As a long distance runner you get used to people thinking that you are weird. Your lifestyle and behaviour becomes baffling to those around you. You develop similar rhythms of life to that of a monastery: you go to bed early, rise early, punish your body, subject yourself to discipline, your nutrition is controlled, learn to embrace suffering, dream dreams, have inspirational visions, overcome adversity and transport yourself to another plane. So like many other runners I take the jibes in my stride. I do draw the line though, and that is when I hear the word ‘crisis’ being used. Let me explain: I have a number of concerned friends who from time to time forward me articles that seek to explain my bizarre lifestyle. The purpose behind sending me these articles is presumably to help rescue me from the cult of running, before it’s too late. The latest one landing in my inbox is entitled Extreme Athleticism Is the New Midlife Crisis. The byline reads ‘People in middle age are flocking in record numbers to intense workouts and challenging races. What are they chasing?’
The author Paul Flannery starts his essay off mentioning Canadian psychologist named Elliot Jacques who in 1957 presented a paper to the British Psychoanalytical Society on what he called the mid-life crisis. He writes “There it sat until 1965 when “Death and the Mid-life Crisis” was published in The International Journal of Psychoanalysis. Jacques’ theory was that as we approach middle age we begin to realize our own mortality, and then, consequently, we begin to freak out.”
He riffs off that paper (the details of which are not outlined) to say the following “But increasingly, people are responding to the anxieties of middle age not by clinging to the last vestiges of expiring youth but to taking on challenges that seem to belong to the young alone: by pushing the limits of what they’re physically capable of through endurance athletics and extreme fitness. The focus is less on what happened before the crisis and more on what happens after. Call it the midlife correction.”
He then goes on to list statistics showing how dominant middle aged athletes are in triathlons in the USA as well as the Boston and London marathon. The authors statistics are born out by this excellent study entitled Physiology and Pathophysiology in Ultra-Marathon Running by Beat Knechtle and Pantelis T Nikolaidis.
From this point on the paper makes a persuasive case for the primary reason for the significant representation of middle-aged people in endurance events: “Extreme fitness is less about being young again and more about building yourself up for the years ahead.” He talks about his own challenges and summarises further “This, to me, cuts to the heart of the matter. A midlife crisis is a response to a dark place of a different kind. It could be the fear of mortality, or aimlessness, or futility, or obsolescence, or loss of self. You could view these things as threats, or you could accept them as part of your existence, and move forward.”
As far as the body of the paper goes, I go along with much of what he has said in terms of the motivation for many middle-aged athletes. I train with and coach a fair amount of middle-aged endurance athletes and on average I do one ultra race a year (this year 2) so I can identify with some of what he says.
So What’s The Problem?
It’s a journey not a crisis
The problem is the heading, and any inference that connects middle-aged people doing endurance events with a ‘crisis’. This is not what I have found in my life as a coach and competitor. Most of the middle-aged endurance athletes I know are on a journey, not in a crisis. It’s a journey that has taken them from their first days as a jogger through to their first 5km, 10km, half marathon, marathon and beyond. It has taken triathletes from short taster events to their first Olympic distance tri and then to their first half Ironman and then Ironman and beyond (Ultraman). Most of the middle-aged endurance athletes I know have been running or doing triathlon for many years. They haven’t woken up in their middle age in the grip of a crisis.
Reaching new horizons
Many of the endurance athletes I know have been on a long journey of competing and training over many years. To keep their interest and committment levels up they have sought out new challenges and new horizons. Those who have chosen ultra distance events have high levels of intrinsic motivation and have chosen events that spark their imagination for adventure and breaking new ground. There’s no crisis in seeking out new challenges, rather there is a crisis if there are none.
Smarter not harder
Middle aged athletes seem to master the mindset of endurance running very well. I remember learning this lesson in my mid twenties playing in the higher divisions of a squash league. All the top ten players were fiftysomething. I had more energy and more athleticism but they seemed to always dominate the T and run me ragged. The wisdom accumulated by middle-aged athletes can give them an advantage. They pace themselves well and they also learn to deal with pain and all the unforseen issues that arise when competing in an ultra distance event.
Fellowship of suffers
Most of the endurance athletes I know enjoy the athletic community they have become a part of and have shared countless memories both home and abroad. I have had the privilege of sharing the Comrades Marathon ultra race with many Australians, as well as travelling within Australia to events with my fellow athletes. We enjoy one another’s company, we respect each others dedication and commitment, we share the good days and bad days, cold days and hot days, and we ‘get’ each other. We have journeyed with our comrades and we often take on challenges together. We do it from desire not crisis. We find ourselves in the midst of a supportive community of high calibre people. There’s no crisis in that.
We have come to set high standards for our own personal health and fitness. Rather than being motivated by a crisis we value having an exceptional level of health and fitness. We enjoy the benefits in the here and now and of course we look forward to enjoying an active life well into retirement.
I guess papers and articles need a click bait headline to pull people in. However, associating the cohort of middle aged endurance athletes with the notion of ‘crisis’ is an unfair stigma to attach.
Are you a middle aged endurance athlete? What are your motivations?
Stan Fetting is a middle aged competitor, coach, and grumpy old git.