Is Age an Issue in Adventure Racing?

Article by Sir Ranulph Fiennes
Monday 23rd March 2009

I started adventure racing in 1995 aged fifty one and have been at it ever since with ever growing enthusiasm, for it is an addictive and highly enjoyable sport. In 2004, with Ski Sharp as team leader, we won the summer Ace Race in the UK (by a few minutes) and I ran my first 78km marathon in the Alps. That took some 9 hours, yet, when I did my very first standard marathon (aged 44) I took 5 hours 40 minutes and hated every minute of it.

Rob Hope, the 2008 British Fell Running Champion

My first adventure racing effort, at the instigation of a fellow polar traveller, Mike Stroud, just after we’d crossed the Antarctic continent together, was Eco-Challenge British Columbia. Rebecca Stephens was on the team and so was Mike’s father, Vic, 71 years old at the time.

My memories of that race include Vic’s amazing fitness and determination, Mike’s face swollen like a football from wasp bites and the intense disappointment of our team being stopped due to our slow pace after five wonderful days and nights in the Rockies. I soon discovered that only 14 of the 70 starting teams made the finish. John Howard’s Eco Internet team won, I seem to remember. Later, in Morocco, with David Smith, Helene Diamantides and Steven Seaton, our Eco-Challenge team eventually took eight days and nights to finish in about 40th place. We were disqualified for losing a team member en route but what a great experience and memorable scenery.

Team Littleton Bike enters the wild in the 2008 Patagonia Expedition Race

At last, in Patagonia, with Steven, Pete James and Sarah Odell, I was part of a team that actually completed a full adventure race without disqualification or removal. We came in 12th in a competitive field and I felt a secret satisfaction at being 22 years older than the oldest of my team-mates and a good deal older than any other competitor out there.

On the Southern Traverse in 2002, there were a dozen or more individuals of both sexes well into their 40’s and a few males of over 50 spattered among the teams. They all seemed to enjoy the race.
















At home in the mountains: Patagonia Eco Challenge: Pasi Ikonen

Here are some random thoughts on the pros of taking up AR as a senior citizen:

- Life experience can provide you with skills for dealing with the unexpected, for coping with lack of sleep and generally give you greater powers of mental and physical endurance than when you were younger.

- Speed is less of an issue in the longer AR races. At 57 years I came 12th (teamed with semi-oldie and superb navigator Gary Tompsett) in a KIMM (Elite class) purely because, that year, the course was very long, rugged and slow. Longer, tougher AR courses tend to blunt the advantage of the speedsters and make oldies much more competitive. A single navigational error can make a superb team of fast youngsters fall behind a veteran group with good navigation skills.

- One of the key delights of AR is that you can be a grizzled jack of all trades and master of none yet still do well against the most brilliant and sprightly specialist performers. So, although learning new skills might become tougher with advancing years, this is often compensated for by the wealth of outdoor knowledge you have already accumulated.

- For those who take up AR when barely out of their teens there are often problems with impatience, lack of the ability to sublimate egos to achieve good team performance, failure to hold back and pace themselves plus inability to cope with sleep deprivation. Younger AR competitors can also suffer from lack of experience and knowledge relating to those skills that are experience-based such as mountain safety, navigation etc … to summarise, a lack of ‘life time’ in which to develop the wide range of skills which AR requires. For this reason, teams made up exclusively of young athletes rarely do as well as older or mixed age teams even if they might be better aerobic athletes. However, as race speeds increase, so too will the need for younger athletes to contribute speed, fitness and strength to experienced teams.

Wild terrain in Patagonia: confidence and experience in wilderness regions increases with age, proving that there is no age restriction to participating in adventure and expedition racing. 

In conclusion, it is never too late or too early to start. Age is simply not an issue. Shorter, more physical and less tactical races provide a great entry point to the sport for younger athletes and older athletes are never too old for the longer, tactical endurance races. What is stopping you?

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