This story has been archived from the Sunday, October 21, 2007 Denver Post
Athletes over 40 hurtle past records, stereotypes
Jason Blevins The Denver Post
The familiar doubt arrived, haunting Marshall Ulrich.
"You are too old for this."
It was 114 degrees, and 56-year-old Ulrich was 35 miles into July's Badwater Ultramarathon, a 135-mile race that climbs from California's Death Valley to the flanks of Mount Whitney. Ulrich was crossing Death Valley for the 20th time in his running career, and things were looking grim. He'd lost 6 pounds since the start. His legs felt leaden, his breathing was labored. He was cramping. Sweat pouring. He was dead last in a race he'd won four times.
Maybe he'd pushed too hard, racing across the Gobi Desert, taking on an adventure race in Virginia and an ultramarathon through the Swiss Alps during the two months prior. Maybe after two decades of endless running in 117 ultra competitions and a dozen expedition-length adventure races and summiting the highest peaks in each continent, he was nearing his end at the top.
Maybe he was simply too old.
"I definitely thought about that for a little bit," he says, leaning back into a leather chair at his home perched above St. Mary's Glacier.
"I had to give myself a little talk and say, 'So what?' I had to stop feeling sorry for myself. So I'm suffering. Big deal. I expect to suffer, and really, I just don't care. You have to remember you always come back."
After an hour in the medical tent and a gallon of water, Ulrich found his inner champion and passed more than 40 other racers on his way to the finish the next day.
Turns out age wasn't a factor. For Ulrich and an impressive roster of other over-40 athletes, a combination of smart training and the wisdom of experience lets them stay competitive.
They aren't winning despite their age. They are winning because of their age.
"They just keep on going. They just keep on getting more efficient with their use of oxygen. After years and years of aerobic training and competing, they are, in a sense, smarter athletes."
And they compete in an evolving playing field that is turning recreation into sport. What were once multi-day or several-week hikes - like the Colorado Trail or the Kokopelli Trail - are now venues for nonstop endurance races. Marathons, once the pinnacle of athletic achievement, are mere training runs for ultra races that span at least 50, but more often 100, miles.
Take Bernie Boettcher. On his 45th birthday last month, the Silt legend reset his master-class record and logged his fourth overall win at the Imogene Pass race above Telluride. It was his 267th race in 260 consecutive weeks. In those five years of every-weekend racing in sneakers and snowshoes, he's tallied 115 wins and 208 master-class wins.
"At the end of suffering, there is a reward, and it's a really neat feeling to overcome that suffering," says Boettcher, his blue eyes gleaming beneath his trademark wide-brim straw hat. "After a while, that feeling is irresistible. You plow on through because you know it's so good."
Passion before performance
"Maybe that's because we have a different set of expectations and the passion came before the performance, where a lot of guys who started young had the performance first and then lost the passion," says Matt Carpenter, a rarely beaten world-class runner who, at 43, just won both the Pikes Peak Ascent and Pikes Peak Marathon in the same weekend.
"You have to look pretty hard to find young guys with the level of passion some of us old guys bring."
A few months ago, Carpenter teamed up with Ned Overend, a 52-year-old mountain biker from Durango, to win the team contest in the Teva Mountain Games. The two gray-haired athletes giddily beat some of the strongest young competitors in outdoor sports.
"I have a lot more respect now for the old-man strength, and I know now, once the gun goes off, forget the age groups. It's every man for himself," says 29-year-old Josiah Middaugh, a nationally ranked triathlete from Vail who has lost several times to some of Colorado's toughest over-40 racers.
The passion of the extraordinary elders is anchored in a steadfast love for training. Sure, for outdoor athletes, training means going for runs and rides in the woods. Who doesn't like that? But when it comes to competing at an elite level, training involves somewhere around 40 hours a week of heavy work, not a weekend ride or two.
And after a couple of decades of training, the older athletes learn a few tricks - like how to taper and how to make it fun - that keep them in shape while staving off dreaded burnout.
They have trained for so long, their fitness level is staggering and it stays high. They aren't rolling off the couch to prep for a race. They are building on decades of work.
"Training is a part of our lifestyle," says Overend, who was twice ranked as the world's top rider and still levels virtually all rivals who pedal against him.
"Racing is important, but training is absolutely important. ... You have to build momentum, get the right intensity and volume and find the right recovery time. It's complicated, and it changes all the time. "
Wisdom of the war horse
"Physically, I know there are people on the starting line who are probably stronger than me, but that doesn't mean I cannot beat them," says Vail's Mike Kloser, a 47-year-old husband, dad of two teenagers, director of activities at Beaver Creek and the world's most accomplished adventure racer - who still rides a mountain bike like he's being pursued by wolves.
"It might actually mean I am more able to beat them, because they rely less on their mental game. The mental game is a huge factor."
So long as that mental war is waged before the start of the race. While a younger racer might be strategizing and obsessing during a race, veterans know that in competition they have to remain in the moment.
"For me the mental part isn't really a part of it. I just get out there, and it's too overwhelmingly physical to get stressed," says Dave Wiens, a mountain biking champion who beat Floyd Landis and his own record in his fifth win at the grueling Leadville 100 race this summer. "A lot of it is attitude. You are going to be as old as you think you are. I like to think I'm only 43."
Motivation is a varying characteristic among older athletes. For racers such as Carpenter, Kloser and Boettcher, it's all about winning. Some race to win, but they race for other reasons. Wiens and Overend are so in love with riding, they will race long after they lose that perch on the top podium.
Winning for a cause
A dozen years ago, surgeons told Van Deren her career as a pro tennis player was over. The chunk of seizure-scarred tissue they were carving from her brain would take with it her athletic excellence. Today, the 47-year-old mother of three is on track to become the most accomplished female endurance trail runner in the country.
Last month, she placed fifth overall at the 50-mile Dances With Dirt ultra in Hell, Mich., dominating the women's field, setting a masters record and beating all but four of the male racers who lined up at the start.
She found herself grinning at the same panting question from several racers she passed: "Do you mind if I ask how old you are?"
"When I win, I use it as a tool to raise awareness of brain injuries. It's not about me. It's about what I can do with that win," says Van Deren, a North Face-sponsored runner who works closely with patients, administrators and doctors at Craig Hospital.
"I want to take a gift I have as an athlete and use it to the best of my ability. My legs are my voice."
Ditto for ultramarathoner Ulrich, who has raised more than $250,000 for the St. Lucy Filippini Health Center in Hamelmalo, Eritrea, through his tireless running and fundraising.
"When I was young, it was an ego thing - pushing myself to see what made me tick," Ulrich says.
"Then I got that figured out and found another motivation. Knowing I'm doing it for someone else keeps me going. If it was just for myself, I wouldn't do it. I guess I'm kind of getting over myself."
MATT CARPENTER, 43
"Go out hard. When it hurts, speed up."
"Train like you're young, and race like you're young."
"I'm not making any concessions to age. I think the key word is denial," says the father of one, whose particular skill is running up and down mountains.
Carpenter says he is stronger than ever before, but maybe not as fast. Judging by his recent performance on his home hill, Pikes Peak - winning both the ascent and marathon in two days - it's hard to see any declines in speed. Besides, a decline in Carpenter's world means that his dominant wins are simply less dominating.
The 122-pound racer chooses his contests carefully and does not lose. Arguably the best mountain runner in the world, Carpenter logged a VO2 max of 90.2 in 1990, the highest ever recorded for a runner. (VO2 max is considered a benchmark of fitness and measures the amount of oxygen a person can extract from circulating blood and distribute to muscles during high exertion.)
Learn more about Carpenter, one of the more opinionated and colorful runners, at www.skyrunner.com.
DAVE WIENS, 43
The five-time winner of the ridiculously difficult race put a special effort into this summer's competition, knowing that Floyd Landis, and possibly Lance Armstrong, would be racing.
For training this spring, he rode the Kokopelli Trail Race from Fruita to Moab - scorching the 142-mile desert race in 12 hours, 45 minutes.
It paid off. When push came to shove in the final leg of this year's Leadville race, it was Landis pushing Wiens - and the Gunnison father of three boys shoved harder.
Born and raised in Denver, Wiens started racing pro after graduating from Western State College in 1988. Wiens officially "retired" from racing in 2004, but that was before the two-time national mountain biking champion won his four Leadville 100s, the inaugural 125-mile Vapor Trail Race and the Crested Butte Classic 100.
Obviously he has his own definition of "retired."
"It's kind of an obsession. That's a problem I have. I am going to have a hard time defining 'the end,"' he says. "While winning is certainly more fun, I think losing has way more to offer in terms of character building. I'm going to do Leadville until I get beat. And then I'll probably do it again."
BERNIE BOETTCHER, 45
During nearly five years of racing, the part-time artist from Silt has developed an encyclopedic knowledge of his rivals: their style, how they look when they are feeling strong, and more important, what they look like when they are suffering. Things like tilting their head back. Slowing the swing of their arms. And the most tell-tale sign, looking back over their shoulder.
"You know that that means? That means they've stopped racing. That's when I make my move. For years I have worked on recognizing signs of weakness. I'm like a predator," he says, noshing on a buffalo burger after a quick 30-mile training run.
He makes sure to never develop a pattern his rivals could use against him, working feverishly to assure his strategy is never turned on him. His wife, Jeannie Blatter, is an equally gifted runner, and often the pair wake up Monday with pairs of matching medals. They both share an "excessive personality" that drives them to compete.
"Everything I do is designed to win at running," he says.
MIKE KLOSER, 47
He dabbled in the pro mogul skiing circuit for a while, winning a few national contests. But he found his calling hammering the knobby-tired ride, winning mountain biking's pre-sanctioned world championships in 1988. The father of two teenagers who are emerging as top-tier athletes themselves, Kloser credits his longevity to his switch to adventure racing in 1997.
"Now everything I do outdoors is training," he says.
In the past decade, the 26-year Vail Resorts employee has earned the most wins in adventure racing history, captaining his Team Nike to five world titles, three Eco-Challenge wins and four Primal Quest championships.
Last year he won the U.S. Winter Triathlon Championship at Grand County's Devil's Thumb Ranch, confirming his reputation as one of the world's top all-around outdoor athletes. He does it all and he wins, sporting an unnervingly placid "isn't-this-fun" grin with every step.
His strategy: pray for the worst weather imaginable. "I really hope for adverse conditions. I relish those hard circumstances because I know rivals wither in those conditions," he says.
DIANE VAN DEREN, 47
On her final - and 15th - 10-mile lap at the McNaughton Park Trail Run in Illinois, race organizers began taking down ribbons marking the trail. After all, the racers had been there 14 times. Van Deren freaked out.
"Where's the trail?" she screamed at the checkpoint staff. "I have a brain injury. I can't remember!"
A flustered organizer joined her, running along the trail, pointing out the turns - and Van Deren set her record. Just like always.
After brain surgery 12 years ago, Van Deren must write notes on her hands and drop-bags on long-
distance runs. "Drink. Flashlight. Rain jacket." That keeps her focused on stuff like surviving while she stomps her way into history.
The mother of three - including a 19-year-old serving in Iraq - kept her surgery and seizure history secret during her first years on the competitive ultra circuit. When she established herself as a force, she came out and became one of the nation's leading voices for brain-injury awareness.
She takes her role-model status as seriously as her training, which involves waking at 4 a.m. daily for trail runs that stretch past 30 miles.
"There are no shortcuts to what we do," she says. "It all comes from hard work, and we need to convey that message more clearly. It's our obligation to set good examples."
NED OVEREND, 52
When he mounted a mountain bike in the early '80s, he began a career that kicked off with wins at the inaugural world championships in Durango in 1990. From there, he went on to earn two world champion titles and six national crowns as well as dual nicknames: The Lung and Deadly Nedly.
He beat his own record at this summer's Vail Hill Climb - part of the Teva Mountain Games - beating Floyd Landis with a blistering time of 27 minutes, 29 seconds on the 9.7-mile, 1,500-vertical-feet climb up Vail Pass.
"Avoiding injury is my key," he says. "If my knees get sore on a bike ride, I turn around and go home. I stand in freezing water a lot too: the Animas River, right here in town. I think that kind of ice bath is a good way to reduce inflammation and reduce the chance of injury.
"Injury means needing to take more time off, and that can lead to getting out of shape. You can't be this old and get out of shape, because it takes so long to regain it."
MARSHALL ULRICH, 56
On a whim, he decided to run a 24-hour race in upstate New York in 1988. He won it, setting a record, and surprised himself by maintaining that three-hour marathon pace for the entire 24 hours. The father of three had discovered a rare ability to run for, well, forever.
In 2002 he began a quest he dreamed up at age 8: to climb all seven of the highest summits on the seven continents. It took him a mere 3 1/2 years.
Next spring, the lithe Ulrich will join renowned ultra runner Charlie Engle, 44, in an attempt to break the record for running across the United States. Starting in Seattle, the pair plan to run at least 68 miles - probably 15 to 17 hours a day - for 47 days, ending in Washington, D.C.
"There are lots of people out there who think it is extraordinary to go out and run 100 miles. For us it's much more instinctive to do that instead of sitting on the couch drinking beer and watching a ballgame.
"We have this yearning. I always said I wanted to run into my 90s. Now I'm thinking I can do it into my 100s."
Jason Blevins: 303-954-1374 or firstname.lastname@example.org