Are Two-Faced Runners Pulling A Fast One?

old+runnersLike flotsam that won’t go out to sea, vinyl LPs are back again whether we like it or not. And they’re not the only throwback performing improbably well these days. With a pair of running shoes and Internet access, jogging boomers are too. With Al Gore’s “invention” at their fingertips, the results page of the next masters track meet can be rewritten to read like Fast Times At Ridgemont High. Stay with me, and I’ll explain.

As an unapologetic runner, I’m not usually quick to cast a cold eye on my sport and on those who fill out its roster, but in this uncharacteristic essay I see that an ego-salving practice takes its share of heat. If you’ve ever participated in roasting an old friend, you’ll know how to take this piece: with more than a grain of salt in the baste.

Making aging boomers feel better about aging is more than a cottage industry in Western culture. Peer into the driver’s seat of a Western nation’s economy, and you’ll see who’s well-heeled foot is on the accelerator: a graying boomer who’s forgotten to switch the turn-signal off. From sports cars to cosmetic surgery, boomers refuse to go gentle into that good night. And why should they when they’ve got the clout and the capital to keep turning the tables to whatever side suites them best?

The aging are quick to remind us that age is just a number. And in the case of aging runners, they hasten to add that it’s actually two numbers. One of these numbers–their age-adjusted time–has literally been calculated to make them feel better about aging. And again, why not? If boomers invented the jogging boom to stay young, is it any wonder that it’s still keeping them artificially ageless today? Jogging seemed innocent enough. Who knew it was really a Patrick Nagel-esque portrait of Dorian Gray fabricated to absorb year upon year of entropy while joggers in striped knee-socks project (or at least harbor) the illusion of conserving energy like some perpetual-motion machine they bought at The Sharper Image?

Age-adjusted times have become the funny money of the running world. It’s the idealized portrait that gives the counterfeit away. What began as an algorithm in the brains of white-coated sports science wizards has become common coin on a dozen Web calculators. For Me generation runners, the best weapon in the war against aging may be to keep denying it–even when the writing is on the wall (or wherever a given race’s results are posted). The next best weapon may be having recourse to a number that makes that denial plausible. Who needs cosmetic operations when arithmetic operations cost nothing and carry no risk of infection?

For the runner not yet in his or her second childhood, I’ll explain how it works: a 65-year-old man runs a 10k in 50:00, and the calculator tells him it’s like a 30-year-old man’s running a 10k in 38:27. A sub-40 minute 10k! Go figure. As running super foods go, I’ll put cooked data up against chia seeds any day of the week.

Here’s an additional example. At her present age of 62, race bandit Rosie Ruiz would need to run a time of 3:33:36 to match her 1980 Boston Marathon “winning” time of 2:31:56. I’ll bet that even with the aid of age-adjusting, she’d still need a lift.

Imagine what would happen if the majority of races began adopting an age-adjusted format. With an age-adjusted time following one’s name, it would be hard not to cut a fine figure. But this bonfire of the vanities could have an unintended victim. With age-adjusted times, age-group awards would become moot, signaling hard times ahead for the plastic trophy industry. If a 59-year-old’s age-adjusted 16:15 5k (a very respectable 20:02 in reality) is better than a 26-year-old’s actual 16:20 5k, the 59-year-old “wins” the race outright, never mind that the 59-year-old was too far behind the 26-year-old to see him finish. (I knew there had to be a practical use for imaginary numbers.) Three trophies for each gender, and race announcers could stop going hoarse calling out 30 names, half of which they’ll never be able to pronounce.

It used to be thought that nothing short of cryonics would enable a man to run a 4:30 mile in 1982 and again in 2015. That was before boomers discovered the one weird trick to running faster: live long enough and any mile you can slog through is world class. Doesn’t this make some centuries-old Methuselah, and not Roger Bannister, the first sub 4-minute miler?

old-woman-yong-woman-optical-illusionAnother way to look at age-adjusted times is to envision the famous ambiguous line-drawing that represents either the portrait of a young or of an aged woman depending on one’s viewpoint. Once a brain has learned to see both faces, it may switch from the old to the young and back again with ease. But why would it want to?

If I’ve been a little hard on boomers, I have an excuse. You see, I myself am approaching the age where, I’m told, I can get away with more. And now it’s time to fess up. I’ve used the age-adjusted calculator. Stick with running long enough and you will too. Heck, stick with running long enough, and your “29 and holding” will break the calculator! Flattery may not get flatterers everywhere, but it may get aging runners to keep lacing up. Eventually the sobering numbers may find every running lifer reaching for something with which to spike his drink; think of it as a little splash to keep the cocktail party interesting as the evening winds down.

Before getting the hang of it, an age-adjusted runner may feel like Alice in the Red Queen’s race. “Here,” the Red Queen says, “it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” Run as hard as one can for decades, and one’s age-adjusted times remain roughly the same. Or do they? In the past 12 years, this aging runner has lost a little over a minute in the 5k. And at the same time, using the age-adjusted calculator, I’ve “gained” a minute at the same distance. How’s that for saving face? And how’s that even possible? It looks like someone thought to slip the Ghost of Christmas Future into the machine. Maybe jogging boomers planned the calculator to be a kind of time capsule, a medium through which to reconnect with hopes they deferred while Cocoon was playing to packed theaters. Who said the aging population doesn’t know how to use the Internet?

To loosely paraphrase Mark Twain and Benjamin Disraeli, there are lies, damn lies, and age-adjusted times. Even octogenarian running phenomenon Ed Whitlock, whose age-adjusted times place him on par with the world’s best marathoners, is on record as saying that he suspects there’s something wrong with the age-adjusted tables.

Defenders of the calculator tell me that while spending a good portion of the past 12 years running, I’ve improved my running economy. (Weren’t we saying something like that about the Ford Pinto just before it was recalled?) It’s going to take a better argument than that to buy off the skeptic in me. Calculating equivalent times as a thought experiment to amuse oneself and one’s running buddies is one thing, but parleying them into a token of running “progress” veers uncomfortably close to pulling a fast one.

What the age-adjusted calculator does is create a pocket universe of decreasing entropy in a real universe where things, as a matter of course, fall apart (resulting in the sort of paradox that Doctor Who wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot sonic screwdriver). In thermodynamics, the lost entropy always creates chaos somewhere else; it’s the law (think of Dorian’s ageless low entropy and of the accumulating havoc wreaked on his portrait). But where, in the case of an “improving” age-adjusted runner, does the chaos end up?

Could it be that while we’re running “better” than we did in 1982, the truth is taking a beating?

Because It’s Here (appeared in The Good Men Project, June, 22, 2015)

ManRunningNearMountainsThe longer one runs, the more fluent one becomes in the use of its spare language. Whether rooted in English, Tarahumaran or Kalenjin, running talk does not usually hold audience with conundrums; it answers most puzzles by earnestly suggesting, what else but a run? Between runners, all of this passes for shorthand; as long as there are routes and races to run, it matters little to us whether there is a translatable answer to the question most frequently put to us by non-runners: in a word, “Why?”Asked why he cared to climb Mount Everest, George Mallory famously answered, “Because it’s there.” With those three words he became a poet of mountaineering and of all sports; wisely, he answered the question with a clever dodge; he let the mountain speak to the mystery. He needed only to allude to the famous pinnacle, nature’s ultimate pièce de résistance, and others were able to form a clear mental picture of the thing he hungered to overcome, whether or not they cared to add its overcoming to their own bucket lists. Had he any words to add to his perfect utterance, the result would have been a subtraction.

But utramarathons, marathons, 10ks and neighborhood routes are not “there” in the same sense that Everest is, as a conspicuous, imposing terrestrial feature calling out to some universally human (if latent) spirit of adventure. The proving grounds of the runner are human inventions superimposed on a neutral geography, a compact agreed on by us and our GPSs or a few race marshals.

Yet make no mistake: there is a mountain. For each runner the contour lines and stratigraphy differ. Though the runner’s obstacles exist mostly in the realms of metaphor, they are in the end no less real than Mallory’s mountain. For some there is an encircling range, the ascent of which is the sole means of escape from poverty and prospects best described as mean, brutish and short. One hears this in the interviews of the Kenyan and Ethiopian athletes who have, against all odds, clambered up a steep path that carried them through a narrow pass and down a leeward side. This seems appropriate somehow for a people who occupy—literally–the Great Rift Valley. Others have it more like Rasselas, the story-book prince whose only release from a life of courtly extravagance and unwholesome entertainments lay beyond the earthly ramparts insulating the Utopian valley of his boyhood. Picture Bruce Dern, gifted actor and fortunate son, with his streak of 17 years of daily running to blunt the toxicity of Hollywood’s fickle fame and a decade’s-long Vicodin addiction.

To each his own mountain, raised from unseen forces and pressures, formed of what complex aggregates others may only imagine. The bedrock is laid early. Assay the runner’s psyche and read his history in the strata. And don’t be surprised to unearth a skeleton or two. Who can know the story of Billy Mills and not know in his heart that it was the catastrophic tectonics of cultures in collision that raised the mountain up which he had to run? During a harangue by his college coach over a disappointing race, the fiery half Oglala Lakota Sioux Indian with the “white man’s haircut” is reported to have shot back, “What half do you suppose lost today?” We may be sure that Mills stood atop much more than three podium steps when, in 1964, he was awarded the U.S.’s first 10,000 meter Olympic Gold in one of running’s greatest upsets. The mountain wouldn’t come to Billy, so Billy went to the mountain.

Of our uplands, the greater part perhaps is rooted in accidents of our prehistory: the where and the when into which we are born, the lot we draw at birth, including the industrial diseases that are now part of the modern runner’s inheritance. A part too is owing to the accretions of our personal history. One feels this in ultra-runner Jenn Shelton’s confession, “I started running ultras to become a better person. I thought that if you ran 100 miles you’d be in this Zen state…It didn’t work in my case—I’m the same old punk-ass as before—but there’s always that hope that it will turn you into the person you want to be…”
Yes, there’s always hope; flowers are usually rooted in dirt, after all. But how long must we run the mountain before we realize that the mountain is us and that we have only to get out of our own way? Because its location in the psyche conforms to no point on a topographical map, there’s no telling the miles we’ll need to log before we may tag its summit. We haven’t the perspective to triangulate its true distance from us, and to know whether or not the summit we think we see is false.

Surely our mountains are made of more than molehills, but of what exactly? Only a great deal of digging will bring such facts fully to light: The names we were told could never hurt us, the insults added to injury, the hats we didn’t throw into the ring, the towels we did; and so much else that, by way of consolation, we convinced ourselves was immaterial. (No amount of EVA foam will fully shield our thin skin from the jagged memories that underlie these cushy figures of speech. This is the job of callouses.) Here too is all that we repressed and sublimated; all that emasculated, dehumanized or disempowered us; the prognoses and prognostications we couldn’t abide; the anti-depressants and statins we refused to take. Sleep, science tells us, cleans the machinery of our brains, but there are dustbins nearer the soul that its nocturnal housekeeping never touches. Neglected, the overspill may rise so high as to throw menacing shadows and summon storm clouds to its heights. Against these, we must add our day labor. These piles we may never disperse; but by years of sweat and by the counting of mile markers, we may rise above them. This is but one way of overcoming: the runner’s way.

Do we doubt that a figment of the mind has influence enough to call a body to run? How common is running in dreams? So common that even our dogs do it. Sometimes the illusion is so vivid that a body actually becomes involved in the running dream. The crux of running’s enigma is that others see only the running but not the thing being run. No wonder they’re confounded.

To run is to invite accusations that we are running from something. That, I think, is a weak light in which to view our striving. We runners are not so passive, not so reflexive. We run up and over mountains, never mind that we may be the ones who’ve put them there. We know that mountains do not give chase; they stand in our way.

So what’s at the top, anyway? First, there’s the view, the wide sunny prospect that allows one to finally see where one came from and where one might go next. Second, there’s a descent. There is, in every great running story, a watershed, after which it is clear to all that, whether the hero runs faster or slower or not at all, he no longer grinds against the weight of the world. From here, he may run on to new vistas, or retrace his steps home. Having run with a heavy heart for three years, two months, fourteen days and sixteen hours, Forrest Gump suddenly stops and declares to his assembled acolytes: “I’m pretty tired. Think I’ll go home now.” A flat desert road on a day of no particular importance: this was the appointed time and place for Forrest to get to tell it on the mountain.

Whether tomorrow or a month from tomorrow, we’re sure to hear the words, “Why do you want to run that marathon? That treadmill? That track? That whatever?” We might just shrug and invite our questioner to join us. But if we’re feeling chatty that day, we might invoke the spirit of Mallory and answer (with an inward pointing gesture), “Because it’s here.

Forrest-Gump (1)

Because It’s Here may also be read in The Good Men Project, June, 22, 2015.

Running the Five & Dimes (The Long Run 2011 Dec)

5kDriving home from work several months ago, I found myself trailing a car sporting an innocuous little bumper sticker. In contrast to so many of today’s bumper stickers, there was nothing inflammatory about this one: a bordered oval framing the numbers 26.2. I’d like to boast that I had its meaning in an instant, but, embarrassingly, I had to turn it over a while in my mind–long after that car had turned off–as if it were some cipher worthy of my utmost concentration. Then, somewhere on the drive between Uintah and Fillmore, it came to me: Pheidippides and his fabled run from Marathon to Athens, his resulting death, the 1896 Summer Olympics, a race held in Boston in 1897, and 150 costumed Elvises (Elvi if we’re being grammatical) running 26.2 miles in Las Vegas. (And by the way, I have always wondered whether Pheidippides died from battle wounds or from the rigors of having just run the mother of all marathons; Herodotus was none too clear in translation.) To a small—but growing–sliver of the general population, 26.2 needs no introduction, and no explanation. It is the secret handshake of a fraternity, a sign understood if not by all then by all who matter. Ever since that first sighting, I see 26.2 everywhere: on the posteriors of jeeps, bugs, and minivans; on notebooks, laptops and guitar cases. I remain, however, on the lookout for my first 3.1 (5k) or 6.2 (10k). Maybe some brave soul reading this piece ought to start a trend.

26.2 is a natural buzzword (buzznumber?) for the marathoner; it is, after all, the statistic that defines his or her athletic event of choice. But here’s a question. Is 26.2 on its way to becoming the very emblem of the runner in general? If a vehicle sports a 3.1, 6.2 or even a 13.1 (half marathon) bumper sticker, is its driver relegated to some lower rung of the aerobic ladder, pitied as one who looks up in sycophantic admiration at the 26.2 rung, aspiring to someday arrive, to someday be a “runner” with all the requisite bragging rights? Would one who bravely—or naively–advertised so trifling a number as 3.1 or 6.2 be thought a neophyte, an amateur, a dabbler or, worse yet, a jogger? And would he or she be passed without a friendly beep or a knowing nod by the driver whose bumper boasts a weighty 26.2? In a supersized culture where bigger is assumed better, tall is the new small, Pluto has been demoted to a dwarf planet, and English mastiffs are trending, has the marathon become the litmus test for passage into runninghood? Is the marathon the aerobic watershed that parts the wannabe from the genuine article? Is 26.2 the thresher for winnowing the weekend warrior’s chafe from the devotee’s grain? (Did I say it was an innocuous little bumper sticker?) Have we come to a place where a runner isn’t really a runner without having reached for the Bodyglide and made the 26.2 mile pilgrimage? I fear that the marathon is becoming to running what Mensa is to intelligence. If so, even the marathoner must ultimately concede to the ultramarathoner, whose sport is in the throes of its exponential growth phase.

Say that I’m stirring up a tempest in a teacup, if you must, but I think there’s something slightly sinister—ok, very slightly sinister in the scheme of sinister things—about the confidence of 26.2’s voice and the comparative muteness of distances that dare not speak their name. To me it hints of number worship, and, dare I say, a budding elitism. To counter, what do you say we show 3.1 and 6.2 some love? There is and will always be great value in running the five & dimes, as I collectively call them. Not that there is anything wrong with marathons and ultramarathons and the milephiles (you heard it here first) who run them. There are many constitutions and characters ideally suited to these great distances, many minds salved by the meditative effects of running in excess of three hours, many dollars raised for charities, and many selves actualized in the wearing of a finishing medal upon completion of a 26.2, 50 or 100 mile event. All running is good, right? But there are many more constitutions and psyches for which less is not less but just right. Individuals seeking life balance may train for and run the five & dimes–even at very competitive levels—while saving ample time for family, career, travel, education, volunteerism, and diverse athletic and creative hobbies. For parents, the 5k race is a perfect means of introducing children to running and racing; such races make ideal Saturday-morning family outings with health benefits for all (not just the runner on a 26.2 mile quest). Like a marathon, a 5k or 10k race promises an elated finish, social bonding opportunities, and a chance to give to community charities (and to get a cool t-shirt). But unlike a marathon, a recreational 5k or 10k race can be run well on 40 or fewer weekly training miles. This is perfect for runners whose injury thresholds are crossed before the 40 mile mark. For runners who experience compromised immunity, burnout or injury on anything more than 40 miles per week, the marathon just doesn’t make sense. But running—and racing-still does. And there’s even something for the competitor in the five & dime venue: the quest for personal records at shorter distances includes all the athletic legitimacy (and all the health benefits) of pushing the distance envelope. And if you miss that personal 5k or 10k record this weekend, you can always get it the very next weekend. Try that with a marathon! (On second thought, please don’t).