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Age is just a number
This newsletter was first published on Patreon on 14 March 2022
Apologies to anyone who already saw my tweets about this, but I’m going to begin this week’s Musing with a little conversation I had at the end of my parkrun on Saturday.
Despite having done 21km the day before, and so having tired legs, and despite telling myself to sit back early on and try to use it as a short, fast training run - and NOT A RACE - I found myself, as always, leading the field around the first corner. I just can’t seem to help myself.
Even before we started, surrounded by the gathering gaggle of awkward, jocular parkrunners, I could feel the “serious runner” persona settling over me. A little jog to warm up, some strides to stretch the legs. Nothing fancy, just what I always do, but compared to everyone else, it felt serious. You could see one or two others doing the same and you knew we had spotted each other. OK, that guy looks serious. Lean, wearing shorts, no backpack, warming up - admittedly it doesn’t take much to look professional at a parkrun.
As I stood on the start line, I enjoyed feeling the confidence I exuded just by walking to the front, while everyone else looked to “start somewhere in the middle”. I wasn’t worried about being here right at the front. It may have still been my plan to start slowly, to let the first few rush off ahead, but in my subconscious, the old stirrings were rising. I was here to mix it with the fast guys, to show them a thing or two.
As soon as we started, my sit-back plan was instantly elbowed aside by the competitor in me, and there I was, again, leading the charge. I told myself that the pace wasn’t that fast. It was only 5km. One guy passed me after about half a mile, and I was relieved, but when he went slightly off course, I spotted my chance and accelerated to catch back up with him.
By two kilometres in, three of us seemed to be fairly clear of the rest. I felt fine, running stride for stride through the mud, the knee-deep puddles, beginning to strategise, now, that my ultra running legs could mean I’ll be even stronger at the end. I may even win this.
At which point the three of us came to a locked gate.
“We’ve gone the wrong way,” one of the others said, and we hightailed it back. It wasn’t far wrong - less than 50 metres - but the next group of four were just rushing by as we got back to the main track. My two companions latched on to them, but for some reason I suddenly felt drained. Maybe it was the fact that we’d just hit the first hill. Maybe it was the fact that any chance of winning had gone, or maybe it was the 21km the day before, but my legs felt about as strong as two dangling wet towels as we made our way up a series of steep climbs. Not only did I lose contact with the leaders, but four other runners came flying past me.
I rallied near the end and caught a few, but my final time of over 22 minutes was a parkrun personal worst. It was muddy, hilly and I went the wrong way, but still, it was a slow last few kilometres.
One of the two guys I’d taken the wrong turn with came over to me afterwards. He hadn’t won either, and I felt a sort of kinmanship with him over the wrong turn, so I was a little surprised when he said: “God, you’re a fast runner, aren’t you?” What did he mean? I’d totally fallen away at the end and finished a good stretch behind him, so I clearly wasn’t any faster than him.
We chatted a little more, and then when he was leaving, he said: “I hope I’m still running like you when I’m your age.”
Oh, wow. That’s why he thought I was so fast. Fast for an old guy.
While I’d been seeing myself as this “serious athlete” guy striding around at the start, a contender, someone the others would be fearing, they were looking at me and thinking: “Old guy. No problem.”
It was only then that I realised that pretty much everyone else in the top 10 was in their 20s. I know that’s not always the case, and people in their 50s often win parkruns, but I guess I did stand out a little on Saturday. Damn.
The comment particularly knocked me because after writing about Eliud Kipchoge last week - and how he was also probably in his late 40s - and writing about Damian Hall being in his late 40s the week before, I’d been thinking about age quite a lot.
It was my birthday this week, and I was turning 48. But what if I was more Kenyan about it, I wondered. Age was just a number, right? So why not just pick a different number? I began to think - and I realise that this is heading onto problematic ground - that if you could feel like you were a different gender, and as a result simply change your gender identity, why couldn’t you do the same with age?
I began to realise that if I thought of myself as 38, instead of 48, I would actually feel different. My sense of my life, of myself, would be different. And in a positive way. This nagging fear that I was getting old, would be just gone. Like most people, I'm sure, I felt virtually no different in myself at 48 than I did at 38. So why not just say I was 38?
The more I mulled over this idea, the more compelling it became. I mean, the Kenyans do it and look at how it blows away the age limits the rest of us put on ourselves. I started almost seeing it as an artistic experiment, a piece of real life performance art: what happens if I just decide I’m 10 years younger? How will the world react? How will they treat me? Will things be different?
I tried it on my kids. I made the mistake of using the language of gender fluidity - a hot topic with teenagers right now, and a sure sign that you’re old is to “not get it”. I told them I was self-identifying as 38 from now on.
They didn’t like it. I really wasn’t making a comment of any sort on gender issues, but they took it like that. My son, who is a bit younger, decided I was simply having a midlife crisis and has since told everyone he sees that I’m having a midlife crisis.
But the thing is, I could be 38. I could have done all the things I’ve done and be 38. I could also look 38. At least, that’s what I thought, until Saturday.
“I hope I’m still running like you when I’m your age.” I don’t think he meant 38.
So perhaps I’ll leave the age changing experiments to someone else and just accept that I’m 48. In some ways, I suppose, it was a back-handed compliment. Maybe, rather than trying to change my age, it’s better to embrace it, and to feel good that even as the old guy, I’m still mixing it with the youngsters at the front of parkruns.
At least, that is, until the hills at the end.
Picture of the week
I spent a few days earlier this week glued to the sparse online coverage of the Barkley Marathons. For those who don’t know about this race, I urge you to watch the brilliant film The Race That Eats Its Young. In about 35 years, still only 15 people have ever finished the race, which is five 20-mile loops of inhospitable terrain in Tennessee, USA.
This picture above is the hard-as-nails Jasmin Paris (who I had on the podcast just over a year ago) completing loop 2 with not much time to spare. The look of quiet determination on her face is quite incredible.
To give you a sense of how hard it is to complete even two loops, the great Courtney Dauwalter has dropped out of the race before the end of loop 2 on both her attempts, while the great Nicky Spinks pulled out after one loop when she attempted the race.
Jasmin Paris managed to become only the second woman ever to complete three loops (known as a Fun Run in Barkleys language), but she had to stop there. But to do even that on a first attempt (the race gets easier the more times you attempt it as you gradually learn the route and the idiosyncrasies of the race director, Lazarus Lake) takes incredible strength and willpower. So hats off to an inspiring woman.
In the end, for the fifth year in a row, no one completed the full five loops.