“Should you be doing that at your age?” If you’re an older endurance athlete you may well have been asked this question. As a recent article in the British Medical Journal pointed out, the prevailing attitude is that exercise is for young people while older people should be encouraged to relax. The Government is very keen to get mid-life adults (aged 40 to 60) to become more active, in order to reduce the incidence of chronic illness, and improve independence and quality of life over 60. Yet the mid-life and older people who take part in endurance events such as the Equinox 24 hour run, are still seen as exceptional, as not quite normal in their desire to push their bodies to their physical limits.
What is Equinox24?
The Equinox24 event takes place in the grounds of the Belvoir Castle Estate in Leicestershire. It takes place on the weekend of the autumn equinox, towards the end of September, starting at midday on Saturday and finishing at midday on Sunday. The route is 10 kilometres, along a mixture of paths and road with over 600 feet of ascent. Competitors camp on site, and families and supporters are welcome to join them. People can take part as solo competitors or in teams, taking it in turns to do as many laps as they can. There are many walkers as well as runners.
Older runners at Equinox24
I took part in Equinox24 in 2017 as part of a team of six. I was the oldest member of the team, and the only one over 50. But my running club, Holme Pierrepont Running Club, had one team whose five members were all over 60. We also had a solo runner, Mandy, who ran 10 laps as a way of marking turning 60 that year, and John Oldfield, who is in his seventies, was part of a club team.
A short way into my first lap I noticed several female competitors around my age or older. This made me wonder whether this type of event was particularly appealing to older runners.
How many people over 50 took part in Equinox24?
Around a third of the participants were over 50:
- 159 women over 50
- 227 men over 50
67 of these (17%) were over 60 and four were over 70. The oldest female and male competitors were 72 and 74 respectively.
What attracts older runners to Equinox24?
I decided to see if I could find out more about what attracts older runners and walkers to Equinox 24.
I posted two questions on the Equinox24 closed Facebook group which had around 2,000 members. 18 people responded. I was able to enter into conversation with individuals and ask them further questions.
Not everyone gave their age but I have used the age information I was given. The respondents were:
- 8 women (oldest 64)
- 10 men (oldest 63)
Seven of the women gave their years of experience of running. The range was from two to twenty years. One (Valerie) said that she had started running four years ago at 60. Three men stated their experience, with a range from two years to over thirty years.
A new athletic career?
Most older runners with many years of experience are not able to achieve personal best times in traditional road races, as their times have got slower with age. Older runners who still wish to be competitive re-set their targets and expectations, for example by going for a year’s best time, or by aiming to be fastest in their age category in races. Others may decide to focus on different types of events. Taking part in ultra-endurance events, such as a 24-hour event, can represent a new stage in their athletic career.
Julie who had been running for 18 years, said “those days [of chasing PBs] have gone.” She had started doing endurance events 5 years before and described herself as “hooked” on them.
Ian (61) had been running for 30 years and valued the opportunity to compete at a different type of event.
“As the years pass the ability to achieve PBs diminishes, but that competitive desire can remain. For me the outlet for that competitive urge is to go further and further.”
The benefits of experience
Some participants felt that being older gave them an advantage when it came to stamina and endurance. They were able to draw on their experience to get them through difficult moments, and had developed the mental toughness you need to cope.
Rachel B. (54) who had been running for 11 years:
“I much prefer longer distances than short fast ones these days …somehow I seem to have more stamina the older I get.”
“The ability to [go further and further] relies, I believe, more on experience and what’s in your head, than it does on fitness….As an example, when I felt like death just before dawn I knew it would pass, because I’d been there before. Sure enough it did.”
“Doing what we do comes from the years of experience and knowing our abilities to push ourselves that little bit further.”
Feats of endeavour and fun
Participants in Equinox 24 are attracted by the challenge it offers. Paul S (54) who had been running for 7 years:
“I’ve always been fascinated by feats of endeavour and challenges people endure. The notion of trying to stay awake for 24 hours and seeing how far I could get proved irresistible.”
Rose (54) was at Equinox 24 for the first time and had run her longest ever distance. She expressed a great sense of achievement: “I like the challenge of doing something I never thought I could.” Rachel W said that she enjoyed ultra events because of “The fact that you can do it! The highs outweigh the lows for me.”
Respondents talked about the fun and enjoyment they gained. For many this came from being in a team with fellow club members, friends or family members. Paul D (63) was a member of a large team whose members had all worn fancy dress. He ran laps for his team and also accompanied his daughter who was running solo on some of her laps. The appeal of Equinox 24 for him was “the fun element”. He contrasted this to road running: “road running can get you down as you can get drawn into the ‘must get PB’ syndrome…and then it can be no fun.”
Support from other participants added to the enjoyment for Patrick (51) who was a solo runner: “I had a thoroughly enjoyable time and received tremendous encouragement from many other participants.”
Attitudes to ageing
Respondents were aware that they are going against the norm. By participating in this event they stand out from the majority of their peers, whose levels of physical activity are much lower. (20% of 40 to 60 years olds are physically inactive and 41% do not take a brisk walk of 10 minutes in a month).
One participant, Julie, had been forcefully reminded of society’s expectations: that running is not a suitable activity for older people and that you should become less active as you age. She set herself in opposition to these:
“I was asked when I turned 50 if I was going to stop running!! No chance. I like to prove to myself and others that it’s simply a number. I’m not fast but have the stamina and determination to keep going for 24 hours.”
When respondents assert that “age is just a number” they reflect prevalent negative social attitudes to ageing, for example that ageing is so undesirable that it must be denied. But at the same time, they experience their participation as liberating, positive and beneficial.
“Just because I’m over 50 doesn’t mean I’m any less capable of achieving what I want.” (Julie)
Martin (50) wanted to show his young son that age did not have to prevent participation in sport: “I just want to show my son age is just a number.”
Running provides a way of freeing ourselves from cultural expectations and limitations. Donna said “Running makes me forget I’m over 50!”
Ali (59), who had started running three years previously, found it had improved her health: “Running has taken years off me health wise.”
Cathi (55) found that endurance running was an opportunity to create a different running identity for herself.
“Equinox was the best running experience of my life. I’m not a good runner, I’m older, a bit arthritic and very slow, but I’m also bloody-minded and like my own company. I was never going be a decent ordinary distance runner, almost anyone can run a 2 hours 20 half marathon…but it takes a particular kind of runner to run slowly and stupidly far.”
“Heroes” or role models?
Are the people who contributed to this article exceptional? Most would not identify themselves this way. They stand out from their peers but they don’t possess exceptional ability or have unusual good luck. They are disciplined and determined to make the best possible use of their physical resources.
Rather than being exceptional “heroes”, to be admired from afar, they can be seen as ordinary role models, who show that older people can do much more, and be much more active, than society expects them to be.
With thanks to everyone who responded to my questions; to Donna, Ian, Julie, Patrick, Rachel B, Rachel W, Rose and Valerie who sent me their race photos; and to Laura from the Equinox24 team who supplied the participant statistics.
Equinox 24 hour race website
“Focus on physical activity can help avoid unnecessary social care” by Scarlett McNally et al, BMJ, 11th October 2017
“Physically inactive” is defined as doing less than 30 minutes of moderate exercise a week. Statistics on physical activity in mid-life adults come from:
“10 minutes brisk walking each day in mid-life for health benefits and towards achieving physical activity recommendations” Evidence summary, Public Health England, August 2017
The photographs of Belvoir Castle, the Equinox campsite and of me are courtesy of True Reflection Photography, Radcliffe on Trent, Nottingham.