Firmly anchored in middle age, I have become addicted to running — a sport designed for a much younger body. To make matters worse, I’ve developed a passion for long-distance running. This means pounding the pavement, sometimes for hours at a stretch.
I started running in my mid-40s to break up my regular exercise routine of swimming in the winter and biking in the summer. Typically, I ran three to four miles twice a week.
Then a few years back, I started to run in 5K races, something quite novel since I never played competitive sports as a kid. I loved the festive atmosphere of race day, with bystanders cheering and fellow runners shouting, “Good Job!” And I got a kick out of passing people, even though my pace has always been pretty slow.
But last year when I turned 50, I decided I needed an even greater challenge. I set my sights on the Marshall half-marathon, a 13.2-mile race through the flat streets of Huntington, West Virginia. I followed a three-month online training program that enabled me to build up mileage each week. (See Hal Higdon half-marathon training schedule.)
The training gave structure and discipline to my life and a focus to my week. When I traveled for work, I mapped out courses in advance. I got up before dawn to do my practice runs, and I saw parts of cities I would normally never see. I ran on the Schuylkill River Trail in Philadelphia, around the St. Louis Gateway Arch, along the shore of Lake Michigan, and around the tip of Manhattan.
I actually looked forward to the longer runs, building up to two-and-a-half-hours on my feet. I liked the ritual of preparation: deciding what to wear, filling water bottles, packing snacks, and uploading music to my iPod. I became almost fetishistic about my Playlist, mixing and matching songs of varying tempos to create the perfect soundtrack.
I learned how to settle into my legs, working through my aches and pains, running to the rhythm and taking in the scenery. I stopped to walk whenever my body needed a break.
In November, I ran the race with friends and came in 20 minutes shorter than I thought I would.
I was absolutely exhilarated by the experience and the accomplishment. And, despite being very sore, I immediately began to plan for my next race.
Maybe long-distance running holds the same appeal for them as me. It keeps me in great shape, gives me energy, allows me to eat more and sleep better. It has also connected me to a like-minded community of women.
Long-distance running has also given me a new metaphor to live by. It’s about committing to the long haul, rather than sprinting to the finish. It’s about pushing yourself to new heights but appreciating your limits. And it’s about running your own race, at your own pace.
So maybe long-distance running is better suited to “mature” athletes like me. We’re in no rush to get to the finish line. But to keep time on our side, we need to keep moving, keep striving, and keep finding joy in the journey.
Postscript: I ran my second half marathon on June 9, 2012, and I shaved 4 minutes off my finish time compared to my first half. Paul Richey Memorial Run