When Old Men Run

My family and personal friends know that since the beginning of last year I’ve been working toward getting into better physical shape. When I hefted my substantial self onto the scales at the grocery store at the end of December, 2013 and a sadistic number screamed at me in mockery, something in me snapped. On January 1, 2014 I began a journey into becoming healthier.

Like most people, I’ve worked out at gyms off and on all my adult life. My assessment of that experience is simple and succinct. I. hate. it. I’ve always had a low threshold for boredom and there is absolutely nothing more boring to me than mindless repetition of exercises at the gym. No amount of interesting television, lively music, or background chants of “no pain, no gain” could possibly make it tolerable for more than a short time. And there are so many good-looking people there whose very presence taunts me. Gyms are of the devil. There, I said it, and I’m sticking by it.

As I was about to begin my exercise reformation, I was talking to my daughter, Amy, about my repentance and my new commitment to take better care of myself. Amy is a personal trainer by education and profession. When I told her how much I hate going to the gym, she offered to come with me on my daily walk one morning and teach me a circuit training routine that she thought would help and that I might enjoy. So off we went around dawn. We ran. Then we walked. Then we did strength training. Then we walked again. Then ran. Then walked again and then did another kind of strength exercise. Over and over we repeated the cycle. An hour had passed before I knew it. To my delight, I loved it and have been doing it almost every day since.

So, let’s fast-forward to this day. In fact, it was this morning. I arrived about 6:00 in town at the place where I run. It was beginning to get light but the sun hadn’t risen yet. When I arrived, I discovered a crowd already there, getting ready for a run. I hadn’t known about this event but after inquiring I learned that I could participate in it if I wanted. I’d never been in a race before, but knew right away that I’d like to try it.

I’ve seen Amy run marathons. She has done it numerous times – 26 miles. I’ve been amazed, as I’ve watched her cross the finish line still standing upright and actually smiling as if she were energized by the experience. Then there was that one time. The time she ran a marathon with my son, David. He’s young. He’s strong. He had trained for it, and when he crossed the finish line that day, I was very proud of him, but in a different way.

With Amy, my pride was largely fueled by the fact that a person could have such a long term commitment to fitness so as to be able to run 26 miles and arrive at the finish line laughing and talking and wanting to go into the Magic Kingdom at Disney World – where the marathon was held. She is amazing, having far greater consistent commitment than I could imagine myself ever having.

With David, it was a different kind of pride. I couldn’t have been more proud of his finish if he’d stepped onto the moon but his finish didn’t look the same. His shirt was bloody because the fabric had rubbed his nipples raw and he had bled for miles. (Yes, I know and he knew. He forgot the Band-Aids.) When he crossed the finish line, his face looked as if all the blood had been drained from it, or maybe had rushed into it – I don’t remember for sure. I just remember he looked like a dead-man-walking. His eyes were rolled back in his head and I think he was speaking in some sort of unknown tongue. Okay, I exaggerate. The point is that he didn’t appear to be a man who was riding high on a rush of endorphins. He was wiped out, and that is precisely why I was so proud of him. He didn’t quit. He persevered, literally through blood, sweat and tears, to cross the finish line. I know I couldn’t have done it.

So, here I am this morning about to run. Not a 26-mile distance, mind you. No, my distance was 5k – 3.11 miles. For the record, there has hardly been a day of my life for more than a year when I’ve not walked and ran 4-5 miles early morning. I do it almost every day, but today was different. I was going to try to run the whole 3.11 miles. Run, without stopping or walking. Yeah, I know. It sounds pathetic to some, but one day you’ll be old too and you’ll get it then.

As I fell in with the hundreds who were running, my excited thoughts began to explode in my mind like popcorn in that machine at the movie theater. “Can I run the whole way? Will there be water along the route? Will my feet hurt? Is there anybody out here as old as I am? Why is everybody already passing me? Will I be the last to come across the finish alone? Why am I doing this at my age? Is three miles enough distance to make a man’s nipples bleed? I’ll keep checking to be sure they’re okay.”

As we rounded one corner, two really young girls passed me and I heard one say to the other, “Did you see that old man?” I couldn’t tell if I should interpret her question in a positive or negative way. So I just kept slogging along. After a while I saw tables set up in the road ahead and young people were reaching out and offering paper cups filled with water to those who passed. As I approached the tables, a young man sprinted out toward me with his hand extended to offer the water. I don’t know why he didn’t wait for me to get to him. I guess I looked like a man in serious need of water.

As I kept going I couldn’t help but notice how many girls who passed me would look at me, smile in a kindly condescending sort of way and say, “You can do it! You can do it!”

Crap.

There was a time when girls didn’t talk to me that way. <Sigh.>

As we reached the next set of tables where cups of water waited, my blurry eyes could have made me swear I saw somebody coming toward me with an I.V. bag in one hand and a defibrillator paddle in the other. No, thankfully, it was just Gatorade. I gladly gulped it down and kept shuffling onward.

Soon time stood still and lost its’ meaning. I found myself in a dimension marked by determination that was slowly deteriorating into desperation. How far could I go? How far had I gone? After pushing myself to the outer extreme limits of my own human endurance, exhaling in rapid succession, blowing like a dolphin coming up for air after staying under too long and my feet loudly pounding out the rhythmic beat of the theme from Chariots of Fire that had been playing in my head, I thought to myself, “Did I accidentally begin at the 10k starting line? I know I’ve run more than three miles. This is the 5k part, isn’t it? Where is that finish line? Steve you can do it. You can do it. You can do it. It’s all good. Your nipples aren’t even bleeding.”

As I reached the bounds of my own human endurance to keep running, I reached into my pocket to pull out my Fitbit that would have measured the distance of my run thus far. What would it tell me? Surely the finish line must lie just ahead. I pulled out the gadget and pressed the display button. I was ready for my own private internal party – with cognitive streamers and cerebral fireworks of self-congratulations.

When the number came into focus through my sweaty, blurry eyes, I could not believe what I saw – 1.4 miles. One and four tenths of a mile! That’s all? 1.4 miles? Seriously? How could it be? I had thought that surely Eric Liddell would have given me a pat on the back for what I’d done but now it hit me that some old geezer at a nursing home could potentially look at me and say, “So what? Get over yourself.”

My intention had been to run the whole distance but, with the display laughingly shouting 1.4 miles in my face, I succumbed to the realization that I wasn’t going to be able to run the rest of the way but that I must walk, and so I did. As others passed by, I walked. The man older than me ran by. The extremely overweight woman ran by. The little boy ran by. Even somebody pushing a baby in a stroller ran by. And I walked.

As I walked along with the mockery of passersby taunting me each time I fell further behind, my thoughts became more existential. “Why am I doing this? Does it really matter? If I come in last place who will care or, for that matter, who will even know except me? Why is excelling so important to me? Why can’t I just enjoy this as it is? Why can’t I make myself run until my nipples bleed?”

Okay, maybe the last question wasn’t so existential as the others but you get the point of what was going on in my head. And I began to realize something: Those questions aren’t just about an older man running one morning. They’re questions about life itself.

The Personal Trainer who ran with me began to gently give clarity to some of my questions. She reminded me that I was in Intensive Care just a few years ago, with an autonomic problem that for a short moment threatened my life. The paramedics couldn’t even find a blood pressure when they got to me lying outside on the patio at my house, yet here I am. I still deal with it at times, but today, I’m running . . . and walking, but I’m doing it. Overall, I’m in good health. Life isn’t about a perfect performance. Maybe it’s not even about doing our “personal best.” Maybe it’s mostly about enjoying the run even when we find ourselves needing to walk. It would actually be okay to even sit down a while if necessary. Maybe our personal best is to simply enjoy the stillness of the morning hours, the laughter and energy of those around us, the cup of cool water provided by a caring person, and even the sympathetic kindnesses from the youth of those who still can run faster and longer. Maybe it’s about being where we are with those with whom we find ourselves and enjoying the moment as it is.

I thought about the fact that I’ve lost sixty pounds in less than two years. In spite of that fact, I still look down at my gut and often think about how I want to lose more pounds so I can get rid of it completely. My Trainer reminded me this morning that I used to get winded with very little activity and that these days I can walk, run, exercise my way through five miles every day and feel fine when I’m finished. She talked to me about how I will enjoy life more if I’ll be present in the moment and simply accept it for what it is. That doesn’t mean there won’t be further improvement in life but learning to relax and celebrate progress already made is a good thing. The Creator Himself declared that “it is good” at each step of the way in creation. He celebrated it, one step at time with no angst about what still had not been accomplished. So it must be with me – with us. There will be times we run and times we walk and even times we might have to sit it out, but the Trainer will be with us at all those times. To fail to enjoy the progress already made because the distance that still lies ahead blinds us surely must be an insult to the Grace that floods our lives in this moment. A mile and four tenths may not be a marathon. It may not even be a 5k but it is a mile and four tenths. That needs to be celebrated.

As I continued to walk, both my heart rate and my thoughts began to stabilize. As they did, I found that a desire began to arise in me. I heard the laughter of those around me. I saw the runners gaze set on the finish line that lie about a half-mile ahead of us. I heard the energetic music blasting out from the speakers at the finish line. I could see those crossing the line raising both arms in the air and pumping their fists in victory as they crossed. I heard the cheers of celebration as they did. The desire in me grew bigger until it consumed me. I wanted to run. I wanted to run fast and hard and finish well. Not for the sake of competing with anybody else or even so that I could do my personal best. I wanted to run for the sheer pleasure of it. So I did. I ran. I ran hard, and I found myself laughing as I approached the end. I have no idea what my time was and I don’t care. I looked at my own reflection when I finished and realized that I looked like a man who had narrowly escaped someone who had been trying to violently drown him, but I felt good. I felt really good. I want to run some more – for the right reasons. Want to run with me?

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