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?

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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).

Schooled (The Long Run 2011 May)

Little girl 1T minus 4 minutes and counting. Time to toe the line. In most races my “line” is somewhere in the second or third row, behind young men and women in team singlets and racing flats so loud as to violate noise ordinances in neighboring jurisdictions. And then there’s the kids: those pre-pubescent Prefontaines and Paula Radcliffes whose parents are calling for them from the back row, unaware that their little overachiever has apparently been spending recess training with a college track team. Kids in the front row of grown-up races are kids about to get schooled.

For my part, I’ve never reveled in tutoring the Nickelodeon crowd. They just happen to be in my way…by the quarter mile mark. It’s about then their hatchling bodies stop running on enthusiasm and Lucky Charms and they start looking green from all that humble pie they’re eating. You can’t help but smile at their opening brazenness. The first two minutes of the race will cut them down to size (as if a four foot tall body should ever need that)…until the next race. But eventually their judgment will solidify, like some late-hardening cranial suture.

Anyway, it’s t minus 2 minutes and counting. I size up the competition. What’s this? Another four-and-a-half foot interloper. But this isn’t just any lost child. This one has a two-foot-long blond pony tail. Oh, what I failed to say before is that these fledgling Roger Bannisters are almost invariably male. Boys will be boys, but girls usually won’t be, um, boys.

T minus one minute. The boys aren’t budging from the front row. Neither is the girl. This is her story and apparently she‘s sticking with it. Another child casualty. I imagine how those New Balance and Asics tracks are going to look on her clean t-shirt.

Ten, nine, eight….hands are poised on watches…seven, six, five…nervous glances are exchanged…four, three, two, one…mayhem! It took until 1954 for a human to run a four minute mile. And judging by the first few seconds of this race, 30 of us are going to run one today. I wonder whether anyone called the folks at Guinness? A minute into the race and the four or five runners who look like they actually might run a four minute mile are in the lead, untouchable as always. And right behind them are (you guessed it) the kids. Already one can see their form faltering, arms windmilling, steps making a racket like snowshoes on asphalt. For them, the finish line is less then a track-length away. Sure, many of them will finish the actual race (a 5k), having fallen in with Mom or Dad somewhere along the way, but their opening speed has been significantly checked, halved and halved again. A minute and 30 seconds into the race and three little guys are in my rear-view mirror. A minute more and it’ll be a big-kids-only race. The next kids I’ll see will be pocketing extra bagels at the post-race carb-load. Three minutes into the race and the casualty roll is complete: seven little boys sent to the back of the line. The coast is clear. Just me and the open road and that pack of runners up ahead. That’s where I need to be. With my first real effort of the race, I close the gap. Before I know it I’m in the wind-shadow of a half-dozen male and female runners who had lined up near me at the start, all of them over 5-and-a-half feet tall. I judge that I can take this pack, and when I do an unexpected sight greets me: ten yards ahead is a blond ponytail, no longer hanging but streaming behind a diminutive female athlete in a clean t-shirt. No tread marks. I worriedly check my GPS sportswatch. I’m at the appointed place at the appointed time. It’s she who’s out of place.

Undaunted, I marshal my resolve to pass her. What else can I do? I have to remedy this situation before the first water stop. My wrap-around shades won’t give me the kind of anonymity I’ll be needing if something doesn’t change…in a hurry. (It doesn’t occur to me at the time that all the pride I’m lugging might actually be weighing me down.) Water stop one. There’s Gatorade. What kid can pass up Gatorade, right? Wrong. She glides right through. What’s wrong with this kid—other than the fact that she’s making me look bad? Whatever happened to respecting one’s elders? There are runners in front of us and a lot of runners behind, but no one else matters. I’m sure she knows I’m there; my labored breathing has denied me the element of surprise. Whatever her race goals were, I’ll wager she’s ditched them now, all so she can make me look bad. I’m sure of it. Or is it that I vanquished her dad once and now she’s out to avenge his memory? Water stop two. I’m ten paces behind. She gets an ovation. I get…wait, did someone just throw something at me? This is shaping up to be the worst day of my life. Finishing chute. The moment of truth. How much muscle power can that 70 pound frame pack? There’s no way the girl can have a finishing kick. I bring mine on, such as it is. Too late. My timing is off. I finish two feet behind that blond ponytail.

If it’ll save my pride, I’ll swear that was the fastest an 11 year old girl ever ran a 5k. I’d prove it, but nobody thought to call the folks at Guinness that day.

(Epilogue: This race took place in approximately 2003. In 2013, Jen Bremser–the owner of the blond ponytail–ran a 16:48 5k as a track & field star for Air Force Academy. Somehow knowing this makes me feel better.)

bremser