Running While Old

 

(originally published in Raven Chronicles, Volume 26, 2018)

 

Age divisions keep older runners in the game. We may be out
there with swift twenty-somethings, Olympic athletes, and
human gazelles, but the competition that matters is in a five-year
gender-delineated block. I was thrilled when I placed second in
a field of thirteen seventy to seventy-four-year-old women in the
San Francisco Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon, a far more meaningful
achievement than my ranking of 2,841 out of a total of 3,758
women.

Brain, back, bones, and beats are my reasons for running. Now
more than ever. Scientific evidence of the benefits of aerobic,
weight-bearing exercise—running and walking—to health and
heart, mobility and moods, lucidity and longevity, is conclusive. I
do it because I can and will continue as long as I can.

Chocolate milk at the finish line is a liquid life preserver. One
of running’s proven superfoods, it helps muscles recover and
replaces carbs, glycogen, and burned calories. Last year I ran the
Hot Chocolate 15K and was rewarded on completion with a cup
of hot chocolate and a bowl of warm chocolate sauce surrounded
by chips and cookies and other sweet and salty treats to dip into
it. Recovery never tasted so good.

DNF is the nadir of initialism, a badge of infamy. The dreaded
“Did Not Finish”—you’d rather come in last—might have a justifiable
cause, but playing the age card won’t make it less of a defeat. I
came close to dropping out twice during half marathons, once due
to an electrolyte imbalance that made me woozy and lightheaded,
a year later with a foot injury combined with leg cramps. Pride
and the coveted race medals kept me going. There’s also DNS
(Did Not Start), which seems a lesser evil. I was sidelined for two
races but pleaded age and infirmity on one and was given a deferral.

Electrolytes—sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium, magnesium,
and phosphate—regulate the body’s fluid balance, but we expel
them when we sweat. I used to shun sports drinks—why imbibe
artificially colored and sweetened crap when you can drink
life-sustaining water? When out-of-sync electrolytes caused my
near-DNF, I became a believer. Endorphins are the brain chemicals
responsible for the blissful “runner’s high.” Sometimes leaping
endorphins can step in for lagging electrolytes.

“For your age” is an increasingly common though no less irritating
qualifier, even when it’s unspoken, even or especially when you
apply it to yourself out of false humility or as an excuse. Younger
women I run with don’t say it, but it’s implicit in their praise of
what would otherwise be unremarkable achievements. When a
fast and frequent marathoner tells me how awesome it is that I’m
training for my tenth half, she means well. I accept the accolades,
but add the rejoinder, “for my age.”

The Golden Gate Bridge is the mental pinnacle of the San
Francisco Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon. Running across it I felt
myself levitating, my legs propelling my motion about a foot
above the pavement.

Half Marathon signifies part of a whole, a smaller portion, like
a half sandwich or a half pint. It sounds like an apology when
you find yourself saying you’re doing “just” a half. Yet 13.1 miles
is no fractional achievement. It wasn’t “just” a half when I challenged
myself the first time shortly after I turned seventy. I wasn’t
running then, but I was a fast walker and held my own. When I
passed walkers and slow runners, young and old, I teemed with
energy and satisfaction. Sometimes I smirked. When my first race
medal was hung around my neck as I crossed the finish ahead of
my three-hour goal, I was champion of the world—the whole
world, not just half.

Intervals are the late-blooming runner’s buddies. At first I was
content to be a power walker, thought it wise not to risk my stiff
and squeaky joints to the hazards of running. Then I read that
people with osteoporosis—mine is classified as severe—can
maximize the benefits of walking by running just one minute
out of every mile. That was easy enough, and I found that using
different muscles for short spurts felt great and improved my
walking. If a one minute surge is good, what about two, three . . .
you see where it leads. With cautious training and lessons learned
through trial and error, I’ve built up to comfortable intervals,
stronger and faster outings.

Jogging is what runners don’t do. “Run as if someone just called
you a jogger” is a frequently-seen sign along a race route. We’re
serious about it—it’s not just an excuse to buy cute outfits or
drink more beer. But no one’s sure of the parameters. Some say
runners are faster, but how much faster—does an eight-minute
mile qualify you as a runner or do the speedsters think you’re still
jogging? Is it frequency? If once or twice a week makes you a dabbler,
a Sunday jogger, and five or six makes you a serious runner,
what about three or four times a week? Does entering competitive
races make you a runner? Does it need to be a marathon, or
does a 10K count? Maybe you are whatever you think you are,
and I’m a runner, by god.

Kilometers are 1000 meters, 0.62 of a mile. Races are designated
5K (3.1 miles) and 10K (6.2 miles), but shift to miles at the half
marathon mark (13.1). Maybe our imperial system brains can’t
compute metric equivalents this far, maybe it’s just what we’re used
to. A marathon—26.2 miles, 42.2 kilometers—is spectacular no
matter how you express it.The numbers sound arbitrary, because
it’s a place—the Marathon battle site from which a Greek soldier
named Philippides ran 26.2 miles to Athens in 490 BCE.

LSD is recommended once a week—I do it every Saturday. The
hallucinogen doesn’t increase running speed, to my knowledge,
but “long slow distance” does. “LSD” makes sense at any age, but
maybe more so for older runners with less juice to spare. Your
body gets used to more miles without having to worry about pace
or risk-incurring injury. Save yourself for the real thing.

Medals are motives to run, moments in the sun. You stand tall
and proud, no matter how sore and exhausted you are, when a
chipper young volunteer drapes it around your neck at the finish
line. It’s a short-lived thrill, but a thrill nonetheless. Then you go
home and take it off, hang it on the wall or put it in a display case,
maybe into a drawer or a shoebox in the closet. The high stays with
you after the first one, but it wears off faster and faster each time.
Like a narcotic, you want more. Last year I ran the Triple Crown,
three successive half marathons over several months. In addition
to a medal for each race, there’s an extra disk for completing the
trio, a big heavy one. At Carlsbad, the first one, I skimmed along
the shore like a sea bird and scored my personal record (see “PR”).
The La Jolla Half features a slog up the long, steep Torrey Pines
grade, but the reward at the top is a gorgeous panorama of the
Pacific. I finished in spite of burgeoning plantar fasciitis in my
foot. I trained for AFC (America’s Finest City), last in the series,
and my foot got worse. I sought treatment and kept at it—I was
determined to run that race and complete the Triple Crown. I
hobbled the last couple of miles, but I did it. Was it worth it?
I look at my four medals and chartreuse Triple Crown hat, the
aches and pains long gone. Damn right it was.

Nine miles is my optimal run. Long enough to be significant,
short enough to leave me with energy for the rest of the day. My
nine-mile training route circles parts of Mission Bay, and I can
tailor it to more or fewer miles as needed. Nine miles is 15K, the
distance of San Diego’s Hot Chocolate run, which adds to its
appeal, but the race is scheduled within a week of the San Diego
Half Marathon. Younger, more agile runners may do both, but I
can’t, so it’s one or the other. Nine miles is a respectable race—no
one would call me a wimp for choosing it—but this year I opt for
the half, unwilling to surrender to senescence.

Old, older, oldest. Katherine Beiers, the eighty-four-year-old
former mayor of Santa Cruz, California, was the oldest participant
and the only woman over eighty in this year’s Boston Marathon.
She started running in her fifties and now has run thirty-some
marathons. Harriette Thompson of Charlotte, North Carolina,
completed the 2015 San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon at the
age of ninety-two, the oldest woman to complete a full marathon.
It was her sixteenth. World War II Marine Jonathan Mendes,
ninety-six, is believed to be the oldest unofficial finisher in the
New York City Marathon’s history. He crossed the 2016 finish
line after more than eleven hours, when official timing had
stopped. “You have to have goals in life,” he said as he rested up
with a shot of Scotch.

PR—woohoo! Setting new personal records is the ultimate high,
because you’re challenging yourself rather than competing with
other runners. Mine was last January in Carlsbad, the first leg of
the Triple Crown. Now that I’m back on track after foot problems,
the record confronts me. I’m determined to beat it, but it won’t
be easy—the natural flow of life is to slow down, not speed up.
I won’t admit it’s my goal—that would jinx it, tempt the fates. A
former coach suggests having three goals for any race: the modest
one you tell everyone about (and that you’re pretty sure to
reach), the one you aim for but keep to yourself—doable but a
stretch—and the PR, always in your sights.

Quads and calves, glutes and hamstrings, knees and ankles, heels
and arches, toes and toenails, neck and shoulders, hip flexors and
iliotibial bands, muscles, tendons, and nerves you didn’t know
existed. They’re all connected and all susceptible to soreness and
stiffness, aches and pains, previously unimagined and unheard-of
injuries. They happen to young and old alike—well, no, not alike.
Older bodies are more fragile, brittle, worn down. More liable to
twists and tweaks. So you stretch and roll, roll and stretch, do
squats and lunges, lunges and squats, anything to keep the wolves
at bay as much and as long as possible.

RICE equals rest, ice, compression, and elevation, a handy
mnemonic when shit happens, as it’s bound to do sooner or later.

Senior Masters—I am one! A Runner’s World article identifies
these as runners between the ages of sixty-five and seventy-four.
It’s an age “where simply lining up for the start of a race is something
most peers would never attempt.” Next year I’ll be a Super
Master (seventy-five+). A reason to keep plugging.

Training, like flossing, is forever once you’ve acknowledged that
you want to stay mobile / keep your teeth. I follow a ten-week
training schedule to prepare for half marathons, which means
that if I do one every three months—my goal—I have just two
weeks after a completed race to slack off before I have to start
up again, increase the LSD runs, get out six days a week (on the
seventh she rests). When I falter I remind myself: I’m doing this
because I want to.

Uphill. Course designers are sadists. Rare is the race without
some significant elevation—short and steep, long and gradual,
or all of the above. If it’s early in the race, you get it behind you.
If it’s closer to the finish, you hope the momentum will carry you
through, one foot in front of the other. But what goes up must
come down. Good news for the runners who blaze down hills,
taking precious seconds off their time. Not me. Steep downhills
terrify me. I pick my way down, leaning back, my brakes on. It’s a
gravity thing—I fear falling forward, hurting my back, tumbling
down like Jill and Jack.

Vibes: vigor, vitality, vanity, virtue. The first two represent how
we want people to think of us, radiating health, strength, and
youthful energy, but the latter two have their place as well. When
I joined a running club, younger women in the group would tell
me I was a role model, an inspiration. At first I bristled at being
called out for my age, but I learned to take it in stride and eat up
the kudos, their calories padding my pride. Non-running friends
closer to my own age express envy at my stamina and resolve. Their
murmurs of awe cause a warm wave of smug self-righteousness
to wash over me.

The Wall, hitting it. “I can’t run another step . . . I’ll never make
the finish . . . I don’t care anymore. . . .” Energy flags, breath is
labored, incentive nil, every footfall an effort. The experts say
it’s most likely to happen two-thirds of the way through a race,
when you’re running out of fuel. I carry salt and carbs as well as
water, so barring leg cramps—my nemesis—I mentally reboot
at around that point. I trust that the race does have an end and
that I will reach it in spite of what my body may be telling me.
I visualize the finish line and start the countdown: three more
miles, two-and-a-half, yeah, you’ve got this. . . .

XT is my training calendar’s command every Thursday. I resisted
cross-training for a long time, but when recovering from various
running injuries I have to do something. I don’t ride a bicycle,
don’t swim, don’t play tennis or racquetball. Recumbent bikes,
ellipticals, and treadmills will never be my exercise of choice,
but I’ve incorporated the gym into my schedule to give my feet
a rest while I use new muscles and get my heart pumping. The
clincher—I feel stronger on my runs since I’ve been doing it.

You, as in “Better you than me.” My husband says this, like a CD on
repeat, whenever I do something he’s happy not to do, every Friday
night as I’m setting out my gear for my long slow Saturday run.

ZZZZZZ.

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