Americans over 50 are crushing Iron Man and Iditarod races, marathons, extra

Jill Jamieson runs close to Gravelly Point in Arlington, Va., in January, whereas coaching for the World Marathon Challenge. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)


A number of days earlier than working seven marathons in seven days on seven continents, Jill Jamieson warmed up by paragliding, climbing a mountain and swimming within the roughest seas she had ever skilled. Then got here the races themselves, by which she battled subzero temperatures and 30 mph winds in Antarctica, suffered a stress fracture in Dubai, and slogged by 99 % humidity in Brazil, all whereas battling a abdomen virus.

She accomplished the seventh marathon the day earlier than her 57th birthday.

Her pals “think I’m a little bit insane,” stated Jamieson, a resident of Arlington, Va.

But extra individuals could be saying the identical about their pals today. As athletic achievement throughout all age teams pushes human boundaries, extra individuals of their 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s are performing feats earlier generations might need had a tough time imagining.

“People are a little surprised that older people are doing extreme sports,” stated Tom Kamber, govt director of Older Adults Technology Services from AARP. But, he stated, “there seems to be a trend of people picking up nontraditional sports that used to be more the province of younger people.”

In the previous decade, the variety of individuals 60 and older registering for Ironman’s 140.6-mile and 70.3-mile triathlons has quintupled from round 2,500 in 2012 to just about 13,000 final 12 months. The common age of individuals within the Iditarod Trail Invitational, a multiday race by snow in subzero temperatures by bicycle, foot or skis, is now 46, up from its Nineteen Nineties common of early to mid-30s. Haylee Borgstrom, a sports activities medication physiatrist who teaches at Harvard Medical School, stated she has seen “a significant increase” within the variety of older athletes in her apply.

To earlier generations, a midlife pick-me-up might need come within the type of a zippy new sports activities automobile, and leisure in retirement might need meant sitting in a golf cart or at a bridge desk, cigarette or cocktail in hand. Many older individuals nonetheless choose sedate actions, and a few follow them for well being causes. But others want one thing extra intense.

For Adam Fisher, 54, a author and editor in California’s Marin County, the ingredient of hazard seems like an antidote to his life as “a suburban dad in a fairly risk-averse place.”

“It’s quite boring,” Fisher stated.

So, in his late 40s, he started taking skateboarding classes, revisiting a pastime from his youth, and final 12 months he took a course in freestyle snowboarding, which includes methods resembling jumps, backward snowboarding, spinning, leaping and grinds.

Why would a middle-aged man — who admits he was by no means a lot of an athlete when he was youthful — need to try this?

“The feeling of being stoked. I know that sounds so Northern California,” Fisher stated. But “when you land a big jump successfully, you can play it in your mind … and it looks amazing.” He needs to have these reminiscences to carry on to, he stated, after “the point where I am too old to have experiences like that.”

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Adam Fisher, 54, realized the right way to park ski in 2022. (Video: Ben Arnst and Alex Dorszynski)

One cause excessive sports activities have seen extra participation amongst older individuals is as a result of the actions have grow to be extra widespread throughout all age cohorts. Another is that Americans live longer. Life expectancy, which was within the mid-50s a century in the past, is now within the excessive 70s, so there are extra older individuals round to participate.

Rules and rules have additionally advanced, creating extra prospects for girls. Before the Nineteen Seventies, ladies weren’t allowed to compete in marathons, and women didn’t have entry to the array of sports activities alternatives boys had. But Title IX, enacted in 1972, prohibited sex-based discrimination in federally funded faculties, enabling extra ladies to pursue severe athletics.

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Rebecca Rusch, 54, an ultraendurance athlete and motivational speaker, has made a profession out of pushing her physique. Rusch’s actions embrace white-water rafting, mountaineering and, just lately, finishing the 350-mile Iditarod problem by bike three years in a row. “It’s complete immersion in nature and the appeal of exploring a remote area, and also to see what my body is capable of,” Rusch stated.

Rebecca Rusch, now 54, got down to journey a motorbike 350 miles throughout the frozen Alaskan wilderness for the Iditarod Trail Invitational in 2020. (Video: Rebecca Rusch, Dan Bailey and Mark Smith)

Some older athletes, like Carolyn Hartfield, 74, of Atlanta, begin after a well being scare. “I had a doctor’s appointment on the last day of my 49th year, and the doctor told me I was pre-hypertensive,” she stated. “The very next day, I started walking.” That led to different actions, together with basketball, white-water rafting, spelunking, zip-lining and main mountaineering teams.

And some, like Keo Capestany, 86, of Seattle, have needed to push again in opposition to relations’ and pals’ preconceptions of what they’re able to. “Our concept is old people, you have to be careful, you have to mind your age,” stated Capestany, a Cuban immigrant who began bodybuilding in his 60s and now does energy coaching 4 days per week.

Such stereotypes could be self-fulfilling, Kamber stated.

“When we have these prejudices, they really hold us back on a group level. People start to be restrained by those parameters,” he stated. But seeing older individuals interact in high-risk or bodily grueling actions “gives us a chance to check our ageism a little bit [and] widen the spectrum of what we think is possible.”

Jamieson realized what was attainable for her throughout her marathon problem. When the abdomen bug prevented her from consuming for over 4 days, she was positioned on an IV on the aircraft from Australia to Dubai. In Spain, her ft swelled, and she or he struggled to stuff them into her trainers. In Antarctica, her lips turned blue when her sweat-filled garments started to freeze round her.

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Endorphins helped her by, as did camaraderie along with her fellow runners, who handed round protein bars and hand-warmers.

“I wasn’t going to stop,” Jamieson stated. “But I did throw up on all seven continents.”

Last week, she was again in her ethereal Arlington loft, working 10- to 12-hour days as CEO of an organization that advises authorities companies on infrastructure finance. After per week of relaxation, she was again to her common routine of working, swimming, health club exercises and CorePower Yoga.

Perching her 5-foot-3½ body on a bar stool, Jamieson unfold a tangle of medals throughout her kitchen island, together with ones depicting every continent. It was not one thing she might have foreseen when she was youthful.

“Endurance running was not my thing,” Jamieson stated, however she started casually working in her late 30s to alleviate stress about her father’s Alzheimer’s illness. “For me, it was very meditative,” she stated. “It helped me manage my emotions.”

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She entered her first marathon along with her father’s help, earlier than his demise in 2009, and began the group Memory Joggers to assist increase cash for Alzheimer’s analysis. Her participation on this 12 months’s World Marathon Challenge has, as of final week, raised over $12,000 for the Alzheimer’s Association, and she or he plans to maintain elevating cash till she runs one other marathon in April — on the North Pole, by deep snow, on ice floes, only a few ft from the Arctic Ocean. Armed guards will defend the runners from hungry polar bears.

“I promised my father that I would go to the ends of the Earth to get a cure,” Jamieson stated, “so I’m literally doing that.”

Steven Kotler taught the snowboarding course Fisher took, which included individuals as previous as 68. Kotler, himself 53, advisable that older athletes take a gradual, big-picture strategy, slightly than leap instantly into the toughest actions.

“They get hurt by trying to take on too big of a challenge,” stated Kotler, whose forthcoming e book, “Gnar Country: Growing Old, Staying Rad,” chronicles his expertise pushing his physique to carry out daredevilry on skis. “Start one step below where you think you are.”

With correct coaching and common exercise, it’s attainable to retain bone density into one’s 80s and muscle mass into one’s 70s, stated Vonda Wright, an orthopedic surgeon in Lake Nona, Fla., and creator of the e book “Fitness After 40.” But older individuals do want to coach in another way, she stated: “Lift heavier weights, with fewer reps. Eat protein, because we don’t want to eat our muscles.”

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Many endurance athletes say their efficiency improved as they aged. Whereas some sports activities, like tennis, require brute energy to compete on the highest ranges, actions resembling distance working or distance swimming require a degree of maturity that youthful individuals don’t at all times have, stated ultraendurance swimmer Diana Nyad, 73.

Nyad dreamed in her youth of swimming from Cuba to Florida, what she calls the “Everest of all of the Earth’s ocean swims,” 110 miles rife with dangers from sharks, toxic jellyfish and stiff currents. No one had achieved it with out a shark cage, and Nyad herself failed 4 instances. After a three-decade break, she was impressed to strive once more after her mom died, at 82, when Nyad was in her late 50s.

“I thought … is it possible that, even as good shape that I’m in, that I’m only going to live some 20 more years?” she stated. “I made friends with [the late actor] Christopher Reeve … and he had said to me, ‘Are you satisfied with your life? You’re not chasing any big dreams anymore.’ And I just sat around thinking, ‘I’ve become a spectator. I’m not a doer anymore. And there’s that dream out there; it’s still alive. Nobody has swum from Cuba to Florida.’”

In 2013, on her fifth strive, Nyad turned the primary particular person to finish the swim, when she was 64.

Diana Nyad finishes swim from Cuba to Florida on fifth strive

“I was better at 64 than at 28,” she stated. As a youthful particular person, “I want to own the record, I want my name to be in lights. It’s not very inspiring; it’s not going to get you that far. Whereas when you’re out there thinking about Stephen Hawking and the majesty of the universe … now you’ve got a much bigger heart … and that leads to being able to summon what’s within in a more inspiring way.”

Older athletes may also encourage youthful ones. When Sally Saenger, a 67-year-old surfer in Santa Barbara, Calif., was in her 30s or 40s, different surfers, principally male, used to chop in entrance of her to catch a great wave. Now that she seems older, she stated, they maintain again.

It’s “like they’re thinking, ‘That could be my mom, or my grandma,’ ” Saenger stated. “I think they appreciate that I’m out there surfing at my age, because there’s not a lot of us out there.”

Jamieson skilled one thing comparable on her marathon problem, she stated.

“People kept saying, ‘You’re so inspiring,’ which I think was their way of saying, ‘Hey, you’re old, but you’re still doing it,’ ” she stated.

But Jamieson wasn’t the oldest one to run the seven marathons this 12 months.

Another participant, Dan Little of Oklahoma, was 80.

“I look at Dan for inspiration,” Jamieson stated. “I can see myself doing this in 20 years.”

Story enhancing by Ryan Bacic. Photo enhancing by Mark Miller. Video by Amber Ferguson. Copy enhancing by Paola Ruano. Design by J.C. Reed.

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