Sunday, August 15, 2010

Are Ultramarathons the solution to a Mid-Life Crisis?

I have had a discussion with a few friends recently about ultrarunning and the question came up of why we run such distances and why anyone would organise events to feed the obvious demand for long distance running races (see my previous post - Ultramarathons are the new marathons).  The knee jerk response, other than insanity, was that they satisfy the phenomenon of the mid-life crisis.  So while many people around the age of 40 feel the need to relive their youth by buying tangible items which to them suggest they are still young enough to have fun, such as a Porsche, or perhaps hang around in locations which infer youth, or more drastically undergo plastic surgery to temporarily give the image of youth, there are those of us who choose to do things which you would normally associate with the young.

After all running in an ultramarathon is considered as participation in an extreme sport. Surely not the domain of the middle aged?

The thing is for anyone who has progress their running life from 5km fun runs, to 10kms, half marathons, full marathons and into the world of Ultrarunning, you will have noticed a difference in the demographics at each distance.

A simple rule of thumb is that the longer the distance the older the bulk of the participants are.  I don’t have any specific research other than my own experiences, and would say that the best and most numerous participants at a 10km would be in their mid/late 20s, in a half marathon probably late 20s/early 30s, and for a marathon mid/late 30s.  There will always be exceptions, and I have suffered the frustration of being passed by many grey haired folk in marathons, when the normal expectation would be that I should be fitter and stronger.

When you get to Ultramarathons this trend continues, with the most popular and successful age group being in the early 40s (there is some interesting research on this topic in "The Lore of Running" by Tim Noakes) .  But is this because we’ve all been busy for the past 10 years raising children, working hard to break the back of a mortgage, or climbing the corporate ladder and simply not had the time to give our health and fitness the time it deserves?

Using my own circle of friends and family as a sample group, this would certainly seem to be the case.  About 6-8 years ago most of the people in my peer group led fairly sedentary lives, working long hours, and with little time available to train. The odd game of tennis, or golf, or perhaps running in a 5km race would be the limit of it.

Within the last 3 years my immediate group of friends has made healthy activities part of their daily and weekly routines, taking part in triathlons, endurance cycling, competitive tennis, and being active gym memberships (actually going to the gym as opposed to just paying for the membership and thinking that is enough to stay healthy!). I personally got back into running after a hiatus of a few years, and then returned running more challenging, longer events.  In the process I my weight has dropped by nearly 15kgs (32lbs), my blood pressure from 140/80 to 115/60 and my resting HR from 60bpm to 40bpm.

So rather than trying to buy something to make me look younger, I’ve effectively reversed the ageing process – and all thanks to running! Not only do you get the obvious physiological benefits, there are a number of psychological gains too such as the increased level of natural endorphins (your brain’s “happy chemical”) and reduced stress (physical exercise is a recognised treatment for depression and related conditions).

The thing is though while ultrarunning, or any running for that matter, can help fulfil those urges of a mid-life crisis, the reason that the mid 40’s is the most popular age for ultra marathons is more a result of the effects of ageing.  It’s well documented that as we age our performance at shorter distance events is reduced, but our endurance improves. However, if my predictions from last week’s posting are proved correct, then there will be more and more younger participants at ultra distance events. The one thing we can be sure of is that there will not be an influx of teenagers to these events as they could not get out of bed early enough to get their entry in!

Happy running!

“You will never find the time for anything. If you want time, you must make it.” - Charles Bixton

Today's training


  1. I have seen the majority to be even older than mid forties at ultra events. Certainly more laid back than marathoners.

  2. I think that's the attraction with the ultras, the relaxed atmosphere and it never seems like we're competing against each other - more of a mutual battle against the distance itself. Marathoners tend to be a slave to their watch and obsessed with placings.