Senior Resilience – Product of Nature or Nurture?

Senior Resilience – Product of Nature or Nurture?

Senior resilience hits the news every time an “old” person gives an exceptional performance in a sporting event or overcomes adversity

Senior resilience hits the news every time an “old” person gives an exceptional performance in a sporting event or overcomes adversity that would stop many younger people.

Senior Resilience – Product of Nature or Nurture?

79 Year old Wally Hayward finishing the 85 km race

This week, I was reminded of it when I came across this old photo.

One of the most amazing examples of senior resilience I have experienced is that of Wally Hayward

In 1988, at the age of almost 80, he completed the 85 km Comrades Marathon in 9 hours 44 minutes. He finished well within the 11 hour cut off and ahead of over half the other 9377 finishers.

He finished the 1988 race 24 minutes after I did, running my first Comrades Marathon at age 37. I wrote about how the running bug bit me here, and here.

Wally Hayward was a five times winner of the race 50 years earlier and followed his amazing 1988 performance a year later. That time, however, he finished in severe distress only 2 minutes before the 11 hour cut off.

In many ways, given the effect on his body, his last race was an even better example of senior resilience.

More details on Wally Hayward’s amazing life can be found at the link above.

Senior resilience as a product of nature

There is no question that most top athletes owe a huge part of their success to having been born with the right genes. Bruce Fordyce 9 times Comrades winner said having the right parents was the biggest reason for his success.

There is very little information available about Wally Hayward’s family background or his early years. It is difficult to know how much nature – his genetic suitability to long distance running contributed to his success. He must have been relatively well designed for his sport to have won as many races and broken as many records as he did.

That he could return at age 79 and beat over 4000 runners is a testament to both his physical strength and mental fortitude. Both components of senior resilience.

Senior Resilience and Nurture

We know that the early 1900s were difficult years for most people except the very wealthy. Life was hard. Nutrition was often inadequate. However, people were generally more physically active than they are today. Looking at photographs of the period, it seems there were fewer cases of obesity than in our modern world of fast foods and sugar-laden drinks.

Adversity either destroys people or breeds mental toughness. Few people are unchanged either positively or negatively by it. There were extraordinary performances by people in many fields during and between the two World Wars. With the exception of those killed during the conflicts, more people survived and were toughened by their experiences than succumbed to them.

Perhaps after service in North Africa and Italy, Wally Hayward found running 50 miles easy.

Nature and nurture

As with most people, I believe Wally Hayward’s success was due to a combination of both nature and nurture. His outstanding long-distance running performance over a long period would not have been possible without some physical characteristics that suited him to running.

The times and the environment he lived in and his military experience gave him the mental fortitude to overcome the pain of long-distance running.

His resilience as a senior was a product of both. Having a body well suited to his chosen task allowed him to do better than most. It allowed him to keep active into his old age, avoiding the breakdown of joints, tendons and muscles that stop most long-distance runners later in life.

The resilience he developed over a lifetime and thousands of miles on the road developed the endurance to run two more Comrades Marathons at an age when many people struggle to walk from their houses to their cars.

Wally Hayward is an outstanding example of senior performance. He is not the only one. There are many others including Yuichiro Miura who reached the summit of Mt. Everest in 2013 at the age of 80 years and 224 days despite having had two heart surgeries.

Closer to home, our dear friend Marion S. who at 90 plus has recently published her first blog post – Life is a Bowl of Cherries.

You don’t have to run marathons or climb Mt. Everest to develop senior resilience, but you do need to stay active – mentally and physically.