The old feet are fried. Likewise the old brain. But I still take comfort in these “golden years.” In a way it’s like discovering the freedom to step off-course and watch the parade from a shady nook’s conveniently placed rock.
There are wonderful things coming to pass out on the road. Things unimagined in my era. Principally, there’s the real possibility of making a six-figure living. And with that, gaining true star status. I confess I’m not immune to the siren call of either Fortune or Fame.
When winning a marathon meant coming in for envious back-slaps from one’s competitors while relaxing on a cot and supping from a bowl of beef stew, life could seem wholesomely simple. Our camaraderie was uncluttered by the bustling of personal trainers, agents and the like. We savored those fleeting post-race hours.
Typically, we would have come to the race alone or in the company of family or fellow runners. We might face a several-hour drive home to be followed by a night’s abbreviated sleep before the dawn of “another manic Monday.”
Such were my weekends. Funny, I used to think, that so many of my road racing buddies had to sidetrack into divorce court. How could a wife not enjoy the company of other potential marathon widows? And all those kids…What could have lured them away from the fun of cheering Dad across the line? But the pattern was unmistakable. The kids just stopped showing up when they hit twelve.
Hell, it was a damn good life! It kept its hold on me for decades. Still does, if you count nostalgia as part of the continuum. And, you know, it wasn’t until quite recently, and by unexpected twists of circumstances, that I even suspected that the running life might have some serious shortcomings.
Of course one slows down eventually. Not many of us are lucky enough to celebrate a fortieth birthday with a sub-2:18 marathon. Then again, we’re talking about the effects of a quarter-century of pavement pounding here. Wasn’t Jack Foster relatively new to the game at forty?
Anyway, bicycling was a strong candidate for a commutation switch as I ploughed into the actuarial Horse Latitudes. Cross-training had become the eighties fashion. I painlessly morphed into li’l ol’ Johnny-on-a-twelve-speed Peugeot. “Life, as the spare tire cover has it, “Is (or Was) Good.”
Now, it happened that the straws in the winds of athletic aging hit me in a spaced series. One day I placed a near-ecstatic second to a rising young star in some area summer 10-K. As we stood under the elephant shower, the winner peered at my feet. “My God! he said. “Are those (bunions) the result of all your running? If so, I’m checking out. There’s no way I want my feet to look like yours in twenty years.”
As far as I know, the young guy never raced again.
OK. I kept on with this running-and now, cycling-life. Sure, I adjusted my sights. Began to groove more on trail hikes with my dogs. Two goldens, in succession-Brutus, then Marcus-showed me how silence-as opposed to human chit-chat-could be golden.
One sunny Sunday afternoon about three years ago, I leapt off a boulder and tore my right patella tendon. Ah jeez! This is the end! I moaned. The good doctor Dan Gaccione of Westerly Hospital assured me that the trail hadn’t ended. And thanks to his surgical skill, it hadn’t.
I was back out under the sky within two months. The old right leg required the exercise. It responded by regaining maybe 90% of its former flex. I considered myself plucked from the jaws of infirmity.
So far, I was ahead of the actuaries. I reflected on my cohorts. How many had submitted to hip or knee-replacement operations? How many, multiple heart bypasses? Enjoy the half-full glass of water, I told myself. (And that was a challenge, because I’ve always been kind of a “half-empty glass” Jeremiah.)
So what possible misgivings about “the running life” could I have? Well…(and I think I launched into my previous column with a reference to that marvelous book by Geoff Williams, “C. C. Pyle’s Amazing Foot Race-The True Story of the 1928 Coast-To-Coast Run Across America,” it’s an encroaching feeling of tiredness-no doubt age-related-that has come upon me through ruminations on the extremes to which we runners go to reach our version of nirvana, if you will.
I want you to get and read Mr. Williams’ book, if at all possible. I simply can’t do it justice by my references to it here.
Briefly put, Mr. Pyle’s incredible promotion brought together a starting herd of 199 in Los Angeles, in February, 1928; fifty-five of them remained by the time the race ended in New York City some three months later. Most were driven by poverty and the desire to make their grab at the elusive gold rings of fortune and fame.
Only nineteen-year-old Oklahoma farm boy Andy Payne, the event’s winner, succeeded according to Pyle’s glowing pre-race promise. More typical was the experience of family man Frank Johnson, who was forced to quit near mid-race and catch a ride hundreds of miles to his home in Granite City, Illinois.
Horrified by his appearance, Johnson’s wife hastened to reverse the “spin” Mr. Pyle was giving the proceedings: “…You should have seen him when he arrived here Monday. His left ankle was swollen to twice its natural size. His lips were cracked so badly that they bled when he tried to chew his food. His nose was blistered and peeling from sunburn, and he hobbled like a cripple…And he’s hollow from head to heel. I know, because I’ve been cooking for him and feeding him, and I can’t fill him up. You never saw a man eat so much in your life. He could eat six meals a day, and then do a lot of eating between meals, and be ravenous every time he sat down at the table.”
Runner’s World executive editor Amby Burfoot summed up the book’s impact in his blurb: “You’ll never again complain about a workout or local 5-K.”
One more thing: Smart-ass journalists of the day dubbed Pyle’s race “The Bunion Derby.”
Say, I’m feeling a little tired.
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