It’s funny how your perspective changes. When the best I could do was run a 12-minute mile I thought that a 10 minute mile was fast. As I improved and could run a 10-minute mile I thought an 8-minute mile was fast. When I realized that I would never be able to consistently run an 8-minute mile I gave up trying to decide what fast was.

It’s the same with getting older. When you’re young you want to be older. You want to be 16 so you can drive, or 21 so you can drink [legally!] The age when you can do all the things you want to do always seems to be ahead of you somewhere.

I used to think people in the 40’s were old. It used to be called middle-aged. Forget the adage that “life begins at 40”, when you’re 25 you don’t believe it. When I was 40 I thought people in their 60’s were old. They were closing in on retirement and Social Security. Despite what I believed at 25 it turned out that being 40 really was the beginning of the time of my life. 

Everything changed at 42 when I started running. OK, I called it running. It was a lot of walking, a little bit of running, and a WHOLE lot of not knowing what I was doing. Looking back at that time it’s amazing that I kept running. Everything below my waist hurt almost all of the time. Getting up and down steps was a real challenge. And, according to me, I was in the best shape of my life. 

Despite my abject ignorance I did keep running. Eventually I actually was running. I wasn’t running fast. I wasn’t running far. But, I was running. 

In time I learned more about training, more about nutrition, and, most importantly, more about what my body would tolerate, what it would accept, and what would cause it to break. I learned that there is a very fine line between the almost imperceptible progress as a runner and crossing the threshold of injury and frustration. 

As a younger runner – in my case in my mid 40’s – your body will forgive modest indiscretions. It will forgive you for doing too much, for trying too hard, for not being patient as your body tries to become more of what you want it to be. It will give you gentle reminders that you need to be more careful. 

If you ignore those gentle reminders, your body will give you less subtle signs. The aches will last longer, the stiffness won’t go away, and running will be reduced to an awkward hobble. 

As you get older, that line between just enough and too much becomes thinner and thinner. The price of impatience is higher but the rewards of patience are greater. Some say age brings wisdom. That hasn’t always been true for me. What age has brought is a willingness to stay a little further from that threshold between pain and gain.

That’s not to say that I don’t still make the mistake of thinking more is better. If I’m having a good day I just want to keep going. If I’m having a bad day I think things will get better if I don’t stop. Of course, neither is true. A training plan is only as good as your willingness to trust it. 

So, the art of aging as an athlete – or as a human being? I believe it comes down to acknowledging what was once possible may now be beyond your reach. I believe it comes down to acknowledging that while your best years may be behind you, it’s still worth chasing those moments of joy that you know are out there.

And remember one of my favorite sayings: The older I get, the better I used to be.

Waddle on, friends. 

Read classic Penguin Chronicles at: The Archives


  • Kathy Kent says:

    So true. Spoken by a 67 year old marathon runner.

  • Wild Bill says:

    At some point (I’m 78), we should stop lamenting how much slower we are and start celebrating our ability to keep on running at whatever speed. I hope I’m listening.

  • Heah says:

    How old are you John? I am into my 57 and really slow down a lot.

  • Tom Foy says:

    So true John, as I passed 75 years young I was happy to just be out there trying and mostly finishing. I am afraid full marathons and half Ironman Triathlons are behind me but Open Water Sprints are still fun. I am a terribly slow swimmer but I still would like to Finish a half Ironman AquaBike Race at 80. The absence of the run might make that possible. I have 4 years to improve my swimming so I can make time limit for swim in HAlf Ironman AquaBike.
    I am right on the limit for swim now, about 1 hour 10 min (1.2 Miles)

  • Michael Nall says:

    At 68 with a recently diagnosed sacral stress fracture, I know exactly what you mean.

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