Of the top five finishers in the 5K this morning, one had run 8 miles before the race. Another had run 13 miles.
I was doing well to get out of bed and drive to the race just a half mile from my house.
The winners’ times were fast, these young men in their man-buns and the sleek bodies of youth, who are not even bothering with water as they stroll easily along the sidewalk, not even out of breath, because they finished 6 minutes before I did and have already cooled down, as I labor to the finish line, feeling like a runner, but knowing that I’m just another old guy, old being anyone over 25, because anyone over 25 is just a pretender and not even an afterthought to those who run in the fast lane of youth.
So I won my age group. First place, the little trophy cup says. So what. Who cares.
I care a little. Because I made myself get out of bed. I made myself run those 4 miles on Wednesday when I didn’t really feel like it. And the speed work on Monday, which is ridiculous and serves no purpose other than to satisfy my ego. And the 7 1/2 miles last Sunday that I don’t have to do. But there’s something gratifying about being out on the road in the early morning by yourself, and wanting to quit after a couple of miles while you still feel good, but enjoying the morning so much that you just keep pushing until your legs become weak and a little wobbly but you have to push on because you just can’t quit because you have to push on. Because you have to push on.
And because of all of that, there’s a little cup that says First Place that means nothing to anybody but me.
I first said that probably twenty-five years ago. I was struggling to finish the Charleston Distance Run, a grueling 15-miler. I had run the race several times before and done fairly well for an amateur runner. Not this time. At about the 12 mile mark I was so beat, I questioned why I was putting myself through it. Being as competitive (prideful?) as I am, I didn’t want to run if I couldn’t be constantly improving.
Looks like my running days are over.
I haven’t run the Distance Run since, but I shelved my pride and kept running.
Then about 15 years ago my orthopedist said I had a condition called spondylolisthesis. Bad back. He told me to quit running.
Looks like my running days are over, for real.
I started sleeping in on Saturdays, but I wanted to stay in shape. I found an old video from the 80s and started doing step aerobics. Then Tae Bo with Billy Blanks. I did this for maybe three years. But I missed running.
I started out slowly. Not even a mile on my first run. Kept adding a little bit each time. I was soon running about three miles every other day. I wasn’t running like I used to, but I was running. And no back pain.
So of course I kept adding miles. Then hills. Then speed work. I ran a few races and actually won my age division a couple of times, which, really, is nothing to brag about. At my age, just showing up for the race almost assures you of a trophy. And if I can manage to knock out the guy with the walker ahead of me, then I win.
So I kept running. Then came the knee pain. I tried running through it but it only got worse. I laid off for a couple of days. When I tried again, the pain was almost unbearable. I did what you’re supposed to do. Ice and pain relievers. Nothing helped.
Looks like my running days are over.
I went back to step aerobics. After a couple of weeks, I tried the treadmill. The pain was still there.
After about four weeks, I tried the treadmill again. No pain for a quarter mile.
More aerobics. Treadmill. Half mile.
Aerobics. Treadmill. One mile.
And then I was out on the road again.
That was a year ago. Yesterday I did about four miles of hills and speed work.
I’m sure some other ailments will pop up. I’ve had hamstring problems. Foot problems. But I take it easy for a few days and then I’m back at it.
Here’s what I’ve learned from running:
The body is very resilient. Sure, there may be a time when my running days are really over. But it won’t be for lack of trying.
I have a special needs brother-in-law who has lived in Logan, West Virginia for the past few years. More specifically, Whitman Junction, which runs along the holler formed by Whitman Creek. And yes it’s holler, not hollow. The houses of Whitman Junction – some ramshackle, some very nice brick ranchers – sit so closely together that you could sit in your kitchen and hear your neighbor’s cat purring next door, and so close to the road that a misjudged first step off the front porch could put you directly in the line of traffic. It’s what you would call a tight-knit community.
My brother-in-law has been in and out of Logan General Hospital recently, and is now recovering from a serious illness. Because of all of this, my wife and I have spent a great deal of time in the Logan area over the last few years. To know about Logan – and southern West Virginia – you need to know about the state in general.
Economically, West Virginia typically ranks near the bottom of the 50 states in just about every category. At one time, though, southern West Virginia was a booming coal mining region. But as mining has declined, so have the fortunes of southern West Virginia. Communities like Logan have been hard hit.
The geography and geology of southern West Virginia, specifically, the coal formed in the mountains eons ago, is what spurred the boom times of yesteryear. Those same mountains also tend to isolate southern West Virginia. The terrain is rugged. Check out this photo of the main highway leading to Logan. That’s a major cut through hard sandstone. And the next photo. It took a massive earthwork project just to build another Walmart.
Add all this up and you get people who are different. I know I talk with an accent, but it ain’t nuthin like the accent of southern West Virginia. It’s also the land of camo. As in camouflage hats, camo vests, camo shirts, camo pants. You also see a lot of miners in their work clothes, easily identified by the bright orange reflectors. Yeah, the people are different. And they seem to have a little bit of a hard edge.
The other day we stopped to get a bite to eat and saw a couple coming out of the fast food restaurant holding hands. They were thin and wiry. He wore a scowl. So did she. Tough love, maybe? I’d be afraid of either one of them.
But maybe I shouldn’t be.
We had driven to Logan that morning, a Saturday, and were listening to This American Life. It was an old episode about a prison production of Hamlet. It was one of the most engaging shows I’ve ever heard on that broadcast. They interviewed convicted criminals who were trying their best to be actors. One of them acknowledged that his tough guy persona, the very thing that had landed him in prison, was an act. It was who he thought people expected him to be. It was, for him, a cloak of protection.
The people in Logan have had it rough. I’d probably scowl, too, if for no other reason, than to keep the world at bay.
And there are many, many good people in Logan. You can tell by the way the old guys wear their camo ball caps tipped back on their head. You can tell by the way the young girls in the stores go out of their way to make you feel like a long, lost cousin. You can tell by the 10-second conversation in the hospital elevator where a stranger tells you about the heartbreak she’s dealing with. Just like people all over the world.
If you lived in Hawaii, you’d probably smile a lot. Perfect weather, beautiful people, laid back attitude. If you lived in Logan, it would be tougher to smile. And yet they do. Even the scowling couple probably find contentment when their guard is down. They were holding hands, after all.
Wherever you go in your travels, you’ll find good people. It might take more of an effort to find them, but they’re there. Look past what’s on the outside, and find the goodness within.
Self-doubt can be an ally. This is because it serves as an indicator of aspiration. It reflects love, love of something we dream of doing, and desire, desire to do it. If you find yourself asking yourself (and your friends), “Am I really a writer? Am I really an artist?” chances are you are. The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.
I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
He was 64 years old. He had lived his life making the correct decisions, always doing the right thing and never causing anyone any trouble. He and his wife had raised a wonderful family. He had grandchildren. He lived alone, his wife having died several years earlier.
He ate dinner at 5:30, took a walk in the woods outside his house, and was back in time to watch Jeopardy. This he did every evening.
And then he retired from the company he had worked for for thirty-nine years. That day they had brought in a cake. Chocolate cake. He sipped coffee from a styrofoam cup and everyone asked what he was going to do in his free time. He just shrugged and smiled. He would not see his coworkers again.
That evening, he didn’t go home. He drove to the city, to the big park where people walked dogs and threw frisbees and rowed boats in the lake. He had heard of the walking trails. They stretched for miles, meandering through the park and beyond, connecting the various neighborhoods of the city with meticulously planned greenbelts. He had never walked the trails before. He had never been to the park.
He started walking along the big, open field where children chased one another. He walked along the lake. Along the edge of the woods.
Then a fork in the trail.
Which one? It didn’t matter.
On he walked. Deep into the woods. Bicycles passed him. Joggers, too.
On he walked. Into neighborhoods he didn’t know. Then among the trees again.
On he walked.
He was hungry. When he came out of the woods again, he would find a place to eat. Maybe a diner. Maybe a He was home in time for Jeopardy.bistro. Maybe a food truck. After that, a drink in a bar. He didn’t drink, but all was new, the possibilities before him were rich.
On he walked.
Ahead, the light flooded the trail as the trees parted. His pace quickened as he anticipated the world that awaited.
The lake. The field. His car.
A circle. One long circle.
So. No new world. No new adventure. The possibilities before him were not rich, but predictable.