“Are you doing anything crazy [for your birthday] like running your age in indoor track laps?”
– Tyler, who, it must be pointed out, once ran 50K (125 laps) on a track
In 2014, Dave McGillivray, ultra-runner, founder and president of DMSE Sports, and long-time race director of the Boston Marathon, celebrated turning sixty by completing a 60-mile run. It wasn’t the first time he had run his age for his birthday; he had been following this personal tradition every year for nearly half a century, beginning when he was only 12 years old. As far as I know, he has continued the tradition since then. How can mere mortals compete with that?
When I turned sixty, I was injured and wouldn’t have been able to run 60 steps, let alone miles. Nevertheless, inspired by legends like McGillivray, I was determined to find some way to mark the occasion, so I climbed on a stationary bike at the gym that displayed distance in virtual 400m “laps.” The display had a blinking cursor that inched counter-clockwise along the edges of the display as you pedaled. One time around the screen equaled 400 meters, or one lap. That day I sat on the bike and pedaled until I had completed 60 laps. It was hardly comparable to running 60 miles, yet, this first lame attempt at birthday laps seemed to have promise. I decided I would have to try again the next year.
A year after my stationary bike adventure, I did, in fact, run 61 laps around the outside of the indoor track at Boston University. It was not an especially enjoyable experience, partly because for half the run I had to dodge members of the BU Track team who had shown up for their morning practice a half hour into my little stunt. But I got it done and it wasn’t terrible. The next year, I did a similar run (plus one lap), but this time used the Gordon Track at Harvard. Running around that track brought back memories of racing at the GBTC Invitational, which always fell on the fourth Sunday of January, meaning it was always on or near my birthday. I had to admit that racing for my birthday had always seemed more meaningful than simply tallying up a certain number of indoor laps with no one to notice. I didn’t know exactly what was missing, whether lap running was too easy or too contrived, but this time I wasn’t sure whether I should keep the tradition going.
The decision was taken out of my hands the next year. A year ago COVID was surging, and every indoor track facility was closed. Even had I been willing to consider running laps on an outdoor track for nearly 16 miles, outdoor tracks around Boston were covered with ice and snow and all but un-runnable. So, on my birthday I shrugged and headed out for a normal run. I admit that I ended up extending that run until my GPS watch displayed 6.3 miles, but this nod to the odometer felt gratuitous, and not up to the imaginary standards for a birthday run.
I approached birthday number sixty-four — with all its mathematical richness — not knowing what, if anything, I would do to mark the occasion. I felt healthier than I had for a long time, but I was still averaging less than 25 miles a week, with my longest runs topping out at 6-7 miles. Moreover, indoor tracks were still restricting access and requiring use of masks. Taken together, these factors meant I had little interest in doing something “crazy” like running 64 laps of an indoor track. On the other hand, the weather in Boston had been dry and outdoor tracks were clear. It was more appealing to think about running outdoors, but 64 laps of a standard outdoor track would be much farther than I was prepared to run. What to do?
I reviewed the possibilities:
- Run 64 miles. Laughable.
- Run 64 kilometers. Laughable, but somehow not as funny. (Humor is harder in the metric system)
- Run 64 of some other unit. Possible, but what unit? Leagues? Furlongs? Rods, Stadia? Even if I knew how far these were, it would just be weird.
- Run 64 laps at the local high school track. Still too far.
- Run 64 laps of a 200m indoor track. Tracks are inaccessible, and I would hate it.
- Walk for 64 laps of a track. Possible, but that would take me many hours, and besides, like biking, walking didn’t carry the same significance as running.
The key word was significance. What I wanted — what all runners want, I suppose — was to feel that the challenge I chose to undertake had some semblance of meaning. It might seem arbitrary or foolish to others, but the right challenge would be a meaningful test of my resolve and commitment.
In short, I sought a challenge that would make poor, slow, aging me feel like a real runner – someone who was still out there plugging away, still able to endure a certain amount of discomfort for the chance to cross a future finish line — far behind the winner, yes, but in time to earn the faint fumes of glory for having crossed it at all. Maybe I did want to attempt something that seemed a little crazy. Maybe crazy was the point.
Again, I came back to the idea of 64 laps, and this time I had an idea. I remembered that there was an undersized outdoor track at the Newton YMCA. I remembered that it had been designed to occupy the limited space next to the gymnasium and had been built around the time I stopped coaching at Newton North in the mid-2000s. I also recalled that one of my fellow coaches had served on the design committee and had insisted it be accurately measured — at 200 meters most likely — for hosting youth races. It would be perfect – an outdoor track with indoor dimensions. I had never actually run there – why would I, when there were several full-size tracks in Newton closer to my home? — but if it was indeed open and clear, it might be just the venue to attempt my 64-lap run.
On the morning of January 22, the thermometer outside our kitchen window hovered in the single digits. This made it an easy decision to wait until the afternoon to venture out. By the time I threw a backpack with extra gear into the back seat of my car and placed a thermos of hot tea beside me, the temperature had climbed to the low-20’s, and I was feeling optimistic about my adventure. As I drove the three miles to the Y, I tried to anticipate the obstacles I might encounter. Mainly, I worried that the track might be locked up or accessible only through the Y building itself, in which case, I might be forced to pay an outrageous fee for using it. And even if the track was open and accessible, it might be in heavy use by walkers. For various reasons, I was hoping to have the track to myself, but my experience at other tracks led me to believe that there would be other people to contend with.
When I arrived at the Y, the parking lot was almost full, but I was relieved to find that the track was not only open, but completely empty. After a few activations and dynamic stretches. I took a last slurp of hot tea, started my GPS watch, and began my first lap in the traditional counter-clockwise direction.
One might ask whether I was worried at all about losing track of the laps. I was not. First, I’m good at counting. Second, that I would be running at a slow but consistent pace, I could always correlate elapsed time with elapsed distance. I would be checking my watch frequently, and this should verify that I hadn’t inadvertently missed or added a lap. I jogged along in lane one at a gentle, preliminary pace, feeling fine – until the end of the first lap when I glanced at my watch and realized that something wasn’t adding up.
It’s funny how, given the wrong data to begin with, the mind will stubbornly make excuses to explain away anything that contradicts that initial data. I had assumed that the track at the Y was 200m. That assumption was based on a 15-year-old memory of a conversation with a fellow coach at Newton North, as well as on my wishful thinking about having a 200m outdoor track to use for my birthday stunt. But I had never actually set foot on the track, not even to warm up, and so that assumption had remained unchallenged. It was only now, seeing my GPS very definitely displaying 0.16 miles that it occurred to me that, yes, the track did look bigger than any indoor track I had ever seen, and yes, that mark on the track that indicated the start of the 400m was not at the finish line where it ought to have been, but in the middle of the backstretch, where it would ONLY be if the track was not one EIGHTH of a mile, but one SIXTH of a mile.
OK, brain, let’s do the math. One-sixth of a mile times 64 laps is not 8.0 miles but 10.67 miles. 10.67 miles would be longer than my longest run in 2021, my longest run in — When WAS the last time I ran more than 10 miles? Suddenly, the “challenge” part of this run seemed much more concrete.
Obviously, I should keep running. It would be dumb to do anything else. But perhaps I should adjust the plan in some way. I was in charge of this run and was free to make or break the rules in any way that I saw fit. I could, for example, adjust expectations and try for 64 minutes – which would most likely bring me close to my original distance goal. I could run 64 straightaways and 64 turns – 32 laps – and claim significance that way. I could stop at 6.4 miles, repeating my sham challenge of the previous year… no one but me would notice or care. And here was the existential moment that every runner must face eventually and repeatedly: what is the actual nature of my commitment to the task I’ve set for myself?
( If the officials mess up and make me run an extra lap, do I continue? If I take a wrong turn, do I run extra mileage to get back on course and finish the race? If the hurdles are set at the wrong height do I try to jump over them anyway? There are no right or wrong answers, just choices and the obligation to live with the consequences of those choices.)
I kept running and decided my attention was better spent on more practical matters. The most pressing need at the moment was not to speculate on how I’d feel in an hour, but to keep track of laps and avoid the small, possibly treacherous patches of ice that I now noticed dotted the track on the side that was in the shadow of the building. It was early afternoon, and those shadows would be lengthening. IT was best to keep my eyes and my mind on my steps.
After 6 laps, my GPS read just under a mile, and I realized that by running inside the measure line of lane one, I was saving a few meters of distance every lap. I spent the next mile debating with myself whether running inside that line was cheating and, after reminding myself that I was the sole arbiter of what was allowed, decided it was OK, at least this once, provided I did not actually step off the track or cut across the infield. It felt good to have worked out these ground rules.
After 12 laps, I noticed some discomfort in my right calf, a chronic problem probably aggravated by so many left turns. I decided that it would be wise to change direction at some point. I also experimented with subtle changes of form and cadence, specifically, shortening my stride a bit and running the curves thinking of them as a series of line segments rather than as a continuous arc. I don’t know if this made any difference, but it gave me something to think about as my lap count rose through the teens and into the twenties.
Running laps of a track is boring until it isn’t. It seemed to take me a very long time to reach 20 laps, but then time seemed to flow more quickly, and before I knew it, I was approaching halfway. As I completed my 32nd lap and reversed direction, I was not actually thinking that I would run another 32 laps. I had reached the stage of the run where my attention span was short, and I couldn’t quite picture myself running another five miles. Monitoring my calf, I had decided that if it really started to bother me, I would simply stop and walk for a while, and not try to push through and risk injury. I started thinking that each lap might be my last.
So I was happy to make it to 6 miles (37+ laps) and a bit surprised when I reached 7 miles (43+ laps). I enjoyed a private moment of satisfaction when my GPS told me I had run 7.5 miles, which made this my longest run since October, 2021. I thought about stopping at 8 miles, but now that I was at 50 laps, the idea of a few more didn’t seem all that bad. Reversing direction had been a good idea, and my calf was still a little funky but no worse than it had been at five miles. I was tired, of course. This was a long run for me! But I was not so tired that I couldn’t complete another lap (51) and keep going. I noticed that the same families that had arrived an hour earlier for their classes or games were now leaving, and a new wave of families was arriving (52). I briefly wondered whether anyone noticed that I had been there all along, circling the track when they drove up and still circling the track as they drove away (53).
I found it easy to think of fun milestones as I passed them. Ten laps to go (54). Nine miles (55). Shadows fully covering the far turn (56). Just another damn lap (57). One mile to go (58). It occurred to me that, barring a sudden slip or stab of pain, I was very likely to complete the full 64 laps. Watch out for that ice (59). Shake out the arms (60). Ten miles (61). Should I kick (62)? No, that would be a bad idea. But for a moment I tried to pick up the pace by the slightest amount and realized that my body deeply resented it (62). I remembered the feeling at the end of marathons when there is no thought of accelerating, only not slowing down too much. When was the last time I thought about THAT?
And then there was one lap to go, but no one to ring a bell or shout encouragement. One lap to go; just another one-sixth of a mile. And then, suddenly there were no laps to go (64). I continued for another few meters to get to 10.50 miles on the watch, and then stopped to walk a bit. I had been running without pause for an hour and a half. I hadn’t done THAT in a while. My hip flexors were tired and sore. I was colder now than I had been a half hour ago. I was glad I still had tea in a thermos to warm me up. I was satisfied in every way.
I had one more nice moment in store at the end of Saturday’s run. After I had finished and began to assess what I had done, I found myself wanting very much to share the giddy feeling of a task completed with someone, even a complete stranger. Although I typically avoid interacting with people that I pass on my runs or see at the track, I had an impulse to stop a couple that were heading into the Y and ask them to capture the moment for me by taking a photo with my phone. I must have looked a bit of a mess, somewhat dazed with frozen slobber running down my chin, and for explanation, I blurted out, “I just ran 64 laps to celebrate my 64th birthday! I’m not sure why!!”
As the man snapped my photo, his companion said. “Good for you. Keep going.”