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Aging as a Stubborn Ultra Runner

I would like to welcome Tom Brennan of Oklahoma as one of our new contributors on Endurance Buzz. Tom enjoys training hard and lacing them up to compete. 

Enjoy as Tom shares his first article with us as he reflects on his own journey as an aging ultra runner!

tbrennan_art1Ultra runners by their nature are stubborn individuals who refuse to give up without a fight.  As a sport, ultra running requires this personality trait of its participants merely to finish some of the more demanding events.  This quality serves ultra runners well not only in their sport but I believe in many other endeavors that they undertake in life.

Unfortunately, this quality can also be a perilous hazard.  I am still relatively young by ultra standards, only 42, which means that I should have some real quality races ahead of me.  However, I definitely do not feel as I did ten or even just five years ago.  Lingering injuries seem to wrack my body from the piriformis to the Achilles.  I often tell myself to take some time off from racing ultras or running 100 mile weeks.   Then I wonder if I am just not being tough enough because none of these injuries are actually keeping me from running, they just make running more difficult, especially to run at a competitive level.

So recently I have tried to take an objective look at my ultra running.  The word ultra actually means extreme.  Is ultrarunning extreme?  As every mother has ever told her children, anything in the extreme is not good and moderation is the key to life.  But extreme is a relative term.  When you hang around with people who run four one hundred mile races or more in a year and you only do one hundred miler and a dozen or so shorter ultras, than you no longer are the extreme but rather you are part of the new norm that is established by your peer group.  The norm amongst ultra runners is to do a 50K or trail marathon every month or so and sprinkle in a 50 miler and an occasional 100.

Only when we discuss our running outside of our ultra clique do we begin to appreciate why it is called ultra running and why indeed it is extreme.  Outsiders definitely think we are extreme and if we think back hard enough to when we first started running, the idea of doing a single marathon did seem a little on the crazy side but to do multiple ultras is insanity.

So what is to become of us ultra runners as we age?  If we want to be running when we are eighty, perhaps we will need to stick to the 5Ks and the 35 mile weeks.  But then you read about the eighty year old who finished a 100 miler and we begin to think that we too could be that person.  In the book Running Through the Wall:  Personal Encounters With the Ultramarathon, there is a story by the Cult guitarist Michael Dimkich.  Dimkich relates that when he was introduced to legend Alice Cooper and someone had told him that Dimkich had run a 100 miler, rather than be impressed, Cooper had told him that you need to be careful on how you treat your body.  Dimkich replied that he knew people in their sixties that are still running 100s to which Cooper replied that he knew people that were in their sixties that were still doing heroin.

I always loved that story because it has a very important lesson that perhaps ultra runners should heed.  Not everyone is the same.  Some people can get away with extreme activities for a longer period of time than others but that does not mean that you will.  Ultra runners even in their forties like me are somewhat like immortal adolescents who believe that ”it” will never happen to them.  Eventually ”it” will happen to the adolescents and eventually our running will catch up with us if we do not listen to our body and treat it with kindness and respect.

Of course, writing this down and knowing this is one thing, actually heeding my own advice is another.  So recently I have started to explore other non running activities like backpacking and tennis as I try to transition from full time competitive ultra runner to part time recreational ultra runner.  Whether I can successfully make that transition or whether I even want to is still a struggle I wrestle with.  I still long for Hardrock and Mont Blanc.  My internal struggle will go on.

– Tom Brennan

Talk Some Aging

  • Has your approach to training and racing changed as you aged?
  • For those that have been an active runner for 10-20+ years, what do you feel has supported your longevity in the sport?

About the author

Tom Brennan Tom Brennan always remembered how much he enjoyed running during his school years, and the sense of movement and freedom that came with it. It was this desire to regain that feeling that got Tom started running again. Tom runs both on the road and trails that include finishes up to 100 mile and other self-supported adventures. Check out the About page where you can learn a bit more about Tom.

5 Responses to “Aging as a Stubborn Ultra Runner”

  1. on 20 Aug 2013 at 2:55 pm olga

    It is a total insanity and it is unhealthy for the body. Yup, I’ve been running ultras (all 90+ of them) for 12 years. “I wonder if I am just not being tough enough because none of these injuries are actually keeping me from running, they just make running more difficult, especially to run at a competitive level.” All I do lately it seems is keep fighting injuries, which are not simple anymore, always get complicated by one other injury or whatnot…and no, I am not even close to 100 mpw as I used to just 5 years ago! I still love to go out to trail races, and my mind still tries to trick me into racing, but my body refuses, more and more often, to follow, and shows me who is the boss. So, as you mention, I explore “other activities”. Luckily, I came to trail ultras from backpacking background, so trails and mountains are not going anywhere. Just the way I approach them, what I enter, what I think about. That, and dreams of “other activities”, once that addiction lessen its grip:)

  2. on 20 Aug 2013 at 4:41 pm William McQueen

    I’ve come at this differently…I have been a casual runner all my life, but after heart problems I ran my first organized run at 61, (Leadville Marathon) and have been doing Marathons and shorter races in Colorado since then..I ran my first Ultra this year (Jemez Mtn 50K) and will try a 50M next year…but I can do this because my knees aren’t worn out from 20 years of races….but I do notice that at 66 my recovery is slower after each long race and if I can slide into an Ultra at 70 I’ll be delighted…My overall comment to this post is to accept what you have, do what you can gracefully and cherish the memories.

  3. on 20 Aug 2013 at 6:57 pm Joe

    Loved the story about Mike Dimkitch and Alice Cooper. It’s true, it’s all relative. All I know is that as I age, I improve in some areas (wisdom) and diminish in others. I look at this as natural and as long as I am trying my hardest (training, racing, challenging) – that’s all that matters.

  4. on 21 Aug 2013 at 10:11 am David Hanenburg

    Tom – I did chuckle on the reference to running a single marathon in a year as being a little crazy. Now we go out and run a marathon+…as a training run. 🙂 Fun to reflect on the journey over the last 13 years for this to be a possibility.

    Olga – I hope your addiction doesn’t dissipate too quickly. 🙂

    William – “…accept what you have, do what you can gracefully and cherish the memories.” I like that. Well said.

    Joe – I think you highlight Personal Excellence – it isn’t dependent on age. We can give it our individual best our entire life, if we so choose.

    A few of my own thoughts…

    Another trait of an ultra runner is the ability and willingness to adapt to a given situation. Maybe we need to be stubbornly adaptive with our journey in this sport…and life. 🙂

    I also think it is completely OK to move on to other life experiences if the trails are no longer creating joy and adding value to a person’s life. Sometimes the attachment to our ultra identity (or any other one) can be a bugger to let go of.

    A question that comes to mind for personal reflection thanks to Tom’s sharing is Why? – Why (ultra) running?

    And Tom, you still have plenty of great races and adventures ahead of you! 🙂

  5. on 21 Aug 2013 at 11:47 am Tim T

    Tom, I enjoyed the article. I’ve dropped down to 3x week running, about 1/2 on trails. Without some cross training (I prefer Insanity), I will likely not improve. But, I get to keep going injury free. I’ll trade speed for longevity any time.

    I constantly get into heated discussions with non-runners about running too much, your knees are going to be shot, etc. We were born to run or walk, not sit on the couch or drive a car.

    Dave, to answer your question of Why Ultra running? Simple, because it’s there.