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The Growing Number of Ultrarunners in their 20s
by Don AllisonApril 1997
This article originally appeared in the US Ultrarunning Magazine, April 1997 and is copyrighted by them. It's a fine publication, and subscription information can be found at http://www.ultrarunning.com/
In the sport of ultrarunning, we are continually awed by individual accomplishments. The limits on how far and how fast the human body can run are being pushed back year after year. We have all come to learn that age is not a barrier in achieving ultra excellence. Runners in their 40s set national and world best standards. Runners in their 50s win races outright. Paul Reese ran across the USA at over 70 years of age.
What about younger ultrarunners? It is a fact that masters runners make up the majority of fields in most ultramarathons. But there is indeed a growing legion of younger ultrarunners. We do not often think of "twentysomethings" as a big part of the sport, but their numbers are growing steadily. This development not only bodes well for the future of ultrarunning, it reflects well on its current state.
This topic is of interest for many reasons. First, young ultrarunners are often introduced to the sport in non-traditional ways. Unlike most older folks, they do not normally move up in distance after finding they no longer have the leg speed for PR's at shorter distances. Second, youth provides distinct advantages, while also creating obstacles older runners don't face. While ultras are far outside societal norms for any age group, it is particularly pronounced for younger runners. American youthful culture still promotes a fun and a somewhat carefree lifestyle. The discipline and focus required by ultrarunning is at odds with going to parties, concerts, and staying out late. While it is unfair to portray any generation with a broad brush, we all remember what is was like to be young (I think). I for one was in no way prepared for the mental and physical rigors of ultrarunning in my 20s. I am impressed with those who are, and was interested to learn how they summoned the necessary motivation to succeed at such a difficult endeavor.
What is it that draws these folks to ultrarunning at such a young age? Like for most of the rest of us, it is the challenge and the adventure. Steve Sydlik, a member of the 1995 and 1996 US 100-km national team, remembers a friend telling him about a 100-mile race in California several years ago. "Over a couple of beers we decided ÔLet's do it!'" he recalls. He found out at age 22 that his one marathon was not enough to gain him entry into Western States, and was directed to the Ice Age Trail 50-mile, which has led him to almost a decade of ultrarunning and scores of first-place finishes.
Many young athletes are coming into the sport for its own merit, not because it is the final frontier of running. Ben Hian was racing triathlons when a friend brought him to the Baldy Peaks 50-km in Los Angeles. "I loved it so much that I eventually quit swimming and biking," he says, adding, "It was the people and camaraderie that attracted me to ultras." Although he ran track in high school where Hian did not, Mike Morton's introduction to ultras was similar to Hian's. He explains: "I read a book about Western States when I was in high school. I thought it was amazing to run 100 miles in one shot. After returning from being overseas for two and a half years (in the service) I met a fellow navy diver and he took me to the Uwharie Trail 40-mile. I fell into a groove I liked. " There is a generally held belief among ultrarunners that the wealth of experience veterans possess gives them an advantage over younger, inexperienced runners. One would think that the impetuousness of youth would bring only problems in long races, but it's not so at all. Morton and Hian are two of the best 100-mile trail runners in the country. Morton set a course record (14:08) in the Vermont 100 at the age of 23. Hian has captured the tough Angeles Crest 100 two years in a row at the age of 26. Clearly, these guys know what they are doing. There are many other runners who have moved right to the top of the results at a young age (see chart). They have proven one can learn the sport quickly and compete on even terms with those who have years of experience. Even in the longest ultras, there is no substitute for talent. The winner of the race will always be the runner who covers the course in the fastest time, not the one who is most familiar with the course, or looks the best at the finish line. Janice Anderson, a young female ultrarunner (a true minority) makes a very logical point by saying, "If you start early enough (running ultras) you won't be too old before you are experienced!"
As for the physical requirements of ultrarunning, we all know the disadvantages that come with more years. Recovery time is slower, connective tissue less pliant, leg speed a little slower. While these liabilities can be offset by experience and knowledge of the course, the quick recovery of most younger runners can be a huge advantage. Hian ran the complete Angeles Crest course 17 times prior to winning the race this year. This obviously helped him turn back a strong field and was made possible by his tremendous powers of recovery. Even the ability to re-group during a 50 or 100-mile race is going to be easier to accomplish for a younger runner. We always think of speed as a younger athlete's primary asset, but in ultrarunning, resiliency is even a greater advantage.
How about the social issue? Let's face it - for many older runners, social interaction is a big reason for doing ultras. 100 miles is enough time to share one's life experiences and philosophy. With the majority of participants coming from another generation, do the twentysomethings feel comfortable with fellow ultrarunners? Is there a generation gap for these younger runners? Most young ultrarunners have no problem socializing and competing with older runners. Morton called the other runners his "family away from home." Ian Torrence, a young ultrarunner from Maryland says, "I enjoy older ultrarunners. They have the best stories, and lots of them!" One anonymous runner said he did feel, "a bit out of place in the social atmosphere before and after races," adding, "going to a race usually ends up being a lonesome experience." Jason Hodde from Indiana, says it took him a while to feel accepted in the sport. "I think that older runners feel we are intruding on their sport. There was a lot of friction at first. Even now, older ultrarunners try to tell me how to run my race." Although that feeling may exist, it clearly seems not to be prevalent, as the sheer challenge and magnitude of races seems to wipe out any sociological differences, real or imagined.
One issue most older ultrarunners are not too worried about is running fast times at shorter distances such as 5-km, 10-km, and even the marathon. Is this a concern for younger ultrarunners, especially those who quickly graduated to ultras? As running ultra distances is not physiologically compatible with the leg speed required for fast times at shorter distances, are young ultrarunners willing to get away from ultras long enough to go back to the short fast stuff?
Surprisingly, most are not. Bill Antholine, from Arizona says, "In the future I will get back to speed mode and race at shorter distances, but currently I am in 100-mile per week ultra mode. I use running as an escape, a way of dealing with living in a new place and a chance to be outside." Hian says he has no short distance goals, that "my heart is with ultras." Hodde says he would like to run a sub-three hour marathon, but "will not sacrifice my ultras to do it." Morton says his primary goal is to run "tough trail races," but someday would like to train for a sub 2:30 marathon. For the most part, ultras are the focus of these runners, short distances an afterthought.
Author Douglas Coupland coined the term "Generation-X" referring to American youth in their twenties. He captured their angst, defining the typical Gen-Xer as unmotivated, uncaring, and bitter about the world left behind by older generations. Ultrarunners in their 20s could not possibly be further removed from this characterization. How do they respond to this label that has been applied to their generation? Predictably, with very strong emotions. Universally, they feel this characterization is pure myth and nonsense. Hian says, "I think waking up at 4:00 a.m. to train before going to a full-time job is far from unmotivated. I don't believe in classifying a group of people." Antholine adds, "I wouldn't trade my ultrarunning lifestyle for a Generation-X lifestyle at any cost." Morton feels "This bitterness is a waste of time and would be better channeled into a positive outlet."
While many of us look forward to a long future in the sport, younger ultrarunners are perhaps the most vital link to the future growth and prosperity of ultrarunning. Not only in their own participation, but in clearing the way for other younger athletes to do so in the future, wiping away the misconception that ultras are an old person's sport. We all would like to think of ultras as legitimate athletic competitions and not just a bunch of middle aged folks trying to prove a point. While many of us appreciate the intimacy of smaller ultras, we need our flagship events to thrive and grow in order to assure a healthy future for ultras. There is no better sign for the future than the growing numbers of younger runners coming into the sport. Any and all of us can learn from the positive example set by these athletes.