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The Uncertainty of Aging and Athletics

The aging process brings up some difficult questions for all athletes. Talking openly about the age-performance curve can be healthy for everyone.

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I have always been acutely aware of time passing by. 

I remember listening to Now That’s What I Call Music Vol. Whatever when I was 11 and ruminating on a lyric. “The years start coming and they don’t stop coming.” So true, I thought. Just before I had been an elementary school stud, and suddenly I was a middle school scrub. Smash Mouth made some philosophy bops. (Between drafting and publishing this article, the lead singer of Smash Mouth may have been cancelled, which is perhaps the ultimate proof that time is a flat circle.)

Is every kid like that? God, I hope not. Around the same time, I made another memory that is imprinted deep in my brain, from a random drive to the mall with my mom. I was looking out the window, gazing through miles and miles of cornfields. Suddenly, I felt it. True emptiness. Darkness. The eternal vacuum of space. Whatever you want to call it, in that moment, I fully felt…death. I didn’t tell anyone, deciding to grapple with that shared reality on my own. Now That’s What I Call Unhealthy Psychological Processing.

But from my cursory understanding of social development in middle schoolers, that sort of thing isn’t too uncommon. Psychologist Erik Erikson calls the adolescent years a time of “Identity versus Role Confusion.” My middle school math brain wants to cite him as Erik(1 + son).

In early adolescence, our ego identities start to coalesce as we are aware of a more complete sense of self, even as it conflicts with our rapidly evolving social roles. Adults had always called me an “old soul,” which I believe was code for “socially uncool.” My guess is that the feeling of being an outsider blended together with reading Hitchhikers’ Guide To The Galaxy a few too many times, plus some genetic predisposition to anxiety, resulting in a good old-fashioned identity crisis.

The Crisis: I’m 11. I’m impermanent, but this baseball game matters so much that I cry every time I strikeout. I’m important, but nothing really matters. I’m the asshole at the center of the universe. Puberty is hard, both because it’s full of weird tingles and it’s one step closer to death. 

In conclusion, I was weird. I guess that’s how everyone feels when they’re 11. I guess that’s how a part of us feels all the time. 

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Time and Coaching

My special brand of weirdness made the passage of time feel so strange. Flash forward to now, and I’m nostalgic for moments that haven’t happened yet. I wish I could just have more time on Earth even as I waste hours on social media. I’m a tree growing rings, cherishing each one while wishing I had more. As the great philosophers said, the years start coming, and they don’t stop coming.

I think some good has come from the incessant reminder from my brain to “zoom-out” when it comes to the passage of time. I feel a ton of gratitude for each day and I think I can be pretty compassionate to others struggling with big questions. On the flip side, there are days when you could hook my brain up to a turbine and my anxiety would power a medium-sized city. Also, I can overthink things and get inside my own head. (you think?!)

But for our purposes here, I think that the overly zoomed-out view of time helped me with one more thing: it made me a really good coach. My brain gets extremely crunk thinking of little bricks forming a really big wall over weeks, months, and years. And hot damn, if you start talking decades, the stoke explodes out of my earholes.

Part of my job description as a coach is to consider the aging process for athletes of all levels. And that gets mapped onto being an athlete myself, trying to explore my own limits. So I’d obviously be lying if I said that I just began thinking about aging in my own athletic life. I’m always thinking 1 to 9 decades ahead, sometimes to my own detriment, and I have been since I was 11. I wasn’t paid for it back then, though. 

And there’s another difference now, too. I think most athletes would be right there alongside me.

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Aging As An Athlete

I’m 33. If a Major League Baseball player at my age gets a new contract, the analysts call it a waste of money. Not-fun fact: baseball players used to be thought to peak in their early 30s. Then, Congress had a few hearings and MLB cracked down on steroid use. Now, players peak just before age 27 and are often out of the game by their mid-30s.

I feel that not-fun fact in my joints. The age curve is pushed back a bit for athletes in endurance sports, but I think we’re letting people down by not talking about it more openly from the beginning. Multiple times, my co-coach Megan has asked “What did you say?” when I had just moved my ankle in a circle. She thought the arthritic crack was talking to her. My calf muscles have been sore for at least 5 years, despite drinking so many protein shakes that Megan has also asked me to repeat myself after protein-induced farts. Already at 33, as Toby Keith said, I’m not as good as I once was, but I’m as good once as I ever was. That lyric won’t apply eventually though, whether it’s in 20 years or it’s tomorrow. This tree is adding rings, and they don’t stop coming.

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I think that uneasy, background awareness might be one of the coolest parts about running. 

Comedian Bo Burnham’s transcendent special “Inside” talks about that funny feeling–the quiet comprehending of the ending of it all. He’s talking about climate change and mental health in an uncertain, unraveling world. But that’s running, too. If you think for even a second about why your calves might be more sore, or why the hill climb slows down over time, or why you need hip surgery…well, you can probably chart that curve to the end if you zoom out enough. It’s a funny feeling. And from seeing athletes of all ages in coaching, I think that funny feeling is an opportunity. 

Stoics say “memento mori”–remember that you must die, as a guide for actions. I think runners should add “memento regressi.” Remember that the age curve spares no one, and it’s happening right now.

Obviously, I’m just 33, and there are 93-year olds reading this who are rocking training every day. I am lucky to coach some of those badasses. But no matter what age you are, we’re all moving in the same direction at the same rate, dealing with the same shit, even if our brains process it differently. One reason running is so cool is that it takes away any veil we can have over our eyes about what’s coming. Running against the clock is one ongoing midlife crisis, if you think at all about where the regression line ends.

I think that’s the coolest crap ever because it’s a chance to feel big feelings and do epic shit. 

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The Dipsea and Age-Based Head-Starts

That physical regression line is why my favorite race to coach is the Dipsea. Seven miles, a couple thousand feet of climbing, with head-starts based on age to try to equalize performances. For men, starting at age 31, there’s a minute extra. At 38, it’s 2 minutes. Later on, you sometimes add a minute per year. From 52 to 66, women gain 11 extra minutes to cover 7 miles. The head-starts essentially break down the inevitable physiological decline we all face into an implied message: “start earlier, as you’re likely just a bit closer to death, statistically speaking.”

That aging process is so full of uncertainty. My favorite to win Dipsea this year is Mark Tatum, a 61-year old rocketman who has defied those head-start curves and is one of the best athletes in the world. On the flip-side, I have coached athletes who can’t keep up with the head-starts and fall farther back every year. The uncertainty of that trajectory is something we all face, whether we race or not. Genetics, environment, training, circumstances, luck–all combine to create a constant unsteadiness when it comes to projecting our athletic futures. 

We know where we are now, from living it. We have the quiet comprehending of the ending of it all, from feeling it. What happens between those two points? 

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There’s only one way to find out.

Mark is an athlete I admire more now than I ever admired Barry Bonds or some other roided-up superstar as a kid. And what Mark does as well as any athlete I have ever seen is simple. He shows the heck up. 

He gets out there, and he gives himself a shot, knowing damn well that he’s not living in a fairytale land where physiological realities don’t exist. Based on what I have seen in coaching, that step of acknowledging the shared reality of aging (and the fact that it’s happening ALL THE TIME) is so important. The athletes that don’t think about it at all sometimes face reality all at once, ending in a crisis that undercuts their happiness and athletic growth. The athletes that accept it early and often seem to process the same feeling as gratitude for what their bodies can do, rather than regret for what they can’t.

For Mark, maybe he’ll have to do more hill workouts next year, maybe he’ll have to add more cross-training, maybe he won’t keep improving. But he’ll definitely give himself the chance. He acknowledges the long-term age-performance curve, and he accepts it. Then every day heading out the door, he gives the curve a message: “NOT TODAY.” 

(While implying: “Maybe. Hopefully. But all I control is showing up with belief, so let’s stick with ‘NOT TODAY.’”)

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The uncertainty of aging can be a brutal reality. 

I think that’s what I was feeling in middle school, staring out the window at 11, and what I feel every day as a runner, doing my extended warm-up at 33, reading studies and projecting that out 60 more years. But getting to coach Mark and athletes like him has fundamentally shifted my perspective. Whereas 11-year old me was grieving something that I had not yet lost, 33-year old me is curious about what I might be able to find. I’m focusing on the shared reality, not the brutal one.

Personally, I am curious to see how long I can keep improving—the grind is what it’s all about, after all. But that inflection point is coming, if it hasn’t already passed. I see it too often in coaching and read too many scientific studies to deny the inevitable, and I don’t think that would be a psychologically or physically healthy thing to do even if I could. Facing that uncertainty, there’s only one thing I know for sure: I will keep showing up. In my last race, hopefully around age 100, I’ll be putting my arms up at the finish line, celebrating the process of adding some swag-ass rings to this dying-ass tree.

And hey, maybe I can push that inflection point back a couple more decades. Maybe I can even be Mark, improving into my 60s! Or Julia Hawkins, setting age-group records into my 100s! Maybe I can learn more and more to help athletes I coach defy the age curves too. 

The physiologists say it probably won’t happen, at least not for everyone I coach, probably not for me. But I like to listen to my favorite philosophers instead, who have guided me since I was in that car at 11, staring out the window and thinking about death. Because somebody once told me the world is gonna roll me, and when it comes to pushing back against the age-performance curve, I don’t plan on being the sharpest tool in the shed. 

 

David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they wrote a book called The Happy Runner.