Category Archives: running

70 is not quite the new 50

(Here is an old-man adventure that was chronicled in Newsday….)

Just to be clear: I did not attempt running the May 7 Long Island Half-Marathon—13.1 miles—as some death-defying challenge at 70. Risk does not appeal to me, which explains why I never considered celebrating my septuagenarian situation by climbing Mount Everest (fear of heights) or swimming the English Channel (fear of pruney bathtub skin).

Furthermore, in the words of the late George Sheehan—a cardiologist who became a philosopher of the recreational running movement 40 years ago—I have the pain threshold of a firm handshake. I am opposed to torture in all its forms.

So let me report that I did not suffer. Unless one considers the uncomfortable realization that with age comes a significant fading of muscle memory. Leg oldsheimer’s. What took me an hour and 36 minutes when I was 39; what took me an hour and 48 minutes when I was 49 (the last time I attempted the distance); required, on this occasion, two hours, 35 minutes and 41 seconds.

But I will argue that it’s possible to have a good time without having a good time. And I will submit that it is crucial to have a patient wife. Though Donna freely volunteered to be my pre- and post-race valet and to observe my start and finish, I was fully aware that she was due at work a mere four hours after the starting gun. And the clock was ticking.

She had convinced me to buy a $20 pouch for my iPhone, strapped to my bicep, which gave us a lifeline in case of emergency. Turned out that I didn’t die, but her phone did.

And…where was I? Oh, yes. Why?

I’ve asked other runners, of all ages and stations in life, that question—not just about attempting the marathon or half-marathon, but also about putting in the daily mileage necessary to safely attempt them. It’s the challenge, they say. It’s the internal struggle, as opposed to trying to beat the other guy. It’s a great escape from more important things in life. It’s a way to get out of the house.

Also: Why not?

This was not a bucket-list thing. I was in my late 20s when I joined the running boom, a program already in progress, and set about proving (to myself) that I was a “legitimate” runner by twice finishing full 26.2-mile marathons. Then came eight half-marathons, my last one in 1996.

What ended the habit of entering such events was the rigmarole of paying entry fees, fighting crowds, traveling to races, fitting them into work and family schedules. And: Been there, done that. But I remained hooked on the addiction of a daily, leisurely run, and somehow got the notion in February that I should try the half-marathon again. Because it was there, I guess.

The new dare was accepting that I am an old retired guy. On Social Security and Medicare. With a pre-existing condition: moderately severe lead-footedness. I never have been especially fast, and I had to prepare myself psychologically for the fact that many people—not necessarily younger than I—would be passing me along the way.

Chugging along, I had an ideal view of the backs of many, many fellow participants. But, once past the first two miles, fighting to warm up in the chilly winds, things went as well as could be expected. Spectators scattered along the course were exceptionally kind, many offering the standard “looking good” evaluation even for those of us who, I strongly suspect, were not.

In taking constant readings throughout the 13.1 miles, I was encouraged by the lack of alarming signals like balking knees, sore shins or aching Achilles, and was maintaining roughly the same pace as my daily 5- and 6-mile ramblings. I quite enjoyed again being in such a pedestrian celebration, laying down all those non-carbon footprints.

In the end, the greatest danger might have been the bag of munchies handed out to all finishers. Along with a healthy banana, there was a processed bagel, donut, muffin and cookie with frightening levels of carbohydrates, sugar and calories. After being whisked home by Donna on her way to work, I settled for handfuls of almonds and a bag of M&Ms (peanut). Coffee and plenty of water.

I had finished 1,768th in a field of 2,073 and think I detected a chortle in Donna’s voice: “You only beat 305 people!?”

Except, in my age group (male, 70 to 74), I was 10th of 18. The senior discount.

Streaking

 

According to the U.S. Running Streak Association, I have just become an “experienced” runner. That is how the organization—to which I have not paid the annual $20 dues and therefore am not a member—classifies people who have run “at least one continuous mile within each calendar day under one’s own body power” for at least 10 years.

If I were a USRSA member, I would be ranked 156th in the country. Which isn’t bad as long as one doesn’t consider that the longest unbroken streak—as of Dec. 13, 2016—is 17,369 days, or 47.55 years. That belongs to a fellow named Jon Sutherland, listed on the USRSA Web site as 66 years old, a writer from West Hills, Calif., whose circadian habit was the subject of a 2015 CBS Evening News report.

I have crunched the numbers. For me to rise to No. 1 on the list (which is available at runeveryday.com), the 155 folks ahead of me would have to take a day off—not bloody likely—and I would have to persist in pounding the pavement every day until I am 107 years old. (Plus, I’d have to start paying that yearly $20 fee.)

But that’s not the goal, any more than brushing my teeth every morning for the next 37-plus years is. It’s just custom now.

It wasn’t until my mid-20s that I was moved to attempt occasional jogs, mostly after a colleague greeted me one day with, “Welcome to Fat City,” and partly because my newspaper assignments included coverage of elite track and field meets. I often was surrounded by people giddy about physical activity, just as the running boom began to spread beyond accomplished athletes to everyday citizens.

So I joined the program already in progress.

By the time I had lined up a series of interviews with 1972 Olympic marathon champion Frank Shorter at his Boulder, Colo., home in early ’76, I was fit enough—barely—to join Shorter on the first three miles of his 10-mile afternoon run, which had followed his 10-mile morning run. He generously (and drastically) slowed his pace, until I went into oxygen debt and watched him disappear over the horizon.

But the thing about running is that you trundle around for a while, begin to feel the mental and physical benefits and, before you know it, you’re hooked.

“It is an addiction,” 2004 Olympic marathon silver medalist Meb Keflezighi told me recently. “If you miss a day or get injured—elite athletes get it, others get it—you don’t feel good.” Mary Wittenberg, who was race director of the New York City Marathon for 10 years, argued that running “is not a sport you dabble in. The more you do it, the easier it gets.”

(Finishing the 1978 Long Island Marathon, with Pete Alfano)

My two marathons are now decades in the past, and I no longer am interested in knowing how fast I’m going. (More accurately, how slow.) But, somehow, the two or four days off per month, through some 30 years of loping and rambling and trotting, disappeared as well. I went for a leisurely 5-mile run on Dec. 13, 2006 and haven’t missed a day since, putting me in the company of those listed by the USRSA. There are dietitians, teachers, attorneys, salespeople, bankers, coaches, landscapers, pastors, photographers, journalists, nurses, engineers, accountants, concert pianists…all manner of humans.

And all, apparently, are carriers of what Shorter has called “the disease of running,” which he once described as a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

“Oh, yeh, you’re OCD,” Shorter confirmed to me during a chat in 2012. “You’re just channeling it. I think some people are born with a need to move and a need to exercise. And it doesn’t go away. So why fight it? You’re lucky.”

One of the New York City Marathon’s marketing pitches was its Run for Life “manifesto,” calling on all citizens to “run for the rush, run to be strong, run off dessert, run to like yourself better in the morning, run to keep your thighs from rubbing together, run because endorphins are better than Botox, run to sweat away your sins, run so bullies can never catch you, run with your thoughts, run your troubles the hell out of town…”

A morning ramble gets the show on the road. It guarantees that something has been accomplished that day. It makes the breakfast Cheerios taste better. Even if, at 3,654 consecutive days, I still am 196 days short of my wife’s daily streak of brisk walks (which are fast approaching my running pace), I feel as if I’m getting somewhere.