Last night I raced 3,000 meters on the track. I finished last, way out the back, lapped and re-lapped by the entire field. But I ran hard and broke a record that had stood for ten years. That’s the strange duality of racing at age 82. A pace that was once was a warm-up jog can set a record. Success overlaps with humiliation, fulfillment is interwoven with frustration.
To explain: I ran in a mixed open field at a midweek twilight meet in my current hometown of Wellington, New Zealand. I lined up alongside 19 others. Apart from me, the oldest competitor was 49. The moment the horn sounded, they were gone, and I was running alone, until the leaders came pounding by with a whoosh to lap me soon after I’d completed one circuit. I used to run faster than that, I thought, briefly flashing back to the day I ran my PR for 3,000 meters in 8:10, but it’s little consolation.
At this age, every track race is a solo time trial. Social joggers don’t often do track, so there’s no one my pace. To make it feel like a competition, I aim for age-group records, so it’s like a virtual race against someone my age who posted his time ten years ago. My 16:03 broke the Wellington record for men aged 80 to 84. That competitive fun is mixed with a sense of inadequacy. I clutter the track. I’m in a different dimension from the young runners, like pedaling a bicycle in a Nascar race.
Not that they complain. “Go, Rog,” they gasp kindly as they fly past. They cheer for me as I finish, and then we hang out and compare times. Some say they find me inspiring, a role model for how they want to age. Often their kindness makes me feel good. Other times I feel like a decrepit but willing old dog who gets a pat when he still tries to chase his ball.
Much is new and good. I’m busy learning. I’ve been competitive and often elite since 1953. I’ve raced on six continents, set masters records at the Boston and New York City marathons, run a 5K in 14:12, and written seven books about running, yet this obscure little 3,000-meter event on a windy evening was another learning curve. By racing after 80, I’m still learning about the sport, about aging, about today’s society, about myself.
I learn that one of the joys of being a long-term runner is that every season is an experiment, a new experience. Year by year, you test your changing body, your mind’s ingenuity, and your spirit’s resilience against each inevitable stage of getting older. Those who choose to retire at their peak may think they evade the losses time brings, but they can only look back, not forward. They miss this ongoing journey, which truly is an exploration of the whole of life, its last 6.2 miles as well as the first 20.
I’m learning the hard way that age is not just a number. Age is a biological reality. It’s inescapable, even cruel, if you see nature in that personal way. Age brings decline that is almost mechanically predictable. In the long term, the best I can do is slow down the process of slowing down. The challenge is how to encounter that process, how to live with it, and running is the best way I know. I train and race to the limit of my will just as I always did, and that brings me the small triumphs of improvement gained by training. Don’t underestimate the effect of that on mental attitude. Today I’m eager for the next arduous challenge, plotting how to do better next week than I did last night. How many 82-year-olds can say that?
That triumph—outwitting time for a while—is one of many. Being in race shape gives me overall health, the respect and friendship of men and women 60 years my junior, the delight of an activity that is stimulating and full of change, and, above all, the feeling of being totally engaged with life’s journey, not merely lingering in its departure lounge. One of my regular training venues is a sports field overlooked by a large retirement-community building. I run my repeats in constant terror that staff will mistake me for a resident, dash out with a big butterfly net and capture me.
My slow pace at full effort teaches me that our running performances are always about relativity–run better than last week, last year; beat your rivals, the record, or your PR. That doesn’t change. The next time you see a white-haired old man or woman running at the back of the pack, please do not dismiss them as shuffling at some standard, meaningless, old-person pace. They may be as immersed in the race’s drama and significance as any other competitor, battling for the few seconds that will measure this day’s result as successful.
The big picture is that we older runners are leading a major change in society’s perception of aging. “How old are ya, mate?” asked the friendly teenage groundsman the last time I ran interval 400’s at his park. I told him. His surprise was expressed in a monosyllable. The public is beginning to get used to seeing old runners just as they once got used to seeing any runners, and then women runners. That’s how change happens. And change is long overdue. The marginalization and stereotyping of older people is arguably the last great prejudice of our society. When the retirement home enters a team in a local 10K, I’ll know that my prediction is fulfilled.
Why do it? The simple thing at 82 would be to run without competing. But for me, that would only be half the pleasure. I don’t race track to lead a social movement, or for the attention, or to feel humiliated, or to be an inspiration. I merely want to race. Even at the back, that makes me a participant with others who share the same impulse. I race because I still love its challenge and commitment, its drama and its finality, the ways it tests the spirit. During times in my life when I couldn’t race (after knee-replacement surgery or when mending broken bones), I felt like a pianist whose hands had been crushed. Now, since I am again fortunate enough to be able to race, it feels almost like a duty.
My next race is a festive-season one-miler. Senile folly. Four minutes won’t even get me halfway. I’ll be dead-last again. But I’ve done my 400’s, and I’m as ready as can be. Hey, maybe I can “run my age”: 80 and two-tenths would give me a finish time of 8:12. There’s always another incentive. I can’t wait.
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