Time stops for none of us, and that is especially true in the sport of ultrarunning. Whether it is Wally Hesseltine trying to finish the last 300 yards of Western States in under one minute so he could become the oldest finisher at age 73, or Jim Walmsley trying to win and set records on the biggest stages at age 27, we all have windows that come and go.
This is also true for me at age 53, well past the days of getting PRs and now entering that place where just finishing any ultra is a big accomplishment. Fighting cutoffs is just around the corner for me.
We all get older and things change, that’s life. But for a runner aging can be especially challenging. And if we aren’t ready for it and adopt a positive attitude it can be really hard. To be honest I am struggling with it. Aging sucks.
A few things I’ve experienced are:
Running takes more effort and I go slower – but that double negative is decidedly not a positive. Going slow is actually harder and much less fun.
Training is drudgery – it takes a ton of work and more time to get in 50 miles a week. Simply hitting that sort of mileage goal is now my sole focus from Monday morning until Sunday.
Running hurts – if I’m not battling a specific injury, aches and pains are a constant for this older runner.
I never know what sort of day it is going to be – mysteriously some runs go well while others are a struggle from the first step. The worst is when I think I have had enough training volume and quality before a big race, but then on race day there’s a “failure to launch” and I post another PW (personal worst).
When I take a month or two off it takes forever to get back into shape – literally forever –
because it becomes clear that I will never get back into the form that I once had. Losing weight seems like maybe the key, but it is impossible to lose weight even if I skip lots of meals and do long runs with zero fuel.
But it doesn’t have to be all bad and there are some positives too in the aging process. Some advice that has been good for me:
Aging is inevitable – be ready and have a plan before it happens. This way you can accept and embrace aging rather than fight it. Here’s a secret that it took me too long to learn: Unless you’re winning races or setting records, nobody else really cares what your times or finishing places are. But they do care if you are out there participating and giving it everything you’ve got.
Keep a positive attitude – while you cannot control the physical changes of becoming an older (and slower) runner, the mental side is within your control. Remember that attitude is everything.
Be thankful for what you can still do – sure you may be way back in the pack, hurting and able to only shuffle along, but look up at the beauty all around you, the kindred spirits in it with you and the simple crunch of the trail under foot. You are out there still doing it and many less fortunate people would give anything to trade places with you.
Help others – giving back to newer ultrarunners by imparting advice and encouragement can be deeply gratifying and makes our community stronger. You can also be a role model for other older runners struggling with the challenges of aging.
Keep it fun and fresh – by seeking new ways to be involved in the sport. Travel to new races, volunteer, coach, do trail work and create/direct new events – these are just some of the possibilities.
Staying involved in the sport and being part of the community is what is most important. Make a bucket list of races and events and go after it – there are adventures out there for you, but the clock is ticking.
One of the most iconic moments in the history of our sport occurred at the very end of the Western States 100 in 2015 when the winner Rob Krar returned to the race and essentially paced the final grueling mile for the oldest finisher of the race, Gunhild Swanson, who surged across the finish line a mere six seconds under the cutoff in 29:59:54.
That says it all – the beauty of ultrarunning is that the clock is ticking for all of us and we are in it together. Plus, aging sure beats the alternative.
May your every run be a great one.