Surveys show that most runners hope to stay active for life, as well they should, given the well-established physical and mental and benefits. At the same time, the effort can look daunting. What about motivation, family, career, injuries, burnout and more?
In the last six months we have gathered information showing that lifetime runners persist through adaptation, acceptance, continuing to race, setting reasonable goals, building friendships, and simply refusing to give up. These traits appear again and again in the more than 50 profiles we have published at LifetimeRunning.net. Each profile features a runner who’s at least 60 years old and has been running for at least 30 years.
Here’s a list of their secrets, and some of their thoughts on each:
Adapt and enjoy
No runner stays the same through all the stages of life. The clock and calendar never stop ticking. We get stiffer, slower, and … enough already. However, lifetime runners don’t get sidetracked. Instead they generally look on the brighter side.
Bob Anderson founded Runner’s World magazine in 1966 as a teenager in Kansas. Today, at 71, he’s still running strong. “Age is only a number,” says Anderson. “And even though the number is getting bigger, I just don’t let it tell me what I can or cannot do. We only live once, so why not enjoy it to the fullest? Running helps add meaning to every day.”
Accept that stuff happens
Every runner knows about injuries. Lifetime runners understand they will face bigger challenges. A couple of years back, Don Ardell thought that he was having a nice little workout (for a 78-year-old). Then he found himself sitting on the sidewalk, bleeding. Passersby called an ambulance. At the hospital Ardell learned he had suffered a stroke.
He’s been taking blood thinners ever since, and training cautiously. “I have lived happily ever after, and resolved to be careful and hope for good luck,” he notes. At 80, Ardell couldn’t resist entering a handful of races. He won them all.
Many lifetime runners motivate themselves by continuing to race. Sure, it gets harder and harder to match last year’s times. That’s where age-groups and age-grading come to the rescue. Reno Stirrat has been running for 50 years, and is the only American to have run a sub-2:45 marathon in five straight decades.
Now 64, Stirrat has stopped trying to beat his old PRs but he’s still chasing excellence. “I don’t get hung up on times,” he says. “The fun fact is that you can still set personal age-group PRs.”
The same applies to your everyday training efforts. They are bound to tail off, both in quantity and quality. So Sabra Harvey, 69, shifted her emphasis to consistency rather than speed. “I look at training as a way to maintain a high fitness level as I continue to compete in masters events globally,” she says. Her approach is working. She was named the 2017 USATF Masters Road Runner of the year.
Slower? So What?
In 1980, Benji Durden was one of the America’s top marathon runners, qualifying for the 1980 Olympic team, though the U.S. boycott prevented him from competing in Moscow. Several years later he finished third in the Boston Marathon, setting a marathon PR of 2:09:58. Now 67, Durden has adopted a new mindset, which keeps him on the roads. He holds the record for the most years between marathon victories—40 years, 292 days—having won marathons in 1977 and 2017.
“I used to run a lot of my miles at about 6:40- to 7:00-minute pace,” he notes. “These days it’s more like 10:00 to 12:00. I just tell myself to forget about it.”
Lifetime runners enjoy seeing their friends at every opportunity—races, training groups, club meetings, and more. “Runners are happiest with others who share their interests, including theater, music, eating out, and other activities,” notes Dr. Gabe Mirkin, 83, and a well known author and fitness commentator.
As the longtime chief running officer at Runner’s World, Bart Yasso probably attended more races than just about anyone. And he never grew tired of the routine. “I loved seeing new and old friends at events,” he says. “We bond and support each other.”
Former marathon champ Bill Rodgers, a 4-time winner at both the Boston Marathon and New York City Marathon, echoes Yasso. “It’s great seeing friends at races, even if only once a year,” he says. “We all share the same passion for running, regardless of our age or our times.”
Appreciate the mental side
Many lifetime runners begin the journey with hopes of preserving their bodies as long as possible. With each passing year, they seem to think more about the brain, especially now with Alzheimers and cognitive decline in the daily headlines. Lawyer Hal Lieberman has been running for 60 of his 76 years. “As an active litigator, running keeps me mentally as well as physically healthy,” he observes.
Slowing down is no reason to stop running. Sid Howard has held masters world records on the track, and has finished 35 Fifth Ave Miles in a row. At age 79, he ain’t getting any quicker, but he’s staying strong, particularly in spirit. He hopes to still be racing at 100 and beyond.
“My last race will finish at the casket,” he says. “I’m going to jump in, close the top, and know I have lived a full life.”
If that’s too morbid for you, consider Philly neuroscientist Brian Salzberg, 76, who has run every single Falmouth road race. That’s 46 in a row. They haven’t all been easy: Salzberg has finished Falmouth twice after brain surgery, and once on crutches after leg surgery. “In 2008, I probably set a Falmouth course record in the crutch division,” he jokes. “Always remember that every run is a new personal record! You have never been this old before.”
Treasure the gift. Every. Single. Day.
Do we get wiser and more appreciative as we age? Let’s hope so. It certainly seems a common trait among lifetime runners. Carolyn Mather has run more miles than any other woman in the history of the planet. She recently passed 217,000 total miles. That has given Mather lots of time for reflection. “It’s all about the journey,” she says. “You will have good days and bad, but you will become stronger and more resilient. I focus on just moving down the road.”
Ellen Hart ran a 2:35 marathon shortly after graduating from Harvard in 1984, but later changed to mostly triathlons, continuing to emphasize her running. Along the way, she was the subject of a feature movie about anorexia, and wife to the mayor of Denver, who became a cabinet member in the Clinton administration. Her life has been more than full. “They are all gifts—life, running, and aging,” she says. “Running has always been my best friend, in part because it has helped me deal with so much.”
Amby Burfoot is the author of Run Forever: Your Complete Guide to Healthy Lifetime Running. Gail Waesche Kislevitz is the author of Running Past Fifty: Advice and Inspiration for Senior Runners.
Read More: Check out Guest editor Jonathan Beverly‘s book Run Strong, Stay Hungry to explore 9 more principles of veteran racers that keep them training strong, hungering for competition, and drawing the same enjoyment from the sport as they did when they started.