Why I still like to run at 82
Last night, I ran 3000 meters on the track. I finished last, at the back, passed and caught by the whole peloton. But I ran hard and broke a record that had lasted ten years. It is the strange duality of the race at 82 years old. A pace that was once a warm-up jog can set a record. Success is superimposed on humiliation, fulfillment is mixed with frustration.
To explain: I ran in a mixed open field during a midweek twilight meet in my current hometown of Wellington, New Zealand. I lined up alongside 19 others. Besides me, the oldest competitor was 49 years old. By the time the horn sounded they were gone, and I was running alone, until the leaders came in with a whoosh to overtake me shortly after I had completed a circuit. I used to run faster than that, I thought, briefly remembering the day I ran my PR 3,000 meters in 8:10 am, but that’s little consolation.
At this age, every track race is a solo time trial. Social joggers don’t do a trail often, so there’s no one to keep my pace. To make it look like a competition, I’m aiming for age group records, so it’s like a virtual race against someone my age who posted their time ten years ago. My 4:03 pm broke the Wellington record for men aged 80 to 84. This competitive pleasure is mixed with a feeling of inadequacy. I clutter up the track. I am in a different dimension from the young runners, like pedaling a bicycle in a NASCAR race.
Not that they are complaining. “Come on, Rog,” they gasp gently, hovering over. They cheer me on at the end, and then we hang around and compare the times. Some say they find me inspiring, a role model for how they want to age. Often their kindness makes me feel good. Other times I feel like a decrepit but willful old dog getting petted while still trying to chase his ball.
Much is new and good. I am busy learning. I have been competitive and often in the elite since 1953. I have run on six continents, set master records in the Boston and New York marathons, run a 5k in 14:12 and write seven books on running. on foot, yet this little obscure The 3,000-meter test on a windy evening was another learning curve. Running after 80, I’m still learning about sport, about aging, about today’s society, about myself.
I’m learning that one of the joys of being a long-time runner is that every season is an experience, a new experience. Year after year, you test your changing body, the ingenuity of your mind, and the resilience of your mind in the face of each inevitable stage of aging. Those who choose to retire in their prime may think they are avoiding the loss that time brings, but they can only look back, not forward. They miss this on-going journey which is really an exploration of the whole of life, its last 6.2 miles as well as the first 20.
I’m learning the hard way that age isn’t just a number. Age is a biological reality. It is inescapable, even cruel, if you see nature in this personal way. Age leads to a decline that is almost mechanically predictable. In the long run, the best I can do is slow down the slowing down process. The challenge is how to deal with this process, how to live with it, and running is the best way that I know of. I train and run to the limit of my will, as I always have, and it brings me the little improvement triumphs gained through training. Don’t underestimate the effect of this on mental attitude. Today, I’m looking forward to the next tough challenge, plotting how to do better next week than last night. How many 82 can say that?
This triumph — outsmarting time for a while — is just one of many. Being in running form gives me overall health, the respect and friendship of men and women who are 60 years old, the happiness of a stimulating activity full of changes, and above all the feeling of being totally committed. in the path of life, not just linger in your departure lounge. One of my usual training sites is a sports field with a large community building for retirees. I repeat with constant terror that the staff mistake me for a resident, rush with a large butterfly net, and capture me.
My slow pace at full effort teaches me that our running performance is always a matter of relativity – run better than last week, last year; beat your rivals, the record or your public relations. It doesn’t change. The next time you see an old man or woman with white hair running at the back of the pack, please don’t dismiss them as crawling at a standard pace and meaningless to an old person. They can be as immersed in the drama and importance of the race as any other competitor, fighting for the few seconds that will measure that day’s result as a success.
The big picture is that we older runners are driving a major shift in how society perceives aging. “How old are you, buddy?” The friendly teenage gardener asked the last time I ran 400 intervals at his park. I told him. His surprise was expressed in a monosyllable. The public is starting to get used to seeing old runners as they have become accustomed to seeing any runner, then women. This is how change happens. And the change is long overdue. The marginalization and stereotypes of older people are arguably the last great prejudice in our society. When the retirement home steps into a team in a local 10K, I’ll know my prediction comes true.
Why do it? The simple thing at 82 would be to run without competition. But for me that would only be half the fun. I don’t race to lead a social movement, or to attract attention, or to feel humiliated, or to be an inspiration. I just wanna run. Even at the back it makes me a participant with others who share the same impetus. I run because I still love his challenge and his commitment, his drama and his purpose, the way he tests the mind. During the times in my life when I couldn’t run (after knee replacement or repairing broken bones), I felt like a pianist whose hands had been crushed. Now that I have the chance to run again, it’s almost a must.
My next run is a holiday season one-miler. Senile madness. Four minutes won’t even get me halfway there. I’ll be dead last again. But I turned 400 and I’m as ready as I can get. Hey, maybe I can “run my age”: 80 and two tenths would give me a final time of 8:12. There is always another incentive. I can not wait.