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Still Hungry at 80: The Road to Mastery Continues

Lifelong runner and former World Masters champion Roger Robinson was on the road to the World Masters Championships in July. Suddenly, it's a road to nowhere—or is it?

The Quest: At age 80, running on two knee replacements, Roger Robinson hopes to compete one more time at the World Masters Association Championships in Toronto, July 2020. After competing at the international level as an open runner, Robinson won World Masters gold medals at age 40 and 50. For a comeback in running, how old is too old? What can other older runners learn from this journey along an unknown road?  After a successful return to running, Robinson, like the rest of the world, finds himself on the road to nowhere.

Vanished in a Fog of Uncertainty

Last week, like thousands of runners around the globe, I found myself wide awake in that sweaty nightmare dream where you’re running a hard race but you can’t find the course, and the finish line has disappeared. In the first of these monthly reports, I wrote of how I began an unlikely comeback journey at age eighty, in hopes of racing at the World Masters Association Championships in Toronto in late July. Suddenly, every sports event in the world has been dumped or bumped. Officially, the WMA is still scheduled, but with borders closed and airlines grounded, my finish line has vanished in a fog of uncertainty.

What now? Like every racing runner in this crisis, I had to decide at the most basic level why and how to carry on. Why am I doing this? At eighty, why have I put myself on a structured training program? Why am I running repeats, long runs, time-trial races where I gasp along behind chatty selfie-snapping youth? So that I might maybe run near the front in a race for 80-pluses in Toronto? In vainglorious hopes of oldies’ placings at local awards ceremonies when every one else has hurried away to breakfast?

No, that’s not it. The challenge, drama, friendships, and satisfaction of a race are as alluring as they always were, but not enough to be the deep-down purpose of all this work.

Because It Is There

I do it to find out if I can do it. That’s the very simple truth that this crisis of race cancelations has revealed. After sixty-seven years of running, I still want to climb to the top of whatever at this age is my peak of personal potential—because it’s there, as a mountaineer would say. Races, championships, age PRs, age-graded rankings, they are ways of motivating and measuring. The essence is purer—to run as well as I can run. For most seniors, that would be weird as a key life objective, but I like it, and I’m lucky to have the health and mobility to try.

However this journey into undiscovered country ends, it might also help others. Since no eighty-year-old has ever before tried to do this (come back to elite age-group racing on two knee replacements), I want to explore what’s possible, perhaps in my small way be a pioneer, perhaps (because I’m also a writer) leave the world with a better insight into this aspect of aging and recovery from replacement surgery.

So as the world goes into lock-down, my decision is to keep training, keep working hard, keep trying to improve. If you want my soundbite advice about aging positively, it’s “Find something you can improve at.”

runner on peak of rolling hills
Roger Robinson climbing the peak of personal potential—because it’s there. Photo: Courtesy Tim Chamberlain

Concessions to Coronavirus

I will modify my program, however. Two big changes affect the course ahead. First, my planned stepping-stone races are gone, and no one knows how many months it will be before a significant target race arises from the misty chaos of our canceled world. So there is more time to build the base, while I will also have to work to outfox the decline those extra months of aging will bring.

Second, the virus has changed the game. I need to comply with reasonable requirements for self-isolation, and I need to show caution about training so intensely as to compromise my elderly immune system. It’s long been known that while running strengthens your immune system, intensely-training elite athletes can become more vulnerable. Whether older elite athletes are even more vulnerable is one of the unknowns of this whole unexplored area, but in this case I’m not keen to be the experiment.

Fortunately, adjustment is easy because my training has always been a mix of elements, with the emphasis shifting according to season and race commitments. At this early point in the process, after restarting from scratch in May 2019, my main objective is to build the base. Log the distance. The key measure for now is the weekly total, which I have cautiously increased, always attentive to the risks of having two replaced knees. I’ve moved the total up from three hours a week in August to over six hours in March. (I record by time, not miles.) Last week I reached 6:37. Seven hours soon!

Same with slowly increasing the long run about every two weeks, which just popped over two hours for the first time since 2016.  I also always include some faster interval work (or repeats) throughout the process, since my innate speed is so limited.  That became even more important after the two-year lay-off for a second knee replacement at age 78-80, when all pace had deserted me, and I had to reboot the whole system. Nowhere have I seen convincing argument why such training, that works from age 15 to 65, should suddenly stop working when you’re old.

Roger Robinson racing at 80
Roger Robinson (both feet just clear of the ground!) finishes a 10K, March 2020. Photo: Courtesy Brendon Flanagan, Wellington Harriers AC

Progress Persists

Back to the drawing board or the quiet rail-trail (in America) or grass cricket field (in New Zealand) where I conceal the unseemly sight of an eighty-year-old running at anaerobic effort.

Those first sessions were wheezingly hard, but they paid off. In January,  running 27:17 for a 5K (8:46 mile/5:27km pace) reduced me to noisy gasping that made one kindly younger woman runner enquire anxiously if I was all right. By mid-March, I could run faster than that for 10K, 54:11 (8:43 mile/5:25km pace), without distress in the breathing.

In this virus crisis, it will be wise for the two reasons above to ease back on this faster work and shift the emphasis more to base-building mileage. Those wise friends who always exhort me to show moderation will be pleased. But when they are not looking, I will keep including some faster running. Today, instead of the full-effort 6 x 1km which I’d planned, I’ll do a medium “fartlek” (speedplay), with some intermittent effort but nothing that will leave me exhausted or suppress immunity.

In a world suddenly more conscious of biochemistry, and the eternal struggle between stress and adaptation, it’s worth pausing to admire the miracle of how precisely the running human body can be fine-tuned.

Next Up: Training Alone and Racing Virtually

Roger Robinson is the author of When Running Made History which has won international acclaim as one of the best books about running ever.