Revenge of the old folks – respect your elders!
I have had a couple experiences lately that have caused me to respect my elders, that give me hope for the future and that validate the running lifestyle.
Posted Wednesday, 5 September, 2007
The first was when I was looking at the finishers of the Mountain Goat races and saw that there was a 70-year-old guy that ran all the races. These were not easy races folks. This was not your weekend 5K around the local high school parking lot. If I can drag my wrinkly butt up and down Mt. Cranmore 3 times when I’m 70 I will have led a good life. There was also a 70+ female who trucked up Mt. Ascutney with us. Then I cracked the USATF track and field magazine to see, among other things, an 85+-guy pole-vaulting 8 feet.
And…Here’s one from the “make you smile” file. I was talking with my teenager and she referred to someone as “that old guy”. I reminded her that I’m that same age. She said, “Yeah, but your different, you exercise and stuff…”
It got me to thinking how the assumptions we make limit us. How much of our falloff in activity and performance is just because we assume it’s got to happen?
There is definitively an advantage to being a veteran. Even a veteran mid-packer. When you show up for a race you’re not worried. You’re not nervous. Why? Because you have done it before and most of the time you’re prepared, (or at least you understand your level of preparedness). That’s what makes you veterans successful.
You’ve stood on that starting line many times before. You know some races are difficult, some are easy and some are wonderful. All are part of the mosaic of experience that defines and prepares you.
You also know your limits. You know them because you have tested them and found them. You know that if you go out too fast that you will probably pay for it. But you’ve been there before too and if the wheels fall off late in the race, you know that you possess that element of stoic courage and reserve to muddle through.
You know that each race and each distance deserves respect. Some deserve more than others. Some races can be vengeful mistresses if they are disrespected. They will extract their toll.
You know, because you have done it, that the best way to disrespect a race is to not train for it. More specifically, when you try to run the race in a way that your training does not entitle you.
You know your engine. You know your machine. And you know how to coax those extra seconds out of it. You know where the bad bearings are and the weak belts and wheedle that performance you need because and despite their protestations.
Training does not remove the necessity or underlying tension of executing the race that day to the best of your ability. Training sets the upper and lower bounds of your expectations. Experience; that great pile of experience, stands behind you with one hand on your shoulder, calming you and steadying you.
When you scan the crowd at the starting line, back in the mid-pack where you stand, you will see many faces. You will see many body types. You will see many attitudes. All of this is very deceiving because it discounts the value of being a veteran.
If a stranger were to reach in with a giant hand and pluck the ten closest people from the crowd, sort them by projected finish time based solely on their appearance, on their attitudes, they would probably be mostly be wrong. They would sort the older folks with the worn clothing and limping strides to the back. They would be tempted to sort the young and fresh to the front.
They’d be wrong. The more difficult the race, the more wrong they’d be. Hard races are where the veterans shine. Hard races are where experience and a steady hand prevail over freshness.
You’d do well to look at the eyes. There you might see the placid calm of experience. You might see the comfortable joy of thorough preparation within one’s means. In a sense, this race is the one that these veterans have spent a lifetime preparing for; as well as the next one, and the next…
Sure, a few of the young studs would win in their bottle rocket glory of youth, but the majority of the next wave would be veterans, doing what they do, running within themselves and running with joy. Answering the question ‘Is there life after youth?” with a smiling “Yes, and it’s full of joy.”
Don’t write off those old folks with the weird shaped bodies and hitch in their strides. Don’t be taken in by their studied frailty. They may shuffle by you on that really steep hill at the end of the race. They have conquered similar hills thousands of times. I know because they routinely shuffle by me. Sometimes I’ll reel in that flustered 20-something on the stretch into the finish, because they lose faith when the storm tossed seas of a hard race besiege their tiny boat.
Did you know that we appraise you youngsters before we pass? We are not assessing your physical strength. We are assessing your mental courage. That will determine whether you will put up a fight when we shuffle by. The brightest flame is not the hottest.
Being old is good. Being a veteran has its benefits. I wonder how we would react if some wild-eyed scientist found a way to put us back into our 20-year-old bodies. Would power corrupt? Would we abuse our bodies like we did when we owned it? Running hard everyday? Eating and drinking to excess? Not stretching, warming up or strengthening our core? We could again become kings and queens of disrespect!
Having an older body is more like a Stradivarius. It takes studied maintenance and focused care. It’s a delicate, tested machine that you can massage great performances from. These performances may not be great in their speed or volume, but they are great in their worthiness and character.
In some sense you could make the case that we are just jaded and desensitized to pain. That’s not true. If anything we are hyper-sensitized to pain. We have trained ourselves to surf the pain, to embrace its energy. We have learned the tune of the mind-body connection where pain is just another source of power.
More than that, we have also sensitized ourselves to joy in the mind body connection. Like so many hours of meditation our constant rhythm of exercise melds the body and mind together in a flowering of energy. This type of thing takes practice. It takes time. It takes many miles and many hours. Like any deep relationship it needs to be constantly cultivated and grown into.
I want to encourage you old folks to keep it up. Keep shuffling. You are the finely aged wine of the sport. You give us all hope and faith in the future. You validate that we have chosen a worthy path.
It should also be a shout out to those who think they are too old to start. You are never too old to start. The journey of life has no destination and it matters not the departure time. Come join us in the mid-pack and make the rest of your life fulfilling.
We are all just Methuselahs in the making and everyday dawns new as an opportunity to move forward.
See you out there,
Christopher Russell is the author of the Mid-Packer’s Lament (www.midpackerslament.com) a series of short stories on long distance running, racing and the human comedy inherent in all sports enthusiasts, but prevalent in the mid-pack.