Trail Running the Golden Years

Age is nothing, attitude is everything. We had the fortunate opportunity to gain some insight into trail running at 70 years plus, through the experiences of one Flip van Schalkwyk. Flip is a local on the trails of the Tygerberg, in the Majik Forest area of the Cape.

“At 65 I realised that there must be much more to life than hum-drum, so I let my daughter and son-in-law talk me into trail running.  Note, I am NOT an old trail runner, who just kept going into old age.  I STARTED trail running at 65; an old man with a boep and a deteriorated body.  My first efforts at running was only a shuffle – my daughter out-walked me.  After my first trail run – a 6km milk run - I had great difficulty just walking back to my car.  I had to learn to run again like kids learn to walk.  You know, put your feet forward one at a time, lift the knee, kick the butt, don’t slip on the gravel, don’t hook a toe behind a root and don’t fall off the cliff.  I read a lot, watched many training videos and wisely consulted a biokineticist.  I learned that trail running puts completely different strains on your body than (yawn!) road running.  I learnt the value of stride training, intervals, supportive exercises to strengthen medial ligaments, core training, etc.  I designed my own training programme, built my own slant board a-la Eric Orton and worked very hard at it.”  

Fast forward 5 years and a few months, and Flip can now run for four to five hours at 95% of his maximum heart rate.  He runs approximately 35km of trail per week, in addition to gym work and has participated in 106 trail events. This year he did the 24km Kleinmond XL, the 25km Bastille Day run, the 15km Helderberg Challenge and the 22km Cape Town Marathon Peace Trail. He is the kind of human who makes you realise, with absolute clarity, that very few of us have come anywhere close to reaching our personal potential.

“I’ve run a total of 4 400km on trails, with a total elevation gain of 110 000 metres, in the last five years (actually four years – I had two operations and I was out for a while when I dropped 5kg of iron onto my big toe). That’s like Cape Town to Bloemfontein four times, keeping to the hills, and crossing the equivalent of Table Mountain 110 times.  Now, if you youngsters do the calculations, you will find that you’ve done a lot more. Still, I use twice as many heartbeats as you do over the same distance or elevation, so I feel good about it.”

Indeed, Flip is defying the advice so many old school GPs give to men and women over the age of 60.

“The standard advice for people my age, a brisk walk for 20 minutes each day, can only serve to reverse years of neglect and reduce the major risk. I believe good health and wellness only comes from a fairly high heart rate over a longish period – hours, not minutes. Within reasonable limits, not at my 95%, at least not until you are ready for it.  Build up to it.

The doctors are excited by my heart’s EKG profile, my resting HR in the fifties and my BP of 120/80.  Stats are just stats, though, and I could keel over tomorrow, but, at least, I have improved my chances significantly.  I also have a better quality of life.  I hardly ever get a cold and I always feel good, physically and mentally.  I also feel good about myself.  I feel so invigorated that I started several initiatives that retirees normally think they are too old for.  Most importantly, I spend many hours per week having fun, doing what my body and mind evolved for – running in nature, enjoying the rain and mud, avoiding dehydration in scorching heat, whistling at birds, chasing (and sometimes even beating) mice and lizards down a narrow track, and looking out across vast distances from (sometimes) vast heights.

I was hoping to do a 75km, four day run in November, at age 71, but it is now in doubt.  In training I made a classic mistake - I added distance all the time and neglected the elements of running, like running style, strides, speed sprints and hill intervals.  Far and slow teaches you to run far and slow, so I can now run four to five hours, but I am slowing down!  I also ignored my own advice, to increase gradually.  The jump from a one day 20k run to a four day 75k is just too big. 

So, sulk a bit, learn and start again. I shall now shorten my distances and add more intensive training to increase sprint speed and (especially!) hill-climbing speed.  Gradually I shall increase the distances and introduce some back-to-backs, until I am ready to run a multi-day ultra.  Seventy-two, here I come!  Wait for me!  (I just hope I don‘t die before then.)”

Flip believes passionately in educating other would-be trail runners on how to get back on to the trails in their golden years; safely, and successfully. If current science is to be believed, then the average lifespan of humans is on a rapid increase, leaving us all with many years to fill once we’ve closed the door on the 9 to 5 life, or waved our adult children off in to the world.

“Ok, so you’re only 60 and you haven’t done much running the past few years, but you played a lot of rugby once and if Ou Oom Flip can do it, so can you. Right?

Wrong!  You may injure yourself or even kill yourself.  Remember, Oom Flip took years to get where he currently is, he worked very hard and he phased it in gradually.  Be prepared to do that too, study trail running, design your training properly, set your own targets and gradually achieve them over the next few years.  You’ll be able to do it in less time than Oom Flip, but take it easy at first.”

The Challenges according to Flip:

  • You might find yourself as the dirt in front of the sweeper’s broom, coming in long after the prize giving and when the organisers have packed up everything but the finish line. Three spectators will cheer you in, while the remaining three will just stare strangely at you.  It takes courage and belief that you are doing the right thing.  After all, you’re not really last.  You may be the first in your age group – the others your age are still in bed, coughing and wheezing. 
  • You’ll have to run twice as hard as other runners, using twice as many heart-beats over the same distance. It takes grit, “vasbyt”!  Stupidity will also help.
  • You’ll have to shape your training for an old body. While many training principles are universal, many of them apply differently to old bodies. The proportion of exercise that various muscles and ligaments in your body require, are different. You require different exercises, different time-frames and different intensities, yet the literature will not explain this.  Design your own training through educated guessing, take advice, see what works for you, fail often and learn from your mistakes. 
  • Your body will require longer recovery times between runs, but if you still want to squeeze enough training into a week, your body will be perpetually sore and tired.  Sore and tired is mostly in your mind, however, so embrace it.  Ha, I’m sore and tired, so I must be doing something right.

And if that is not enough to move you past the 20 minutes of brisk walking per day that the old doc prescribed, then consider how much the following scenario meant to all those who were part of it…

“Three years ago I took my granddaughter on her first trail run.  Her mom’s longer route coincided with ours for some distance, so we ran together, grandpa at 67, mom at 37 and granddaughter at 7.  Nothing can beat that!”

Flip agreed to be interviewed for this article in the hope that others in his category would be motivated to start running trails too. He is looking to create a forum in which this community can network and exchange experiences so that he can create a body of knowledge for older runners, and is hoping to get some experts interested. We have to fill the gap in existing literature.

Words: Kim Stephens