Interviewing Royal Robbins ranks among the best experiences in my modest writing career. Robbins pioneered Yosemite rock climbing, achieving historic first ascents on both Half Dome and El Capitan. But when we met in 2009, he spoke mostly about his favorite kayaking first descent on the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River.
Arthritis led Robbins to shift from climbing to kayaking in his 40s. He liked whitewater nearly as much as granite but later got to enjoy both because his arthritis eventually improved. Robbins was able to keep climbing and kayaking into his 70s. Positive thinking had everything to do with that, he believed.
“I can’t say I have the cure, but I do know that my improvement coincided with my decision not to let arthritis rule my life,” Robbins said. “The more optimistic you are, the better things go for you. I’ve been able to achieve things most people consider extraordinary by the power of that principle.”
Then 39 and about half Robbins’ age, I thought his perspective was healthy and inspiring. But the notion that his wisdom applied to me took another decade to sink in.
Now 50, I’m also trying to share lessons I’ve learned outdoors over the years. Earlier segments in this series covered winter outings, running, climbing, and backpacking, all of which I still enjoy. I’m not the one to say act your age. Instead, I encourage you to ace your age in this fifth and final column.
- Live your dream, whatever it is, now. This is the best time to climb your mountain, run that race or hike that trail. You’re as old as you’ve ever been but as young as you’ll ever be today. What are you waiting for? I’ve got my third marathon, 10 California 14ers, and 2,000 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail on my mind, and I’m committed to progress on all fronts this year.
- Try a new activity. It’s not too late. I discovered distance running in my teens, backpacking and climbing in my 20s, ski touring and scuba diving in my 30s, and canyoneering in my 40s. I love running and achieved the most in it, but I’m deeply grateful I branched out to other pursuits. In fact, I’m overdue to pick up another hobby, like bicycle touring.
- Accept your changing limits. Time catches all of us, but that doesn’t mean we should give up! After running seriously in my teens and 20s, I eased up in my 30s because working hard to run slower times didn’t motivate me. Thankfully, I got smart enough in my 40s to realize that my earlier experiences shouldn’t prevent me from enjoying new challenges in my middle age.
- Enjoy the journey as much as the destination. Setting goals motivates us to improve, and pushing hard to achieve them is well and good. But if you set challenging goals, then you’re likely to fall short of them at least some of the time. Enjoy the effort anyway. When I was younger and failed to summit a mountain I attempted, I vowed revenge and drove home annoyed. I must have grown out of that because now any day outdoors is a good one.
- Use your wisdom. Athletes beyond their prime years have one edge over younger ones, which is that we’ve already learned from the mistakes they have yet to make. That experience pays dividends. I’ll never again start a long multi-pitch climb in mid-afternoon (which “benighted” my party on a ledge) or run a race at high elevation without acclimating (which once crushed me at Lake Tahoe).
- Pass on your wisdom. Older athletes may not lead the pack as we once did, but we can become the pack’s elder statesmen and voices of experience. This makes us feel valued, bonds us with the next generation, and educates the young. I run with the track kids at the high school where I teach. They pull me to faster times, and I share training and racing advice with them. We enjoy each other; it’s a win-win relationship.
- Take more care of your body. As we age, we lose muscle mass and flexibility, among other things. This sidelines plenty of people, but it doesn’t have to stop them. Place a new emphasis on exercise and stretching. That can help turn back the clock on your body’s decline, or at least slow it down.
- Take more rest and recovery time and avoid the temptation to overtrain. Cross-training can help older athletes maintain a high level of fitness without overextending and injuring themselves. For example, if you run often, mix in a swim or bike ride once a week.
- Watch your diet. Pizza, beer and ice cream make no mark on younger athletes, but older ones must apply restraint to stay fit and trim. We can still indulge occasionally but use discretion. Enjoy indulgences in moderation.
- For bigger medical problems, get professional medical help. Not only do pro athletes have doctors and trainers, so do college athletes and even high school kids. Why shouldn’t you? Your health plan probably includes this care, even if you have to get a referral and make a few hospital visits to get it. Health, happiness and athletic success are worth the trouble and expense, as I discovered.
At age 49, my training for my second marathon was going great. Months of effort produced my best workouts as a “mature” runner. Then one day I could barely bend my left knee. My doctor informed me that I had arthritis, which developed for years without my realizing it.
Several months of trial-and-error followed as I tried to improve my knee’s function. There were painful days and setbacks. But I thought back to my conversation with Royal Robbins (who had since passed away), vowed to remain positive, and kept trying.
Physical therapy, injections, and modified training allowed me to resume running. I gradually built up my workouts again. Though the pandemic canceled most races in 2020, I ran my second marathon “virtually.” While no other runners participated, my family got to greet me at the finish line.
I’ve treasured the outdoor experiences and lessons of my first half-century and relish those still to come. I hope this series has inspired you to get outdoors and pursue your dreams, too.
Matt Johanson enjoys exploring and writing about the outdoors. Climbing Mount Shasta, hiking the John Muir Trail, and skiing through Yosemite’s high country rank among his favorite outings. Matt’s books include California Summits, Sierra Summits, Yosemite Adventures, and Yosemite Epics. He’s taught and advised an award-winning high school journalism program for more than 20 years.
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