It was good to be back on the track last night, attempting my first Tuesday night workout in many weeks. The afternoon was warm and pleasant. There was no sign yet of the showers that had been forecast for the evening. The air was calm, and not too humid. I felt good warming up, as I slowly shook out the stiffness and lethargy that always afflict me after a long day of sitting and staring at computer screens. With every step, I felt more like a runner and athlete, and less like a clunky piece of dated office equipment. I felt a familiar eagerness and apprehension for the modest workout ahead.
And it all went pretty well, but one moment stands out:
It must have been my second or third 800. It felt like I was running at a good pace, but it felt smooth and sustainable. Rounding the far turn, I was focusing on all the mental cues that are always on my mind when I try to run fast: run tall, keep the arms compact, don’t over-stride, drive the foot down not out, relax the shoulders, maintain cadence… when suddenly, a figure appeared without warning on my outside shoulder. In an instant, his speed had carried him past me, allowing me to witness and appreciate the power and efficiency of his stride as he effortlessly pulled away. In an instant I went from feeling fast to feeling slow — not slow sluggish, but slow SLOW. That is, I still felt good, happy to be out on a beautiful evening running intervals with my friends, but the happy illusion that I had been experiencing, the illusion of being an Olympian… that had been swept away in a quick patter of spikes.
In fact, I didn’t need an actual flesh-and-blood runner to remind me that, in absolute terms, I was moving more like syrup than like quicksilver. I was also wearing a watch, and that watch kept telling me the same thing.
It’s a curious thing, but I’ve found that aging hasn’t really changed the way that specific intervals feel to me. In a workout of 400s at mile pace, the 400s feel about the same now that I’m nearing 60 as they did when I was 30. Of course they take longer now, perhaps 15 seconds longer. But strangely, they still feel like 400s, with the same controlled aggressiveness, the same anaerobic distress that sets in around the same point 250-300m in, the same fighting to maintain form at the end. If only the watch didn’t judge them to be so much slower, I might think I’d beaten time itself.
I might be deluding myself about this phenomenon. It’s likely that I’ve adjusted my expectations slowly and subtly over these many years, and I only imagine that this speedwork feels the same as it did then. But if so, does that even matter? If I choose to believe that this 800 tonight feels the same as an 800 I ran in 1986, where’s the harm? But then there is that damn watch, staring up at me with the evidence that my performance continues to decline and that soon I’ll be the track equivalent of the grandpa driving 50 mph on the highway when everyone else is doing 70.
After the workout, I mentioned an idea that has occurred to me from time to time that what the running world needs is a watch that enhances rather than discourages the illusion of speed. I think I would call it a “nostalgia watch,” and the idea would be that it adjusts its timekeeping based on the age, gender, etc. of the runner. So before a run or a workout, one could program it for a 58-year-old male, and it would adjust the passage of time using an age-grading formula to simulate the workout of a 30-year-old. That 400 in 80 would be a 69. That 1k in 3:38 would be a 3:02, and so on.
It would be even better in races. Instead of having to remind myself that running 6:30 miles might actually be too aggressive, the watch would show me the age-graded equivalent split, and I would know that the reason it felt fast was because it WAS fast, relatively speaking.
You will say that I am resisting change, and you will be right. I don’t like getting slower, especially when I find myself apologizing for it. But the wonderful thing is that even after so many, many good years, running still feels pretty great. Long runs still feel like long runs. Tempo runs still feel like tempo runs. And even track workouts, which ought to feel horrible, still bring pleasure, especially when I lose my self-consciousness and let myself experience the feeling of speed.
Running is still pretty sweet… but it might be sweeter still, if it weren’t for those damn kids sprinting by me like greyhounds, and that damn watch, ticking off the seconds much more rapidly than it used to.