If you run, you are a runner. It doesn’t matter how fast or how far. It doesn’t matter if today is your first day or if you’ve been running for twenty years. There is no test to pass, no license to earn, no membership card to get. You just run.
– John “The Penguin” Bingham
So far so good… lower body strong, upper body loose, stride fluid, breathing rhythmic, hands relaxed, man it’s warm today, run in the moment, focus on the now, don’t stress the later, hold that posture, own that pace, damn it’s warm today, train fast to race fast, you’ve got this, breathe in, breathe out, keep it up, keep it up, keep it –
It sounded almost apologetic. Forceful to be sure, yet oddly apologetic, this appeal that jarred me out of my mental cocoon, silencing my internal coach and interrupting the audiobook narrative playing in my earbuds. Now? questioned my startled brain, annoyed at its train of thought being so suddenly derailed. Really? I’d only completed 2-1/2 miles of my planned 15-mile “progressive” run, so-named because my pace would progressively quicken over the duration of the run.
Today’s progressive run called for five miles at an 8:00/mile pace, followed by five miles at a 7:45/mile pace, and finally five miles at a 7:30/mile pace… a challenging enough run without sunny skies and temperatures in the mid-70s (not accounting for humidity). I’d not even reached the beachfront yet, with roughly half a mile still to go past the upper-crust apartment buildings that line Via Marina. And already this new distraction?
Despite the prevalence of smartphones these days, people still stop me to ask for directions while I’m running. Normally they’ll pull over and flag me down from a car, though occasionally someone on the sidewalk will wave to get my attention. Maybe they figure I must know where I’m going, since I’m clearly in a hurry to get there. Or perhaps they think they’re doing me a favor by letting me stop to rest. Treadmill runners, this is one advantage I’ll concede to you – unless they’re after your phone number, nobody’s stopping you to ask for directions.
In any case, being stopped mid-run because someone can’t read a map is irritating. If you just woke up on the sidewalk with “Memento”-like amnesia, or if your infant child is stuck up in a tree, then I’m happy to stop and help. Otherwise, please consult one of the many other (casually strolling) individuals who are inevitably available to answer questions and point you in the right direction. Those white cords sprouting from both ears are the universal sign for “Me no talk now.”
But this time, I sensed as my brain reluctantly dragged my body to a sweaty halt – this time was different. Not only because of who had spoken, but because her follow-up question took me completely by surprise.
“Could you help me with my running?” asked the older woman smiling back at me from the sidewalk. “I’m sorry to stop you,” she continued, her voice like her face animated in apparent frustration. “I want to start running, but I’m doing it all wrong.”
I was taken aback – I might have been less surprised if she’d confessed to killing a man with a spoon. Admittedly, “glib” wouldn’t be among the top ten words I’d use to describe myself, so I spent the next several seconds grasping for words as I sized up both situation and speaker.
Despite the dark, rounded sunglasses that shielded her eyes and much of her face from the morning’s glare, my immediate impression was of a spry, recently anointed octogenarian with an easy smile. Copper-blonde hair peeked out in all directions from under a colorful head kerchief. Her casual, comfortable-looking marina gear included a lightweight, long sleeve navy blue blouse, simple beige slacks and white canvas shoes. Most striking was her pronounced New York City accent, a near-caricature that evoked childhood memories of Edith Bunker from the ‘70s TV show “All in the Family”. My overall sense was that among Father Time’s children, she must have been a favorite.
Time conquers all. But it doesn’t conquer all equally, and one reason why is running. Just ask Canadian distance runner Ed Whitlock. At an age when most people would be happy to make it out to the mailbox and back under their own power every morning, Whitlock continues to rewrite the running record books. At age 72, his 2:59:09 finish time at the 2003 Toronto Waterfront Marathon made him the first – and still the only – septuagenarian to run a marathon in less than three hours. He improved on that time one year later at age 73, running the same race in a mind-blowing 2:54:48, the current 70-and-over world record. And seven years later he was at it again, setting the marathon world record for octogenarians with a 3:15:54 finish in Toronto at age 80. Whitlock also holds a slew of indoor and outdoor track records, including a 5:41.80 mile in Ontario at age 75.
I’d give my brother’s right arm to be able to run either a 3:15:54 marathon or a 5:41.80 mile at any point in my life.
And apparently Whitlock isn’t fazed by the specter of his own mortality. He trains exclusively in a cemetery, running a paved 1/3-mile loop without any of the benefits that many runners now deem indispensable to their training – no coaches, training partners, massage therapists, nutritionists, specific diets, stretching exercises or weight training. He has professed to owning ten pairs of running shoes, which he said he alternates so they don’t wear out. By all indications, the shoes will wear out before the man does.
I may not be much of a running coach, but I’m a decent judge of people. And intuition told me my spirited new friend wasn’t a lonely senior citizen looking for companionship or an ear to bend. She seemed altogether lucid and genuinely concerned about… something. Could this really be about running?
She repeated her conviction, this time with a twist: “I know I’m doing it wrong, and” – she gestured palms-up with both hands to indicate the sweaty fellow standing in front of her – “you just look so fabulous!”
Clearly this woman knew her stuff. But sincere or no – and I had no legitimate reason to doubt her – I couldn’t deny her infectious energy. “Have you done any running?” I asked, easing into my sudden mentor status.
“I’ve done some walking, but everybody around here drives, and that’s just not good for me. So I want to start running, but I know I’m doing it wrong.”
I offered a couple of pointers to get her started: first, that she run with good posture – in response to which she stood erect and simulated a slow-motion running movement – and bent forward ever so slightly at the waist. Her hips, I explained, would be the engine powering the machine. Second, I suggested she use her arms in sync with her lower body to drive her forward progress. As I demonstrated by jogging a few steps, she burst out as if she’d had a bet riding on this, “I knew I was doing it wrong!”
Trying to ease her mind, I quickly explained that there are as many different body types and running techniques as there are runners. And I stressed that it was more important to run comfortably than to focus too much on “right” or “wrong” technique. As long as she took it slow (I assumed this wouldn’t be a problem) and didn’t try to do too much, she should be fine.
“How long have you been at this?” she asked, still smiling. I assumed she meant running, not offering questionable advice to strangers on the street. “Several years now,” I rounded off.
This answer seemed to jibe with her worldview, and she nodded. “How far should I go?”
I suggested she choose a nearby object – say maybe the street sign 20 yards ahead of us – then jog to that target (staying on the sidewalk, of course) and back again.
“What’s the difference between a run and a jog?”
Wow, she’s actually listening. By “jog,” I clarified, I meant a pace somewhere between a walk and a faster “run,” since it’s important to start slow and gradually build up speed over time.
“So I should jog there and back? I’ve been walking from the hotel, but I don’t know how far I should go.”
I reiterated that she should start by jogging to a nearby object – a street sign, a mailbox, a palm tree – and back, as many times as she felt comfortable. Then, after a few days of that, she should choose an endpoint slightly farther away and repeat the process, again based on her comfort level.
“So you think twice a day would be all right?” Sure, absolutely, if you’re comfortable with that and your body responds well.
“It still responds pretty well for 87!” she smiled brightly, straightening up and planting fists squarely on hips in her best superhero stance.
Now it occurred to me that I should probably be the one asking for advice.
If youth is wasted on the young, then our best bet is to avoid – or at least delay – getting old. This approach is embodied in the concept of healthspan.
Whereas lifespan – a term everyone knows – refers to how long a person lives, healthspan refers to how long a person lives in the best possible health. The word first landed on my radar during a March 2012 visit to The Buck Institute for Research on Aging. The Buck, an independent research institute in Novato, CA, is leading the way in its mission to demystify the aging process and extend healthspan. What struck me during my conversations with Buck scientists was their collective conviction that aging – and the chronic diseases of aging – are not necessarily inevitable side effects of living. For a (slightly) more scientific introduction to the importance of healthspan, check out PhD and Buck CEO Brian Kennedy’s recent TED talk below:
Studies from other groups support this seemingly heretical notion. In a 2004 study published in the journal Circulation, Dr. Benjamin Levine and colleagues at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas tested cardiac function in a group of endurance athletes with an average age of 68 who, like Ed Whitlock, had competed regularly since their 40s. Compared to sedentary individuals of comparable age, the heart muscles of the endurance group were more elastic and resisted shrinking, making them indistinguishable from a group of sedentary 29-year-olds tested in the same way. These findings led the authors to conclude that “prolonged, sustained endurance training preserves ventricular compliance (i.e. cardiac function) with aging and may help to prevent heart failure in the elderly.”
Similarly, James Fries and colleagues at Stanford University (arguably the greatest research institute in the world, ahem) published a 2008 study in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine, in which they tracked running frequency, disability and mortality in 538 runners and 423 “healthy control” individuals, aged 50 and older, over a 21-year period beginning in 1984. Notwithstanding the inevitable dropout rate in such “longitudinal” studies (40% in this case), their findings were clear: Habitual runners enjoy a “notable survival advantage” and, maybe more importantly, a significantly longer healthspan than their non-running counterparts.
Surprised by her candid revelation, I instinctively grinned back and stammered out something I hoped would be received as a compliment – “Wow, I would not have put you at 87.” Really, tongue? That’s the best you could do on short notice?? I was relieved to see her wrinkled grin widen. “Yes indeed!” she said. “But I’m sorry to have stopped you… thank you very much, I knew I was doing it wrong.”
I couldn’t leave without a name, so I introduced myself. “I’m Claire,” she reciprocated and held out her hand, which I shook gently with one last word of encouragement: “Take it slowly, and you’ll do great.” This time, brain and tongue were solidly in agreement.
With that, I beeped my Garmin back to life and continued on my way, though the persistent heat and beachfront foot traffic would combine to quash the day’s overambitious time goals. My entire conversation with Claire had lasted less than five minutes… which, to my data-obsessed Garmin, meant five minutes of “lost time” it was unable to account for, unable to record, unable to analyze and regurgitate in its reliably reductionist manner.
To its owner, however, those five minutes were anything but lost. And over the next several miles, as my body transitioned into autopilot mode, I’d replay those five minutes in my head, mulling them over and carefully analyzing every angle and facet of our conversation, like a jeweler admiring a flawless gemstone he’d fortuitously discovered in a place he never would have thought to look.
“You only get 26,320 days, more or less. How will you spend them?” asks one running shoe company’s ad depicting the last vestiges of sand flowing through an hourglass. I may not spend my own numbered days running in that company’s shoes… but I do plan to spend them running.
Life is uncertain, life is unfair, and life – as we’re constantly reminded – is perversely unlong. It can’t be beeped on and off like a trusty Garmin (though I’m hoping for a firmware update soon). And not one grain of sand from the miles of beaches I run every week can add a second more to my hourglass. But if I can reach year 87 with my sand still flowing, and with the same verve and mobility as Claire, then I’ll look back on a life well-lived. And hopefully, when that day comes, some fabulous-looking lad will jog past me on the sidewalk, heed my wizened wave and allow me to instruct him on the finer points of proper running technique.
For now, though, I plan to spend what’s left of my 26,320 days – more or less – working diligently on my own technique. Up roads, down trails, over the river and through the woods, whenever and wherever I can… so that as new memories prove gradually harder to come by, I’ll have plenty of good ol’ days to fall back on. Even if I’m not the next Ed Whitlock.
“People underestimate what old people can accomplish,” a 73-year-old Whitlock said in a 2005 interview. “Old people are the worst in that respect. They let themselves be inhibited by age.”
Not Claire, though. Approaching the end of Via Marina, I glanced back one last time to see my first and only disciple shuffling – check that, running – with spine straight and arms pumping, toward the street sign that doubled as her designated turnaround. And I had to smile… not only at her comically exaggerated arm swing, but at her youthful resolve, her earnest refusal to act her age, and her heartfelt insistence that “I’m doing it all wrong.”
Because in that singular moment, I’d never seen running done more right.