The Emotional Runner

What the Third Age of Running means to me

For the first time ever, I lead from the gun. For three laps, I am out in front and all I can hear is the breathing of the guy in second. I don’t see him, but he seems to be edging closer and closer. I become convinced that this ghostly presence is using me: that he is happy for me to take the pace and then, when the time comes, he will ease out in front and wrap up this 1500m race in comfortable style. At the bell, however, I find it in me to push harder. Urged on by teammates, I finally manage to pick up my knees and increase the pace, and soon I can’t hear him anymore.

‘Thanks for the tow,’ he says, cheerfully, after crossing the line fifteen seconds behind me.

I held on to first place and I have a PB to show for it — my third in as many days. Earlier that evening, I ran a 400m (by no means my distance) in a time faster than I have ever achieved in training sessions. More significantly, I managed to get my best time for 5km at another track event two days earlier. Less than a week after this, I get my best time for a parkrun, about 20 seconds behind the time I got on the track.

This is truly a purple patch. It won’t last, I know that, but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying it. Thanks to a solid winter, the encouragement of others and the general benefits of training with a club rather than trying to do it alone, I’m now completely unrecognisable as a runner from the person who, a few years earlier, first took himself out for a 200m jog and then threw up.

I am in the middle of what Richard Askwith calls the Third Age of Running. In his book, Running Free, Askwith posits that there are seven such ‘ages’. The First Age is all about getting used to running and trying to get round (without throwing up), and the Second Age is when a runner can actually start to enjoy doing it and notice significant improvements.

The Third Age is when things get more serious.

In coming up with The Seven Ages of Running, Askwith draws inspiration from Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man, as described by Jacques in the ‘All the world’s a stage’ speech from As You Like It. Shakespeare’s conceit is that life is a play in which a person takes on seven different characters, beginning as a ‘mewling and puking’ infant and ending, naturally, in ‘mere oblivion’. Shakespeare’s third age is that of the emotional lover — ‘sighing like furnace’.

While ‘mewling and puking’ pretty accurately describes me on my first attempts to run around the block, it’s harder to peg Askwith’s idea of the third age to that of Shakespeare’s. And yet both are about intensity and passion. A second-age runner, according to Askwith, is having fun and enjoying the moment: ‘inclined to bore our friends with our excitement’. A third-ager, on the other hand, is much more driven, but not necessarily in a way that Askwith approves of.

The Third Age of Running is about times and competition. It’s about achieving the best possible result and pushing yourself harder. A runner’s third age is when they are at their peak: their most committed, their most obsessed. All of which strikes Askwith as being inherently joyless, and somehow against the very essence of what running should be about. And, after the peak, of course, there’s nowhere else to go except down. Which is perhaps why, according to Askwith, so many runners don’t get beyond their third age. When it becomes impossible to compete or succeed at the level at which they have become accustomed, many runners simply give up.

Askwith’s stated preference is for the ages that come after the third, and for those runners who manage to get past that point where it is all about PBs and results, and achieve a more natural, perhaps childlike, state of joy in their running. In fact, his book is a manifesto for an approach to running that is free from the tyranny of the Garmin and the expensive kit and the eyes-on-the-prize mentality.

Many of the arguments raised in Running Free are worth making, and I would recommend the book to anyone interested in running. But, as a self-confessed third-ager, I feel bound to stand up for my kind. I’m not sure I agree that being focussed on times and results is also inherently joyless.

This and top image are stills from the film ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner’

While part of me looks forward to a time in my running life when I won’t have to care at all about how quickly I run, or what I position I finish a race, the truth is that right now it is the very effort itself that makes it all worthwhile. Times and positions and club places and records are all part of a framework — albeit an artificial one — that nevertheless gives purpose to the effort of running hard. If it’s true that running competitively allows us to tap into our wilder, more emotional selves — that part of us that knows all about ‘sighing like furnace’ — then the structure we impose onto it (events, races, times, positions — the preoccupations of a runner’s Third Age) is what gives it all meaning.

The sense of well-being I felt as a result of pushing on in the final lap of that 1500m was very real and deeply satisfying. Knowing that I’m improving, and that I might yet get more PBs (those arbitrary yet vital minutes and seconds) and possibly even win other races, is a big motivator. And a motivated person, a person with a purpose, is someone who has at least a glimpse of who they really are.