By Blake Wilkins
A quote that cannot be attributed to Mark Twain states that if he felt the need to exercise, he lay down until the feeling went away.
I’m sure many of us have had personal encounters with (shall we say) mature folk whose habits lie on either side of that distinct Rubicon.
I have been fortunate to grow into the lifetime habit of exercising regularly and often, initially as a sprinter aged 7, then various forms of team sport and finally competing in individual athletic pursuits.
What those pursuits boiled down to over a period of years was a Comrades green number, Iron Man permanent number, scores of ultra- and standard marathons, ‘Dusi canoe marathon, road bike races in Gauteng and the Western Province, and cross-country races in various provinces.
I mention participation in these events in an attempt, however forlorn, to add gravitas to the advice that I’m about to give. Because I’m well aware that many a grizzled athlete will throw up his or her arms in horror at my alleged words of wisdom. But here goes:
Stop running ultramarathons when you reach the age of 60 or even sooner.
Bear with me here while I motivate what some might think is at best a contentious ‘gem’ of advice.
I stopped running events of 42.2km after completing the London Marathon in 2001. It was an enthralling event, my only international marathon and certainly my last. I didn’t attempt to race the event given my state of fitness and the delay in getting over the start line many minutes after the gun had fired. I think I finished in about 3:36 and counting.
What motivated me to call a halt to long-distance running?
The short answer is my belief that long-distance running (training and racing) is more likely to damage one’s body as a mature athlete. Coupled with that belief was my commitment to continue racing at an optimum speed over distances of up to 21.1 km without injury well into my advanced years.
That approach has worked for me.
Running shorter races means that one can cut back on the many hours one needs to train to compete in long-distance events. It also means one has to introduce quality into training to remain competitive or to finish shorter races feeling comfortable.
As virtually every athlete knows, one’s V̇O₂ max (the maximum rate of oxygen consumption measured during exercise of increasing intensity) diminishes with age by around 10% per year after the age of about 40. The rate of retreat differs from person to person.
Thus, in the Western Cape one of our 70+ athletes was able to race 10km in 42 minutes, winning the South African championship in his age category in the process. To put his finishing time into perspective, the majority of runners of any age in an average 10km race are unable to finish the event in under 45 minutes.
I have to concede a point here. Many relatively slow runners can maintain a steady pace over a long distance, such as the 90km Comrades Marathon. They are able to cover the distance at 5 min/km to finish in silver medal time but they are not able to crash the 3-hour barrier for a standard 42.2 marathon. I was the opposite. Races of more than 50km or longer were not my forte.
But here’s the point: I know too many athletes who were consistent Comrades silver medallists but who, as the years took their toll, were unable to shift their mindsets away from long-distance running. They continued entering Comrades despite the fact they were unable to make the cut-off at the halfway mark.
Others pushed themselves to avoid being forced into the drop-out bus but ended up in hospital with kidney issues or severe dehydration. Others have been forced to become couch potatoes because of joint problems arising from damage caused by the consistent pounding on tar roads. That damage was inflicted despite the technological advances incorporated in running shoes over the last decade or two.
To return to my point: I’d rather be running and enjoying my racing into my mature years than battling to finish long-distance races like Comrades and Two Oceans, both iconic events on national and international long-distance race calendars.
I’m also aware that many excellent athletes have made the switch to cycling both on and off-road after suffering recurring injuries or deciding to give up competitive long distant running. After my Comrades years, I became a triathlete for several years before triathlons swung in favour of swimming as opposed to canoeing.
I’ve also looked at the habits of top long-distance athletes as they entered their mature years. There are exceptions to the rule I’ve expounded, such as Bruce Fordyce, Wally Hayward, Alan Robb and Bob de la Mott. But to generalise wildly, I suspect that by far the majority of Comrades gold medallists either limit their exposure to racing long distances or have down-scaled their racing to shorter distances.
Even the legendary Jackie Mekler, like Hayward a five-time winner of the Comrades, stopped competing in road and cross-country races in his latter years. But he continued running right up until a few weeks before his death at over 80 years of age.
Well known road and Masters track and field athlete Leo Benning made the point forcefully if vicariously in his book For the love of it (released last year): over 35s should maintain some form of regular exercise. He included in his book (also edited by this writer) personal articles from more than 120 people whose forms of exercise ranged from walking, hiking, swimming, dance, tennis, bowls, yoga, and athletics. In every case, the core message shared by all contributors revolved around the benefits and enjoyment they received from participating in their particular form of exercise.
Exercise was never anathema for Churchill. He played polo into his 50s and rode to hounds into his 70s. He continued walking and working in his extensive garden at Chartwell, his extensive country home, until shortly before his death aged 90.
Running may not be your particular brand of poison. But whatever form of exercise you enjoy, I urge you to continue that activity no matter what your age. Word of caution: if you haven’t exercised for many years, first consult your doctor.
Talking about poison, here’s a verified Churchillian riposte to Lady Astor:
‘Winston, if I were your wife I’d put poison in your coffee.’
‘Nancy, if I were your husband I’d drink it.’