Thursday, September 13, 2012

On Marathons,Mortality, and My Life on the Run

This coming week I will "officially" begin training for the Charleston Marathon in January of 2013.  Saturday will be exactly 18 weeks out, which is the traditional start date for a standard buildup to a marathon.  Technically, I've been "training" all summer, including getting my long run of the week up to 12 miles this past weekend.  But doing this race is making me a bit philosophical about my running career.

This is not my first marathon.  I "ran" the 1996 Marine Corps Marathon when I was 27.  I had been coaching just a couple of years, and I knew that I knew far more than I really knew.  Ya know?  I didn't train in any way that could be called smart.  With far more testosterone than brains, I figured that I could "gut out" a good race on  minimal training just like I always had for every race from 400 meters to the 10k.  I crashed so hard that I ran an identical time to what OprahWinfrey had run the year before (thank God she wasn't in the '96 race, as I would have likely been unable to out-kick her at the finish), and for years I claimed that I had run two marathons in the same day--my first and my last.

I actually began my running career back in 1983, when I decided to go out for track at my high school (where I now coach).  The logic was simple: I weighed 105 lbs and was nearsighted and clumsy, and the track team didn't cut anybody.  I started off as a very bad distance runner, gradually grew into a good-but-not-great sprinter (by tiny private school standards), and began to think of myself as a runner.  In college I ran the intramural track meet twice, taking a pair of silvers in the 100 meter dash, and I occasionally went for a jog.  If I ran any races, there was no internet to record the times.  I know that I ran regularly when I was first married, and that I was just back from a great 5-mile run the morning that my wife told me we were going to have our first child (on our anniversary in 1993).  The day he was born, in spring of '94, I had to knock on my training partner's door at 5 AM to get back my wristwatch so I could time contractions, as I had left it on his end table the day before.  I began coaching at the very start of my teaching career in fall of '94, and ran with (even sometimes slightly ahead of) my team.  Following the marathon in '96, I have records of running several 10k races and half-marathons, but no log of the miles.  And starting in 1998, I began recording every run in a "training log" that came free with my paid subscription to Runner's World.

Since then, I have recorded every step.  There is only one calendar month without an entry--July of 2005, when my family traveled 7000 miles in an RV.  We saw 22 states in 31 days, and I never went for a run.  It's the only regret I have about the entire trip.  I've even scheduled a surgery around runs so as to avoid taking another "zero month" in my log.  As I told one of the athletes on my team just yesterday who was complaining about being "out of shape," I have not been truly "out of shape" in nearly 20 years.  Sometimes I've been in race shape, sometimes I've been in jogging shape, but there has never been a time during those years when I could not slip on a pair of shoes and run 3 miles at 8 minutes per mile--even if it would make me sore the next day.

But something is different now.  At age 30 and 31, I was in the best shape of my life, racing even faster than I had as a senior in high school.  (Incidentally, I also could bench press 50 lbs over my weight, also a personal best.)  Then, almost exactly as I turned 35, I started to slow down.  No matter how I trained, all I could seem to do was get worse and worse, and feel worse while doing it.  I went several years without racing at all, because I found the results depressing.  I got a new lease on life when I discovered the WAVA (World Association of Veteran Athletes) age-graded tables (originally actual tables written on paper, now an online calculator), which allows runners over 30 to "convert" their race times to their equivalents if run by runners in their physical prime.  Last fall, I was pretty psyched that I ran an age-adjusted PR (Personal Record) in a local 5k road race. 

BUT. That doesn't change the fact that, without those tables to give me the "woulda-coulda-shoulda" conversion, I'm never going to really get faster again.  I'm going to keep on training, just to slow down the inevitable decline.  My two training partners are both much younger (12 and 15 years--one of whom I actually coached in high school).  We're doing the same sorts of workouts.  We're all getting in shape.  But the separation is becoming more and more evident.  We'll all run the same workout, we'll all feel equally good (or bad), but I'm slowest.  I'm always slowest.  And I'm only going to get slower.  The tables don't help with that.  There's no online conversion that says, "I really would have kicked your butt today if I were 28 or you were 43" when at the end of a hard day the other guy is pulling away and you are gassed.

In the end, though, fighting the decline is preferable to giving up.  I hope I can still be doing this far enough in the future to fairly compare my 43-year-old times with my young friends, even if I'll be an even slower 58 by then.  The one bright spot of all of this is that my first marathon was so very bad that I can still run a true PR, even though on paper I should be almost 12 minutes slower.

18 weeks.