When I was a kid I loved movies that showed time machines like Time Bandits and Back to The Future, because I wanted to travel in time. And yes, I also loved the first Hot Tub Time Machine movie, because it took me back to when I was a young adult in the 80’s.
I never imagined that running would end up being my time machine. It’s taken me to a place where I’ve been able to run with teenagers and college students, and not get last place. One of my most memorable races this year was at the Empire Summer Series Track Meet #1, running the mile, with the youngsters. Even though most of them were running the race as a workout, it didn’t matter. I was running free and keeping up with high school students and some college students, feeling light on my feet and crossing the finish line with them. For a few minutes I was able to glide and float on the track and not feel the aches and pains and chronic Achilles tendon soreness that I normally feel. I was young.
Of course, the important variable here is that I turned 50 last February.
Turning 50 has been challenging. At first, it was about body perception and aging issues for me.
At the beginning of the year, I grew a full beard, not only because I hate to shave, but because it had become acceptable in popular culture and I figured this was my chance. My nineteen-year-old son Dylan had some of his friends over to the house, and I asked them if I looked like a Hipster. They paused for a moment and then told me seriously that I just looked old. I looked in the mirror and saw a skinny white guy with a mangy salt and pepper beard on my face. I shaved it off after the Valley Ford Relays, no longer wanting to look and feel like a man lost at sea.
I also had friends and business associates commenting on how skinny I was.
I tried to explain to them that I was running sixty miles a week, including intervals, but it didn’t seem to register with them what happens to someone’s body when you attempt to run at a high level. I went from ”skinny” to “very skinny.” Many of these people knew me as “Fat Doug,” my nickname for myself when I was hovering at two hundred pounds. At that time, the only people that commented about my weight were my father and my wife. But when I got skinny, I received a comment about every two weeks – people wondering if I was healthy or not, or making comments like I should put some “meat on my bones.” One person even asked me if I had cancer. This bothered me. When I was “fat,” no one made comments because I suppose it’s not politically correct, but since I’ve been skinny people make comments all the time. Even though I weigh the same as when I was running in college, at times it has made me question if something is really wrong with me.
Turning 50 has also been about witnessing the changes in my eighty-year-old parents, and realizing that I will be there soon.
I’ve lived long enough now that I feel like I know what it’s like to live a decade and can multiply that in my mind two or three times, and be where my parents are now. When I turned 40, I wasn’t able to project forward decades into the future and imagine being there, and I didn’t have the empathy for what happens to all of us when we get older. I have watched my parents suffer and optimistically endure through stomach cancer, diabetes, macular degeneration, arthritis, cataract surgery – the list is endless. And to their credit or dismay, they don’t tell my sister or I about their problems until after they get out of the hospital – because they don’t want us to worry.
So I am thoughtfully thankful to be running so well and in shape at fifty years old, and I don’t take that for granted.
Some of my high school friends are having a tough time as well.
My high school and college track and cross country friend, Kevin, is dealing with the fact that his father, Elmer, is suffering from a number of issues – hydrocephalus (fluid in the brain), blood clots in the brain, has suffered a couple of strokes, and has had trouble talking. Kevin doesn’t know if he will live through the end of the year. As my friends start to deal with dying parents, I start to suffer as well, knowing that in short time I will be experiencing something similar with my parents.
Another high school friend of mine, Eric, who ran some excellent 10K times while at Sonoma State, broke his back in three places, and combined with knee injuries, can no longer run. We were talking this summer and he told me that I was running “for the rest of us” (who can’t run anymore). That struck a chord.
And the week before I left for France this year for the world masters track championships, I received a group email from one of my high school friends that had been on the track team with me, informing us he had Multiple System Atrophy, and that most likely he would die in the next few years. When I read his email I was stunned – he is 50 as well. And so I ask myself, why am I running so well and yet my high school track compatriot is suffering in a wheelchair?
The obvious answer is a combination of genetics, determination, and luck. But I’m more interested in the abstract questions that lie beyond a purely rational explanation. Why do some people suffer more than others? How do we find meaning in the midst of the inevitability of physical and mental suffering?
When I was young attending Cal State University Northridge, I naively thought that if I went to the Oviatt Library enough then I would find the answers somewhere deep within the rows and shelves of books. Towards the end of college I realized that I was not going to find the answers there, and believed that my life experiences might behold some truths. But now at fifty, with five decades of experience, the answers have not revealed themselves. I know that I’m responsible for applying my own meaning, but I keep procrastinating.
From a training point of view, there are a couple of key points. I’ve been able to manage my injuries and get them treated so that I can continuously keep running month after month. Prior to this year I’ve had to take days, weeks, and sometimes months off due to injuries. The second factor has been allowing my body to fully recover after a hard workout or a race by doing easy runs until I felt ready for another hard workout, which for me has been three to five full days. Although this has put me on an irregular 8–10 day workout schedule, it has worked for me. I can come up with a full list, like how I increased my mileage to sixty miles per week, the type of intervals I did, etc., but for me it is still not a satisfactory answer as to why I’m running so well as compared to others. Is it because I took 27 years off of running before I started again? My friend John has a theory that masters’ runners that did not run for years and years do better when they’re older because they have not stressed their tendons, ligaments, and muscles for so many years.
So at 50 the reality of aging and suffering has been an emotional blender of self-reflection. My bachelor’s degree in philosophy does not seem to be helping.
But running has allowed me to forget about those things if only for a few minutes at a time. Running a track race is so intense for me that my mind is purged of extraneous thoughts and all I can do is focus on the race itself. Maybe that’s why I love track – the adrenaline rush before the race, the dread of having to push my body to the limits, the single mindedness of the event, and being completely submerged for a few minutes in time. In those moments I feel completely alive and in motion. Once I cross the finish line, reality swiftly returns. I often think as humans we’re simply keeping busy all the time to keep our minds off of our own mortality and the painful things that are right in front of us. Running keeps me busy.
Ultimately I am so thankful simply to be fully healthy and running so well at fifty years old. When I started running five years ago I never imagined that I would run this fast. I’m so thankful at 50, for everything.
And running a master’s personal record means so much more, because you realize that it may be the apex of your career as an older runner. As hard as I may try the following year, I may not run as fast. I may enter the phase of declining times for the rest of my life.
As for running as a time machine, I’m hoping that it will still work for the years to come, because feeling young again is incredible. No matter what my times are, if running can make me feel significantly younger, than I plan to keep running indefinitely, on the longest of runs.