The last thing I remember
before passing out was the pain. It had overtaken everything,
hunching my back, and curling my fingers into claws
pecking out incoherent thoughts on my laptop before
finally collapsing. It was 3 a.m. on the morning of
my 43rd birthday, and depression had finally consumed
There was no clear reason as to why
it was happening. Objectively, my life was good. I had
a beautiful family, I owned my house, and I had a dream
job covering the NBA. But I have lived with a form of
mild chronic depression since I was a teenager, and
depression has a way of taking everything that’s
good and turning it against you. My job was a pressure
cooker with endless travel and sleepless nights in hotels.
My house felt like a 30-year millstone. My family tried
to give me space, but all I really wanted to do was
escape. That a lot of people would eagerly trade places
with me only added to the feelings of guilt and negativity.
I spiraled. Things had to change. I had to change.
I had been a runner for years, and it
had long provided a rare respite from stress and anxiety,
though it was paying diminishing returns. One day about
a year ago, I noticed a trailhead that I had run by
countless times without so much as a passing glance.
It beckoned me to enter, and I did, plunging deep into
the cool shadows of the forest. I ran until I was two
towns over from where I began. I felt rejuvenated, at
peace. I kept going. When I found my way out of the
woods hours later, I told my wife that I was now a trail
runner. Nine months later, I ran my first 50K on a cold,
raw April day over 5,000 feet of vertical gain on a
rugged, unmarked course.
In 1957, a Canadian psychologist named
Elliot Jacques presented a paper to the British Psychoanalytical
Society on what he called the mid-life crisis. There
it sat until 1965 when “Death and the Mid-life
Crisis” was published in The International Journal
of Psychoanalysis. Jacques’ theory was that as
we approach middle age we begin to realize our own mortality,
and then, consequently, we begin to freak out.
is less on what happened before the crisis and more
on what happens after.
There’s much debate over whether the phenomenon
actually exists as a matter of science, but the idea
makes intuitive sense. Getting older can trigger a kind
of introspection, and often that introspection focuses
on how much time has passed, how much is left, and what
to do with it. That can create anxiety, and that anxiety
can be multiplied by depression, stress, or good old-fashioned
For decades, the midlife crisis has
been expressed in tired pop-culture tropes in which
(usually) white men buy sports cars and carry on affairs
with younger women in a doomed and desperate bid to
feel young again. But increasingly, people are responding
to the anxieties of middle age not by clinging to the
last vestiges of expiring youth but to taking on challenges
that seem to belong to the young alone: by pushing the
limits of what they’re physically capable of through
endurance athletics and extreme fitness. The focus is
less on what happened before the crisis and more on
what happens after. Call it the midlife correction.
Today, almost a third of all triathlon
participants in the United States are between the ages
of 40 and 49, according to the U.S. Triathlon organization.
That’s the largest age demographic by decade and
one of the most competitive. The same holds true for
the Boston Marathon, where more than 8,200 runners in
their 40s crossed the finish line in April, a little
more than 31 percent of the total field. The largest
field of competitors at the 2017 New York Marathon was
between the ages of 40 and 44. In London in 2015, those
40–49 runners had faster overall times than the
The trail runners, bless their hippie
souls, don’t keep as detailed records, but as
the number of races has more than doubled over the last
decade, so have the ranks of graybeards. A research
paper by Martin D. Hoffman and Kevin Fogard found that
the average age of participants in 100-mile ultras was
Of course, there’s no telling
what motivates all people to push themselves like this,
but from my experience and the experience of many athletes
I’ve spoken to, extreme fitness is less about
being young again and more about building yourself up
for the years ahead. In other words, getting better
at getting older.
For some, a midlife crisis arises from
a fear that the weaknesses that have dogged you are
not just temporary challenges to cope with, but a permanent
part of who you are. The chance to confront those weaknesses
and recognize the hold they have over us is a key benefit
of ultra-marathons, Cross-Fit, or whatever other endurance
sports people turn to.
Christine Cassara was one of these people.
She and her husband were struggling with fertility issues,
and at one appointment the doctor told her he’d
rather treat a 40-year-old than someone who was obese.
The cruelty of the comment took her aback. Cassara was
pushing 40 and weighed 340 pounds.
After a couple of false starts, Cassara
lost over 200 pounds with the help of a diet, but she
worried about backsliding, so she tried running. Beginning
with a couch-to-5K plan, she worked her way up to half
marathons and signed up for a full marathon only to
realize she didn’t actually like running all that
much. A friend suggested triathlon, and she started
small with pool laps, short bike rides, and mile runs.
Cassara fell in love with the sport and completed Sprint
and Olympic triathlons. In late August she traveled
from her home in St. Petersburg, Florida, to Copenhagen
for her first Iron Man.
“In the back of my mind I always
considered myself a quitter,” Cassara says. “The
most important thing it’s done in all aspects
is to give me the will to continue and not quit.”
Others experience a midlife crisis as
a sense of slackening, of lost focus, or ambition. That’s
what Lisimba Patilla, a 44-year-old sales manager from
Medina, Ohio, by way of Flint, Michigan, felt when he
discovered triathlons. Three years ago, the former Division-II
college football player and track athlete worried he
had grown complacent in life and was losing his edge.
On a business trip to Reno, a cousin
recommended a book on triathlons, and Patilla was so
inspired he called his wife and told her he was going
to be a triathlete. There was one significant problem.
He nearly drowned when was 12 and the experience left
him so traumatized he wouldn’t let water from
the shower hit his face.
“If you fall off your bike and
get a wound on your leg, you can still get on that bike,”
Patilla says. “When you have a traumatic experience,
it puts a wound on your mind, and it becomes a recurring
Patilla bought the thickest wetsuit
he could find and experimented with a half-dozen snorkels.
In his first triathlon attempt, he made it 500 meters
before being pulled out of the water. From that point
on he told himself that he was going to swim like everyone
else. Patilla went to a pool twice a day and learned
how to swim in the shallow end. He competed again a
few months later and completed his first sprint triathlon.
is less about being young again and more about building
yourself up for the years ahead.
“I can’t tell you I didn’t panic,”
he says. “I can’t tell you a grown man didn’t
cry. But I got through it. When I got done, I was exhausted,
but I knew at that point I could do this.” He
did, and in doing it, he gained a measure of clarity
about what he’s capable of. “Triathlons
don’t lie,” he says. “At 44 years
old I need that.”
When Suzanna Smith-Horn burned out on
the corporate lifestyle in her 40s, she sold her shares
in her startup and quit her job. Her friends thought
it sounded fantastic to have all that free time, but
Smith-Horn struggled with the loss of identity. “The
reality was that’s a really tough place to be,”
she says. “Because you’re trying to figure
out, what should I be doing in life? Who am I? What’s
my purpose? I went into these places in life where I
was pretty depressed.”
She started running, and her existential
question was answered. She ran a marathon and then advanced
from there to 100-mile races. With a career in tech
sales, Smith-Horn, now 51, is able to work from her
home in the Upper Valley of Vermont where she has access
to a wide assortment of trail systems. There are days
when it’s hard to get out the door, especially
in the bitter cold of winter, she says, but after a
few miles, her mind clears.
“Sometimes you’ll be like,
where am I?” Smith-Horn says. “You’re
in the zone. Nothing else really matters and you’re
just there. It doesn’t come overnight. You learn
every race, every trail. You’re constantly learning.
You have to learn how do you take care of yourself.
You really have to learn how to manage yourself for
hours on end without a lot of support.”
This realization was hard-earned. During
the winter of 2016, Smith-Horn slipped on a patch of
ice and broke her neck. Her doctor told her that running
was off limits and so was hiking, but she had the Grindstone
100, an ultramarathon, on her schedule that fall and
that was non-negotiable. She walked every day for 4–5
hours with her neck brace to maintain her fitness.
Eight months after her fall, the 51-year-old
finished the 100-mile race in the Allegheny Mountains,
in just over 31 hours, beating half the field of finishers
and coming in10th among all female runners. Not that
place has much relevance to her.
“I’m a 50-year-old middle
of the pack,” she says before catching herself.
“Ehhhh, I hold my own. Everyone has a story and
there’s an importance to everyone who’s
out there, whether they’re finishing a course
in record time or the last one finishing. We’re
all doing the same thing.”
There’s a moment in 100-mile races
that ultrarunners call “the dark place.”
It’s usually late in the race when everything
goes to hell and you experience the greatest pain you
will ever feel. When you arrive there, there’s
nothing left to do but, “embrace the suck,”
as sports psychologist Dolores Christensen put it.
crisis is a response to a dark place of a different
For her dissertation, Christensen conducted a field
study of 100 milers as they went through the race. She
tracked their emotions and their levels of confidence
as they journeyed through the various stages. What she
found is that runners who were able to accept their
pain and not see it as a threat were able to succeed
on the trail.
“There’s really something
transcendental about that experience,” she says.
“People need to go to the edge. Somehow that’s
good for us, to be reminded of our mortal limits.
When we push our body to that end it
creates such a sense of compassion and gratitude for
what your body can do. In doing that it honors the work
and the energy and effort which drives us to do it again.
That process regenerates itself.”
This, to me, cuts to the heart of the
matter. A midlife crisis is a response to a dark place
of a different kind. It could be the fear of mortality,
or aimlessness, or futility, or obsolescence, or loss
of self. You could view these things as threats, or
you could accept them as part of your existence, and
What am I doing getting up with the
sun and pushing my body farther than I ever thought
possible? That question has been at the heart of my
journey and I’ve had to confront hard truths along
What I’ve come to understand is
that depression has always defined me, even if very
few people knew it was there. When those moods take
over, I wrapped myself in a protective shell to keep
them at bay. More often than not, I simply retreated
from view where I could be alone with my inner turmoil.
It’s an exhausting way to live and ultrarunning
has focused my intentions beyond simply managing my
The routine keeps me balanced, and I
have gradually expanded it to include better nutrition
and smarter strength training, along with yoga and meditation
practice. Outside of family and work responsibilities,
my life revolves around my training schedule.
If any of that gets out of whack, I
start to feel the pull of the abyss. When it all locks
into place, I feel like a modern day warrior. Achieving
a healthier balance is what training is all about and
no matter how far I go, I’ve finally accepted
that I can’t outrun my depression, and I can’t
live passively with them. So, I’m making it my
training partner. It keeps me motivated to avoid the
lows and grounded when I get too high. It will be with
me for the rest of my life. All I can do is keep moving.