Top-end speed might be fleeting with age, but the experience and savvy required for longer ultras is anything but.
When 41-year-old Bernard Lagat won the U.S. Olympic Trials 5000 meters in July, he raised a few eyebrows.
The blistering kick he employed in the last 200 meters to move from third to first were a trademark of Lagat’s when he won world titles in the 1500 meters and 5K in 2007.
But that was almost a decade ago, and that’s long enough to lose a lot of speed. Just ask Allyson Felix, the sprinting star who in 2012, at age 26, won an Olympic gold medal in the 200 meters, but failed to even make the U.S. team in that event this year, at age 30.
In other words, winning a race as fast as the Olympic Trials 5K, when most of your competition is over a decade younger, just doesn’t happen much. Hence Lagat’s noteworthiness.
Except in Ultras – Even Highly-Competitive Ones
But what about when the race is farther, and the terrain more challenging?
To put it simply, despite a recent influx of younger runners into ultras, it’s still perfectly common for them to get school by a grizzled mountain man or woman with years of trail acumen woven into their tree trunk-like legs.
Take Megan Arbogast, 55, who placed sixth at June’s Western States 100-miler, harnessing two decades’ experience against competitors 20 or 30 years her junior.
Or take the 2012 Run Rabbit Run 100-miler, in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. A generous prize purse attracted talented younger runners like Dylan Bowman (then 26) and Timothy Olson (29), who had recently broken the course record at the Western States 100.
Yet 44-year-old Karl Meltzer, who has won more 100-milers than anyone, ever, weathered the miles and terrain better than Bowman, Olson, or a slew of other top-flight competition to win in 19:16:02.
Meltzer said part of his edge over younger competitors at RRR was that a 100-mile race requires not only athletic talent but experience with the highs and lows of a race as long as 100 miles, whereas pacing and other mistakes are more survivable in a shorter race.
“I think experience gave me an edge at Run Rabbit Run,” said Meltzer, now 48. “I know how to strategize. I know when to push the button and when not to.”
“These younger guys all went out like it was a race at mile 20,” he continued. “The few minutes you might gain there versus having something left to run at mile 70 really means nothing.”
Meltzer also pointed out that in a 100-mile race, a competitor’s top-end speed and VO2 max will rarely come into play, at least compared to strength, experience and mental fortitude – all things that are forged over many years.
“It’s a matter of strategizing, of knowing what you’re doing,” Meltzer said. “I saw [Bowman] walking on a flat section at mile 70 when he was leading and I caught him, and I knew that was my time to go.”
Old-Man Strength? More Like Old-Man Wisdom
Kurt Keiser, 42, who recently won the Afton 50K outside the Twin Cities, echoed Meltzer’s assertion that mental fortitude plays a huge role in ultras, where a competitor’s spirit and energy levels can fluctuate as much as the terrain.
“I think a lot of it is the mental fortitude, having been around the block a few times,” said Keiser, a former member of the elite training group Team USA Minnesota who competed in the 2000 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials.
Keiser beat lightning-quick 26-year-old David Hackworthy on the undulating, hot course at Afton, as did fellow master’s runner and runner-up Tim Hardy, 42.
“With these really long races, it becomes a mental game,” Keiser continued. “Over a lot of years training and racing, you learn how to fight through those ebbs and flows and still have a good performance.”
Behind them was three-time Afton winner and Keiser’s former Team USA Minnesota teammate, Chris Lundstrom. Now 40, Lundstrom had twice dueled local ultrarunning wunderkid Michael Borst, of La Crosse, Wisconsin, at the Afton 50K, winning both times against the nearly-undefeated Borst, 17 years his junior.
“In an aging runner, the capacity for endurance diminishes at a much slower rate than the capacity for speed,” said Lundstrom, who is working on his PhD in Kinesiology at the University of Minnesota. “Add to that the experience factor, knowing yourself and your abilities, and knowing how to run certain courses, and I think those factors can allow older athletes to compete on the same level as younger athletes who may in fact have greater physical capabilities.”
From his personal experience, Lundstrom added that, with age, comes a certain aversion to risk.
“I can say that my instincts for self-preservation are stronger than they used to be, which may be valuable in longer races in not going too hard too early.”