The elusive end of the dotted line

Four years ago today, I ran a four-mile road race (the Run 4 The Pies) in Tequesta Trace, Florida. Coming off limited training in the wake of a summer and fall marred by a sports hernia, booze, and the effects of Hurricane Wilma, I ran a ramshackle 21:32 for fourth place. Three days later I won the Space Coast Half-Marathon in Titusville, and a week after that I finished fourth in the Half-Marathon of the Palm Beaches in West Palm Beach. I was rounding into form faster than anticipated, but little did I know at the time that this triad of races would serve as the final spate of serious racing in my so-called running career.

Recreational distance runners aren’t good enough to retire officially from competition, so unless they suffer an obvious career-ending injury or actively give up racing for whatever reasons, there’s often a very long delay between the close of their racing days and the realization that they just don’t have it any more–the speed, the drive, the interest, whatever.

A few months after the West Palm beach race, I moved to Virginia. While the Roanoke Valley is a beautiful place to train, there’s no running “scene” there and few races (almost none of them certified). With no training partners and handling various other life issues and responsibilities, my training became very inconsistent. In September I ran and won a half-marathon in such an embarrassing time that I prefer to deny ever having shown up, but I became somewhat more serious again and planned to run the Philadelphia Marathon in November. In the end, I had slacked off and knew I wasn’t ready to race 26.2 miles with any efficacy, but I made the trip anyway because I had ulterior social motives. I expected to drop out after 15 miles of helping to keep an unofficial 2:30:00 pace group on task, and I at least accomplished that much.

In April 2007, now 37, I got in OK shape again and ran 33:38 for 10K the day after winning a very low-key 5K in the high 16’s. I thought this would nudge me into consistently serious training, but it didn’t. The rest of the summer and fall consisted of 40 to 80 miles a week of de facto jogging.

In early 2008 I found myself back in Florida and with a couple of reliable training partners, one of whom I had supplied with a marathon training schedule. Now consciously leery of putting it on the line, I paced my friend–whose race pace was not a challenge for me to meet–through a half-marathon, most of a 15K, and finally the marathon. The two races in which I actually tried to go hard from with to wire I dropped out of. I had become a head case, unable to deal with the slow splits of encroaching senescence (and the shitty running conditions in Florida didn’t help). The marathon was in mid-March, and I did not enter a road race the rest of the year.

In late 2008 I moved back to New Hampshire. With a lot of positive things in place, I thought I’d give it another shot. The thing is, I had subtly reached a point where I could still imagine my personal glory days and reclaiming them, but just no longer had any earnest desire to do the work required to come close. I logged a number of 70- to 80-mile weeks throughout 2009, but could not prod myself into doing the required interval work and tempo runs. I was in an annoying in-between mental limbo zone in which the idea of serious racing was appealing, but the reality of what was needed to get there was not. Now I have to summon considerable powers of will just to get out the door on more days than not, and whatever running I do is aimed strictly at controlling weight gain and the natural tendency to visit a crowded shopping mall with an automatic rifle and a cache of resentment.

A big factor in this loss of desire is the fact that I have never raced to compete, per se. Beating people has never been my thing; I’ve always been someone to chase times (in particular the now-revised Olympic Trials standard of 2:22 for the marathon), and at my age I’m not going to run any more personal bests. As a result, my entire rationale for being serious about training and racing has collapsed. I’ll be 40 in a few weeks and have toyed with the idea of trying to craft a new career as a “master,” but I know this isn’t going to happen because I’m not interested in recalibrating my standard of what represents “fast” or taking home a special medal just because I edged out other hangers-on with gray in their beards. I can see why many people stay interested in racing into their 40s and 50s even as their times slide into the swamp, but that kind of handicapping set-up just isn’t for me.

This account is probably wildly uninteresting, but to me the intriguing thing is that it took four full years to finally admit that my vague thoughts and talk of being in shape for some marathon a few months down the line have been by-products of sheer fantasy. I’m happy with my limited regimen, lucky to be healthy enough to maintain it, and will always love running, but I’ve channeled my competitive aspects into the marathoners I help coach, and it will be a miracle if I ever pin on another race bib.

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