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An old joke goes something like this: What makes God laugh? Plans.

The Forecast

The weather forecast called for rain, freezing rain. The race website said to stay tuned; a decision as to whether the race would run or cancel would be made by Saturday morning at 7:30 a.m.

100% Irish

The Twin Cities in Motion 100% Irish for a Day 10-mile race is a small, local affair run around Lakes Harriet and Calhoun in southwest Minneapolis. Many, maybe most, participants come to run the 5K and drink beer. Most of the 5K runners wear costumes. Picture beer-swilling leprechauns, if you will, and you understand the 100% Irish for a Day race. Of course, there are a few who have deficient senses of humor. They tend to run the 10-mile race. Count me among them.

I went to bed the night before thinking that it would be OK if a coat of ice canceled the race. I had run the 10-mile in 2011 and 2012, placing second in my age group two years ago and first a year ago. I hate to say that I need a field of drunk leprechauns to do pretty well but the facts speak for themselves. Regardless of the “fun” nature of the race, I felt a burden of expectation, all of which I placed on myself. Having placed high in my age group in recent years, I wanted to do the same in 2013. I did not want to let down.

Older, slower and better?

This was part of a theme. Years ago, when I was an equally avid but consistently lower placing runner, friends used to console me by saying that if I just kept it up, as I grew older, I would start to earn some podium finishes. They were counting on Darwin having his way with people who acted a lot like me. If I couldn’t outrun the competition, I needed only to outlive them. At the time, I dismissed the prospect. I hypothesized that as runners age, those who enjoy success keep going. Those who do not thrive find other things to do, most of which do not make it feel as though they are very close to coughing up a lung or like knives are being plunged into their thighs. Remarkably, however, my friends were proving to be right. As I aged, my place finishes got better.

This all points to an irony. The plain fact is that with each succeeding year, I get slower. I am, however, getting slower, slower than most of my peers. So, while my athletic powers are flagging, my place finishes have crept up. Meanwhile, my enthusiasm has jumped, too. Even a modicum of success in local races has made me more and more determined to keep training, to keep reaching for accomplishments measured against my peers. Not surprisingly, this enthusiasm goes hand in hand with my identity. As I pour myself into training and racing, that aspect of my life becomes more prominent, more who I am than just what I do. Thus the irony: as I get measurably slower I increasingly identify myself with endurance athletics.

Perhaps pointing to the mere irony of my situation underestimates the fragility. Is it a good idea to increasingly regard myself in a pursuit that must almost certainly come to an end. Put otherwise, can I be a good runner or triathlete when I am 90? Almost certainly not. 80? Who knows if I will even live that long. 70? I hope that I live at least that long, but will I still run, ride and swim? 60? That’s coming right up. Even so, how certain am I that the identity I am creating will be sustainable, will sustain me, even for the next few years?

Saturday Morning

At about 5:10 a.m. on Saturday, I got into my car and drove toward the Eden Prairie Community Center to get in my swim workout. The pavement glistened with a mix of wafer-thin ice and water. I turned on my windshield wipers as a gauzy mist gathered, only to be pushed aside with the pulsing, rubbery sound of the wipers tracing semicircles across the smooth glass.

Walking toward the Community Center across the parking lot, my feet mostly gripped the wet pavement with the scratching sound of salt, sand and small gravel against asphalt treated time and again over a long winter. So far as I could tell, the race was on.

I swam and headed back home to prepare a few things, then head to the race.

Connection

Walking into the parking lot to pick up my race number, I ran into friends who remain on the TCM board of directors. We exchanged hugs and handshakes. I had left the board only three months before and did not yet feel disconnected. I just felt less connected, a little sad.

I had cut a hole in the top of a large, black trash bag and stuck my head through. While decidedly old school, the trash bag protected me, some, from the 2o mph south wind and the occasional sprinkles. Even so, by the time I had tied my timing chip into my shoe laces and walked over to the start area, I was shivering cold and nervous. None of my friends lined up for the 10-mile, so I exchanged small talk with a couple from the Peoria area as a way to keep calm. Yeah, it seemed silly to get nervous about a fun run but my pride was on the line.

To my relief, the gun sounded. I started well back; it took nine seconds to reach the starting line. Once there, I began to run as hard as I believed that I could for just over an hour.

Still Swimming

The course suffered from the overnight rain and just a few hundred yards after starting, we needed to jump the curb and run in the snow to avoid a deep puddle. There were at least two places on the course requiring a diversion off the roadway. I scaled the shallow hill above the puddle and felt my heart reach a practical maximum. As I would have advised Katie, “Push it right to the red line, then hold it there for as long as you can.”

The crowd near the front thinned and stretched. Ahead of me, I could see the really strong runners moving away into the distance. Slower runners who had seeded themselves too far up front began to wheeze and go backward in the pack. I began to hold steady with a group of younger men.

The parkway was pocked with potholes, cracks and puddles. It was impossible to avoid getting wet and my feet soon became soaked and heavy in the waterlogged shoes and socks that now made my feet a burning, soggy cold. Meanwhile, my breath would, by turns, escape me and make me slow down a bit, then gradually return. I tore off my garbage bag and threw it in a park trash can. My feet were freezing cold; the rest of me had gotten hot.

The sky was gloomy, steel gray, close and damp. The south wind blew cold when we hit open spots along the lake. Farther along the course, with the wind at my back, I began to overheat and unzipped my running jacket.

Practically nobody other than race volunteers came out to watch. It really was an unpleasant day outside and the indifference of family, friends and neighbors to our heavily breathing costume parade should have sent a clear message: Do you seriously think that’s fun?

I carefully surveyed the runners around me as the race sorted us each into the places that our pace dictated. I felt good about slowly taking time out of a couple of runners ahead of me but felt a sinking feeling when a few people passed me. Ordinarily, I pride myself on not losing places during a race and continuing to hold tough. On that day, though, a few younger guys went by, then a woman. All the while, I checked to see if a guy who looked about my age was passing me back after I had gone by him about 800 meters into the race.

With a mile left to go, a guy pulled up beside me and asked if I wanted to pick it up and race in. His mistake: I had “picked it up” and running faster was not on offer. I declined (as if I had a choice) and said that he looked more fit than I did and that he should go ahead.

Finished?

I crossed the finish line and knew immediately that I had left next to no gas in my tank. My head sank forward and I shuffled along the wet pavement and onto the lawn area covered with ice and snow and mud and brown grass that stood between me and the post-finish area. I grabbed a cookie with green sprinkles. A friend said that my tongue and lips were green as a result but I didn’t much care. I smiled and apologized for moving on but I was completely drenched and would soon get very cold if I lingered.

As I walked slowly toward my car, I clicked through the run statistics stored on my watch. I had held an average heart rate well above my anaerobic threshold but my splits were only about 6:50. As a reference point, at age 29, I had run a marathon holding just slightly faster than 6:01 splits and it felt easy. On that gray morning as a 54 year old, 6:50’s felt as though I had put an egg beater down my throat into my chest and turned it to “whip.” Any faint hope I had held of running one last 3:00 marathon (6:53 pace) seemed completely ridiculous. If I had that hard a time with a 6:50 pace for ten miles, running 26.2 miles at splits only three seconds slower would not happen. Ever.

Measuring Decline

We all know that we are aging but, for the most part, we don’t measure the process. Of course, in some instances, we can take pretty precise measurements. For instance, the optometrist can tell us exactly how much our prescription has changed so that we can get glasses to read the menu in a dimly lit restaurant. Many of us consult the same bathroom scale that we have had for years and wonder if it’s accuracy has drifted because the numbers have slowly risen. In my case, I spend time and effort every day measuring heart rate, watts, mile splits, lap times and miles per hour. I confront my mortality daily, tracing the arc of my physical capabilities beyond their apex years ago.

I’d be lying if I said that it doesn’t bother me. The point of my athletic training is to get better, not to slowly fade away. Nobody I know embraces decline.

Do I work out to push back mortality? Not consciously but it wouldn’t hurt my feelings if all of this sweat and bother improved my longevity just a bit.

For now, though, I will dutifully, if not enthusiastically, measure every day’s workout. I’ll watch the numbers I want to go up, go down. I’ll watch those numbers I want to go down, go up. My only defense? I will hope that the guys I race get slower, too. I can only hope that I get slower slower than they do.

Rookie

I consulted the race results after coming home and bathing. As it turned out, I made the most fundamental of rookie mistakes: I failed to securely fasten my timing chip to my shoe. The chip must have fallen off someplace shortly after the start because my time only showed starting the race but no intermediate splits or a finish. Had my time been official, I would have won my age group but only by about 20 seconds. Uncomfortably, the guy who won the age group one older than mine (55-59) beat me by about four minutes. I don’t like getting beaten by older guys but I found it strangely encouraging. Maybe if that guy figured out how to run faster after 55, I could, too. Then I laughed at myself.

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2 Comments

  1. Hi Scott,

    Thanks for sharing this. Your timing is perfect: I am recovering from a fractured calcaneous (aka “stress fracture in my heel bone) in my left ankle and I needed some inspiration/hope that things will get better.

    The break happened during a completely ordinary training run of 10 miles at my father-in-law’s place in Boca Raton, Fl, at the end of January. I didn’t know immediately that it was broken–I just thought that it was “old man” soreness. So, I continued to run (slowly and painfully) through February and the first week of March until, after a couple of 60 plus mile weeks, I decided that my webMD aided self diagnosis should probably be verified by a board certified orthopedic doctor. When the scans came back with a pencil thin black diagonal line running at a forty-five degree angle across my otherwise white heel, the sports medicine doc told me that I wouldn’t be running either the Boston Marathon or Wild Flower this year. After several minutes of denial, protests and negotiation, I capitulated.

    I have had the “soft cast” on for almost two weeks now and haven’t felt so debilitated in my life. I have a new-found appreciation for those amongst us who have real and permanent disabilities.

    In any event, I am feeling the aging effects at 43 and I am struggling with being sidelined for the next few weeks. I was really looking forward to both Boston and Lake San Antonio but these races/trips will have to wait until next year.

    All my best,

    Todd M. Phelps Leonard, Street and Deinard, P.A. 150 South Fifth Street, Suite 2300 Minneapolis, MN 55402 (612) 335-1871 (direct) (612) 335-1657 (facsimile) Assistant: Vicki Nielsen (612) 335-1688

  2. Hey, Scott! Great post. I’ve been slow for so long, it’s now a way of life. Todd, sorry to hear about your foot. Take.good care of yourself.


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