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.