Other runners must have the same daydream—shambling along at my tired pace, I look up and imagine the back of my younger self racing out of reach ahead. The two of us can’t be split and still be one person, but, if we could be, he’d be winning.
Like most ex-competitive runners over fifty, my best times are behind me. I’ve nearly used up the expression, “Back in the day.”
Little in life is as quantifiable as the time it once took you to cover a distance. I don’t figure my time completing projects at work or my efficiency answering e-mails—but I remember my best at every distance. The numbers have remained relevant because the high school cross country athletes I coach—including my son—periodically ask me, “What’s your fastest at…?”
But I’m sensible enough to know how meaningless those numbers really are. Some runners—even ones whose bodies have long betrayed them—still see themselves as an X-minute, Y-seconds Z-distance runner. They regale you with former workouts and stellar performances at races that occurred decades ago. Their triumphs are as fresh as last weekend.
Okay, me too. But usually I wait to be asked and tell the story with disbelief. Those performances belong to someone else. That I once ran so fast astounds me. What astounds me even more is that I once trained hard enough to attain those times.
The biggest difference between me and the imaginary younger runner ahead is the spirit behind his dedication. He has a naive faith in sacrifice, the cumulative effect of daily work, and the tolerance of pain. He has no excuse for taking it easy—mostly because he doesn’t take it easy—and he’s never as impressed with himself as he hopes to be after his next race. He’s not nostalgic because it’s not time yet.
His perspective is what I miss, not the times or even the body that produced the times. I’m lucky I get to work with young runners filled with hope and am grateful so much of their spirit rubs off on me. However, experience, especially the sort that tells you what’s possible, makes you resistant to their sort of ambition.
Perhaps it’s time for another dream. For me, the hardest part of aging has been feeling less hopeful. My racing years have ended, and I could turn to other goals, but little seems as quantifiable—verifiable—as those old times do. Strangely, new tasks often feel like starting over. Another magnitude of desire seems required. I gulp very hard to toe the line.
I’d love to shout to the young man ahead of me—ask him to stop for a moment and indulge an old man with a little advice—how does he do it? I’d love to get a pat on the back, a smile, and a shove.