My first foray into organised running events since school came at the 2011 Half Marathon, when I was 35 years old. My mediocre finishing time of 1 hour and 40 minutes gave no indication that I’d be representing Great Britain five years later.
When I then ran my first marathon in 2012, in an only very slightly less mediocre time of 3 hours and 17 minutes, the GB trail running team selectors weren’t scanning the ‘Power of 10’ rankings to establish who this extraordinary breakthrough athlete was. Especially as I ran it dressed as a toilet.
But I was on a roll…
Hitting my peak
There I was at the 2016 Trail World Championships, aged 40, representing my country in the same blue short-shorts and vest combo worn by Olympian Mo Farah.
My best performance at the de facto world champs, Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB), fifth place, happened when I was 42. I ran my marathon PB of 2:38 the same year, which qualified me for the England Age Group Masters team (for what that’s worth).
Of the eight running records I’ve broken, the most prestigious two, the Paddy Buckley Round and the Pennine Way, occurred when I was 43 and 44. So, I guess I count as a late bloomer.
But it was from my 40th year onwards that things started to click for me in ultrarunning. Well, I got sponsored and started up an Instagram account anyway.
Why latecomers to endurance sports can succeed
Some aspects of my 'late success', if we can call it that, are down to me and some are due to the sport itself. Ultra-distance running does suit the slightly older athlete. At 35 I was already well over the hill for a footballer (plus I don’t have any forearm tattoos) and most elite sports.
Though speed starts to decline in male runners from the age of 40, a study has shown that the decline is only by about 1% per year at marathon distance all the way up to age 70. And between the ages of 35 and 40, there’s only a 1% decrease overall. Another study found that performance decline may have more to do with less consistent training than age in 40-59 year olds.
Thankfully, top speed isn't much of a factor for 100-milers, but faster runners will have a superior running economy. Anecdotally there’s a theory, espoused by some top level coaches, that it’s your running years that count, and that it can take eight years to truly peak.
Right away, long distances in 'lumpy' places just seemed to suit me, both physically and mentally. I’d previously loved playing football (speed work) but also long-distance walking, which is all about being self-sufficient out in the ‘lumps’ all day. The idea you could have long days in the hills, but in a competitive context, was a lightbulb moment. That's what I wanted to do!
From Captain Robert Falcon Scott to The Lord of the Rings, I've always loved tales of endurance. Physically, I'm definitely a slow-twitch athlete and my last season as a footballer was as a box-to-box midfielder, taking more pride in covering ground than my (inept) ball skills.
By your mid-to-late 30s you should have a good idea of what suits you and spend less time doing things that don’t, and I had a compelling feeling that this running lark was for me during that first half marathon in 2011.
I was about to become a dad too and running suits early parenthood better than probably any other sport. It’s super flexible, can be done around bedtimes, and you’re not reliant on venues or meeting others. While those sleep-deprived nights are good training for things like the Spine Race.
The benefits of life experience
I joke about it being a midlife crisis, but at an age when you might start to think about physical peak going the same way as my hairline, it was rewarding to test myself and find results I liked. Compared to football, it gave me clear markers of progress and of course every early race is a PB.
As I started bothering top-10s and podiums in ultra races, I had a simmering sense of wanting to make up for lost time. I got a coach and prioritised running over my social life. It became self-perpetuating; the more serious I was about training, the better my results, and the more seriously I took things; improving diet, cutting down/out booze, sleeping more, pre-emptive physio visits, doing strength work.
I've had only one significant over-use injury in nine years and I’m close to five years without any injury now. Though I try not to take myself too seriously, I do take training seriously and that consistency is likely the biggest factor in my longevity.
As a coach now, I can see there are two types of runner: those who’ll get up at 5am to train and those who press ‘snooze’. Runners can be crudely divided up into another category too: those who train to race and those who race to train. I started out being all about the races, but somewhere along the line realised I was in it for the day-to-day process of training. Big days out in the Brecon Beacons or Snowdonia excite me more than races.
When it came to races, while it might make a lot more sense to do the 108-mile Spine Challenger before doing the 268-mile Spine Race or UTMB's sister race - the 60-mile CCC - before the 105-mile version, in both cases I impatiently jumped right into the big one. I jumped off the deep end, doing a 100-miler for my third ultra race and the Spine Race for my fifth. It could have back-fired, but signing up for the things that scared me worked out. I didn't feel I had time to mess about with stepping-stone challenges.
Psychology is huge in ultra running and the more mature runner may have an advantage there. A bit of life experience (i.e. some disappointments) helps put things in context in the endless-seeming dark hours, when 72 miles into a 100-miler. Several studies show 'substantial evidence that, on balance, older people’s daily emotional experience is more positive than younger people’s', they manage emotions better and display greater emotional stability. (Though this doesn't apply to me if my tea is too milky).
I used to be a journalist who ran, now I’m a runner who occasionally writes (badly). I’m really grateful for what this sport has given me. It’s been a life-changing adventure.
Above all else, I just ruddy love it. I love the unreasonably supportive community. I love the sport’s humbling nature – when you’re out on Helvellyn mountain at 3am in a hail storm, it doesn’t matter if you’re millionaire or a marrow picker. I love the lumpy places running takes me to and I love the magical taste of tea after a long run.
For The Rise of The Ultra Runners book, author Adharanand Finn asked me if I felt any regret at discovering the sport late. But I don’t waste time thinking about it. Being a late arrival is partly what's driven me on and may even have been an advantage.