A couple of weeks ago, I went for two separate runs with students I had coached at Concord Academy. The first run was with Kyra, recently graduated from college (where she did not compete) and now returning to regular and purposeful training for the first time in years. The second run was with Adam, a rising senior who competes for his DIII college team and hopes to help them qualify for the NCAA XC Championship this year. It was good to catch up with both Kyra and Adam, and I enjoyed both runs, although neither was especially easy for me. In fact, I had to conclude that what had once been the most natural way for me to spend a pleasant hour socializing had become a reminder of my changed status in the world of running.
It’s a fact of life that our capabilities change over time, improving rapidly when we first start serious training, then improving more gradually as we approach our potential, then fluctuating or declining slightly as we begin to wear out, and finally sliding down into the abyss. Whether we are resigned to or enraged by the process, our performances wax and then wane, tracing a curve across the decades, telling our particular story.
Although I try not to dwell on it too often, I’m sometimes reminded that twenty-five years ago, I ran certain times and thought of myself as a certain kind of runner. I expected to finish in a certain percentile of any race, and compete with a certain cohort of rivals. As I entered the ranks of masters, my times started slipping, but the year-to-year effects were fairly small, and there was no need for major adjustments to my expectations. Of course, some of the younger runners that I had once considered rivals were now so far ahead that it no longer made sense to use that term, but it was easy enough to ignore them and focus on all of my peers, who seemed to be aging at about the same rate as me.
About fifteen years ago I started as an assistant coach at Newton North, and so I was in constant company of fast high school kids. At the beginning, I ran with the varsity boys without hesitation. I might not be faster, if it came down to a short sprint, but I was stronger. Thus, in those days I never said “no” to leading a long run or tempo. But soon enough, those runs became harder. Year by year, the high school kids seemed to get faster, and I began to be more selective about when and where I would join them. Some went off to run in college, and when they came back during the summer, it was all I could do to keep up on one of their easy runs.
When I began coaching at Concord Academy, the overall level of performance wasn’t quite as high as at Newton North, and so for a few more years I was able to run with all the athletes on the team. But as they improved, I regressed, and before too long, I became self-conscious about joining in on informal runs. It wasn’t just that I ran more slowly, it was that my relationship to running with them had changed, from one of easy camaraderie to stressful effort. Instead of enjoying the experience, I found myself anxious about keeping up.
It was especially poignant for me to realize before my students that I was no longer good running company. I can recall many times when a former student would come home and propose a run, and I would hesitate knowing that if I ran my normal pace I would be holding them back, and if I ran their normal pace, it would be an all-out effort. I hated the fact that I had to think this way, and I suspected that it had something to do with pride that I had such a hard time saying, “sure, let’s run, but we’re going to be running really slowly.”
Meanwhile, as I continued to compete in Grand Prix races and other events, I still saw a few of the same faces as twenty-five years ago, but everything else was different. In other words, a few of us are more or less on the same trajectory, but far more people in these races are riding upward curves, pulling away from us with ease. The few of us in our late fifties seek out each other’s names — few and far between — in the race results and try to make ourselves feel better by comparing ourselves within our dwindling peer group.
But there is one aspect of this otherwise melancholy exercise that brings me a sense of gratitude. If we are all tracing these arcs through time, it must be true that as my arc carries me through different pace strata, I will intersect the arcs of others, some of them rising, some of them falling. And if that’s true, then I’ll have the opportunity to meet runners with whom I never before had this in common, but who are now my companions as we train and race for this year’s finish line. It seems up to me how I’m going to feel about it: am I going to be the grumpy guy who can’t stop talking about those glory days, or the happy geezer who’s able to laugh at being beaten by kids and joggers?
I do miss being able to run with anyone at any time, and being able to control the pace because I trusted in my strength. I miss being able to say “yes” to any run without a second thought. But it would be a shame to miss the opportunities afforded by my new level of fitness. Several days after those runs with Adam and Kyra, I traveled to Vermont and spent the following week at a high school running camp. While there, I attached myself to a group that spent the entire week running no faster than eight-minute pace. I was surprised how much enjoyment this brought me, and how close I felt to the kids in that group by the end of the week.
Of course, if I return next year, I might find that they, too, have gotten too fast for me. But I’ll do my best not to mourn my changing circumstances, but rather content myself with the knowledge that as I travel along my own arc, other arcs are approaching, and who knows what intersections might occur and what will come of them?