Friday, April 1, 2011

Back in the Game

Getting Back In The Game

The above pictures are from the very first race I ever ran with my father.  It was called The Firecracker 5K, and it was held in Massapequa, New York.  The date was July 3, 1982.  I was 26 at the time, and dad was 55.   This is significant, because today, as I write this, I am 55, the same age dad was when I first started running.  And I am happy to report that Dad is 84, and still walks for over an hour several days a week.

He beat me that first race, by about a minute. He was in the mid 24's for that race, and I was in the mid 25's. I have no doubt that he remembers it as vividly as I do.  Runners are funny in that way. Those times were considered slow, and we ran in the back of the pack. 

But I was new to running, and dad had already been running for years.  And we were running for different reasons.  He ran because his doctor told him to in an effort to control his high blood pressure.  And I ran because I loved T-shirts.  And I also had a competitive streak in me, and wanted to get faster.  But running for health was never my goal.  At least not back then.

Although dad had been "jogging" since the late 1960s, he caught the race bug from me, and the Firecracker 5K was the race in which he caught it.  We lived on Long Island, and it was an easy trip to New York's Central Park, home of the New York Running Club, headed up by Fred Lebow.  This venue featured some of the greatest races of its day.  

The race scene was much different back then than it is today.  For the most part, if you weren't fast, you didn't race.  Nobody walked, and if you couldn't keep at least an 8 minute per mile pace, you found another sport to participate in.  Another huge difference between then and now: the oldest age group in most races was 50 and over.  Can you imagine?  Just look at the race results from a race I did in 1983.  Notice the times, and the ages of the runners.  Yes, times have changed.

By the end of 1982, I could run a 5K in under 21 minutes, and early the next year, I met my goal of breaking 20.  Dad was steady at his pedestrian 23-24 minute 5K time, but he kept plugging along. he was 55, and I was 26.  And I thought he was slow and I knew that I would never slow down when I got to be his age.

Thus is the finite wisdom of a naive 26 year old.

In future columns, I'll be writing a lot more about the nearly 30 years between that first race we did together and the next race we do together in a couple of weeks.  But this column is about the here and now, so I will flash forward from that first race to today, where I am now the same age dad was back then.

At age 84, dad doesn't run any more, but he did until his mid-70s.  But as I mentioned earlier, he still walks.  And he goes to the gym.  And he still does projects around the house.  He is the most active 84 year old I know.  

And today, at 55, I am the same age he was when we started.  I still race often.  My running over the past 30 years has had some rough patches in it, periods of time when I didn't run at all.  The most painful gaps were due to injury.  The most palatable were due to changing priorities.  And the most disappointing were due to lethargy.

And it seems that every gap, regardless of the reason, set me back a step, as times slipped from the 20's, to the 21's, to the 22's......a figurative free fall from my best times to where I am now.  Today, I look at the 23 minute 5K times that dad did in his late 50s and even early 60s, and I am in total awe.  He wasn't nearly as slow as the ignorant 26 year old thought he was.  In fact, he wasn't slow at all.  He was still running 10Ks in under 50 minutes in his 60s.  It's all a matter of perspective.

Today, at 55 years old, I am lucky if I can break 26 minutes in a 5K.  That's 3 minutes slower than dad was running them at the age I am now.  But I am also lucky I can still run at all.  Too many people who started running when I did stopped running long ago.  For some it was because of injury.  For others, it was changing priorities.  And for the vast majority, I believe it was lethargy. 

For the life of me, I can't even imagine being able to cut an additional 3 minutes from what I currently run, to get to where dad was then, but it's a nice goal to have.  Once you've been running for 30 years, new goals in the same sport come harder and harder to come by.  The last big one I accomplished was to run a 10K in under my age, which I finally did a couple of years one tick.  I ran a 52.59 when I was 53 years old.

But the goal is still there, to be where dad was then.  sub 24 for a 5K.  That used to be a slow training run for me, and that statement alone illustrates another funny thing with runners.  it's so true, the older you get, the faster you used to be.  We love to reach back to the good old days, and lose sight of what lays ahead.  I think that's one of the reasons I've been quiet for so long with my writing.  

But there is a part of me that knows that I am not alone.  Aging runners slowing down.  We may be the largest running contingent in the entire running community.  We struggle to come to terms with our personal aging process, and we question why we still set our alarms for 4 in the morning just so we can keep on running.  Sometimes I feel like the only reason I still do it is because that's how it's always been, at least for the last 30 years.  Without running, a part of what has come to define me would be gone.

But also, there is a part of me who wants to be today what dad was then.  As I have gotten older, I would like to think I have gotten wiser.  I sure do hope so, as I have made many many mistakes over the years, and it would be a shame to not have learned and grown from them.  I don't run like that 26 year old kid any more, but I don't think like him any more either.   Long gone are the days of believing that everyone around me was getting older while I stayed frozen in time.  I have come to reluctantly embrace the fact that aging is a natural process that is a privilege to experience, as long as you continue to look forward, even though you can't help but to also look back.

In two weeks, dad will be back in town, and while he is here, we will be doing a 5K.  I'm going to walk it with him, step by step, just like we used to run together when we raced almost 30 years ago.  Don't get me wrong.  I'm still competitive, but I am also nostalgic.  There will be almost every other weekend to race as fast as I can, which is not nearly as fast as he used to run them when he was the age I am now.

And if it takes us an hour, so be it.  Today I know that whatever pace we do will be a great pace. Not only will I be thrilled to be able to walk a 5K in an hour when I am 84.  I will be thrilled if I am still alive.

Dad, Kelli and me at a race in November 2009

1 comment:

  1. "Without running, a part of what has come to define me would be gone."

    I wish I had a nickel for every time someone asks me: "why do I run?".

    Now you've provided the quintessential answer, which is priceless.