I rounded the corner, my legs sluggish, my body tired, and I was content to finish the run at a reasonable, non-challenging pace. It was hot and muggy and I hadn’t slept well the night before and work at the office and work at home had taken a toll on me and so, yes, I was content to finish the run at a reasonable, non-challenging pace. And then I rounded the corner.
I saw her walking across the street ahead of me, dressed in workout tights and a t-shirt, probably coming from the health club. She walked in front of another building and I lost sight of her.
You may begin judging. Why did I notice her?
She appeared to be athletic and as a runner, I tend to notice others involved in athletic endeavors.
I practice situational awareness and notice everybody in my immediate vicinity.
I am a man and she was a woman and I am an example of toxic masculinity.
So again I turned the corner, and there she was, about twenty yards ahead of me, and she started to run. No, she wasn’t running from me; she hadn’t even seen me.
She’s twenty yards ahead and I see she’s not thin and lithe, doesn’t have that classic runner’s body. Judge me again. What is a runner’s body, Joe?
A couple of year ago I was out on a run and heard footsteps behind me and before I knew it, I was being passed by a squat, muscular guy who looked more like a weightlifter than a runner. But he was more of a runner than I was. So, sure, I admit that judging this woman by her build was not too smart. Still, I had no doubt that I was going to pass her very quickly, even with my tired, sluggish legs.
I should point out that this was happening along a busy street, a common running route in my town. So even if she knew I was behind her (and she didn’t) she wouldn’t have felt threatened. I was just another runner.
Off I go, picking up the pace a little. But I wasn’t closing the distance between us. Twenty yards became thirty. Thirty-five. Forty. She was leaving me in the dust.
So I eased up and resigned myself to the fact that she was probably thirty years younger than me and I was tired and so what if she’s faster.
No, I didn’t do that. I picked up my pace even more.
Still, she widened the gap. Maybe I should just lay back. Admit defeat.
Of course not. I pressed harder. Longer, quicker strides.
I was keeping pace now, but not closing the gap. My breathing was fast and hard, my heart pounding.
A slight uphill rise, followed by a downhill, where I used gravity to my advantage. I was getting closer, ever so slightly. When the road flattened, I kept my downhill pace. I was gaining on her.
But I didn’t know how long I could keep it up. A larger hill loomed ahead. Maybe she would slow. Even though I was dead tired and I couldn’t get enough air in my lungs, I was determined.
Why? What’s the purpose of this personal quest?
It’s that toxic masculinity again. I have to prove that I’m a man.
My ego is out of control and even at my age, I refuse to admit I’ve lost a few steps.
Even though I have no desire to say more than hello as I pass her, I can’t help but think that she’ll be impressed by this ageless wonder running like a man half his age.
Maybe I’m just a dork.
I was definitely closing the gap, but it’s a slow and painful process. If she picks up the pace even a little, I’m done. But I’ll keep pressing as long as I can.
And then she pivots and turns around, running toward me. I raise my hand in the understated runner’s wave. She doesn’t acknowledge me. She passes, and just like that, the race is over.
She wins. I lose.
I hit the hill I was dreading and I’m thankful I can slow down. And when I slow, I feel so tired that I wonder how I ran as fast as I did for as long as I did. Another half mile at an old man’s pace and my run is finished.
I sat down on the curb, sweat burning my eyes, a puddle forming on the concrete. And I started to ask the questions. The answers? All of the above.
A couple of days later I tossed up a kind of random post about running hills. I was just feeling good about still being able to challenge myself as I hobble into old man territory. I directed the post to my New York friend, Cat Bradley, who is also a runner. Little did I know that Cat was also doing hill repeats, and that even as I posted the photo of the hill I had just run, Cat was writing a post about her experience in forcing herself to run the hills.
Simply a coincidence of two people with similar interests having a similar experience at the same time?
But while Cat’s story is ostensibly about running, you’ll see that it’s much more than that. It’s about what it takes to move forward in life. Click here.
Footnote: The kitty in the photo is actually the First Place Prize I won in the Old Man Division of the Itty Bitty Kitty Committee 2 Miler a couple of years ago. As you can imagine, the competition in the Old Man Division was very light that day. Still, it took everything I had to get past the guy with the walker.
This morning one of my New York friends, Cat Bradley, was describing her first experience with mile repeats. Yeah, you know what those are. Run a mile at an elevated pace, recover with a slow jog (or walk) for a few minutes, then run another mile at an elevated pace. Repeat. For as long as you can do it. Ahh, such fun.
Now Cat is young. I am old. I used to do those. I still do speedwork and intervals when I’m able. But here’s the thing: my body won’t let me do what I used to do. It’s one annoying minor injury after another. Definitely age related. My latest is a calf strain that’s kept me from putting in the miles.
Last Saturday morning I was at the church working in the garden with our spring work crew and a block away, runners gathered at the starting line. The gun goes off and the hoard runs past. I so much wanted to be with them. I love those times when you push yourself and see where you are, see what you’re made of.
And I will again. This age thing has some benefits. One, you learn patience. I’ll be back. I’ll do those long Sunday runs again. I’ll do the intervals on my lunch hour. I’ll run a few of those Saturday morning races.
I also know that I won’t be as fast as I was five years ago. I won’t run as far as I did twenty years ago. And the good thing is, I don’t want to. I love running, but I also love writing, and playing my guitar, and being with my family, and having a relaxing breakfast on Saturdays.
Still, when you’re young like Cat, you have to do it. It’s part of finding out who you are.
Every now and then, it all comes together. You’ve trained just enough, you’ve found just enough rest, your legs feel fresh, the weather is just right, and you’re running as if you’re weightless, moving fast and smooth, and as the miles click off, you never slow down and you wish you could run that way forever.
Not so much for me, lately, as I struggle to get back on the road.
Writing has a similar zone, one that I haven’t felt for a while. It’s been a rocky year and I’ve had difficulty in finding a rhythm. Just the ordinary trials of life that we all face. The week of Thanksgiving our furnace was out. It was so cold in the house I couldn’t put two words together. Then there’s work (the paying job) and work at home (the basement remodeling project) that have been conspiring against my mind and body.
But Sunday morning I found it. After a tenuous start, the words started to flow. Just enough training, just enough rest, my mind felt fresh, the room felt right, and I was writing as if I were weightless, so fast and smooth, and as the words clicked off, I never slowed down and I felt like I could write that way forever.
I’ve been rehabbing my latest running setback (adductor tendonitis, a particularly uncomfortable malady) by biking. But in search of something that will approximate running, I’ve discovered I can run steps without aggravating my injury. The best steps in my neighborhood are at the cemetery.
The view from the bottom can be intimidating.
But once you get to the top and turn around, it’s worth the trip.
Almost Heaven, West Virginia. Even more true in the cemetery.
If you’re a runner, and you want to shave a few minutes off your 5k time, slow down. I know this is counterintuitive, but if you want to run fast on race day, slow down on your training runs. Take it easy. And those long runs you’ve been putting in on Sunday mornings don’t do you any good either. Sleep in. Save your energy. Then on race day, you’ll be fresh and run faster than you ever have before.
Train smart, not hard.
No, not really. I’m lying.
If you want to run fast, you have to train fast. Not everyday, but you’re going to have to run fartleks or intervals or speedwork at the track. And yes, you still have to get up early on weekends and put in the extra miles. That’s the truth, kiddos. It’s hard work to run fast. It’s no walk in the park. More like torture in 90 degree heat, lungs about to burst. Or slogging through the rain or fighting the wind. Aching legs that keep you up at night. Is it worth it all just to run fast? That’s for you decide.
But if you want to be good at something, you have to train hard. There ain’t no shortcuts. And you have to want it pretty bad.
I’ve been writing stories and novels for many years and have used various techniques for moving through the process of cranking out 80,000 words. To do something like that, you can’t afford to get stuck very often. Yet it happens, particularly when you’re in the beginnings of a new scene that hasn’t quite found its rhythm yet.
This morning I sat down to work on my story about Heather and did what I always do. I read a few paragraphs – maybe even a few pages – of what I wrote yesterday, just to get back into the flow of the scene. As I did, I started tinkering with word choices and the phrasing of sentences. Nothing really creative, just basic editing. Then I reached the end of what I had written previously.
I wish I could tell you that new sentences sprang forth and before I knew it, I had knocked out another 1,000 words.
So I went back and tinkered some more.
Here’s the thing. As you tinker, things are happening that you don’t realize. Your writing skills are improving, but more importantly, thoughts are forming in your subconscious. You’re working harder and more effectively than you realize. After two or three sessions of tinkering, the next new sentence will appear. Followed by another. Or a new twist to the story may present itself. And maybe an hour later, you’ve added 500 words.
Tinkering is better than staring at the screen, doing nothing, letting the hopelessness take over. It can be a very produtive exercise.
It works for writing. It works for painting. It works for running. It probably works for whatever you’re dong.
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.