Note to Reader: This is the second article in a series that challenges various assumptions in ultrarunning. In some cases, we may find that certain assumptions are correct; while in others we may find a new and better viewpoint. Please contribute your insights in the comments section. Enjoy!
Youth is over-rated!
Species go extinct when they are unable to adapt to new conditions (think dinosaurs). We humans are for the most part very adaptive, though certainly not immune from extinction. Short of the sun burning out, a great flood, a meteor hitting the Earth and other catastrophes, we posses a unique ability to evolve to conditions and find a way toward survival.
In the world of running, the ability to adapt is critical to longevity. Especially when you enter your late thirties, the body starts to age and the benefits of youth become fewer, requiring some adaptation. And yet many choose not to adapt. How many of us know a runner who won't change his or her practices despite what the aging process is doing to their body? "I don't care if I'm 40 and my body feels like I got run over by a Mack truck. I'm running 110 miles this week come hell or high water!" It's usually these types of runners who eventually find themselves constantly injured, unable to run and and relegated to cycling for the rest of their lives (nothing against cycling, but it's not nearly as fun as running). Or, worse yet, they have to do CrossFit :-)
I think I began to feel the years when I turned 37. One day--I don't remember when exactly--it hit me that I wasn't recovering the way I used to and injuries seemed to happen more frequently and last longer. Back in my younger days, if I had a muscle pull or tendon issue, I could slap some ice on the effected area and be good to go in almost no time. No more. (Fortunately, age hasn't yet robbed me of speed; I'm pretty sure I haven't lost a step...yet). Then it hit me that, at my age, pro athletes are considered way over the hill and many are forced into retirement. At 38 years of age, I'd be a geezer if I were a pro athlete. They might call me gramps.
Every year, people spend billions trying to fight the aging process, mostly because they refuse to adapt to what's happening and see aging as a new stage of life with many unique opportunities. Fighting the years is a waste of time and money. Aging is natural and inevitable; better to embrace and adjust to it than fight what cannot be stopped. For me, changing some of my practices as a runner, recognizing that a little pain here or there might be a call for rest, focusing more on recovery, incorporating cross-training, seeing the benefits of strength-training and investing in things like Hokas have been ways to adjust to the aging process and keep doing what I love. But I'm still figuring this aging thing out. The good news is that I'm not stupid enough to actually think I can outrun Father Time. (Click here for a fantastic book by Ironman legend Chris McCormack, who writes at length about how he adapted to Father Time and enjoyed even more success in his demanding sport.)
What if I said Father Time can be our friend? More on that below (or read Macca's book linked above for a more information).
Don't get me wrong; youth is wonderful. It is indeed true that "youth is wasted on the young." One of my great regrets is not taking full advantage of my youth when I had it. I didn't start running seriously until I was 31 (though I started running cross-country at age 12). I had a a few good years in 2008 and 2009 and they were, indeed, fun. But at the time it never hit me that this wouldn't last. I wish I'd taken advantage of my youth when I had it--ah, the 20s--and really gone for it in this sport. I often look at the young pups all around me at races and I wonder if they really know what they have and what they can do.
But youth is over-rated! Did I just that? Yes! Why? Because, at least in the sport of ultrarunning, experience usually is an advantage (and maybe in running in general--back in September I out-kicked a 16-year-old track star at a local 5K, beating him by a half-second). Racing 100 milers is almost all about experience. The young pup explodes out of the gate and runs recklessly, finding around mile 60 that things have turned bad. But he lacks the experience to battle through the bad patch. Meanwhile, the older, more mature runner, running a patient race from step one, is just starting to get into a groove at mile 60 as he/she passes the exhausted, discouraged young runner. Of course, it doesn't always happen that way; sometimes the young pup possesses that special combination of youth and patience. But it seems to me that ultrarunning is a sport that rewards those with discipline and experience.
So, at least in the sport of ultrarunning, maybe aging isn't all that bad!?!?!?!
Do you consider yourself an aging athlete? If so, have you taken any steps to adjust your approach to the sport?