Josh about to pass his grandpa

Josh about to pass his grandpa
Here, at age three, Josh regularly runs a mile or two with me--and I have to work hard to keep up!

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Enduring for Life, Part 5: Keep Learning, or It's the End of the Road!

     This fall's JFK 50-Mile run will mark the start of my 57th consecutive year of long-distance running competition, and while going to a big race is as exciting now as it ever has been for me, it's also an occasion for sober reflection.  Most of the kids I ran with in high school or college, and even most of the hard-core runners I knew during the "golden age" of American road-racing in the 1980s, are no longer around.  Why?  Some had their knees go bad, decades ago, and had to put away their Waffle Trainers or Olympias.  Others were just tired, or burned out.  Some were sticken by illness.  But after half a century of reading, reflection, and conversation with other runners, I have a strong impression that what too often happens is that as an athlete ages, training begins to feel like the ordeal of Sisyphus--that mythological figure who was condemned to be eternally rolling a large rock up a hill, with the rock eternally rolling back on him (or so I recall it).  Or if you're not into Greek mythology, just think of the ordeal of Bill Murray in the movie "Groundhog Day." When things don't change, they can have a deadly impact on you--sometimes literally.
     So, suppose a 50-year-old runner doggedly repeats the workouts he did with some success at age 45, only now instead of getting better he gets inexorably slower, and the workouts get harder.  Maybe he eventually thinks, "What's the poiint?"--and he stops. If you are worried about that happening to you, my suggestion is that whatever worked for you in the past can't possibly keep working if you regard it as a fixed formula.  There's always something new to be learned.  Part of what's meant by getting "wiser" as we grow older is recognizing that reality.  Whether in science or in the art of living, we humans rarely if ever have final answers (except politicians, of course), and as long as we continue to have curiosity and interest in exploration and discovery, the pursuit will feel worthwhile.
     As a guy who is now running ultramarathons in his 70s, I'm astonished at how much I have learned about running--and life--just in the past few weeks, that I didn't know as a dedicated runner in my teens, 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, or 60s!  Our species evolved not just by exploring the earth's forests in which primates first evolved, but by adapting to new environments in an ever-changing world.  In practical terms, one way to keep the learning fresh is to keep seeking new places to do training runs, to try races of different distances in different kinds of terrain or climate, and to keep reading the new discoveries about human endurance coming from the fields of evolutionary biology, anatomy, human ecology, biomechanics, neuroscience, nutrition, sports medicine, and the sociology of sport.  Read some of those things and then experiment or play with them, and the running will be enjoyable for a long time to come.
     What I've discovered, so far, is that there's no fountain of youth or anti-aging pill, but that there's a secret strategy that does work and is free: continuing to learn with an open mind and an unobstructed heart.

These themes are explored in the course of a dramatic narrative about an epic race that took place in the wake of the 9/11 attack on America, as recounted in the book The Longest Race: a Lifelong Runner, an Iconic Ultramarathon, and the Case for Human Endurance, to be published October 9. The book now has a page on Amazon, where you can see advance comments about it from Bill Rodgers, Kathrine Switzer, Amby Burfoot, Jacqueline Hansen, Dean Karnazes, and others--and where if you wish you can pre-order a copy to be delivered immediately upon release. 

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Enduring for Life - Part 4: Take nutrition seriously, for life!

For a quick intro to this group of posts, look to the right and click on the first one, then come back to here. OK, I'm a techno-doofus and don't know how to properly design a website, but I can still run like the wind!  (Or at least like a gentle breeze....)

4.  Take nutrition seriously, for life.  I don't think many sports-nutrition experts would disagree with my belief that while race-day fueling is a big factor in an endurance athletic performance, it can't compensate for a poor diet over a lifetime.  I've known of great athletes who seemed to thrive on Coke and fries in their 20s, but several decades later were long gone from the scene--some of them burned out, others overtaken by belly fat, and many brought down by cancer or other lifestyle diseases.  A pervasive reason is that American life--and its omnipresence of fat-, sugar,- and salt-saturated junk food--is heaily influenced by quick-impression advertising and what I call "sprint culture." It's not just "fast food" that has afflicted our country with obesity and heart disease, but an expectation of quick satisfactions in all things.  Fad diets come and go like fashions.  But the best nutrition for humans developed over several million years of our evolution as nomadic hunter-gatherers.  The diets most conducive to high fitness and health are those which most closely replicate what we ate in the wild, for hundreds of millennia--what we now call "natural," or minimally processed, foods.
     When I was 13 years old, in 1954, I decided I wanted to be a long-distance runner, and toward that end I decided to give up all foods containing highly refined sugars, starches, hydrogenated fats such as Crisco or margarine, and chemical additives.  That was also the year Roger Bannister ran the first sub-4 minute mile, and I was galvanized.  I've stuck with that diet ever since, and am now in my 55th consecutive year of long-distance competition.  Along the way, I've won four national age-group championships (at 50k and 50 miles), and I'm still going strong.  This summer I'm planning to run two mountain-trail 50ks, then in November run the JFK 50-Mile--now in the 70-79 age division.  I'm way, way slower than when I was a young man of 50, or a mere kid of 30 or 40, but the important thing is that I'm healthy and full of what JFK liked to call "vigah," and I think a big part of that is lifelong attention to good diet.  Over a week or a month, the effects of good nutrition  may be hardly noticeable, but over the decades they are cumulative, and by the time you reach old age they can make a world of difference.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Enduring for Life: Will the Mojo Fade? - Part 3

To read the Intro to this 5-part series on athletic longevity, click on the title of the first installment, to the right. 

3.  Practice Patience!  The great ultrarunner Yiannis Kouros (arguably the most amazing ultrarunner the world has seen) has commented that without patience, you can't have endurance.  "Practice patience" is one of those many platitudes that millions of people say they respect, but very few seriously observe.  We live in a "sprint culture," and are poorly prepared for the long run.  For an endurance athlete, though, learning the art of patience is as critical as doing the miles or eating the right foods.  It's critical in both training and racing.  Here's my thought on how it relates to athletic longevity:
     As you grow older, it gets easier to learn patience--and more necessary.  Youth is famously fraught with impatience and impulsiveness, and for the young that isn't necessarily bad.  But experience brings new perceptions about time.  In my forthcoming book The Longest Race (out in October)*, I have a chapter titled "Learning from Quarterbacks," which examines one of the most fascinating phenomena in all of sports--the concept of "slowing the game."  Football is a game of rocket reflexes, and one of the most important skills of a successful football player is not just to be fast in his own movement, but to slow down his opponents' movement in his perception--to see them in slo-mo, so he can more astutely and accurately direct his play.  As the sports journalist Roy S. Johnson has said, "Great athletes . . . say the game 'slows down' for them, particularly at critical moments.  That's why a baseball player or tennis player can read the spin of a bseball or tennis ball when it looks like a blur to the rest of us . . . . The fastest way to your goal isn't always fast." After Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers led the Packers to their Super Bowl championship in 2011, for example, coach Mike Miller commented, "He is at the point in this game that the game has slowed down for him." 
     And how does this apply to a slow-twitch sport like long-distance running or bicycle racing?  Your need as an endurance athlete isn't so much to slow down a blur of motion around you as to slow down any sense of urgency or anxiety in your gut.  Internal turbulence can be as disruptive and energy-sapping to a distance-runner's performance as chaoitic external forces like blitzing defensive linemen can be to a quarterback's. It's not just a matter of good pacing, but of finding the kind of inner calm that allows the highest possible level of both physical and emotional energy efficiency.

     Part 4 follows in a few days . . .

          *The full title of the book is The Longest Race: a Lifelong Runner, an Iconic Ultramarathon, and the Case for Human Endurance.  It has had enthusiastic pre-publication endorsements from Bill Rodgers, Michael Wardian, Jacqueline Hansen and a score of other prominent endurance athletes, and will be released in October.  It can also be pre-ordered now from Barnes & Noble and other booksellers' online stores.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Enduring for Life: Will the Mojo Fade? --Part 2

To read the quick intro this "Enduring for Life" series, scroll down to the previous post.  (I'm such a techno-doofus that my blog works like one of those dial-with-your-finger telephones we used to have, but at least, thank God, I can still run!)  Now, to continue:

2. Keep recovery time in synch with performance time.
     With the passing years, as your body slows in running tempo, it also slows in recovery and regeneration time.  A lot of athletes overlook this; they know they can't run or ride as fast as when they were in their 20s or 30s, but they still try to maintain the same seven-day-a-week training schedules they had then.  I made that mistake for decades before I woke up to the fact that after a hard workout or race, my muscles and blood needed more time to bounce back than they did once.  That posed a problem, because if I now needed--let's say--a third more regeneration time, it wasn't practical to just shift from working out every 24 hours to doing it every 32 hours; I'd be wrecking my normal sleep and work cycles.  But I did find that a fairly productive solution was to simply take days off more often,.  So, for example, I might run two consecutive days, take off one, then run three and take off one, then repeat that seven-day cycle for a while to see how running 5 of every 7 days worked for me.  Total weekly mileage dropped, but amazingly, so did performance times!
     That's a fairly simple observation, but the booming sciences of human performance suggest that "Slowing" is not just what happens to tempo and recovery time as you grow older. It's more complex, and multifarious, than that.  Physiological slowing also plays a role in the performances of young people who have not yet reached their athletic peak.  As a runner improves in cardiovascular efficiency, his resting heart rate slows.  An average young adult migh have a heart rate around 75 bpm, but the pulse of a well-conditioned endurance runner, regardless of age, is likely to be much slower--often around 50 bpm or even lower. In effect, the heart is taking a longer rest between contractions in a runner than it does in the chest of a couch potato.
     So, again (recalling the point of the previous post), slowing the recovery between exertions, whether in the hours between workouts or the one second between heart beats, is not a symptom of decline but a measure of efficiency.  As we grow older, we have less time left to live. So, paradoxically, we can most appreciate the time we have left by taking more of it to do what we enjoy most.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Enduring for Life: Will the Mojo Fade?

     Most endurance athletes get quite focused on how well they'll perform in the coming days, and the performances will be measured by clock, not calendar.  Endurance records are written in minutes and hours, not years or decades.
     But what if you perform well by those relentless clock standards in your 20s, 30s, and even 40s, only to burn out or have to give it up due to injury or illness by the time you're 50?  That's what has happened to millions of men and women (including many I know personally), and it's heartbreaking.  In a country where most people now live into their 80s or 90s, having to give up the sport you love for your last quarter of a century on this planet can be one of life's most ravaging disappointments.  Yet, for many and maybe even most of us, that doesn't have to happen.
     Over the years, I've discovered some of the secrets of endurance-sport longevity, and have put them to the ultimate test--my own ability to keep competing at a high level long after most people my age have had to hang up their shoes.  Now in my seventh decade of competition (1950s, '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s...), I'm still going strong--and have high hopes of continuing for years to come--and I'd like to help others be able to do so too.  This summer I'm running a couple of mountain-trail 50ks, and in November I'll be running in America's largest ultra, the JFK 50-Mile.  And although the 1,500 entrants in the JFK (which was filled in May) are all experienced marathoners or ultrarunners, and most are 20 to 40 years younger, I have good reason to think I'll be able to keep pace with a majority of them.  How?
     In the next few posts, I want to share some of the secrets of athletic longevity I've learned.  Here's the first:
     1.  Aging isn't the same as decline!
     At some point in your late 30s or early 40s, performance times for endurance events inevitably begin to slow, but it's important to understand that your middle-age performances are not inferior to those you achieved in your peak years.  Thinking you've started to "lose it" is a spirit-killer, and is even biologically incorrect.  Rather, look at it this way: An older athlete is a different animal than a younger one,  The 50- or 60-year old is slower, but (if he's trained his mind as well as his body) is probably a wiser and more savvy survivor.  Different animals can't be compared by the same measures.  A bulldog can't run as fast as a greyhound, but that doesn't make it an inferior breed of dog--only a different one with different capabilities.

     Before rushing on to the next observation, take a little time to meditate on this.  I'll post #2 shortly.