, but I think that's OK. I need to lose some weight in the muscles.

    When I think about something I want to do physically I don't think about my age, I think about where I am fitness wise and if I could possibly do it. My 71 year old mother came to Thailand last week and she's having a hard time wrapping her head around the idea of me exercising so hard running up a local mountain. My max heart rate is 207. I've clocked that a number of times. I'm often in the 180-190 range. I don't think I'm anywhere near as fit as I once was, but, I also see the room for improvement as a great motivator.

    I've probably never run more than 12-14 miles (can't remember). I'm hoping to run a 50K on some mountains here in Thailand or in Malaysia by the end of 2014. Will I ever run 100K? I'm not really concerned with those bigger goals, I'll focus on the small ones and build up from there. I do have a 73 year old friend here that climbs 1,256 steps up a 900 foot high mountain four times in a row with me in 90F+ degree weather and 80% humidity. That's motivating as hell.

    I don't think anyone should let age slow them down. Just set realistic goals that aren't too big a jump from what you're doing now and you'll progress steadily. There's nothing quite like having the health to run more than even five miles when you're in your forties, fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties and nineties. Hopefully I'll be the dude that's doing step climb races up skyscrapers and running ultras through the mountains of the world in my nineties…

    One can hope anyway!

  2. jaxcharlie845

    Great article. A bit bittersweet since at 32 I realize I'm not too far away from this becoming even more personal. But for now I'm looking at at least a few more good years of improvement, especially since I didn't even start running until 27!

  3. Shelby_

    I've been saying for years that I feel 27 in mind, body and spirit, though that was 17 years and two babies ago. As a long time recreational runner but newbie ultrarunner who's actively working on improving her back-of-the-pack ranking, the big question I contemplate is how much improvement can I see at this stage of my life, with the lack of genetic advantages to help. Presuming that I'm past whatever peak I may have had, it's difficult to speculate on what my potential is. I know I can do 100 miles in one push, but how fast can I do it? That's the million dollar question that only time will reveal as I continue training.

    I think the advantage of age for me at least is that I look at ultrarunning from a more holistic standpoint. I now see the importance of healthy eating, adequate sleep, reducing stress and training smart. But these things didn't begin to resonate with me until my 40's, when my goals became more defined and more difficult to achieve.

    Seeing so many master's level runners either running fast at the front (Dave M, Speedgoat, Meghan etc) or simply banging out strong finishes year after year certainly keeps me inspired to keep pushing myself to discover what my own potential is. I'm excited and thankful to have two good legs that work so that I can hopefully enjoy another year of racing and learning more about myself and changing for the better through each experience. Here's to a adventurous 2014!

  4. ClownRunner

    Top ten signs you're an aging runner:

    (1) You don't care if other people see you "shuffle" on the open roads;
    (2) You don't care if other people see you wearing mis-matched outfits on the open roads;
    (3) You hope that schwag bags have soothing ointment included;
    (4) Age-graded stats become super-important and sources of pride;
    (5) You wear Hokas for the local 5k;
    (6) You put your shock of gray hair in a pony-tail and talk with quiet, earthy wisdom;
    (7) You dole out advice to younger runners all the time, whether solicited or not;
    (8) You have to wear running vests all the time, can't just wear a t-shirt or man boobs will show;
    (9) You take a lot of naps so you can get your daily run in;
    (10) Beer trumps miles (i.e. 2 mile run, 3 beers afterwards)

  5. Steve Pero

    Yes, Meghan IS an inspiration!…as is Frank Bozanich…

    I'm 62 and have been running since 1975 and up until my early 50's I could still be quite competitive in a "local" ultra (for first overall), but I've notice in the past couple of years things are going south. So in order to continue to be competitive (my goal is to not have anyone older than me in front of me) I am beginning to compromise my training, which, of course, may make things worse….don't know yet, it's an experiment this year.

    The change I've made is to only run 4 days a week, rather than 6-7. I still run a long run, speed session and a couple of easy days (hour long), the other days I go for a brisk 2-3 mile walk to keep the leg pounding down. So 60mpw has become 35-40mpw. So far my legs feel better, but will the lesser mileage affect my endurance? Time will tell. We need to accept the aging, otherwise we'll leave the sport unhappy.

    I hope it works!

  6. Andy

    I only started running at 35, turned 50 last week and — I think — am still getting faster. But I have never and will never be delusional enough to think I can compete for a podium spot. Finish in the top 40-50% and I'm happy.

    "Actual age" is only chronological. The NY Times ran an article in the summer about an empirically derived "fitness age" — plug in a few numbers (e.g., waist size, heart rate) and, voila, biological age. Depending on the numbers I use, I am somewhere between 16 and 28. I prefer to think of this as my "actual age."

    Shrinkage? What shrinkage?

  7. Amiee

    Having undergone three hip surgeries in the last two years and the fact that I haven't been carded once in the last year makes me feel like I am 34 going on 65.

    I like Hart's advice the best, "Quit whining and do the best you can with what you got." I will just be happy if I am able to run well into my 40's since each run at this point feels like an absolute gift!

  8. Ultrail

    Getting older just makes me more appreciative of what I have, especially my health. Once I turned 40, I was much more aware of how easy it is to lose that. Part of it is watching myself age; it also has a lot to do with watching friends and parents age. I admit it also makes me wish I hadn't squandered my youth. It's not like I wasn't doing interesting things when I was in my twenties — I was. But when it comes to running, I sure wish I had started running in the mountains earlier. Life goes by so quickly, and there's so much I haven't yet seen.

  9. @John_Morelock

    David Lygre posed a question to me as we talked while running at the Watershed 12-hour last year: "Can you run one mile as fast as you averaged in your best 50-miler?" Hmmm, in other words, can I run a 7:32 mile? No. David and I are both just past 70. We can still run [ ], but seldom think about racing. My wife is on her second hip replacement (revision to the first). She completed a 600ish-mile trek across Spain at age 59. We still run/walk/shuffle here and there. Running versus racing seldom enters our conversations these days. I won age groups in my 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s, but am prouder of the idea that we continue to run because it is part of our life (lives?). We fail in the "do the best you can" part, being happy to just put in an hour or so five or six days a week on our local trails — rgot

  10. Bryon of iRunFar

    Posted on behalf of reader Jimmy K:

    As a long time ultra athlete, started in my mid-twenties and am now 71, I have gone through my share of injuries and mental highs and lows. Last year I decided to do a couple more 50Ks and then drop to shorter distances due to the physical stresses. At this age it seems that we walk(run) a fine line between putting in enough training miles for a long event and injuries due to those long training miles. That being said, I am now training for a 50 miler. Why stop, running that fine line, at any age, is a challenge in itself. The big plus is having a partner, my wife of 46 years, who also enjoys these challenges. At our age enjoying a long training run through the mountains together is all the reward we need. All the rest is frosting on the cake to go along with all those candles.

  11. JanLantink

    I read very often articles on your website. Amazing articles! I started ultra running on the age of 48 (2006). In the first years I thought in races be fast it could be your last one.. But after a few years I do not think any longer about my age, and for me is that the secret. When you are at the start and think : those other guys are much younger, you can better go home and walk with your dog. In 2012 I run 100k in 6:56 and in 2013 75K ( Muritzlauf Germany) in 4:58:04. I have a great time with Mike Morton in the Spartathlon 2013 and when they take me out after 206K ( first position), then for the first time I thought in many years I am to old for this. That is fatal when I run again a race. So for me there is a lot in setting your mind. Don't think of your age, train hard and love the competition. Jan-Albert Lantink, Netherlands,

  12. Bryon of iRunFar

    Posted on behalf of reader Tollie Bibb:

    As a seventy and a half year old runner as a five year old would say, I feel as though I reached my peak many years ago. However, I am trying for some new PR's as I move into a new age group. Since my first run at 19 I have been recognized by myself as a great average runner. I truly love to run and cannot think what my life would be like if I ever have to stop.

    There have been some discouragements the last couple of years. In Feb. of 2011 I tore my meniscus moving furniture and had to have it repaired in April. When I started back on an exercise bike and treadmill I began to experience so pain in my left arm. So on June 1st I went for a checkup with a cardiologist and the next morning had quadruple bypass surgery. It went well, recovery went well and three months to the day I competed I a 5K and ran a sluggish 36:26. Needless to say I was excited to be running again even it was ever so slow. It has been two and a half years and my only problem seems to be where did my speed go. Before 2012 I was running my 5k's in the 26-27 min. range.

    In 2013 I ran 4 trail runs from 12K to 21K. I was thrilled to compete in these runs. It was great to be on the trails and to experience the beauty and solitude of creation.

    My one complaint has been every trail run and road race I have done since turning seventy I have discovered there is no separate age group for me. I have to run in a age group 60 to 99.

    I am training running six days a week and average between 25-30 miles a week. For the sake of me I can't figure out why I don't have an age group when I have to pay the same entry fee.

    I apologize in writing this, I have won or placed in many races over the years locally and was really looking forward to older age groups especially after my heart surgery.

    This will never keep me from racing but it is somewhat discouraging. Races are open to all of us. We just have to get out there and do it. There was one great reward last September in a trail run. After about six miles I caught up with two young ladies in the thirties and was running a pretty good pace with them. We were talking and one of them ask me how old I was and I said, I am seventy." After a while she bumped me on my shoulder and said, "my God, you're a stud". After that I had won my reward. My head grew to gigantic proportions. I received new strength to carry me toward the finish of the 18k run. My only problem occurred approaching the finish I looked where I probably shouldn't have, hit a root and took a hard fall about a hundred yards from the finish. My next reward was after crossing the finish line the two ladies brought me a chair, washed off my knee and bandaged my knee. They even brought me a drink and some snacks. Even though I was the only runner over 70 I didn't have an age group. However the time spent running with the ladies and their taking care of me at the finish was the greatest award a old plodder could want.

    Thanks so much for the wonderful article. Even at my age I received inspiration from it. Keep up the great running all you great guys and gals. I will continue to have a great view from the back.

    The unknown runner,
    Tollie Bibb

  13. @abqandrea

    I love these kinds of articles, the "ones no one wants to talk about". Meghan was only peripherally on my radar and now she's my new favorite person of the year. I'm declaring my fandom right here.

    I just turned 40 and the number itself has no effect on me. What does have an effect, however, is the sense that things keep speeding up, that time is inexorably getting shorter, that I have-to/need-to/ought-to do MORE. Be more. So when I feel like I'm getting slower or fatigued or (ack) fatter, I have to fight hard to make it be just a physical quirk to be dealt with and not the warm breath of the Grim Reaper at my back. Woo, that was heavy. Sorry.

    Physiologically, I think that in our 30s and 40s and 50s there are some muscle changes going on, BUT that there also could be cumulative deficiencies showing up. Many of us are hitting that "been running 20 years" mark around those ages and it could be some long term damage or stress showing up, not literal aging by the calendar years, per se. Hope that makes sense. What I mean is that maybe you don't sleep quite enough, or you don't eat quite enough, or you don't absorb quiet enough iron or what-have-you. It can take years or decades for performance-affecting consequences to appear. THAT'S what I'm saying. Maybe Meghan and Karl are feeding all the right physiological needs and that's their "secret".


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