“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
The poet Dylan Thomas wasn’t a runner, but he would have fit in with the sub-masters running crowd fighting the tide towards 40.
Youth is wasted on the young, the cliche goes
For runners, this means feet fluttering wildly, Achilles tendons stretching smoothly, hamstrings unfurling without a notion that they could pop. Raging without a sense of limits or reason. As I age, I understand the young runner’s insatiable desire to always go faster as what it really is: a recipe for frustration and fatigue. Overtraining and injury, depletion and depression.
The old runner may lament that aging saps him of strength, but I see too few fighting, truly battling against the tides of time.
The young runner thinks that if some is good, Pre would say to do more. Frank Shorter would probably still be out there on the roads, and Gerry Lindgren succeeded by never stopping. It takes experience to see that success in running is about riding that edge without cresting, matching the motivation to push with the maturity to stop. But the young runner knows no line. I thought I just needed to want it badly enough. If only the secret to running fast was just more running.
It’s the mature among us who see this cliff and can step back
On my 38th birthday, I scan those around me and find few contemporaries still sacrificing in pursuit of speed. If youth is wasted on the young, experience is wasted on the old.
It’s true, the science is daunting. The trend lines are against us: maximum heart rate, testosterone, and VO2 max are in decline. But who among us has ever trained to their “maximum”? Sure, the absolutes might be dwindling, but shouldn’t our ability to walk that fine line be increasing?
Experience is a smooth veneer demanding layered coats of labor: mile after mile, week after week, year after year. But most of us stop painting. Lulled by the siren call of age and responsibility, we ease back from the ring of competition. We lose sight of the fire and tell ourselves that speed is no longer possible.
I know the foolish young runner because I was one
My legs could not withstand the pounding that my mind prescribed. I dreamt of national meets while barely scoring at conference. I lusted after 100 mile weeks, but broke down around 70. I defined myself not by the training completed, but by the details missed. In that mindset, a 76-mile week is 4 short of 80. And before I knew it, I’d squandered my college eligibility with frustration and fatigue.
So I stepped back, and let go. I jogged casually through my 20s, but hardly ever raced. Afraid of injury — and of losing myself again into the disappointing chase of times and places.
Then those Boston bombs went off
And like many in the running community, I was in shock. As I stared slack-jawed at the news I was filled with who knows how much unused ability. I had no idea, because I’d stopped trying. Held back by my own fear of striving without success, I’d mistaken my personal 5k best as the definition of my worth as a runner. This reductive view had left me discouraged.
I’d thought that I was a retired racer; I’d checked that box.
But the “Boston Strong” banners gnawed at me because I wasn’t demonstrating such strength. I decided to stop trotting through the casual runner life, to race Boston the following year, to rejoin the racing community. And so I started training.
Sure, running at this age is hard. Life is more complicated. The professional stakes have risen, deadlines loom, and parenthood comes crashing in. But running has always been hard.
In some ways, being an old runner is easier. Growing up, I exhausted myself trying to match the training plans of internet lore. As an old runner, I’ve learned to give up much of that foolishness. I’m less critical of my limits, and it’s worked. Since 2013, I’ve dropped my marathon best from 2:56 to 2:19 by embracing a few truths so simple they’ve taken me decades to fully understand.
First is accepting that the suffering never stops.
“Welcome to oxygen debt!” my high school coach used to cackle as my head throbbed and eyes blurred. Twenty years later, the path to fitness is as clear as always: embracing horrible discomfort. It’s the simplest lesson that I always want to unlearn — only a few weeks have to pass by without a hard workout before I begin to step away from the fire.
Don’t. Step back towards the flame. Find a hill, and run it till your mouth tastes like copper. Don’t allow yourself to forget that sweet burn. Your body will tell you it doesn’t want to run this fast. Don’t listen. It’s the only path to quickness.
But don’t agonize any single session. The old runner sees that training blocks aren’t built in days, or even in weeks; they’re constructed in months, and ultimately years of mind-numbingly incremental progress.
Second, find friends.
As I age, two opposing demands increase: the need to maximize time, and the need to surround myself with others to push me beyond what I can do on my own. The key is to add pressure without introducing competition. After running the 2014 Boston Marathon in 2:41, I started searching for others who were performing that same balancing act.
The Bowerman Track Club is known in the professional ranks, but it also supports a roster of amateur runners. “When was your last race?” I asked naively at the start of an early season workout. “Last year’s NCAA meet,” a recent Division I college grad states nonchalantly. Since I began training with the BTC Elite I’ve been subjected to a cast of non-professional runners unwilling to reduce expectation. I get my ass kicked, often. We’re not professionals, but collective expectation for improvement persists. It’s an all-comers collection of suffering. But there are no heroes here. There’s no glory in leaving your race-day effort on the practice track.
Third, learning to push and pull weight.
I was raised in an era before the realization that runners need strength. The experts recommended “weights” more appropriate for senior citizens than Olympians. Five-pound dumbbells didn’t have much impact. Science has evolved rapidly since then, and strength training has proven to be my only antidote to the pounding of increased mileage.
While internalizing these three truths, I continue to walk that fine between line between sustained hard effort and injury. The young runner mistakes an unplanned off day for the demise of their season. The old runner understands it’s just another moment on a long progression, hardly a blip.
The old runner cuts himself off when things don’t feel quite right. He knows the difference between quitting out of weakness and backing off with reason. I’m now much better at evaluating in the moment, while out of breath, whether to continue a session or to quit while ahead. Except when I don’t, because I still misstep on occasion. The desire for more speed is forever intoxicating.
So find a track. Pick a lane. Celebrate your ability by sprinting, hard, right to that edge, the one you now know, because you are old. Do not accept the invitation to the slow life. Yes, the ceiling on your capacity is shrinking, but when was the last time you even checked?
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