Finally, A Sport For The Middle-Aged

by Jocelyn Pihlaja
Originally Published: 

Bo Jackson retired from professional football after four seasons with the Raiders when he was 28.

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Sandy Koufax retired from the Dodgers when he was 30.

Bobby Orr retired from professional hockey when he was 30.

Björn Borg retired from his tennis career when he was 26.

Shawn Johnson retired from gymnastics when she was 20.

Then there’s an Australian man named Cliff Young, who won his first ultra-marathon when he was 61.

There is Ann Trason, who won the Sierra Nevada Endurance 52-Mile Run when she was 44.

There was the 2015 Western States 100, a race where the top male finisher was 38, the top female 41.

There’s my cousin Eric, who has been increasing the distance he runs with every passing year. Now, at 51, he’s on the verge of undertaking his first 50-mile race on the Superior Hiking Trail.

Indeed, there is a sport that favors the grit and endurance of mid-lifers, one that rewards those participants who can focus, dig deep and hang the hell in there. This sport is distance trail running.

Image via Jocelyn Pihlaja

The evidence that older runners do better is more than anecdotal; the National Center for Biotechnology Information carried out a study that correlates the relationship between age and success, discovering that long, technical running events play to the strengths of the mature.

For me, I’ll never be competitive as a runner, but at 48, I love few things more than chasing down a single track as it threads into the woods or up a mountainside. Even more, I appreciate an athletic endeavor that not only draws upon a lifetime of experiences but also adds to my self-knowledge.

Put another way: At my age, I’ve seen friendships fade. I’ve lost people I adored. I’ve disappointed folks I hoped to please. And I’ve drunk too much, complained about my job, and cried into my pillow.


Whenever I throw myself into a few hours on a dirt trail and concentrate on each footfall, avoiding jutting roots and upturned rocks, my brain shifts into a new space, and the rest of the world falls away. Out there, by myself, there are no bills, no expense forms, no passive-aggressive swipes. There is peace.

Image via Jocelyn Pihlaja

In the midst of that peace, I dwell inside myself. I do forward thinking. I take stock. I marvel at a dragonfly. Far from my mind are social media notifications, parent pickups and field-trip forms. Instead, there is the dragonfly, dancing above a fern, slanted light illuminating its wings. There are my feet, churning, one in front of the other, covering ground, taking me places. I am completely inside myself; I am responsible only to myself.

With every obstacle I encounter, I subconsciously draw upon the lessons of a lifetime. Even better, when I remove myself from a solo run and sign up for the shared community of a trail race, I know I will run it well because I am 48—and at 48, I have accumulated knowledge that holds me in good stead on the trail.

Here is what I know:

1. It’s OK to feel nervous. The night before a race, my brain frets. Will I dress warmly enough? Should I wear a ball cap? Will my body announce, “I don’t think so”? Trail racing reminds me that if I worry, I care. If my innards don’t send me a few messages of excitement or anxiety, then I’m not truly invested. I have a limited number of decades in my life; I should pack them with situations that make me uncomfortable. Ultimately, the payoff for weathering nerves is significant.

2. Pay attention to the details. As I run on gnarly trails, I clap my eyes hard onto every small thing that might oppose me—because when I’m oblivious, I get tripped up and miss nuance. If I’m not seeing the small stuff, I’m skimming across the surface of life’s magic. When I run a race, time passes differently, for I am unable to measure the distance. I can’t look at street signs and count blocks. I can’t see the next mile yawning in front of me. What’s more, the second I stop concentrating on the minutiae, I catch a toe, go flying and bite into my tongue. It is essential that I train my eyes on every haphazard log, half-buried boulder and random bird carcass; in that process, my brain becomes meditative. Worries about students, meetings, family, overdue books, dinner plans, oil changes, unfolded laundry, all fall away. There is only me, in the moment, in that place, setting down one foot, then the other, deeply absorbed by the specifics.

3. Stay with the flow. When presented with an obstacle like a swampy puddle, I need to trust my rhythm. It’s disruptive to lurch to a stop, stutter my feet and dance around as I figure out what to do. Not only does that make me look like a 3-year-old who needs to “make tinkles,” it allows indecision in a moment when action is called for, and I don’t want to be that person. I can tarry and stare at the muck before attacking it, or I can just get down to business. Either way, I’m getting past it, and I’d rather err on the side of efficiency.

Also, the domino effect of indecision slows everyone around me and shuts down forward momentum. When I approach an obstacle on the trail, my inner voice cautions, “Stop overthinking, and just take the leap. The second your foot hits the other side, you’ll feel like you own the world. Plus, once you’re over it, you can extend a hand to the person behind you.”

Image via Jocelyn Pihlaja

4. Get dirty. In one race, when I hit a particularly huge patch of mud, I realized there was no way around it, so I plunged in. I sank, and within two seconds, I was buried up to my calf. Pulling my foot out, my shoe began to peel off, and I hooted at the notion of it becoming a bottom-feeder while I hobbled the rest of the course with one bare foot. I giggled. Hours later, scrubbing the dried mud off my calves, I giggled again. Dirt brings joy.

5. It isn’t about other people. The winner of the last race I ran completed the course in half the time it took me. However, I wasn’t running his race; I was running my race. This endeavor was about turning in my best performance—to see what I was capable of, on that given day, on that difficult course. If we measure our success against other people, if we define ourselves in relation to others, then we never see our own selves clearly. Plus, that poor guy who won therace had to stop after a mere 44 minutes, while I had almost an hour-and-a-half of juice in me. As the lean, fleet-of-foot guy sat in the grass, recovering, I kept going and going. I was a powerhouse of elephantine endurance, and that helps me believe I’m awesome.

6. Understand that friends come and go. There’s an ebb and flow to socializing during a race. One time, surrounded by chatty women as I panted, I learned that Sarah’s husband of 12 years screwed her over, but now she’s dating a first-grade teacher, which is dramatically different from dating a lawyer. I learned that Sarah and Jane are both alcoholics. I learned that Sue is a nurse, and she knows my cousin. Then Sue took off into the woods, and the others fell back a bit. In the final mile, they tore past me. Indeed, even when friends disappear from sight, there’s still every chance I’ll run into them again at some point down the path. It ain’t over ’til it’s over.

Image via Jocelyn Pihlaja

7. Find your own space and delight in the peace. Despite the invariable socializing, a great motivator behind my running is the desire to get away from others. Eventually, tired of talk during the race with the chatty women, I sped up and away from the pack. During the middle stretch, before the others regained ground and passed me, I was by myself in the woods, unable to see any other runners. It was hushed. It was warm. It was blissful. To be in the woods alone is a singular kind of heaven. Surrounded by peace, I marveled at the beauty.

8. Don’t forget to look up and survey the big picture. Despite my focus on every rock and root when I run, I also lift my face to soak in the glory of the trees. I turn my cheeks to the sun, and as it shines its face upon me, I feel alive from my scalp to my toenails. Seeing myself as a small part of a bigger picture is profound, affirming, and rousing.

In the complete richness of age 48, when I cross the finish of a trail race, I am grinning. I wouldn’t have known it when I was 20, but I know it now: When we challenge ourselves, plunge ourselves into races, engage in activities outside of life’s daily tasks, value ourselves enough to develop new abilities, explore the world around us with curiosity and interest, push beyond the known and comfortable, the rewards we reap are immeasurable.

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