AGE IS JUST
Too Old to Run an Ultra?
It’s 2am, dark and cold. It’s been raining for five hours. Not the kind that refreshes, but the kind that penetrates the skin, through that expensive waterproof jacket race directors insist you carry. No matter how much you pay for a waterproof, it’s not enough to stop the relentless wind and rain you get in the middle of the night in the Lake District.
The rain has turned paths into streams, hiding the many rocks and holes waiting to surprise your every step. My cheap head torch was fine when trying it out at the local park. But now the yellow glare only lights up a small area around my chest; it’s like running through a small hole in the blackness. Further on we run through a marshy bog and cross a swollen stream up to our waists in water, where only yesterday this could be crossed on stepping stones. Have I ever felt colder? I’m sure I’ve never been more tired. Every time there’s a chance to run a few steps, I do, just to try to warm up and stop my teeth from chattering.
Finally I am finished. 18 hours! Oh, the joy of stopping. This must be one of the most exhilarating feelings a person can feel. The harder the race, the bigger the high. But never again! Nobody can make me...
That was three years ago, funny to think how desperate I was to run the Lakeland 50, 68 years old, my first 50-miler. I’d run a few marathons. I’d done a 33-miler. Could I run 50?
Coronation Day, all the kids in the street racing their hearts out, competing against all ages. At least I had plimsolls, many of the boys just kicked off their shoes and ran barefoot. Our lives were full of running then. Being chased by park keepers, irate neighbours in games of ‘knock down ginger’, parents, teachers. And most of the street games involved running. My only significant race in the next few years was representing my school at cross country at Parliament Hill Fields, losing both my plimsolls, squishing through ankle-deep mud. I came nowhere, but loved every minute. That was my last race for 25 years. Instead I kept fit playing football, four times a week. Twice midweek playing in the firms’ team, and for local teams Saturday and Sunday.
At this time, pre the first London marathon, there were very few road races, and even fewer trail races. Running clubs concentrated mainly on track and field. The only time any interest was shown was during the Olympics. Gradually running became popular, first with mass participation marathons and ‘jogging’. Suddenly anyone
could run in a race. “Okay Dad, shall we run the London Marathon?” My son Tony goaded me with a look that said he could run it faster! “Okay,” I replied, “shall we do a half first?” After that we were both hooked.
People ask what the biggest worry is doing long races in old age. The answer is easy – cut-offs. Before every race I enter I consider the time I can complete it in, study the profile, look at past results. If there’s a runner I know, I can judge by their time how long I’d take. Also route marking. I can’t read maps in bad light with 70-year-old eyes! Got a good GPS, the maps are even smaller. They buzz when you go off-course do they? I can’t hear that! I especially like races such as Extreme Energy’s. They allow walkers and slower runners to start one hour ahead of the main pack, two hours ahead of the elite. Gives them someone to chase! All made possible with chip timing.
Another common question is “Why?”
There is no quick answer, it’s different for everyone. “ Why put your body through all that pain?” Well the pain is gone by Thursday (used to be Tuesday). My answers
for people who ask: pride, health, feel good, use it or lose it! Mostly it’s “Because I can.”
As you get older you have a choice, give in or fight it. Giving in and growing old gracefully means losing mobility, strength and coordination of your limbs, being out of breath climbing stairs, a season ticket to the doctor’s surgery, added to which losing your hearing, eyesight and memory. No thanks.
It’s 2am, dark and cold. We’ve been run-walking in the dark with our head torches on for the last five hours. Now 10 miles to go! I’m sitting by a log fire with a bowl of soup with four or five other runners, no-one chatting, just staring at the flames with no intention of ever moving again, let alone running up a mountain. I can tell everyone here feels the same, that is except my son. He’s chatting away to his mate Steve, a volunteer who’s manning this checkpoint. “See you in Chamonix” shouts Steve as Tony marches me away from heaven and into hell.
I’m now 71 years old, and here I am running the Montane Lakeland 50 mile race again.
I was 68 years old the first time and afterwards said “Never again!” It’s possibly the hardest 50-mile race in Britain, so finishing it once was a massive personal milestone. So why am I back? Well, probably for the same reasons as everyone else who comes back. As time passed, and memory of the pain diminished, I realised how much I actually enjoyed it the first time. Indeed, I loved it.
With an 11.30am start, we will run the first three or four hours in the hottest part of the day, and for the slower runners, all night as well. The terrain is unforgiving. There is 3,000m of ascent and descent. Navigational skills are essential. No marshals, no arrows, no handy tape hanging from trees. My map-reading skills are zero, I have already been rescued by a mountain rescue team in Wales. Runners talk about DNFs and DNSs, but they are nothing to LIMs (lost in mountains). So I have enlisted the help of my son Tony, an experienced ultra runner, to guide me around the Lakeland hills. He’s training for the CCC and needs time on his feet. He’s certainly going to get that!
My compulsory kit feels heavy. Maybe I’ve put in too many gels or Mars bars? I definitely look out of place, everyone around me is very fit-looking. There’s even a team of soldiers running for Help The Heroes.
The magic appeal of this race is the atmosphere. Hundreds of like-minded runners camping together in Coniston, where both the 50 and 100 finish. Everyone is buzzing, catching up with old friends. And of course there is the stunning Lake District as a backdrop. Is there anywhere better to run an ultra?
Friday evening at 6.30pm is the start of the 100. All the runners from the 50 are at the start, as well as lots of families and supporters lining the first 200 metres, cheering loudly and ringing cowbells. They set off to sound of an opera singer. What strikes me most is the very slow pace of the majority of the runners, some even walking. Guess they know what’s coming?
The next day at 11.30am, countdown 10, 9, 8... all dibbed in and about to run the first four miles around the Dalemain Estate, friends and relatives are allowed to run this first section with their loved one. After this, no assistance in any form from anyone; no crew, no pacers.
For the first few miles many of the runners are still quite close to each other. The atmosphere is so different from marathons and other shorter distances. Nobody passes you without a word or two, and as we all have our names on our numbers, it’s “Come on Melvin. Well done.” I’m constantly asked my age. The response usually is “Really? How do you do it?” It seems to spur them on upwards and onwards, “If he can do it!”
The first big climb is after 12 miles. I walk. But so does almost everyone. Tony is trotting ahead, bumping into a few old friends and making some new ones. This climb seems endless, but at least it’s not as hot as last time I was here. That time, runners were lying down in streams to cool off. We make it to the second CP, 20 miles in. It is akin to a battlefield, bodies strewn around, but of course lots of the runners are doing the 100 and have been going for more than 20 hours already. A brief sit down, cup of tea, bowl of soup, and we push on, past a group of drop-outs looking dejected and patiently waiting for transport back to the finish.
Through the next couple of checkpoints. Same routine. Tea, coffee, Coke, soup. Tony hates more than a couple of minutes at each CP and is quickly ushering me onwards. I walk all the uphills, and even some of the downhills. The soles of my feet feel bruised. I’d forgotten how rocky these paths were.
Dawn is now breaking. Suddenly I can see again, the sun is warming and glowing, the rocks are visible beneath my feet. It’s such a magical feeling, having run right through the night. I’m beyond tired, if that’s possible, and my walk has become a shuffle. But it’s downhill from here to Coniston, about three miles. “Come on,” says my loyal companion “We can run the last couple of miles.” Typical! As we cross the finish line, we get a huge cheer from waiting supporters, finished runners, marshals, relatives, and my wife. We sit at last with a hot sweet tea and I turn to Tony and say “never again!”
In conclusion: is 71 too old to run 50 miles?
No, it’s the perfect race, no further or shorter. You’re not running flat-out as in shorter distances, but at a comfy pace, able to take in the wonderful views, peaceful surroundings, all the sights and sounds of running trails. Wonderful company, stopping for soup, sandwiches, having a laugh with volunteers at checkpoints, the special cheers you get as an older competitor. “Well done mate.” Nobody asks what your finish time was.
Every runner can look forward to running as they get older, just go a bit further, and you might discover there are no boundaries to what’s achievable. Just do it, and when you’re home say “Never again!”
But would I? As time goes by, bad memories fade, the good stuff still fresh and vibrant in my mind. Of course I’d do it again, but not on my own. I’d need a very patient running partner willing to sacrifice their own race to get me round. Maybe when I’m 75, that sounds good!
Maybe father and son again? Of course I could maybe persuade my wife to do it; she’d be 73, and it would be our 55th wedding anniversary. Ria only started running at 62, after years of being ‘the bag lady’ for me. First parkrun, then I encouraged longer distances – actually I just entered her into one and seven years on she’s done six marathons.