On Sunday morning after a week of cold, wet, dreary weather, the sun staged a triumphant return to Boston, blazing in a cloudless April sky. I imagined the sun laughing at us, “Did you ever doubt me?”
The first gorgeous day of the spring arrived just in time for the second event in the New England Runner Pub Series: that reliable harbinger of Spring known as the Doyle’s Emerald Necklace 5-Miler. Doyle’s is equal parts road race and drunken revel, where the morning scamper over the rolling hills of Franklin Park is followed by a block party where the ale flows freely, as do the stories of races past.
It was a fun day, and one that gave me plenty to think about as I drove home afterwards.
Thirty minutes before the race, I had sought out a quiet corner to take care of some final details — pinning my number on, changing into racing shoes, stuffing my extra clothes into my backpack and stashing it nearby — when I heard a friendly voice greet me. I looked up from re-tying my shoelaces for the third time, to see a fellow seniors runner with whom I’d had many close races over the last several seasons as we both vied for Pub Series age group awards. We exchanged a few remarks, and I commented on how many of our contemporaries — all of our fellow over-the-hill former fast guys — were here, and how it seemed it took a Pub race and free beer to bring us together these days.
He nodded, and agreed that it was so. As for him, he continued, his greatest motivation these days was to come to events like this, run at whatever pace his body could manage, and socialize with all of his old friends and rivals. He remembered how he had reached a point almost twenty years earlier when all the weekends spent traveling to far-away races where he didn’t know anyone, thrashing himself for 5 or 8 or 10 miles, and then — after it was all over and he had collected whatever prize he had won — driving himself home alone… had finally become old. After one such race, he said to himself, “I’m done.”
A few years later, he met and married another runner, and having a partner to run with coaxed him back into a regular running routine and made it fun again. Eventually, he found himself back in races, but his motivation had shifted from an emphasis on being the best to enjoying the company. And here he was, like the rest of us old-timers, ready to “race,” although that verb had a somewhat different meaning for us than it had when we were all much younger.
This whole conversation lasted no more than three minutes. With a final “good luck,” he headed off towards the start, and a few minutes later, I did the same.
At Doyle’s, the race never starts on time, and this year there was an especially long delay, as we waited for a Boston Parks & Rec vehicle to arrive on the scene. But instead of feeling frustrated and antsy, I found myself enjoying conversation with other folks I hadn’t seen for a year or more.
As the roughly 500 runners went through their final pre-race strides and drills, or merely stood around enjoying the sun, another old rival and friend greeted me warmly. “Everyone’s here!” he said, reeling off the names of runners who used to monopolize the top places in races like this. I knew that, in reality, the numbers of those of us still running thirty years after our heyday must be very small. But he was right: it did feel like everyone was here.
And most of us were here with no illusions about being fast anymore. To be fast, you need to be healthy enough to train hard, and that was a luxury none of us could afford anymore. For some of us, it wasn’t about mechanical injuries, but about other health issues that presented a stark choice: either stop running or accept that running is no longer about how much pain and discomfort you can endure, but about managing a modest amount of stress so you don’t make things worse. That’s not an easy thing for those of us programmed to get our satisfaction from driving ourselves to fast times and podium finishes. If we were lucky, we could still enjoy training, but always under a yellow caution flag, because there was always that risk that we were one unwise step away from not being able to run at all, and then there would be no more post-race parties for us.
The race finally got underway, and it for me it went very well. I felt under control, and ran steadily the whole five miles. It was encouraging to run the same pace for five miles that I had run two weeks ago for 5K.
After the race, I honored a promise I had made to my old rival and joined him for a cup of Doyle’s finest, as we shared news of our kids (and grandkids!) and travels. It felt good to stick around and socialize.
Eventually, it was time to head home, and as I walked back to my car, I found myself pondering the odd tribe of older runners, including me, who had somehow managed to stick around, and not quit the sport entirely. Some had consciously embraced a new relationship to running, motivated by the social benefits rather than the competition; others had perhaps reluctantly come to accept their limitations, motivated by health concerns; others, no doubt, had their own reasons that I might hear about some day.
I thought: I’d always imagined the aging process as a long, gradual decline, but that’s not the only way to look at it. I think it’s often the case that we go for years experiencing little or no change to our health and abilities, and then some crisis stops us in our tracks. Once the crisis resolves, which might take a long time, decisions must be made: do we try to climb back up to reclaim our former place? Do we retire to save ourselves the frustration of endless unfavorable comparisons between the present and the glorious past? Or do we find another way forward?
It seemed to me that all of my cohort had, at some point, decided on another way that required that they redefine and reinvent themselves as runners. At some point, they had left behind the elite runner they had been. Maybe it took a while to mourn their lost vigor, and maybe they, or rather we, were still in mourning. But their presence at Doyle’s and in the beer line afterwards was evidence that they, we, had made a reasonable peace with our nostalgia. We were new men and women now, showing up at the starting line with new hopes and dreams, socializing afterwards with talk that was more likely to include news of family, than recitation of impressive weekly mileages and fast times.
I’ve been trying to think of a suitable metaphor for such a reinvention, but I’ve mostly come up empty. Oddly, the only thing that occurs to me is a story about the jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, told to me more than 30 years ago when I was in college and studying music. A friend of mine, a jazz bassist, told me that in his career, Coltrane had twice reached what he felt were limits of his technique, and that he had twice decided he needed to “start over,” and teach himself from scratch how to play the horn again. I don’t know if this story is true, but the image of Coltrane reinventing himself stuck with me. No matter how accomplished, the artist might reach a point where he needed to go back to square one and figure out what was really important.
It might be a heart-breaking process, or it might be the only one that could really bring you back into the present with a reason to look ahead and not back.