The Engine InsideInspiration
In Conversation with Janice Tower
Written by Daisy Maddinson // Film & Photography by Anthill Films
Does physical achievement have to slow down as you age? Janice Tower is living proof that you can unlock your engine inside later in life.
Finding competitive sport later in life, Janice Tower started racing bikes in her 40s – an age when many might be starting to slow down. Since then, she’s completed a huge swathe of mountain bike stage races: Absalon Cape Epic in South Africa, Trans-Rockies in Canada, Trans-Alps in Europe, and four 350-mile trans-Alaska Iditarod Trail Invitational in winter, the latest of which she completed after turning 60. As well as racing, Janice coaches pro cyclists through to newbies, and has set up a Mighty Bikes kids programme that coaches over 200 children. She’s also the founder of Singletrack Adventures, the local MTB trail association in her home town of Anchorage, Alaska.
Often, when we think about endurance sports, we assume that youth provides us with a competitive advantage. Research shows that we lose physiological capabilities as we age – especially those that benefit performance in endurance sports. But what about mental fortitude, our capacity for stress, and our approach to training, experience, and technique?
Contrary to the usual mantra – that the body’s performance declines as it ages – a wealth of research shows that the body actually responds better to endurance training as we age due to increased muscle tissue and cellular adaptation. This has been seen in plenty of female athletes who continue to break endurance records in their 30s, 40s, and beyond.
Janice’s story is part of The Engine Inside, a new documentary from Anthill Films, narrated by long-standing cycling journalist and Tour de France commentator Phil Liggett – the voice of cycling. The feature-length film demonstrates how fighting spirit, resilience, and athletic ability don’t have to wane as you age. We spoke with Janice to understand what keeps her pushing her limits at 60 and beyond.
Daisy Maddinson: You started getting into competitive sports later in life in comparison to a lot of people. What is the story there?
Janice Tower: I grew up alpine ski racing at Alyeska in Alaska. I was competitive at the national level, but a series of knee injuries in my late teens led me to give up my dream of making the U.S. Ski Team. Since then, I’ve had other athletic lives. When I stopped ski racing, I learned to kayak at the Ledyard Canoe Club at Dartmouth College and I hit as many spring run-offs as I could. Rivers took me to beautiful places inaccessible by any other means. After getting married and having kids, I took up windsurfing in the Columbia Gorge, and later in Turnagain Arm by my home town of Anchorage. High wind, waves, and speed satisfied my craving for adrenaline.
When I was 40, I learned to mountain bike. On a whim, I entered a 24-hour race in Moab and finished on the podium. My competitive drive emerged from a decades-long dormancy. So I trained to be an endurance cyclist and became a certified cycling coach.
Of all the long-distance events I’ve done, the Iditarod Trail Invitational is my favourite. It is three-dimensional – much less a race to see who gets there first, more a test of experience, preparedness, and tenacity. It’s a win just to finish this race. What motivates me is being on the learning curve. With winter bike adventuring there’s always something to learn about gear, equipment, nutrition, and surviving in extreme conditions.
How many times have you done the Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI) previously? And how does it feel to do endurance events at 60 years old?
I’ve started the ITI to McGrath six times and completed it four times. If I were guaranteed to finish every time, the event wouldn’t be nearly as appealing. My first race was in 2002, and my most recent was in 2022. In spite of the 20 years spanning these efforts, I feel that each successful attempt was better than the previous. To me, a successful race is one in which I take care of my body, and balance the risk/reward equation carefully. I’ve found that if I do this well, I’m nearly as fast as competitors decades younger than me.
As I compete into my 60s, my requirements for rest and recovery are much higher than it was 20, even 10 years ago. The youngsters can keep going under exhausting conditions, grab a two-hour nap, and recover enough to keep going. The recovery requirements of a 60-year-old are much more extensive. I have to remind myself of this fact and give myself permission to adjust my expectations. I’m just happy to be physically capable of being out there pursuing my dream of getting over the mountains under my own power. It’s okay to slow down, just never stop moving.
What would you say to any older people or anyone who wants to get into the outdoors or endurance sports but is scared to try?
We tend to get fixated on age as a number. At 50 you’re supposed to be doing this. At 60 you’re not supposed to be doing that! I guess that a 60-year-old isn’t supposed to be loading up their fatbike and riding it on the Iditarod trail when it’s 40 below. I can do these things; I just need to be smart in how I go about doing them. I rest when I need to so I don’t get overly tired, and I try not to dig myself too deep a hole that takes me a long time to crawl out of.
Don’t listen to those who say that you’re too old to start something new. Just because you’re ‘mature’ doesn’t mean you have to stop learning new ways to enjoy the outdoors. Start with small goals, learn as much as you can about how to achieve them, and then incrementally reach toward bigger, more exciting goals. Age as a number shouldn’t disqualify anyone from accomplishing their dreams.
Join the movement, unlock your Engine Inside.
The Engine Inside – a new feature-length documentary from Anthill Films – tells the stories of six everyday people from all over the globe who reveal the unique power of the bicycle to change lives and build a better world. Through their stories, the film uncovers the potential of the bicycle for helping solve the many global issues we face today.