30 March 2015
A couple days back I crept a notch closer to the next age group with requisite details like cake and goodies enclosed in attractive yet fully recyclable paper. Ever searching for an annual theme, this year I’ve proclaimed to be finally playing with a full deck. (Last year I was seventeen again. And again. And again. And the year before…well, you get the idea, keep it fresh every year.) But a bigger milestone passed a few days earlier: a decade since rejoining the ranks of runners. Just like that, ten years, snap your fingers.
What a ride it’s been.
Ten years ago, age was creeping in. (Of course, it still is, but at least now it has to put up a pretty good fight.) Back then, while it wasn’t as if I was a sloth – I’ve never really gone inactive – being ten years into the dad thing, slothiness was encroaching. The alarm bell went off while plopped at my desk, noticing my legs were feeling a little odd, and making the mistake of Googling that symptom. You know nothing good ever comes of that. But the frightening diagnoses it served up, which I didn’t really believe then and still don’t, jarred me to action.
On the twenty-third of March of 2005 I strapped on a pair of Asics I’d picked up in the markdown bin of the local big box shoe warehouse and set out to cover a two mile stretch I frequently walked with Dearest Spouse. I barely made it. In retrospect, that was pretty impressive compared to the experience of most who take their first steps in excess of ambling pace. After all, I didn’t start as a slug. But I was pushing toward a buck sixty on the scale, which for my frame translated into a rather cheeky visage in some photos of the day.
Undaunted, a few days later I pushed the envelope to nearly double that distance, and by the end of the month I’d rather boldly – and foolishly – defined that route as the “standard” course, having run it all of twice. I managed to traverse it with only one walking break, and with nine and a half miles under my belt, had nearly pierced double digits for the month.
No doubt having the perspective of a previous running life, even if twenty-plus years in the past, helped. There’s a glass half-full half-empty thing going on here. I talk to plenty of beginners who can’t fathom covering three or four miles. I came at this from the opposite side, finding it hard to fathom that I couldn’t cover three or four miles. I remembered the past and what was possible. It was only a matter of time.
Time passed, as did a lot of scenery, potholes, heat, snow, and slop. And on the last day of the tenth year (that would be the twenty-second, since the twenty-third technically began my eleventh year), my log reported eighteen thousand one hundred eighty-eight and three-quarters miles. Having just read of a guy who covered over sixteen thousand in less than two years, I can’t in any way claim that’s impressive, but it’s still a big number, and more importantly, it’s a journey.
The statistics are obsessive yet still fun. Two thousand four hundred eighty days of running, sometimes more than once, a little over two-thirds of all the days that passed, including those which found me sidelined with injuries, three surgeries, and that dance with the blood clots. A seven hundred and fifty day streak of at least three miles per day which proved something defined as either resiliency or insanity as you wish, again personally significant but not noteworthy in the big world of others’ big accomplishments. As best I can count, one hundred and nineteen races, including twenty-one marathons, plus forty-two training runs of twenty miles or more to prepare for those masochistic meanders. Runs in twenty-four different states and at least sixty-six different cities and towns in Massachusetts, and within my own City of Marlborough, every mile of every street, at least as they existed at the time of that odyssey.
Beyond the numbers, though, is the transformation the years have wrought. From that first five kilometer race a few months into the adventure, to racing eight (and shortly, nine) Boston Marathons, plus experiencing the honor and excitement of toeing the line at two national championship cross country meets sharing team colors with some of the most outstanding athletes in New England if not the country, these past ten years have provided an unending stream of goals, motivators, thrills, yes, also spills, rewards, and fun. They’ve changed who I am, what I expect to do on a daily basis, and how I look at the challenge of the next ten years, or twenty, or more.
And even beyond the transformation are the people. Ours is a game for the masses, but with the line between the masses and the elites far narrower than in any major sport; a line that grows even fainter the deeper you dive into our pool. The champions of running, our heroes, are basically just like us, eminently accessible, as un-elite as any elite class could be, because they have percolated up from the likes of those all around us. And unlike other big-name sports, there is no defined age for anyone’s time to ride the top of their particular corner of the arena, so anyone can rise to local, regional, or greater significance from anywhere, anytime. From this springs a society of people who recognize that any individual’s skill level is merely relative and arrogance is left outside the door. Anyone will run with anyone, the fast slowing for the social joy of joining the slow, the slow happily straining to gain the training advantage of latching onto someone a notch up the ladder. And we’re gentlemen, competing hard yet helping, encouraging, and respecting both our companions as well as our rivals. Certainly practicalities intervene in this egalitarian nirvana, but nowhere else will you find a group of people more willing to play together to their heart’s content and health’s benefit with so little regard for stratification.
And so we run together, we race together, we drink beers and even eat donuts together (because we can), and we bond as friends. We spend our social time in motion, working hard for hours at a time, sometimes with those we barely know, at least at the start, but growing closer as the distance passes. So it is that along this journey I’ve collected an assortment of friends the likes of which you’ll never gain from your office. We argue and bitch and moan and complain like the best of them, then we strap on our shoes and knock off some road miles or track intervals or trail voyages. We come from different walks of life but share our common belief that we can if not control, at least influence our own well-being. We inspire others, we inspire ourselves.
Ten years of running is unlike ten years of just about any other activity you can think of. It’s a lifestyle, but better, it’s a lifestyle in which ten years is merely a beginning. I look back on the happy accident of that Google search that drove me out of my chair, and marvel at where that road has taken me. The next ten years, whether my pace is fast or slow, whether I’m able to cover many or just a few miles, will be better just by the nature of the impact that the last ten have made.