koop leadville 2018

Impact of Age Versus Experience on Ultramarathon Performance

By Jason Koop
CTS Ultrarunning Coach
Author, “Training Essentials for Ultrarunning

I have a long history with Leadville. I actually rode the Leadville Trail 100 mountain bike race before I ever considered doing the run. I first ran the Leadville Trail 100 in 2008, finishing 13th overall in 22:37:08. I carried an engagement ring for the entire race and proposed to my wife, Liz, at the finish line. Leadville race director Ken Chlouber officiated our wedding. After a few more finishes, and still happily married, I decided a whole decade later to tackle the Leadville Trail 100 again. As the race approached, I started thinking about whether being 10 years older would slow me down, or if the lessons I’ve learned since 2008 would help me go faster?

ken chlouber merilee leadville

It is well documented that age diminishes aerobic performance. In trained athletes, VO2 declines about 10% per decade after about 30 years old (Brown, 2007 and Hawkins, 2003). Being that my first Leadville was when I was 29, sadly I was ripe for the decline. Testing in the lab at CTS confirmed the decline in my VO2 max, as well as a similar 10% decline in my pace at lactate threshold. I was facing the grim facts that according to all of the testing data, and all of my training data, I unfortunately fit the research bell curve and am slower than I was 10 years ago. I went into this year’s Leadville Trail 100 with the simple yet daunting goal of finding out if I could be just one second better than my 29 year old self and run 22:37:07.

I finished the 2018 Leadville 100 in 19:26:33 for 8th place overall, more than 3 hours faster than 10 years ago. It was the fastest of the five Leadville 100 races I’ve run. It’s obviously hard to compare any two 100-mile runs apples to apples, even on the same course (the Leadville course has changed 3 times in the 5 times I have run). And I’m only an n=1, but several of the ways my performance improved fall right in line with well-established sport science and my own personal coaching intuition.

Cumulative Training Effect

While my lab tests show the expected decline in performance potential, I also have ten more years of training and tens of thousands more miles in my legs. Fortunately for me, endurance training is more chronic than acute, and this sheer amount of volume paid off. Sometimes jokingly referred to as “old man strength”, the cumulative training effect often manifests as greater consistency and resilience on race day. In my case, I was faster in all sections of the race – uphill, downhill and on the flats . The amplitude between my highs and lows was smaller; I was steadier. Like everyone, my pace slowed as the day wore on, but I slowed less than I did in any of my previous four LT100 runs.

It’s never perfect

10 years ago, I thought every last training detail had to be perfect. Everything had to be perfectly organized into nice, neat and perfect 4-week blocks that were perfectly master planned for 9 perfect months. As if that’s possible. Nonetheless, if I had a camp, an event to attend, or some other sort of training hiccup, I was sure to put my training first and foremost in order to satisfy my need for perfection. I’ve learned over time that training does not have to be perfect and oftentimes ‘perfection is the enemy of good’. Make no mistake, I got in good training this year. I did enough miles and vertical and specific intensity to do the trick, but perfection was never the goal. Turns out, good training did me far better than perfection did, go figure.

K.I.S.S.

Keep it simple, stupid. Experience prepares you for an ever-wider range of possibilities. It also shows you what gear and strategies actually make a difference and what you don’t need to worry about. Experience helps simplify things. Liz crewed for me, and the only instructions I gave her this year were 5 lines on an index card (compared to 7 pages of 10 point font Excel silliness 10 years ago) . Because I knew what I needed to carry, aid stations stops were as simple as swapping packs. I didn’t worry about carrying around extra grams from one more gel. I carried a bit more food than I probably needed because it didn’t really matter.

Even my nutrition and hydration plan was stupidly simple. For 19.5 hours of running I drank both water and sports drink, and I ate two rice balls, two waffles, and 17 packs of ProBar Bolts. That’s a lot of Bolts (170 if you are counting), but it was perfect for me. It was consistent and simple and one fewer thing to fret about. I did get wild and switched flavors once to the caffeinated Berry Blast variety after about 60 miles. During my last 8 weeks of training, it was the exact same hourly caloric intake (250 calories/hour) I used in every training run over 2 hours, from the exact same foods. Experience has taught me I was not gifted with an iron stomach. It’s taken years to train my gut and figure out how and what to eat so I feel good from start to finish.

Make it Meaningful

So much success in ultramarathon running can be attributed to being emotionally engaged in what you are doing. Fortunately, for this year’s Leadville I had this in spades. For starters, it was the 10th anniversary of asking Liz to marry me and having her out there meant the world to me. Add to that, I certainly could not let Ken and Merilee, two of my favorite people on earth, down. I simply had to see them at the finish line. Then, I had this 22:37:07 time goal in mind that I knew would keep me honest when the going got tough. But finally and most impactful, it was the first time I’d run on the course since Leadville resident, ultramarathon superfan, and someone I am lucky enough to call friend, Bill ‘Sooper’ Dooper’s passing. It would have been easy for me to jump in the car, drive a couple of hours and recon some of the course. But in doing so, I knew I would think of Bill and I wanted to save those precious memories for race day. I thought of Bill a lot during the run and it perfectly tied together a meaningful experience.

I have been a runner nearly all my life. My best times for mile, 5k, or marathon are far in the rearview mirror. But, the 2018 Leadville 100 was probably the best day of running I’ve had, ever, for any distance. I didn’t expect it to be that way, but when everything started to fall into place I also didn’t question it, fight it, or change my plan because I felt good. I just rolled with it and kept managing my effort, gear, pacing, and nutrition.

So, if you’re getting older and you’ve been running for a long time, my advice is to make it meaningful, keep it simple, realize it’s never perfect and to lean in to your cumulative experience and years of training. The physiological decline in performance will catch up to us all eventually, but it doesn’t have to be this year.

Hawkins, Steven A, and Robert A Wiswell. “Rate and Mechanism of Maximal Oxygen Consumption Decline with Aging.” Sports Medicine, vol. 33, no. 12, 2003, pp. 877–888., doi:10.2165/00007256-200333120-00002.

Brown, Stephen J., Helen J. Ryan, and Julie A. Brown. “Age-Associated Changes In VO2 and Power Output – A Cross-Sectional Study of Endurance Trained New Zealand Cyclists.” Journal of Sports Science & Medicine 6.4 (2007): 477–483. Print.

Comments 17

  1. Congratulations on a great race! I really enjoyed reading this. I’ve been running for 10 years and I’m the fastest I’ve ever been. I hope someday to qualify for Boston.

  2. I enjoyed the miles we shared around Turquoise Lake. Congrats on the PR and outstanding finish! Great article. Cheers!

    Ryan Kaiser

  3. Koop, great summary of your race and such a fantastic result. Its an inspiration to know that the the aging process doesn’t necessarily mean we have to slow down. Looking forward to next years ultra camp. Best Regards

  4. Mr. Koop,
    I looked at the title of your article while waiting for my post-run coffee, and had it read in no time! 7 months off due to arthritis (age 64) had me thinking the end was near. But starting up again is full of wonder and hope. Your article is like wind in my sails. Thank you and congrats, baby!

  5. Thanks for this! I have been running my whole life too and turned 49 this year. It’s been challenging to adapt to the issues that have come up since I turned 40 and I think there’s room for some clear, consistent coaching to help others make the transition…Cheers!

  6. Fantastic race report. I truly love how open and honest you are and it shows your true spirit. Congratulations and I am so proud of you!!

  7. Outstanding observations and super article setting it out. The observation re chronic training load and effect for endurance rvdbts is really encouraging given the fact that given aging and its effect on VO2 max you can beat the rap but not the ride. Thanks and great work, Koop.

  8. Congrats Koop! I hope you’ll do this experiment again in 10 years. As a 49-year-old who’s hitting the quarter-century mark of consistent long-distance running, I’d argue that experience offsets age-related decline much more going from 29 to 39, than from 39 to 49.

  9. Great to hear about the improvement, and congrats on the results!!! As a 61 year old aging cyclist who loves the challenge of ultra distance cycling, it’s encouraging to hear you are getting faster still and hope to do the same with good coaching. 3 consecutive DK200’s under my belt all race age 60 or more, and at LEAST 2 more to go!

  10. Reading this 4 days before running Cascade Crest for the fourth time (at 49) made me smile. Great thoughts Koop and I totally agree. Congratulations at Leadville and Happy Anniversary to you and Liz!

  11. Pingback: Ultramarathon Daily News | Tuesday, Aug 21 | Ultrarunnerpodcast.com

  12. Hey, one of the high points of my summer was walking up and running down the mountain with you the last day of our ultra camp!

    Oh, and I’ll never forget you getting me to do the last 4 miles of the run that day when I told I was ready to ride home from the parking lot. I still laugh at that “completely neutral” comment “Oh, ok” when I told you I was done. I hope you never take up poker! The look that accompanied that comment started me giggling as you walked away and I did the last 4 miles!

    Congrats on a great race! And thanks so much for keeping geezers like me focused on getting better rather worrying about perfection.

    And, I have to tell you, there’s nothing as cool as watching you and my coach, Corrine, walking the talk!

    I could drone on but I’ll spare you! Thanks again!

  13. Good job of your race! I am 74 and have ridden road bicycles for 35 years. The part on not perfect: If I did what I thought I should do I would be to tired to do the event:)

  14. Excellent summary, Mr. Koop, and congratulations on such a fine race you had. I always enjoy your thoughtful reflections, and try to emulate your practices and strategies when I can. As a 49 year-old novice trail runner, your words of wisdom are always welcome!

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