Extreme running races and the older runner
A detailed look at the Bogong to Hotham (64km trail run) past results suggests that runners over 50 years old could be setting their aims a little too high if they expect to finish extreme ultra trail marathons that have demanding cutoff times.
It is clear from watching any running race with a reasonable number of starters, regardless of the distance, the winners usually fall within the 20 to 35 age range. Running performance improves until maturity is reached, it then improves somewhat with more training and experience, but then it inevitably falls due to a decline that we call aging. Also, the fastest males usually finish ahead of the fastest females. Muscle strength peaks around 25 years of age, plateaus through 35 or 40 years of age, and then shows an accelerating decline, with 25% loss of peak force by the age of 65 years. This is not something that would often occupy the mind of the average amateur fun runner. Even the more motivated ultra-distance runners, or good runners who regularly finish in the top five of their age-group, would not think about this too much. During a race, runners have other more immediate issues to manage.
In recent years there has been an explosion in the popularity of organised running races, especially races that go the next level above the traditional road marathon (42.2 km), called ultra-marathons, and within that, a genre of off-road races known as ultra trail marathons. In running circles, these would generally be regarded as the most difficult challenge. Apparently there are plenty of people around with the time, resources and inclination to sign up for these, as the fields regularly fill to the limit well in advance of race day. A cursory glance at the field of most public running events reveals a remarkably different picture than in the 1970s. Women runners are now much more common (often making up more than half of the field), and a large proportion of the runners, maybe over half, would be over 40 years old, and a sizeable group of over 50s. The reason for this trend is not the topic of this article, rather, the question is, are these older runners, well advanced in physical decline, biting off more than they can chew in ultra-marathons? Are these races “too hard” for older runners? All the older runners I know will dismiss that suggestion out of hand, so we need to take an objective look at the data.
In a difficult ultra trail marathon only the elite and sub-elite runners in the field are attempting to win or make the top 10, with the majority focussed on finishing. This can be a big worry in the runner’s mind, as most races have “cutoffs”, which is one or more points on the course that you have to reach within a certain time or the marshals will pull you out, and you end up with a DNF against your name. Nobody wants that, as it represents failure to achieve the main goal. I investigated that phenomenon by looking at the age and gender split of starters and finishers in one of the hardest running races in Australia, the Bogong to Hotham 64 km trail run (B2H), held in the Alps early in January. I picked this race because it is known to be physically difficult, and the 6 hour cutoff at Langford Gap (34 km) and 12 hour cutoff at the finish are notoriously hard to achieve, with the race website and race briefing informing runners that “…[in] most years less than half the field made it to Mt Hotham”. This is despite the entrants having qualified by providing evidence of finishing at least one similar ultra distance trail race within a certain time limit over the previous 12 months. So all these racers are capable, regardless of gender or age. The cutoffs are there for safety reasons, as the course is fairly remote, and the organisers don’t want to be sitting on the cairn at Mt Hotham into the night waiting for stragglers.
The questions addressed here are:
- What is the relationship between age, gender and finishing time? and
- What is the probability of making the cutoff and achieving the main objective, and does this vary by age and gender?
Phil Murphy (L) and Jan Hermann (R) in 2005 at Langford Gap, happy to have made the 6 hour cutoff. Jan is rehydrating with what looks like James Boags Premium. They went on to record credible times of 10:01 hr and 10:03 hr respectively. Jan finished once, while Phil has 5 finishes, getting faster with age, his fastest time was in 2016. Photo Source .
The most difficult part of this analysis was compiling a reliable set of historical race result data. The main variables of interest here are, for each year, each starter’s name, age, gender, and finishing time, or an indication that the athlete did not finish (DNF). Official B2H race results are usually provided as a simple list of names and times of finishers. In some years, splits and a list of non-finishers have been provided, and less often, competitors ages were included. A more complete and detailed record was compiled by searching a number of different sources. Strangely enough, the most comprehensive database is provided by Deutsche Ultramarathon-Vereinigung (DUV) Ultra Marathon Statistics. It’s a good list, but it has errors and omissions, including some missing and incorrect year of birth data. I added data to the DUV list for winners only for 1984, 1986, 1987, 1989, 1990 and 1992, top three finishers for 1994, and all finishers for 1988, and corrected the 2011 data, using data from the current B2H race website, the former B2H race website and the Association of Road Racing Statisticians website. Missing year of birth data were searched using the Australian Mountain Running Association search facility, the Ausrunning Marathon Running search facility and various other triathlon, orienteering and rogaining results lists, articles and reports available on the internet.
Year of birth was estimated on the basis of age on race day and date of race. Estimated age on B2H race day was accurate to plus or minus 1 year in most cases, but a few might be out by 2 years. Results for all starters (finishers and DNFs), including athlete age, were only available for 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2001. For 2016, the B2H race website did not provide information on DNFs, but this was deduced by comparing the lists of entrants, withdrawals and finishers. Athlete ages were not provided for 2016, but these were estimated from searching past race results and other available documentation, as described above. The final data compilation was fairly comprehensive for finishers (including 360 finishers of an estimated 398 all time finishers within the 12 hour cutoff), and complete for winners, but the data for DNFs should be regarded only as a sample.
Over the period 2006-2011, considerable leniency was shown for both the Langford Gap and Mt Hotham cutoffs, with 29 cases of athletes exceeding the Langford Gap cutoff being allowed to continue, and 20 given finishing times exceeding 12 hours. To be consistent with other years, I retrospectively cut those 20 finishers from the database I compiled.
Finishers cover a wide age group and wide range of finishing times (Figure 1). The fastest runners are nearly twice as fast as the slowest. Females have made up only 11% of the finishers, and the available data indicate that no female aged 50 and over has ever finished. Older males have demonstrated the ability to finish, with 11% of male finishers aged 50 and over and 4% aged 55 and over. For females, age and finishing time are not significantly correlated, but for males the correlation is statistically significant. The implication for B2H is that, statistically, it is progressively harder to make the cutoff as athletes age beyond 35 years. It might seem that women over 50 would have great difficulty making the 12 hour cutoff, but it could be that few women over 50 have ever entered the race. To answer that we need to look at the data concerning starters and finishers.
Figure 1: Bogong to Hotham Age versus finish time for those under 12 hrs, for all years on record.
Probability of finishing the race
The probability of any starter finishing ranged from 19% to 100% for individual race years, 48 percent of years had a finishing rate less than 50%, and combining data for all the years gave an average 52% chance of finishing. These findings are consistent with the general warnings given to athletes concerning this matter. I investigated the probability of finishing in some more detail based on a sample of complete race data from 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2016. This sample comprised 169 starters and 86 finishers. These years are a reasonable representation of all years, so I expect that the findings would apply generally.
For the 2016 race, the age/time relationship for finishers was similar to that of all the years combined (Figure 1). The very fast winning times of the male and female winners were outliers, most finishers were between 35 and 44 years of age, and there were only 2 finishers over 50 years of age, both male (Figure 2). Overall, 53% of starters finished the race. Females and males were equally likely to DNF, with females making up 21% of finishers and 20% of DNFs. The two most remarkable things about the DNFs were that there were no DNFs among the 7 starters aged under 30 years, but in contrast, of the 17 starters aged 50 and over, 15 were DNFs. This suggests that there is a strong age dependence on probability of finishing the race.
Figure 2: Age distribution of the entire field from 2016.
The gender split of starters in the combined data set from all sampled years was 12% females, about the same proportion as the larger data set of finishers previously discussed. Females were slightly more likely than males to DNF, with females making up 10% of finishers and 14% of DNFs. The distribution of probability of finishing by age group (Figure 3) gives some indication of an individual’s chance of making the cutoffs. Ignoring the unexpectedly low value for the 40-44 year age group, the data show a clear pattern of probability of finishing increasing with age until 49 years, after which it drops markedly. So, runners from 25 to 49 years of age have a significantly better than even chance of finishing, but younger and older runners have a much lower chance.
Focusing on the older runners, 50 years and over, there were 34 starters in the sample, of which only 3 finished. Of the starters, 4 were female, and none of them finished. Considering that no female from this age class has ever finished the B2H, their probability of finishing is hopelessly low. For the men 50 years and over, the probability of finishing is only 10%. One individual solely determined the 25% success rate for those 65 years and over, as in this sample of data he was successful in 1996 at age 65, but in the next 3 years he got a DNF. The 60-64 age group is empty in this sample of data, but 4 runners of this age have finished the race. Only one runner attempted the race at an age over 70 years. He joined the 1999 field at the age of 74 years. At that time the cutoff was set as a time of day, so in recognition of his probable age handicap, he was sent off 36 minutes ahead of the rest of field. It was the first time he’d run this race, and unfamiliar with the route and with nobody to follow, he missed the first turn at the Staircase Spur, only 2 km from the start, and ran 9.2 km before he got back on the track. He obviously missed the cutoff, but even if he had stayed on course, his splits reveal that he was running too slowly to have made the cutoff.
Figure 3: Probability of finishing the race by age group for males and females combined. Based on a sample of combined data from 1996, 1998-2001, 2016.
The low rate of success of younger runners in the B2H (Figure 3) might be explained by them having less experience, and less long-term conditioning for endurance racing. Older runners have had plenty of opportunity in their lives to gather experience and conditioning, so something else is restricting their chance of making the cutoff. Athletic performance often declines over 50 due to reduction in aerobic capacity and gravitation towards long, slow distance training. In addition, muscle strength declines, and there is a greater chance that arthritis will limit performance. Together these factors conspire to make it disproportionately difficult for runners over 50 years of age to make the cutoffs.
The data suggest that runners over 50 years old could be setting their aims a little too high if they expect to finish extreme ultra trail marathons that have demanding cutoff times. As race organisers continue to set harder and longer races to satisfy the public demand for increasingly difficult athletic challenges, for races with strict time cutoffs, most of the over 50s are going to have trouble finishing.
This article is dedicated to author, adventurer, mountaineer and pioneer ultra trail runner, Max Scherleitner, Albury, the oldest runner to have finished the B2H, at age 65. Max almost singlehandedly determined the statistics for the over 60s, not just in this race but many others. He recently passed away, age 85 years. For more information on this legend, see this Border Mail article .
Editor Note: Chris Gippel is well qualified on the topic – he finished the Bogong to Hotham in 2016 at age 58 (the oldest finisher in that year). Chris is on facebook and linkedin.
The full article was originally published in Ultra 168.
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