Americans over 50 are doing extreme sports their grandparents never imagined

Jill Jamieson runs near Gravelly Point in Arlington, Va., in January, while training for the World Marathon Challenge. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)
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A few days before running seven marathons in seven days on seven continents, Jill Jamieson warmed up by paragliding, climbing a mountain and swimming in the roughest seas she had ever experienced. Then came the races themselves, in which she battled subzero temperatures and 30 mph winds in Antarctica, suffered a stress fracture in Dubai, and slogged through 99 percent humidity in Brazil, all while battling a stomach virus.

She completed the seventh marathon the day before her 57th birthday.

Her friends “think I’m a little bit insane,” said Jamieson, a resident of Arlington, Va.

But more people might be saying the same about their friends these days. As athletic achievement across all age groups pushes human boundaries, more people in their 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s are performing feats previous generations might have had a hard time imagining.

“People are a little surprised that older people are doing extreme sports,” said Tom Kamber, executive director of Older Adults Technology Services from AARP. But, he said, “there seems to be a trend of people picking up nontraditional sports that used to be more the province of younger people.”

In the past decade, the number of people 60 and older registering for Ironman’s 140.6-mile and 70.3-mile triathlons has quintupled from around 2,500 in 2012 to nearly 13,000 last year. The average age of participants in the Iditarod Trail Invitational, a multiday race through snow in subzero temperatures by bicycle, foot or skis, is now 46, up from its 1990s average of early to mid-30s. Haylee Borgstrom, a sports medicine physiatrist at Mass General Brigham, said she has seen “a significant increase” in the number of older athletes in her practice.

To earlier generations, a midlife pick-me-up might have come in the form of a zippy new sports car, and relaxation in retirement might have meant sitting in a golf cart or at a bridge table, cigarette or cocktail in hand. Many older people still prefer sedate activities, and some stick to them for health reasons. But others desire something more intense.

For Adam Fisher, 54, a writer and editor in California’s Marin County, the element of danger feels like an antidote to his life as “a suburban dad in a fairly risk-averse place.”

“It’s quite boring,” Fisher said.

So, in his late 40s, he began taking skateboarding lessons, revisiting a pastime from his youth, and last year he took a course in freestyle skiing, which incorporates tricks such as jumps, backward skiing, spinning, jumping and grinds.

Why would a middle-aged man — who admits he was never much of an athlete when he was younger — want to do that?

“The feeling of being stoked. I know that sounds so Northern California,” Fisher said. But “when you land a big jump successfully, you can play it in your mind … and it looks amazing.” He wants to have those memories to hold on to, he said, after “the point where I am too old to have experiences like that.”

Adam Fisher, 54, learned how to freestyle ski in 2022. (Video: Ben Arnst and Alex Dorszynski)

One reason more older people are participating in extreme sports is that the activities have become more common across all age groups. Another is that Americans are living longer. Life expectancy, which was in the mid-50s a century ago, is now in the upper 70s, so there are more older people around to take part.

Rules have also evolved, creating more possibilities for women. Before the 1970s, women weren’t allowed to compete in marathons and girls didn’t have access to the array of sports boys had. But Title IX, enacted in 1972, prohibited sex-based discrimination by federally funded schools, enabling more women to pursue athletics.

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Rebecca Rusch, 54, an ultraendurance athlete and motivational speaker, has made a career out of pushing her body. Rusch’s activities include white-water rafting, rock climbing and, recently, completing the 350-mile Iditarod challenge by bike three years in a row. “It’s complete immersion in nature and the appeal of exploring a remote area, and also to see what my body is capable of,” Rusch said.

Rebecca Rusch, now 54, set out to ride a bike 350 miles across the frozen Alaskan wilderness for the Iditarod Trail Invitational in 2020. (Video: Rebecca Rusch, Dan Bailey and Mark Smith)

Some older athletes, like Carolyn Hartfield, 74, of Atlanta, start after a health scare. “I had a doctor’s appointment on the last day of my 49th year, and the doctor told me I was pre-hypertensive,” she said. “The very next day, I started walking.” That led to other activities, including basketball, white-water rafting, spelunking, zip-lining and leading hiking groups.

And some, like Keo Capestany, 86, of Seattle, have had to push back against family members’ and friends’ preconceptions of what they’re capable of. “Our concept is old people, you have to be careful, you have to mind your age,” said Capestany, a Cuban immigrant who started bodybuilding in his 60s and now does strength training four days a week.

Such stereotypes can be self-fulfilling, Kamber said.

“When we have these prejudices, they really hold us back on a group level. People start to be restrained by those parameters,” he said. But seeing older people engage in high-risk or physically grueling activities “gives us a chance to check our ageism a little bit [and] widen the spectrum of what we think is possible.”

Jamieson learned what was possible for her during her marathon challenge. When the stomach bug prevented her from eating for more than four days, she was placed on an IV on the plane from Australia to Dubai. In Spain, her feet swelled, and she struggled to stuff them into her running shoes. In Antarctica, her lips turned blue when her sweat-filled clothes began to freeze around her.

Endorphins helped her through, as did camaraderie with her fellow runners, who passed around protein bars and hand warmers.

“I wasn’t going to stop,” Jamieson said. “But I did throw up on all seven continents.”

Last week, she was back in her airy Arlington loft, working 10- to 12-hour days as chief executive of a company that advises government agencies on infrastructure finance. After a week of rest, she was back to her regular routine of running, swimming, gym workouts and CorePower Yoga.

Perching her 5-foot, 3½-inch frame on a bar stool, Jamieson spread a tangle of medals across her kitchen island, including ones depicting each continent. It was not something she could have foreseen when she was younger.

“Endurance running was not my thing,” Jamieson said, but she began casually running in her late 30s to alleviate stress about her father’s Alzheimer’s disease. “For me, it was very meditative,” she said. “It helped me manage my emotions.”

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She entered her first marathon with her father’s support, before his death in 2009, and started the group Memory Joggers to help raise money for Alzheimer’s research. Her participation in this year’s World Marathon Challenge has, as of last week, raised more than $12,000 for the Alzheimer’s Association, and she plans to keep raising money until she runs another marathon in April — at the North Pole, through deep snow, on ice floes, just a few feet from the Arctic Ocean. Armed guards will protect the runners from hungry polar bears.

“I promised my father that I would go to the ends of the Earth to get a cure,” Jamieson said, “so I’m literally doing that.”

Steven Kotler taught the skiing course Fisher took, which included participants as old as 68. Kotler, himself 55, recommended that older athletes take a gradual, big-picture approach, rather than jump immediately into the hardest activities.

“They get hurt by trying to take on too big of a challenge,” said Kotler, whose forthcoming book, “Gnar Country: Growing Old, Staying Rad,” chronicles his experience pushing his body to perform daredevilry on skis. “Start one step below where you think you are.”

With proper training and regular activity, it is possible to retain bone density into one’s 80s and muscle mass into one’s 70s, said Vonda Wright, an orthopedic surgeon in Lake Nona, Fla., and author of the book “Fitness After 40.” But older people do need to train differently, she said: “Lift heavier weights, with fewer reps. Eat protein, because we don’t want to eat our muscles.”

Many endurance athletes say their performance improved as they aged. Whereas some sports, such as tennis, require brute strength to compete at the highest levels, activities such as distance running or distance swimming require a level of maturity that younger people don’t always have, said ultraendurance swimmer Diana Nyad, 73.

Nyad dreamed in her youth of swimming from Cuba to Florida, what she calls the “Everest of all of the Earth’s ocean swims,” 110 miles rife with risks from sharks, venomous jellyfish and stiff currents. No one had done it without a shark cage, and Nyad herself failed four times. After a three-decade break, she was inspired to try again after her mother died, at 82, when Nyad was in her late 50s.

“I thought … is it possible that, even as good shape that I’m in, that I’m only going to live some 20 more years?” she said. “I made friends with [the late actor] Christopher Reeve … and he had said to me, ‘Are you satisfied with your life? You’re not chasing any big dreams anymore.’ And I just sat around thinking, ‘I’ve become a spectator. I’m not a doer anymore. And there’s that dream out there; it’s still alive. Nobody has swum from Cuba to Florida.’”

In 2013, on her fifth try, Nyad became the first person to complete the swim, when she was 64.

Diana Nyad finishes swim from Cuba to Florida on fifth try

“I was better at 64 than at 28,” she said. As a younger person, “I want to own the record, I want my name to be in lights. It’s not very inspiring; it’s not going to get you that far. Whereas when you’re out there thinking about Stephen Hawking and the majesty of the universe … now you’ve got a much bigger heart … and that leads to being able to summon what’s within in a more inspiring way.”

Older athletes can also inspire younger ones. When Sally Saenger, a 67-year-old surfer in Santa Barbara, Calif., was in her 30s or 40s, other surfers, mostly male, used to cut in front of her to catch a good wave. Now that she looks older, she said, they hold back.

It’s “like they’re thinking, ‘That could be my mom, or my grandma,’” Saenger said. “I think they appreciate that I’m out there surfing at my age, because there’s not a lot of us out there.”

Jamieson experienced something similar on her marathon challenge, she said.

“People kept saying, ‘You’re so inspiring,’ which I think was their way of saying, ‘Hey, you’re old, but you’re still doing it,’” she said.

But Jamieson wasn’t the oldest one to run the seven marathons this year.

Another participant, Dan Little of Oklahoma, was 80.

“I look at Dan for inspiration,” Jamieson said. “I can see myself doing this in 20 years.”

Story editing by Ryan Bacic. Photo editing by Mark Miller. Video by Amber Ferguson. Copy editing by Paola Ruano. Design by J.C. Reed.