Most people who start running, no matter their age, are hoping to find a method of exercising and staying in aerobic shape that they’ll enjoy for years, even decades. Because running is an individual sport requiring minimal skill and equipment – good shoes and athletic clothing suited to weather – it’s the perfect life-long pursuit for many. Pretty much anywhere you live or visit, you can incorporate running.
Research is clear about the benefits of running: it makes you happier; helps you lose or maintain weight; strengthens your heart, bones and joints; maintains mental sharpness as you age; reduces your risk of cancer; and adds years to your life.
Yet often those who start running end up quitting after a few years. The reasons are as varied as the individuals, but generally fall into the categories of conflicting family obligations, injury, or burn out.
Reflecting recently that this will be my 44th consecutive year of running, I asked a couple of McCall running friends with even longer running histories to sit down with me and chat about running longevity. We were all fortunate to discover running at young ages, but I also know people who started running in their fifties with the same degree of passion. It’s never too late.
Ben Hipple and Nancy Hatfield are both training for the Boston Marathon on Monday, April 15th (Patriot’s Day). The race is popular, requiring runners to meet a qualifying time run at a certified marathon, based on their age and gender. A qualifying time – quite an achievement in itself – doesn’t guarantee entry; if there are more registrants than slots for a category, one has to hope to be selected by lottery. Ben, 63, and Nancy, 62, are road runners, each still at the top of their running game, Ben after 53 years of running and Nancy after fifty. I’m also 62, a trail runner who started as a road runner at age 18, became a marathoner a few years later, then discovered the joys of ultra-distance trail running. We’re all (mostly) injury free, run regularly, sometimes with each other, and see no reason why we won’t still be running in another decade, or two, or even three.
I wanted to know: How did we manage to get here, running through decades when so many others stopped? Is it pure luck and lucky genetics, or have we figured out some things along the way that keep us motivated? What tips can our collective experience offer runners just starting their “careers” in the sport so that they, too, might enjoy the benefits of running throughout their lives?
Any runner is an experiment of one. The training and racing methods shared in books and article that work for some runners may or may not work for you. Picking and choosing from all the advice offered, testing for yourself what works for you, is an excellent start to successfully navigating the road (or trail) to running longevity. There’s no one-size-fits-all strategy.
Early Years and Influences
Nancy: I started running at age twelve. I had a PE teacher in seventh grade who loved running. As part of PE class, she’d hand out a ticket for each lap run, and once I got 16! Inside there was a graph with our names and we added a colored square for each ticket. I loved watching my line grow. After that I never gave it up, and took my running to the streets. My father was a runner; he ran a 2:45 marathon in his early fifties. I didn’t run with a club or have a group of friends that ran; I just loved running. I was never accountable to the mileage, just the feeling was enough.
Ben: My father ran in the ‘60s and ‘70s. He knew maybe three other men in the area who ran. As a kid I’d get off the school bus early and chase it home. At age ten I ran at the track with my father, two-mile workouts. His longest runs never exceeded three miles. He was an intermediate hurdler in college, an NCAA champion who went to the Olympic trials in 1952; he made it to the semifinals before being eliminated. I ran cross country and the half mile in high school, and ran the mile for fun, but was in it for fun more than competition. In college at UC-Davis I was on the track team, 440 hurdles, because my dad said it was fun. I didn’t have time to run cross country in college, and besides, I was tired of it after four years in high school.
Rebecca: I grew up a tomboy in an athletic family, but no one ran. In 1975, when I was 18, I signed up for a college jogging class; it was winter and we ran indoors, around the basketball courts. I enjoyed the feeling I got from running and it helped me deal with stress, so when spring arrived, I headed outdoors, running on the streets near my apartment. I was hooked and kept running through college. With the stress of law school, I started ramping up my running, finding a group to run with, entering my first 5K and 10K races, dabbling in trail running. A month before I graduated in 1983, I ran my first marathon.
We all agree that having support from loved ones is important to running longevity. It’s challenging if non-running family members resent the time you spend running. As training miles increase, so does the time commitment. That can put stress on relationships. The best of all worlds is having a partner who runs with you.
Nancy: My husband, Travis, has always been supportive of my running. But then, he knew from the get-go how much I loved running.
Ben: My family was supportive of my running. It was a bit embarrassing to have my parents yelling too loud at high school meets, though. I ran with friends over the years. Even moving around for work (with the Forest Service), I kept running for exercise, doing occasional 5K and 10K fun runs. At one point a roommate and some friends got the marathon bug and I trained with them. I got injured, running too far too fast because I didn’t know what I was doing.
Racing: From 5Ks to Marathons and Beyond, Roads and Trails
All three of us have run a lot of races over the years. We agree that our primary reasons for entering races were the camaraderie and fun, hanging out with other runners before, during and after the event. Setting goals for the next race kept us motivated to train. “Competing” was against the clock, not specific people, and that meant learning how to pace ourselves. Winning ribbons and medals added to the fun. We all know people who were fiercely competitive, even at the fun runs. Those people often burned out after a few years, especially if they had run track competitively in high school or college, or they sustained injuries from pushing their bodies too hard, bringing an early end their running careers.
Nancy: Here in McCall, the school kids start track season without any running all winter so many of them end up with shin splints.
Ben: In high school I learned what quarter mile and half mile times should be, but it wasn’t until my first marathon that I figured out pacing. I knew what a 40-minute 10K was, but I didn’t know my pace-per-mile in that 10K. I didn’t run my first marathon until 2005. Half way through I was running next a big guy – referred to as a Clydesdale at some races. He was explaining to me how he likes to beat skinny runners like me. I used to compare myself to other runners at the starting line, judge my performance against theirs at the finish line. I don’t do that anymore. Now, just getting to the finish line is enough, or sometimes even just toeing the start line. I’ve now done eight marathons.
Nancy: My first marathon was in 1991, the Portland Marathon. In December 2018 I ran my 62nd marathon on my 62nd birthday, a dream. I felt like a million bucks, motivating me to do more. I’m slower, but the feeling is the same. Over the years I also ran many 5Ks and 10Ks – I’ve got boxes of bibs and medals. I love to race.
We all agree on this point: as counterintuitive as it sounds, marathons are more comfortable to run than shorter races like a 5K or 10K because you’re not trying to sprint the entire time. And, a slower, steadier pace over the longer distance leads to fewer injuries.
Nancy: I used to be afraid of not finishing a marathon. Why did I waste so much energy on that?! To quote John Bingham (marathon runner and author, known as “The Penquin”), “The miracle isn’t that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start.”
Ben: In my second marathon, in Boise, I bonked and got off course around mile eighteen. I managed to get back on course, recovered and ran at the end although it was an unofficial finish. I learned more at that race than at any other. With Boston, my attitude is “Bring it on!” I’ve learned from previous marathons. No more freaking out about getting sick or bonking. (This is Ben’s first Boston; he qualified by running a 3:46 at the California International Marathon in Sacramento in 2017.)
Nancy: I find that I run marathons just under the edge of uncomfortable. I love them for the challenge. You can do everything right in training and have a bad race, or do everything wrong and have a great race. I never assume I’ll finish. (This will be Nancy’s eleventh Boston; she has qualified at least fifty times.)
Rebecca: In 1990 a friend asked if I’d join her as she trained for Western States 100-mile race. That introduced me to a whole new world of running and racing. I entered my first ultra in 1991, a 50K. (Technically, an ultra is any race longer than a marathon; common distances are 50K, 50M, 100K or 100M.) I felt better after racing those 31 hilly trail miles than I did after a flat 26.2 road marathon. I love running on forest trails at a conversational pace. As an ultra runner friend once said, “I was passing trees like they were standing still!”
Nancy: I’m a bit of a chicken to run in the woods by myself. I love running trails, but prefer to be with someone when I do.
Ben: There’s definitely safety in numbers when running trails. For me, trail running means having to improvise. It’s called “wrestling the bear” – learning from runs when things go wrong. On the long runs, a person needs to be resourceful to figure out how to get past some problem. It is having control over what you do. And being resourceful engages your brain, gives a person a sense of accomplishment. You need to approach the road or the trail with your eyes wide open, because you don’t know what to expect.
Rebecca: Running trails requires more focus to avoid tripping or turning an ankle, a mental as well as physical challenge that keeps boredom at bay. I credit the softer surfaces of trails with my longevity, despite 25 years of pretty intense ultra racing.
Cross-training to Maintain Strength and Prevent Injury
Nancy: I used to do Jazzercize back in the 1980s. Years ago I googled “stretches for runners” and came across a yoga instructor, Billy Konrad, also a runner. He had a handful of poses that I adopted into a two-to-three times per week routine I do at home, along with some core work. In the summer I do a little mountain biking with my dog, Hunter.
Ben: I cross-country ski in winter. I used to cycle a lot, mountain and road, and the cycling club was a social group as well. Up here the mountain bike trails are just too rocky. I do a lot of backpacking. I lift weights every other day, do some yoga. When I’m starting a long run, I do a warm-up jog of up to two miles.
Rebecca: I did some triathlons in the ’80s and early ’90s. I enjoyed having swimming and cycling in my training routine. Eventually I substituted yoga and weights for swimming. After moving to McCall in 2005, I added cross-country skiing in winter. Year-round I ride my stationary bike. Now, I run an easy pace with my dogs, often stopping to take photos. I haven’t had an injury in many years.
Nancy: The lack of cross-training opportunities here might contribute to our longevity because less training means more sleep. Sleep is #1 for recovery. These days, I don’t have an alarm in the morning so I’m sleeping really well. I adhere to the philosophy, “Whatever you do, if it works, keep doing it” so I haven’t added weight lifting to my routine, afraid it might jeopardize my training.
Lessons of Aging: Recovery
In running, aging means slowing; it’s that simple. It also means listening closely to what your body tells you, resting more and taking time off from running when necessary. When you love running, taking a break to avoid injury can be a real challenge.
Nancy: Years ago at a race, I won Bill Rodgers’ book, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Running. One of the things I adopted from it was walking for five minutes before starting to run. It makes a huge difference in how my runs feel, especially if I’m running on the treadmill. Our blood and heart rate slow as we age so the walking start lets them adjust, gets the blood flowing. I’m more aware of my body now when I run. I read a Runner’s World article about a masters runner who said if he felt any kind of irritation or ache, he took 48 hours off to set up healing. I thought this made a lot of sense with an aging body. I take time off, especially after a hard effort, as much as two to four days off. I believe that respecting my body has allowed me to enjoy 50 years of running without any injuries.
Ben: It’s sneaky; I don’t notice fatigue from a long run until one or two days after, a sort of delayed fatigue.
Nancy: I’m on a high after a long run, but the fatigue usually catches up to me in the following days. For me, getting quality sleep is the best thing I can do for myself.
Rebecca: I consider napping a regular part of my training routine.
Nancy: A running friend said when we turned fifty we were off the radar of other competitors, so who cares how we finish? A couple years ago I ran a Turkey Trot race and crossed the finish surrounded by kids; it was so much fun to still be in the game!
Ben: Since turning 60, I’ve done two ultra-distance events – the Sharlie Shuffle where I ran 36 miles, and the McCall Trailrunning Classic 40-miler. I may do more, although I prefer twenty miles as a distance. I do feel more fresh, and refreshed, after a trail race than a road race.
Nancy: We’re still able to run after all these years; I’m so grateful for that! Each marathon is like a book; each chapter is different and you don’t know the ending when you start.
Ben: I’m reminded of a quote from The Milagro Bean War. One character says, “I don’t think your boy knows what he’s in for.” To which the other character replies, “No one would do anything if they knew what they were in for.” Marathons are like that.
Rebecca: In addition to all of the health and friendship benefits of decades of running, following trails into beautiful mountain terrain, one of the best rewards for me now is enhanced creativity. Endorphins flood my system while running and my mind frees; new ideas emerge. The trick is remembering them when I get home!
Shortly after our meeting, I came upon an article on Outside Online titled Should You Follow Your Passion by Brad Stulberg. His advice boils down to this: Choose activities offering these three traits linked to long-term passion, performance, and life-satisfaction:
- Autonomy: having control over what you do.
- Mastery: the ability to make clear and tangible progress.
- Belonging: a sense of community.
I asked Ben and Nancy to chime in on Stulberg’s advice.
Ben: I suppose of those three factors, it is the belonging, a sense of community. But I think there is one reason to run that article forgot to mention, and that is to have fun. Don’t forget, people need to have fun, too.
Nancy agreed about the element of fun.
Nancy: I honestly feel that the only factor in my longevity is that I simply love to run. I started running the streets of La Jolla at 12 years old only because I found it fun. All of my early years of running were for fun and involved zero competition. Running to me is like breathing, just automatic. I never have to make myself run, and I hesitate to call running a workout or training. It’s just something I love to do…the urge always comes to get out for a run!
Rebecca: I couldn’t agree more. It’s a lifestyle. Having dogs eager to get out there running helps get me out the door, too.
How can you promote longevity in your own running, given you’re an experiment of one?
Our advice: Keep it fun. Don’t take yourself or your running too seriously. Learn from each run, whether training or a race. Try different things to find what works for you. Find your niche. Mix it up and cross-train to keep it interesting. Create a community of support, including family, training friends, and at races. Listen to your body and rest when it asks you to. Accept that aging is humbling and means slowing down; your pace, any pace, is okay. And perhaps most important, keep visualizing yourself running – at whatever pace – for as long as possible. You’re never too old. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other…
Cover photo: From Ben’s 1973 yearbook, his cross-country team. Ben is the runner in the middle.
The title, “Start Slow and Back Off from There” is the wise ultra runner’s mantra.