Close your eyes and in your mind picture an 87-year-old. What image do you see? If it is a man with flowing white hair and a big, bright smile shining through a thick, bushy beard that would make Santa envious, and he’s paddling a canoe down a river or hiking a mountainous trail, then you have conjured up the image of Dale Sanders.
“I believe that getting out there, pushing myself and doing these extreme adventures are what’s probably keeping me happy and alive.”
Sanders is an unlikely endurance record holder. He set records as the oldest to canoe the Mississippi from beginning to end, to hike the Appalachian Trail, finish the Missouri River Race and complete the Florida National Scenic Trail. Yet, he will insist that he is an ordinary person; not a runner, not an athlete.
“I think I do it because I’m still trying to prove myself,” says Sanders.
His need to prove himself traces back to childhood when he was bullied in school. His curiosity and interest in academics made him an easy target. The only escape came when he got involved in physical pursuits. In 1959 he set a record for holding his breath underwater and in 1965 the IUSA named him Spearfisherman of the Year.
“I have learned since then that unless one pushes their limits, you’ll never know what your true potentials really are,” Sanders said.
In an interview on the Growing Bolder podcast Sanders explained that his philosophy only got stronger with age. When he retired, he wanted to be outdoors as much as possible. “There are so many things we can do in nature,” he said. “We can hike, swim, bike, spearfish, rock climb, hundreds of possibilities. Just find your niche and get out there and start doing it.”
Sanders says he does have concerns, but not the ones you think. “My greatest fear before I went on the Appalachian Trail,” he said, “was would I be accepted by the hiking community? Nobody at 80 years old does the whole trail. Not only was I accepted, I was embraced.”
He has had the same experience with each activity, finding encouragement, respect and support. “I’ve learned that in the adventure world, age doesn’t matter,” said Sanders. “All that matters is you’re out there doing it, and everybody identifies with you.”
They have even come to embrace his appearance. “When I was working, I was clean shaven and wore a tie everywhere,” he explained. “I never got recognized in a crowd. But with my long, white hair, ponytail and beard people remember me. I’m not some old guy, I’m one of them.”
Sanders is not ready to sit back. Even now he is planning his next adventure. “Someone broke my record for hiking the Appalachian Trail and I want to get it back,” he said. “So, God willing and if the creeks don’t rise, I’m going to do it when I turn 90. How’s that?”
Next time someone asks you to imagine an 87-year-old, think of Dale Sanders.
“I feel so inspired with life,” he said. “The adrenaline just flows through me.”
This article is featured in the Summer 2023 issue of The Growing Bolder Digital Digest.