Three Vail athletes give tips about how to age gracefully and stay active late in life
November 7, 2017
It's September, a time when many of the Vail Valley's retirees return to town after visiting the grandkids and start admiring the aspens, strolling the farmers markets.
Meanwhile, Vail resident Dawes Wilson, 64, is finishing a multi-day bike tour in France and gearing up for a weeklong trek through the Pyrenees Mountains.
It's not that there's anything wrong with the first set of activities, but for Wilson, a lifelong mountain and endurance athlete, staying athletically active past retirement and beyond is a top priority and way of life.
Wilson isn't the only Eagle County resident whose athleticism belies his or her age. There are many athletes who are staying strong and even competing well into their 50s, 60s and 70s.
We caught up with some of these experienced powerhouses — when they weren't on the bike, the trail or a mountaintop — to talk about their training secrets, motivations and how younger athletes can learn from their experiences.
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Wilson, a cyclist, ski-mountaineer, cross-country skier, alpine skier, triathlete and snowshoer, will be the first to tell you that a lifetime of athletic activity can also come with a lifetime of injuries.
Beginning in his 50s, he combated a string of setbacks that included carpal tunnel syndrome, knee, back and shoulder injuries, and several major surgeries.
At age 58, Wilson found out he had a congenital valve defect that required major heart surgery. The surgery was successful, but Wilson spent several weeks in the hospital and had to restrict his activity for a couple months afterward. At three months post-surgery, he walked an orienteering race and at four months, he was mountain bike racing again.
Right when he was feeling fully recovered, Wilson was riding home on the Vail bike path when the front wheel came off his bike, sending him smashing into the concrete. He broke his back, fractured his jaw, cut his face, cracked several teeth and broke his heel. The injuries and surgeries took nearly a year to recover fully from, but these days, Wilson is still racing, training and doing all the activities he loves.
Some of his injuries were from overuse, and others were rotten luck, but regardless of the cause, Wilson said his focus was always to be as active as he could be.
"I remember when I got a call from my doctor telling me I needed (heart) surgery. I said, 'OK, what can I do until then? I have a bike and ski-mo race tomorrow. Can I do that if I keep my heart rate under control?'" Wilson said.
After his operations, Wilson amazed health care providers by recovering at an astonishing rate, thanks to his good health. He said he simply adapted to his limitations and did what he could, even if that was only a slow-paced walk.
"Throughout all these travails, my immediate intent was to be as active as I could be with my new reality," he said. "I remember telling my surgeon before my heart operation that my goal was to come back and be a competing athlete again."
He's done just that, although his focus has changed. He doesn't take his results in races too seriously, and he only does activities that he enjoys. He also takes less risks, he's noticed.
"People often ask me, 'What are you training for now?' I answer, only half joking, 'The rest of my life,'" he said. "My advice for those who want to do the same is simple — set realistic goals and do what you enjoy."
Slowing down to keep up
As an accomplished international mountaineer and coach for the U.S. Women's Trail Running Team, 58-year-old Ellen Miller has both the athletic and coaching resume to help other older athletes keep going.
Miller stresses the importance of recovery and self-care for aging athletes.
"One of the biggest considerations as we age is that we simply can't recover as fast as we used to," she said. "I teach restorative yoga, which many aging athletes have found incredibly helpful to slow down and re-energize."
Like Wilson, she said that getting older or dealing with overuse injuries can require athletes to take a break and re-focus. Part of that process is realizing that you might never be on top again, and finding joy in the sport itself, she said.
In Miller's experience, age has brought gray hairs, aching knees and longer recovery times, but also wisdom and appreciation.
"I encourage people to get out there, be active and give reverence to a body that's still serving you. If you have a body still serving you at age 60, you should be grateful for it," she said.
Younger athletes might find it difficult to take time to recover, but Miller said training wisely can pay off decades down the road.
"I wish when I was a competitive athlete that I had the knowledge of exercise science that we have today. We thought more was better, not knowing anything about stimulus and adaptation. I didn't understand proper rest and recovery. We now know that adaptation can only happen during rest and sleep," she said. "I kept running and wore my knees out, but that's a hard thing to understand when you're younger."
Staying Zen, giving back
Anyone who frequents the Vail Valley's trails has likely met Marlin Smickley, 79, an ever-smiling trail runner who is still a regular on the local race circuit.
There are likely many aspects to Smickley's boundless energy and great health — he said he eats healthy foods, gets plenty of sleep and rest, always runs on soft surfaces and took up snowboarding at age 60 to spare his knees, to name a few.
However, part of his success is undoubtedly due to his almost spiritual approach to outdoor activity.
A firm believer in the power of a positive attitude, Smickley believes in the mantra: "Do your best, and things will always work out well." Self-satisfaction comes from knowing you did your best, he said, not seeing your name at the top of the rankings.
Particularly, Smickley has found great satisfaction in giving back to the athletic community. He's a fixture at almost every Vail Recreation District bike race, greeting racers with an impish smile at the start line. He's also volunteered with the VRD's youth programs, where he continues working with the valley's younger citizens like he did as a school teacher before he retired.
"I volunteer because I love being around people who love racing, enjoy and appreciate our beautiful mountains," he said.
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