Wissot: To aging athletes long past their prime
“Smart Lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.”
Those lines are from the poem “To an Athlete Dying Young” written by A. E. Houseman.
Houseman is telling us that by dying young, the athlete, in this case, a runner, is avoiding the pain of seeing his fame fade from public view.
Better to be dead before your athletic accomplishments are consigned to the dustbin of history. I can happily report that I was lucky enough to have not died young but must candidly admit I never worried about fading fame. No reason to worry about what never happened.
I do understand, however, as an aging athlete what time does to your body. I am reminded every day when I go out for a run that I am no longer who I once was. That’s OK. I take solace in who I still am. Someday I will be less than I am now. I know that. It’s why I live in the present. I have no desire to accelerate the arrival of the future.
No effort on my part can prevent or reverse the decline that a 75-year-old body experiences. Sports drinks don’t contain a fountain of youthful elixir. The best I can do is strive to delay nature’s normal plan for me. I don’t complain about what is supposed to happen to people my age. There is a reason why you don’t find 60-year-old quarterbacks playing in the NFL (although Tom Brady and Drew Brees are trying hard to change that).
Aging does, however, have its consolations. I rarely experience pain when I run now. I don’t run hard enough to trigger my pain sensors. I’m also unlikely to have a heart attack. At the speed I run now, my heart doesn’t even know I’m exercising.
Running as slowly as I do now also has life-saving benefits. I was running across a street in downtown Denver recently, and as I crossed in front of cars stopped at a red light, a car in a lane I was about to reach ran the light at a high speed. I would surely be dead now if a younger and faster version of me was crossing that street.
Humor helps me, too, as I plod along. In the Toronto Marathon last year, a runner using a walker passed me. He told me it was because he needed to maintain his balance after a hip injury. It didn’t make me feel any better. Let’s face it — when you are passed in a race by someone clinging to a walker it’s flat-out embarrassing.
Aging necessitates making physical adjustments. I used to run 100 miles a week in training for a marathon. I have cut that back to 40. I used to eat, drink and party before races. I still eat. But in place of drinking and partying, I spend my time sleeping.
The same is true for psychological adjustments. The gap grows for aging athletes between the possible, the plausible, the realizable, the reachable and the actual. My mind hasn’t experienced a scintilla of decline. It is raring to go. It tells me I can achieve whatever running goals I set for myself as long as I work hard to achieve them. My body sees it differently.
I have run the Boston Marathon 12 times. Gaining entry to the Boston Marathon is harder than running up Heartbreak Hill. A qualifying time tied to your age is required. I managed to qualify in my 40s, 50s, 60s and early 70’s. But no more. I have run my last Boston. My typical marathon time now is an hour slower than the qualifying time for my age group (75-79). No amount of training is going to get me there.
When I ran my first marathon 46 years ago, my goal was simply to finish. I have come full circle. I run marathons now to complete them, not to compete in them. As of this writing, I am 11 marathons shy of completing 100 of them. I would like to reach that mark in the next four years. If I do I will be able to console my aging ego with the fact that I ran 100 marathons in 50 years time.
I have made a promise to myself that I will continue to run in races as long as I don’t slow to the point where they have to send out search and rescue squads to find me after everyone else has finished.
Until then, I will happily do the old man shuffle, putting one slothfully slow foot in front of the other.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at email@example.com.