I missed my calling. Or, you might say I never found a way to parley a childhood avocation into a vocation. And no, I’m not talking about my interest in running–not yet, anyway. As a child, I had a thing—a big thing—for geography, cartography and exploration. On every family trip, I played, from the earliest age, the role of navigator, sometimes taking advantage of my uncontested position and my parents’ distractedness to recommend the “scenic route” as a secret means of slaking my thirst for adventure. “Aren’t we there yet?” was a question frequently put to me, turning the usual order of things on its head. In the days before the GPS, I was a global positioning ragamuffin.
The title to the next chapter of this narrative might sound familiar: “When I became a man, I put away childish things.” Aside from a few college courses in geography, I followed the advice that Jim Carey’s character in the Truman Show would not: “I’m afraid no one’s going to pay you to [be an explorer], Truman. You might have to find something a little more practical. Besides, you’re too late. There’s really nothing left to explore.”
Except that there is something left to explore. Plenty of somethings, in fact. And some age-regressed part of me never needed to be reminded of it. What I needed was an excuse to liberate my wanderlust, a way to tie it to some more practical pursuit. That came at 35, with another awakening. Was it a sublimated desire to blaze trails that led me to running? Or was it a happy coincidence that running paired so perfectly with my fondness for the expeditioner’s art? I suppose it doesn’t matter. What matters is that, once again, running was there to show the way. Not that I realized my good fortune immediately. In the beginning I was too concerned with the workings of my changing body to take much notice of where I was. There was also a new social landscape—the running culture–to map and to navigate. It’s probably no coincidence that at about the time I had, by frequent expeditions (or races, as we runners know them) mapped my own physical frontiers, I began to give into the urge to scratch a new–and at the same time old–itch. This came a few years into my running journey. At first timidly, I began increasingly to yield to my impulse to run beyond my usual neighborhood routes or the nearest high school track. At about this time, I was goaded on by two further developments: firstly, a move from the Denver suburbs of my youth to the ponderosa pine/scrub oak-studded foothills of Northern El Paso County; and secondly, the widespread availability of GPS sports watches, making it possible to measure runs on “trails” that often appeared on no map.
But it would still be years before I would consider myself a bona fidetrail runner, logging the majority of my miles over challenging and sparsely-trafficked terrain. This shift didn’t come without growing pains. I had to survive many embarrassing faceplants (mostly before the eyes of my dog and no one else) before learning to lift my feet high enough to clear rocks and exposed tree roots. I had to plummet headlong into stands of eye-impaling scrub oak (when sunglasses become safety goggles) before establishing proper boundaries against gravity’s seductive wiles. Scree and ice were foils for all seasons. And I had to get lost in the gloaming a few times while I scraped the rust off my boyhood knack for orienteering. Then there was the matter of outfitting and planning. In terms of challenge, the shift from road running to trail running represented an additional dimension. Like the character A Square in the geometry primer/novella Flatland, I was learning to think in three dimensions. But unlike the heretical A Square, I was in good company. Trail running and trail racing was experiencing its own vertiginous ascent, gaining, by frequent media exposure, a heady popularity. And why not? Sure it’s a little riskier than two-dimensional running. There are wild animals (yes, I have seen a mountain lion), ankle-twisting hazards, and the prospect of cloud-bursts without a sheltering eve in sight. But if ever there were a master key to a hundred secret gardens, it is the trail that one is running for the first time. And in the likely event that that trail should come to a fork, odds are good that the tine one takes will return eventually as the tine one didn’t take, occasioning on this day no Robert Frost-like regret over one’s not taking both.
Running is sometimes touted as the “Fountain of Youth.” Five hundred years after the legend of Ponce De Leon, we understand that, to varying degrees, all such platitudinous claims are suspect. We may run faster than anyone our age has a right to run, but that’s about it. Or is it? Simply put, scientific studies repeatedly demonstrate that runners enjoy lower mortality rates, and slower rates of age-related brain shrinkage than non-runners. Reared on the lofty promises of tall tales (the infomercials of his day), Ponce would probably be underwhelmed by the understated findings of modern gerontology. But we runners know a good (and true) thing when we see it. Still, the scientific literature isn’t telling the whole story. Which is why I brought up my own.
We are likely to be reminded of running’s payouts every time our doctor gives us the good news. But it is running’s intangible assets by which we should be most heartened. As we age, our culture is very good—too good, in fact–at reminding us of our dwindling bone density, range of motion, testosterone and muscle mass. What it is not so good at drawing attention to is the shrinking sense of wonder that is apt (for cultural more than natural reasons, I think) to beset us in middle age, inclining us to pass, for the rest of our earthly tenure, on paths less traveled. Running flies in the face of all of this ill wind. What is running, if not child’s play? And why do children love to run? Because they can, of course. But also to get to wherever it is they are going that much faster. And why should they want to do that? To get to the next “wherever” faster. And so it goes. These frenetic and at the same time formless perambulations are, literally, embodiments of the sense of wonder.
As ageing runners we are at our best in those stretches when we lose track of the “why” of the thing, and are aware only of the “where” of it. Running a trail for the first time just to see where it goes (let that sink in) is—aside from running for one’s life–the purest form of running. That makes it the purest form of enjoyable running, anyway. In such moods, we might yet “see” cloud animals swimming, lumbering or slithering along our blue zodiac. Or the profiles of our folk heroes in the rocks we pass with a sidelong glance. These, to say nothing of the treefolk, are a trailrunner’s imaginary friends. Hours later we might, if we like, analyze our run’s data downloaded from our TomToms. We might also trace our steps on a topographical map. These activities too are child’s play, come to think of it. To enter the magical realms of Narnia one passed through a secret door in a wardrobe, but only if one were sufficiently young. Running is no less a door to youthful adventure, on whose threshold ageism holds no sway.
The Pokemon Go phenomenon (which already has that “so last year” feel) is aimed at having us play our way to fitness. Except that it is superfluous. Who would follow an anime critter, when there are real ones to see? For my part, I’ll follow my dog to fitness–and if he happens to be giving chase to a rabbit or a deer, so much the better.
The man or woman who grows up without growing old is an accomplished funambulist–a master of the sociogerontological tight rope. The perfect balance between age-appropriate maturity and a childlike joie de vivre leads to graceful aging. Who says one has to walk that tightrope? See you on the other side.