The Middle-Aged Athlete

ec_hatLast weekend, a bunch of my pals were in Hawaii for Ironman. Watching from a distance, Ironman is a reminder that the human body can do some incredible things. While the race is neat, what’s most impressive is the training load that the competitors put themselves through. The physical output, over many years, is impressive – sitting here, I can’t believe I was able to do it!

I’ve had success coaching men between 40 and 75 years old (as well as women from 40 to 55 years old). Interestingly, it’s the guys who are most prone to saying, “I wonder if I’m getting old.” Top amateur women just keep on rolling, about the only thing that slows them down is injury and illness.

On the other hand, guys get really tired. I like to joke with my wife that I get Man-Fatigue – like man flu – it’s a whole different level of fatigue from what she experiences.

What follows isn’t for my pals, who are still crushing it. Keep doing what you love for as long as it makes sense. I miss those days, and you will too! It’s for the rest of you – particularly, if you were a top athlete in your 20s and 30s.

When it comes to aging, I hear this a lot…

  • Age is just a number
  • You’re only old when your age is an excuse
  • 40 is the new 30

These sayings are linked to the first phase of aging – holding on against the natural progression of time. I’m more fond of saying, “this is what 45 looks like and it’s not so bad!”

In my peer group, characterized by exceptional will, a few can extend the “holding on” phase into their 50s and, extremely rarely, their 60s. You can find examples of these special humans (!) on the Big Island each October. I know a few and they are amazing people.

What lies hidden is the psychological, and physical cost, from living an unnatural life. When we put ourselves together in a peer group, that consists of much younger 1%’ers, we’re left wondering… what’s wrong with me? Why can’t I be like XXXX? Am I getting old?

I used to think that I’d be hanging on. Now, I’m not so sure. At first, I thought it was my kids making me tired but there seems to be something deeper at work. Time will tell. Maybe I’ll get a second wind in my 50s! 🙂

When I catch myself thinking that a return to my 20s/30s will improve my life – I say…

  • It’s amazing how much exercise I was able to do
  • I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to compete at a high level

Wonder and gratitude are effective antidotes to mourning the past.

Another thing that I’ve noticed is I get an excellent mood response from small doses of exercise. I have to remind myself of this A LOT so I don’t fry myself.

With exercise, generosity, novelty…happiness links better to frequency than intensity, or dosage.

How do you know if you’re holding on too tight?

  • Ask the people closest to you
  • Pay attention to frequent orthopedic injury
  • Pay attention to frequent depression, or anger

If you aspire to performances that were extreme when you were 10-25 years younger then be sure to spend time with people your own age, as you age.

Trying to be the 1% of the 1% can lead to a rough ride as the years roll on.

Choose wisely.

It Wasn’t Good For Me

gnomeA number of my pals triathlon’ed from Vancouver to Calgary over the last two weeks. They did the journey as part of something called Epic Camp and I highly recommend Scott Molina’s blog about the trip. I’ve been chuckling along as the crew drill themselves daily across the Canadian Rockies.

In reading Molina’s diary of their adventure, I’ve been feeling three emotions…

Joy that Scott is able to keep on trucking. The guy’s 54 years old and he’s still able to love training at the edge of human endurance. Epic Camp is about the mental component of performance and Scott personifies joy from suffering.

Continuing amazement at what people can accomplish. It’s tempting to put ultra-athletes into a separate category as genetic freaks. The reality is most ultra-athletes are fairly normal physically. The differences arise in their capacity to embrace obsession and the way they experience fatigue & suffering.

Finally, I experience a deep sense of gratitude for my life in Boulder. When I was living my life of extreme athletic performance, I couldn’t see the cost of my status quo.

By the way, lots of people talk about the health risks of extreme exercise. I think that you are right but you’re missing the point. See the camp for what it is… a binge. I’ve always enjoyed a good binge. It’s something I need to watch. Also, so long as you don’t go banana’s with the running, the main short-term risk (to your kidneys) is limited.

Scott knows, and shares, the requirements for athletic success. He’s far more open than any other triathlon writer, myself included.

What’s yet to be published is the total reality of seeking our ultimate triathlon potential. Outside of triathlon, Sam Fussell gave it a shot with bodybuilding. His book, Muscle, is an entertaining account of the life of a full-time amateur (AKA a life similar to most tri-pros). Leaving the extreme drug use to one side, the parallels with my life are many.

I’ve often wanted to write the “whole truth” about my life. I’m most open with the non-racing spouses of my training pals. They know enough about my world to be entertained but aren’t so invested that I challenge their identities with my observations.

I looked deeper into my motivation and saw a desire to protect my children from my near misses. However, my children’s obsession is certainly going to be different than my own and they will resent being told what to do by their, ultimately, sixty-something father.

Here’s where Sam’s book comes into it’s own. The hero in Sam’s book is his mom. She keeps the lines of communication open, accepts Sam for who he his and frees him to change his mind on his own timetable.

As we ascend to the top, we can lose the goodness of our youth. It’s no accident that the highest-achievers had very difficult childhoods. It’s a rare person that becomes more kind under extreme stress – at Epic Camp, Bevan James Eyles is the best example that comes to mind. He was always part of the solution. The rest of us acted like wolves, or hyenas.

What helps everyone is encouragement to hold onto a piece of goodness and stay open when the little voice says, “this isn’t good for you.”

…and while I have no idea who is doing the talking… I know that following that voice has led me to a wonderful life.

Lex

Hometown Hero

820My buddy, Justin Daerr, won Ironman Boulder this month. Even bigger, the ladies at my health club have started chatting about him!

He’s truly made it.

Not many people make the transition from average to champion. I was along for the ride.

epic_konaIn October of 2004, Justin came out to Hawaii for a camp that we were hosting. He had a big week of training and finished third in his age group in Kona. I didn’t know it at the time but October 2004 marked the high-water mark of my athletic career.

hawaii_run18 months before that camp, Scott Molina asked me, “What if that’s it?” At the time, I replied, “There’s always more.” Scott was a little early with his question but it was a good one.

What’s next?

After Justin became really good, he put in another 10,000 hours to become great. It’s the profile of a clean athlete, many years of plugging away. No quantum leaps.

runI like to focus athletes on 1,000 days of effort. After 1,000 days, of racing pro Justin was going far faster but didn’t have a whole lot to show for his efforts. He was a long way off the top athletes and, like me, only competitive over long distances.

The link in the paragraph above shows J’s results. He was speedy for a long time. Thing is, everyone else at his level is speedy too! Eight years of consistent sub-9 Ironman times. That’s really fast, for a very long time.

How do I measure my return on investment?

…is a question we should ask

…especially about time we will spend

Absent conscious effort, we will default to the values of our community. My athletic community values vanity and victory. These values rule what I see around me and lead to athletic errors.

As a champion, expectations and self-image change. My champion pals, closer to my age, experience pain with the inevitable transitions that life brings. Whenever that transition happens, I hope Justin keeps what’s best from the last decade.

  • He was willing to inconvenience himself to do the right thing.
  • He persisted in the face of evidence that he might not make it – a good lesson for me to re-learn!
  • He never mentioned the slings and arrows that were tossed at him. Justin’s non-response made me a better person.

These are the good old days.

Remember to enjoy them!

Staying Young

Following my Endurance Corner article last week, Alan wrote a blog with ideas about what’s required to stay young. Alan excels at capturing the psychological reality of being an athlete.

Specifically… What’s truly driving my compulsion for excessive exercise and performance?

What rang true to me was Alan’s observation about “staying young.” When I think about my fears, and choices, that desire explains a lot.

Past 40, my athletic errors have started to stand out. Some of these errors make me feel “old.”

Would it surprise you to find out that big training screws up my sex drive. I could supplement around the issue but I’ve made a choice to experience things more naturally. This is a seriously adverse side effect from athletic greatness! When I was crushing it, and living alone, it was a weird sort of blessing.

Take home point: if virility is a consideration then high training load will impair off-the-field performance.

Strength training, particularly anabolic phases where I lift heavy on my legs, boost my recovery response, and sex drive.

+++

When it comes to performance, if you’re focusing on age then you’re missing the point.

For highly active populations, aging isn’t the real concern. I have coached world-class athletes into their 70s, the key thing that screws up fitness is injury, specifically the loss of strength that results from taking a forced break. Injury is mostly caused by bike crashes.

Cycling is the most dangerous thing I do and the statistics greatly under report the injuries that cyclists sustain. I denied the reality of cycling danger because I knew that I had to maintain high cycling volume to achieve my reason for living (AKA my athletic goals).

Tip the balance in your favor by:

  • Becoming a more polite, more cautious, cycling version of your current self.
  • Protecting the capacity to run daily. Daily running is more important than great run workouts. A daily easy run, when combined with twice weekly strength work, captures everything you need from long term sport.
  • Stay strong – the difference between a soft tissue injury and orthopedic surgery is often the amount of lean body mass you have (on impact).

I’ve gone further by shifting most of my cycling volume to a full-suspension 29er (disc brakes and fat tires are safer) and avoiding most highways.

+++

I also had to face that my ambitious race goals were encouraging me to make poor decisions.

However, I can still remember when ambitious race goals were my top priority.

How to balance?

If performance matters then know that you are playing a game of attrition. To stand out, you must become crafty at managing your total stress load. Injuries, divorce and lack of motivation are, at their root, a product of excessive stress.

Every great athlete that I have worked with has been caught by the season-ending trap of:

  1. Fit
  2. Fitter
  3. Fittest
  4. Totally Blown

You must get crafty!

Specifically, change your focus from chronic load to acute load. If you can keep your life in reasonable balance, and your body ticking along then you’ll be able to “act like you’re 25 again” for 2-3 days a month with your pals. With the realities of our busy lives, that’s going to yield nearly all of the benefits and have minimal costs.

Every few years, the stars will align with your family, job and connective tissue… when that happens you’ll be able to hit-the-gas for a month and get yourself into great shape.

The best case study that I know is Molina’s race report from Ironman New Zealand.

My buddy, Scott Molina, just went 10:10 at Ironman New Zealand, on his 54th birthday. That blows my mind! I know he wrote the race report so he can remember that day for a long time.

When Scott was my age, he used to smile and tell me, “I’d rather look fast than be fast.” More and more, I understand Scott’s decisions.

At the end of my elite career, I felt sore, blown and kinda old. A few years on, I’m grateful to be feeling much better. I can’t dominate my pals but, like Molina, I can sneak in a KOM when they are distracted.

Whatever your current path, remember that it’s OK to change. The tenacity that serves us well as young athletes can cause us to make choices that hurt ourselves.

I didn’t expect to have this much fun from doing this little training.

Scripted Racing

Watching the USA Pro Challenge in my home state of Colorado for the last two years, I was struck at how the race unfolded like a Hollywood script. The sponsors couldn’t have wished for a more dramatic outcome to the way the final days of the race played out. In both years, we had a happy ending with Americans winning the overall.

Personally, my favorite stage was when, the big man, Jens Voigt won a high-altitude mountain stage. The Jensie won with with an escape at 12,000 feet above sea level. He dropped America’s best climbers and solo’d to victory. We loved it.

How often does scripted racing occur in cycling?

Reading Millar’s book, it seems that the practice is common in Europe and can be a source of (undeclared) cash for the riders. I’ve read accounts of payoffs in US racing, when there was a multiplier in play for stacking wins, but we hear little about the practice on home soil.

What about triathlon?

I’ve only heard of a few athletes being prepared, paid and trained to race for a leader. Even at the Olympic level, there aren’t many countries that are able to assemble a team to work for their medal hopes.

Triathlon appears to be much more of free-for-all at the competitive level.

Which makes me wonder about the plausibility of a clean athlete dominating. History makes me wary of a clean athlete’s ability to sustain undefeated streaks, or multi-year championship runs.

What happened to triathlon performances when EPO entered the Pro Peloton?

Who dominated across the modern era of my sport?

Which great triathletes decided to retire as EPO entered cycling?

These questions make me uncomfortable and, perhaps, are better left in the closet.

I remind myself that it’s not all bad news. As EPO arrived, many elite athletes left. Over time some may share their reasons why. There may be an untold story out there.

With cycling there’s the option to pay off your competition directly, or indirectly by hiring them onto your team. In triathlon, there are only a few elite athletes that assemble a team around themselves.

Elite sport has shown, repeatedly, that implausible performances are implausible.

When I was emotionally attached to my heroes, it was easier to look down the results sheets for a foreigner, who would become the focus of my ethical concerns. The best cheats are skilled at getting us focused on something other than themselves.

Ten years ago, it was to painful to consider the scale of corruption that was happening in front of my eyes.

We share a need to believe.

Pre Race IVs

Given that blood transfusions are in the news, with an interesting history of their use in cycling available, I thought that I’d put this out there.

The first I heard of pre-race IVs in triathlon was a decade ago. The context was their use to increase blood volume in the 80s. The timing was before an Ironman triathlon.

I’ve used sodium citrate in a pre-race drink and that’s been reported to increase blood volume. Given that there are numerous pre-race beverages that contain sodium citrate, perhaps we’re talking about a similar mechanism. However, you don’t need to travel with a doctor to drink a beverage with sodium citrate.

I’ve started hearing about pre-race IVs again, in the context of professional and elite amateur triathlon. While we might be talking about saline and vitamins, it does make one wonder what else might be in the bag and if the IV is part of a larger program.