Saturday, July 30, 2022

Somewhere between "fast & furious" and "slow & mildly annoyed"

I started marathon training again this month, a dejavu from the distant past. It’s been a while since I’ve tackled 26.2; at first the siren song of ultras–”you can eat anything you want and go as slow as you want, just keeeeeeep gooooooooing”–had lured me into running crazy long distances at paces barely above a crawl. Then of course there were no races at all, for anyone at any distance. Now I’ve gone from zero to 60, or, to be more precise, 55, because at that age a woman can qualify for the Boston marathon with a 4:05. Registration for Boston happens in September for the race the following April, and your age category is determined on how old you’ll be for the race itself. What all this comes down to is if I can do under 4:05 at my November marathon, I’ll qualify for Boston 2024. If I can do sub-4, I’ll have substantial “padding” in case the qualifying times get faster, plus it would be my first sub-4 ever, after 12 years of running marathons. Twelve years of wondering after 20 miles “why do I keep doing this” and vowing after 26.2 miles “never again” and barely 24 hours later getting together a training plan for the next one. Twelve years of crazy, with lots of snacks

What I’m trying to do this time around is what a fair number of marathon runners consider doing: wait until they get older and the Boston qualifying times get slower. It’s a great plan, with one tiny flaw. We all know what that flaw is: the “getting older” part. Turns out there’s a reason those qualifying times get slower.

So after the first month of marathon training, I can already assure you that it does not get easier to qualify as you get older. I wouldn’t say it necessarily gets harder, though; like so many things, it’s just different. I’ve been running for 16 years, races at every distance from 1 mile to 100km, and yet I still feel humbled by this activity as though I’ve just started running anew all over again. That’s not a bad thing; humility engenders an appreciation for what is truly great and amazing in the world, as opposed to the diminishment that accompanies humiliation. How you know the difference is when you’re humbled, you probably feel good.

If you qualify for Boston with a time for the youngest age level, you are a fast runner, plain and simple. If you qualify at an older age level, even if no one says it to your face, at least some people (maybe even you yourself) would call you “fast for your age.” That insidious little tacked-on phrase might seem to cast a long, cold shadow on the endeavor–the way an elite woman marathoner might never get away from her ridiculously fast finishing time being qualified by her sex. Thing is, even a “slow” elite woman marathoner runs faster than almost every man who has ever run 26.2 miles. She’s fast. A handful of men are faster. Anyone who thinks this elevates all men by association–well, guys, let’s see that sub-2:14, because that’s what you’d have to run to prove that men are fast and women are slow. 

Truth is I wouldn’t mind being called “fast for my age.” I don’t even mind the emphasis on my age–if anything, I enjoy it. I started running in my late 30s, after having done little to nothing athletic for the previous 25 years. I loathed P.E. class; even the most minimal types of physical activity were, indeed, humiliating to me. My high school friends remember how I used to go bowling: I’d cradle the ball in both arms, given my pathetic upper-body strength, then drop it heavily in the lane and watch it inch toward the pins while the lanes to the right and left went through entire games. Sometimes it actually managed to hit pins. Once it got stuck halfway. Most times it didn’t even bother to get my hopes up and veered straight for the gutter. Clunk it went, my chin falling to my chest simultaneously, and once again I would trudge back to the bench like Charlie Brown after another blown ballgame.

So the fact that “at my age” I not only get regular, fairly intensive exercise but actually enjoy it–that’s a win all by itself. Will I be fast enough? I’ve still got a lot of training to go; right now I don’t know how fast I can run a marathon, but I do like being able to find out. Whatever age you are, you’d do well to hope there are still new things to discover.