Ian Palmer, one of our Alpkiteers, tells the story of his return to racing after years out, and what that means in your 50s.
After a brief foray into running and a good go at being ill, I decided my next goal was to see if I could get back to fitness for XC mountain biking.
It had been nearly 4 years since I last turned a pedal in anger and here I was at the back of a big bunch of old greying men. My job was to chase them around a disused quarry for 90 minutes. Ideally by then, there would be more old men chasing me than me chasing them.
Cycling has been my main sport for the last 40 years. Like many people my age, the movie E.T. sowed the seed for the love of the bike. It wasn’t so much the lost alien as the iconic BMX chase scene. This struck a chord with me (and Sir Chris Hoy apparently) as I’d never seen anything like it. I now know that it was the legendary Bob Haro and friends in this famous scene that affected my life so much. At the time, I’d only recently discovered what a BMX bike was (when it was featured on Blue Peter) and now I needed one! When this dream was finally realised, me and my friends spent many an evening re-enacting this scene on our bikes over that summer (well, the land-based part anyway).
I then started to grow up and I wanted more from the bike. From BMX, I turned to mountain bikes then raced road bikes for a few years before finally coming back to mountain biking.
So, where was I, after having a great excuse (Lyme disease) for stopping racing and getting off that wagon of training/travelling/dieting which becomes more and more addictive with one sniff of a top ten finish? I honestly thought I was done with this type of thing and was quite happy hanging out with slower people, not rushing everywhere or doing a set of intervals ever again. It turns out I wasn’t quite ready to throw in the towel completely.
On the back of our West Highland Way MTB trip last summer, I suddenly thought: what's next? I managed that trip OK(ish) so wouldn’t it be nice to be fit again, wouldn’t it be nice to race again....? All of the last 20+ years of racing were then seen through rose tinted glasses and I thought, ooh... what if, now I’m 50, I might just be good enough to sniff some high placings in my new age category?
I jumped in with both feet, as I always do, and started training again last Autumn. First things first, I needed a coach. Step forward Oli Beckinsale (ex-Olympian, World Cup rider, now coach) who was tasked with the challenge of getting me to be slightly more than average. I have a tendency to think that I need to train way more than I need to. Oli is my wise old sage who tells me when to stop.
I’m not going to go into the minutiae of training programmes or racing strategies - it’s pretty boring unless you’re really fascinated by watts, FTPs etc. What I’m trying to get to the bottom of is why on earth I still want to travel around the country most weekends to chase or get chased by old men around a forest. What makes people do this and why do they need to do it well into their 60s and beyond?
I was talking to an old fell running mate of mine recently; he’s 65 and current age appropriate national champion. He hasn’t lost that compulsion to push himself and was wondering if he could ever stop himself from racing (and all the hours of training that inevitably go with it). He was actually jealous of the ‘doctor's note’ I had two years ago (strict medical advice not to push my body hard when the post-Lyme Disease chronic fatigue set in). He laughs now that I’ve thrown it away, wondering why I didn’t hold on to this very valid excuse not to put myself through it all.
The ‘old man’ categories in both cycling and fell running are the biggest fields at races. I think the elite field at the last race I went to had 16 in, whereas the old people had closer to 60. Being older doesn’t make things less competitive – sometimes it feels like the opposite. On top of that challenge, I’m quite aware that XC cycling is quite a niche sport. You don’t just need a bike, you need spare wheels, spare parts, a van to carry it all in (and ideally to sleep in as well). A willing spouse/friend to hang around in the feed zone to hand over fresh bottles when you run out is also helpful. Add all this to the hours of relentless/pointless training and you are definitely not making life easy for yourself. But maybe that’s the point?
I never thought, 40 years ago, that I’d still be doing things like this in my 50s. When I was a kid, people of 50 seemed like super-old beings who did nothing more exciting than faff with pigeons or prop up their local garden centre. I certainly don’t feel like I fit into that category and it isn’t just me - there’s a whole raft of people shunning their age, battling it out and acting as they did in their 20s (take for example old man skateboarding website). Look at Joe Friel’s book ‘Fast Over 50’ - it nicely outlines how you can get older and still be fit. It’s down to 3 points; lift heavy things, go fast occasionally, and go slow a lot.
Anyway, here I am. I had a good excuse not to race, but that’s not actually what I wanted. I’m trying to get back something I thought I’d lost. I’ve enjoyed trying to get fit over this winter; the miles of pedalling in the rain, the intervals, the sheer pointlessness of it all which somehow, when you’re doing it, doesn’t seem that pointless at all. But what I realised, once I’d got a few races under my belt, was that it wasn’t just the racing itself that I’d missed. It was the chat on the start line, the people who come to say hello when you’re warming up (often wondering why I hadn’t been there over the last few years), the friendly faces at the sign-in, the excuses we give each other beforehand - even in the queue for the portaloos, someone will be having a chat. It’s the familiarity of the past years, the same battles on the courses, the long journeys wondering about the weather/tyre choice - that’s the best bit. On a bad day, the racing itself can be rubbish, but it’s a good excuse to see people you have competed against for 20 odd years, people who ‘get’ why you do this to yourself.
So next time you think you’re too old, too slow, not as capable because your health isn’t what it used to be or just plain can’t be bothered, remember that it is worth it because you wouldn’t be the same person without a little adventure in your life. As Oli Beck said after the season had finished and I was wondering whether or not I should embark upon all of this again next year; “There’s a lot of life left when you can’t race” (so make the most of it whilst you can). Here comes another winter of wet rides.