UltraRunning Magazine

Passion for Running in Middle Age

Darcie Murphy
01/23/24

Passion gives us purpose. It gives us a reason to do the things we do, and that includes running. When I use the word passion, I am talking about beyond motivation. Motivation for training can be affected by a myriad of factors including fatigue, weather or running companions. Passion is more of an established, purposeful guide that we can lean on when the desire to get out the door wanes. But what happens when passion, that lighthouse of resolve, starts to fade? You’re not alone.

Erik Erikson (1902–1994) is a well-known psychologist who established many theories, including the Stages of Development. The architecture of this theory includes eight stages of human development, three of which occur throughout adulthood. These stages include young adulthood (intimacy vs. isolation), middle adulthood (generativity vs. stagnation) and lastly, late adulthood (integrity vs. despair). For most adults, the middle years are when a lot of introspection occurs. It’s a type of fork in the road and an opportunity to really determine which parts of life are most important to us. It’s also a time to decide if we want to continue to grow and evolve as individuals and define or redefine what is most important. Are the activities we engage in meaningful to us and to our community? How people navigate middle adulthood establishes the theme for late adulthood, being mostly content (integrity) or having plenty of regrets (despair). This applies to all facets of life, including sports and running.

I’ve coached hundreds of athletes over a 20-year period, and each one has come to ultrarunning and trail running with a different story. Often there are parallels vaguely aligned with age and stages of life. Youthful athletes often have a highly competitive drive—they are curious how they might stack up against competitors. These athletes want to see new places, find out how far they can travel in a certain timeframe and are eager to dial in gear and nutrition specifics. While those desires don’t completely dissipate with middle age and late adult years, their purpose usually morphs toward wanting to give back to the running community in a variety of ways. I often see athletes beyond age 40 wanting to mentor new athletes in the sport. Also, there is usually more overlap of interests beyond sport laced into their running ambitions such as a creative outlet or making a family vacation out of their primary race. Those are the athletes that have gracefully transitioned from a younger stage and have been able to redefine where and how running fits into their purpose as they’ve grown. It’s not always that seamless, however. Plenty of athletes struggle to meld a younger running identity with a newly found desire to create a legacy they can be proud of. For those athletes who may be in the throes of redefining their passion for running, here are a few tips:

Don’t Force It

Nothing says you have to keep doing the same thing. Maybe you take your experience, skills and knowledge that you’ve created as a trail or ultrarunner and use it toward creating an enhanced trail network in your area or help a cross-country running program become more established and successful. Maybe your profession ties into promoting local races and events or fundraising for programs that support the growth of a grassroots outdoor program. As you engage in your sport and running community differently, it’s possible that the enthusiasm you create in these situations can reinvigorate your desire to lace up your trail shoes.

Slow Down

There is a good chance if you have been competing at some level in trail and ultrarunning, you’ve attempted to improve your speed and fitness in a variety of ways and at varying levels of success. All of that is worthy of recognition. What if you tried slowing down? Many pet shelters have dog-walking programs in which you can volunteer to take a four-legged friend out for exercise on a regular basis. If you live in a region that becomes snowy in the winters, engaging with the youth Nordic ski program as a coach can be a great way to get up close and personal with enthusiastic youngsters learning to slide on snow. And maybe you’ll learn some new skills or find yourself with a new way to cross-train in the off season.

Look Ahead

Who or what inspires you toward continued growth? Maybe it’s someone who you wouldn’t consider an athlete but has committed to continued improvement. Dissect their system and you might learn some aspects you can apply to your own growth in running and beyond. Are there athletes you looked up to when you were young that are still out on the trails with purpose and a smile? What’s their secret? If you’re not sure, ask them. In my experience, most runners that maintain a joyful approach to running over the course of many years are eager to share what has kept them engaged.

Don’t despair if you feel like you’re fighting to find passion and purpose for running, and you’re at an age where most people are at a fork in the road. It probably means you’re normal and have plenty of company. As is the case with most challenges, there are a lot of opportunities to progress as a person and as an athlete in ways that will enhance your passion. Be willing to open doors and explore what is behind them. There is still a reason and zeal for getting out onto the trails, and you get to decide what that is for you.

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