I had to have been the only person to actually get slower at the Speed Clinic — a six-week training program sponsored by the local running shop for runners who wanted to increase their speed. But it wasn’t entirely my fault, or maybe it was. Within the first fifteen minutes of the first session I pulled my hamstring. I really pulled it. If I were a cartoon character there would have been a thought bubble springing from the back of my left leg with the words, “Bang! Bam! Ka-Pow!”
Oh, did it ever hurt. But I was not going to be the “old man” who went down at the Speed Clinic, not when the class consisted primarily of runners half my age who were zipping around the track like they were on roller blades. It was feeling like an old man that had prompted me to sign up for the Speed Clinic to begin with. My fiftieth birthday was only months away, and I thought the Speed Clinic might give me a boost to my running, and maybe even to my self-esteem, especially with the flurry of AARP literature I had been receiving in the mail slyly disguised as birthday cards.
Yet, alas, I pulled my hamstring during the initial one-mile timed run that was to set a baseline for our individual training. I started fast, way too fast, faster than I ever would have started — all of my worst memories from high school rushed back to me on that high school track, and I did not want to be last. And I wasn’t. However, in the process, aside from the injury, I set for myself an unrealistic and inaccurate baseline that I would never again attain during the next six weeks, particularly as my pulled hamstring failed to heal on its own and I refused to go to Urgent Care — the old man who pulled his hamstring at the Speed Clinic.
So I pushed on, and I persevered, each week, as best I could, during various drills and training runs. And I kept falling further and further behind in the pack. And I became increasingly discouraged as every sleek young person lapped me, some whispering “way to go” while they streamed past, which was very nice and thoughtful and courteous, but, in that moment, struggling as I was, I only heard as, “that’s okay, old fellow, you’re doing your best.” Old fellow? How dare they?
Then it occurred to me, as I turned off my stopwatch and focused on just finishing the workout on my feet and not in a crumpled mass in the long jump pit, that I had not gotten into running to outrun people anyway. Sure, I liked a PR as much as the next runner, and placing in my age group was always a thrill, but I never really ran to compete. I already had enough competition in my life — from my career to rush hour traffic. Running took me away from all of that.
A few years prior, faced with a serious illness, running provided another escape, from the hospital beds and the doctors’ visits and the surgeries. Running, or more specifically, the goal of being able to run once more, became the lone light during those bleak days. When I was finally able to return to running, starting off slowly, very slowly, much more slowly than I ever ran during the Speed Clinic, I was grateful and thankful and blissfully happy. As I reflected on that period of my life, hobbling and limping home after each session of the Speed Clinic, where my wife would greet me at the door with an ice pack, it became clear that running, for me, was more about just being out there, somewhere, anywhere, away from everything else that cluttered my world.
Never was I concerned with tempo or intervals or those things our instructor made us do where we had to run sideways, one foot in front and across from the other and then behind the other, something like that — grapevines? karaokes? Recognizing this allowed me to ease up and enjoy myself, and I offered an encouraging, and sincere, “way to go” to the other participants as they glided on by. I loved running again, everything about it, everything that didn’t have to do with speed — like spending a brilliant spring afternoon among people who shared a common interest.
Yeah, so maybe I was still an old man, but I was an old man with a new appreciation for something I had begun as a child, when I would complain to my mom that I was bored and she would tell me to “go outside and run around the block.” I was a runner, always, no matter how fast — although, truth be told, it would be nice if I could reach my baseline mile time.