Age cannot wither

A few weeks ago, The New York Times published an article declaring that some runners are actually faster at 60 than at 50 (“Staying a Step Ahead of Aging,” Jan. 31, 2008). My reaction was, “Duh, that’s not surprising.” It’s certainly true in hiking—maybe not faster but certainly longer distances.

Better with the years: Carroll Koepplinger, top, takes to the trail. Janet Zusi, bottom, sets off on a ride. Photos Courtesy Danny Bernstein

Researchers, however, consistently find that, as the Times puts it, “You will slow down, you will grow weak, your steps will become short and mincing.” But this study was different, because it looked only at people who kept training as they got older—that is, those of us who plan to continue doing life sports all our lives. Curious, I asked outdoors people over 60 in Western North Carolina, “Are you hiking, cycling or running faster, longer or better than you were 10 years ago?”

Steve Longenecker, a retired camp director who’s the author of Wilderness Emergency Medical Aid Book for Kids (& Their Adults) (Milestone Press, 2005), says he’s running better than he was 10 years ago—with one qualification. “Ten years ago, I was working full time and running a guide service for rock climbers. Now I have lots of time on my hands.” For Steve, time is the operative word here. “Active folks in their 60s may have more time to run than those in their 50s, who still work at a nine-to-five job.”

Time is a major factor for retirees who make hiking a central part of their lives. Ashok Kudva, a retired engineer who’s lived in Hendersonville since the early 1970s, came to his first Carolina Mountain Club hike about six years ago at age 60. He chose Hospital Rock in the Blue Ridge Escarpment, one of the steepest and rockiest hikes in the area. He was slow, but he finished the hike. “I’m much stronger now, for both distance and pace,” he says. Ashok admits that “during my working life at a major corporation, I did not take enough time to exercise. My focus was entirely on career, family and home.”

Retired manager Tish Desjardin agrees, saying, “I hike longer—not necessarily faster—than I did 10 years ago. I feel stronger, especially at higher altitudes. There’s also more time to hike now that the nine-to-five routine is over.”

Not all committed hikers feel that way, however. Bruce Bente, another retired engineer in his late 60s, hikes several days a week year round. Compared with 10 years ago, he says, “I’m hiking faster and longer but not hiking better. The effects of age between 60 and 70 are apparent. I get tired quicker, and my balance is worse.”

Carolina Mountain Club President Becky Smucker is several years shy of 60. “I wish I could say that I’m a stronger hiker today than I was 10 years ago,” she says, “but it would be wishful thinking. I’m still a strong hiker when I have the time to be out on the trail regularly, but I find unwelcome changes.”

Older hikers may need more recovery time, but they also need to exercise regularly. “It takes me a little longer to recover from strenuous hikes,” Becky adds. “If I don’t exercise for a few days, I lose it faster. So I have to pay attention to regular exercise.”

People become slower with age because oxygen consumption declines. The heart cannot pump as much blood at maximum effort. The New York Times quotes Steven Hawkins, an exercise physiologist who believes, “You have to make training as intense as you can.”

Don Walton, the CMC’s trail supervisor, has a different twist. “In my case I am not hiking longer or faster, but I’m hiking more often and working harder doing it. I carry a chain saw and a backpack, and I dig in the dirt.”

At 78, Carroll Koepplinger, a retired union official originally from the Midwest, is the club’s poster child. “I never really did much hiking until I moved to Asheville in 1995,” he recalls. “I hiked four to six miles by myself. A few years later, I started going on CMC hikes regularly. I find that hiking with a group enhances the experience.”

Carroll says he feels stronger today than he did 10 or 20 years ago. It may be all those years fighting Minnesota winters or fighting for his union members, but most likely it’s because he hikes, bikes, skis and works out at the UNCA Fitness Center. No one I spoke to mentioned their good genes or long-living ancestors.

Just being in the mountains will enhance your skills. Janet Zusi was predominantly a runner who sometimes took casual bike rides. Since she moved to Asheville, her biking has ramped up considerably because of the challenging climbs. “I have also found that the Blue Ridge Bicycle Club members I go with bike harder and have challenged me to improve my skills. I am definitely a stronger biker than I was 10 years ago,” Janet reports. “I believe the key is daily exercise including strength training.”

But old injuries do accumulate. Asheville Track Club board member Wayne Stanko says: “At age 66, I’m not running faster than I was 10 years ago. I have been running for 43 years; those older runners that are very fast started running at a late age. Their legs are not beat up.” Jim Grodnik, for example, didn’t start running until age 50. Now 68, he says his running spiked a year ago when he started working harder with a coach. “I’ve taken less pounding than some of my peers, and I seem to be holding up pretty well,” he says. “I picture myself running up a rapidly moving ‘down’ escalator and trying to slow the rate of descent.”

Former educator Ron Terry, 61, started running 40 years ago and hasn’t stopped. He’s not running faster but smarter. “There will always be another race; I’m not as competitive, not as hungry,” he observes. “I’ve run a lot of premier marathons, but now I’m listening to my body. I take more days off, and I’m not training as intensively.” Ron runs four days a week.

About the same age, Ron and I share a lifelong dedication to our sport, but I’ve become more intense about my goals and hiking challenges. There’s a lifetime of hiking in our mountains, but I don’t have a lifetime left. The mountain will be there the next time, but will I? So I’m more focused and have more tolerance for exhaustion. I want to get those miles in. It’s not surprising that these studies are always done with runners; hiking is so subjective. Ten years ago, I was climbing eight rocky miles in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Is that equivalent to 12 miles in the Smokies with those beautiful switchbacks? I take injuries more seriously. I don’t have the time to sit around and let things heal by themselves. I go to the podiatrist, chiropractor and physical therapist quickly.

I searched for women runners over 60 with no luck. Ron, who works at Jus’ Running, says: “The number of women runners over 50 drop off. It’s a chosen lifestyle.” And if an older woman does run, he says, it’s generally because her male companion also runs. What a woman does physically between 35 and 45 sets the tone for her later life.

[Hike leader and outdoors writer Danny Bernstein is the author of Hiking the Carolina Mountains. She can be reached at danny@hikertohiker.com]

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