The day after my weekly long run, I sat around a table with friends in a Cabbagetown cafe conversing over tea. The friend sitting across from me had her birthday coming up the next weekend. It would not be a landmark birthday or one of those supposed milestones that are arbitrarily assigned to certain ages. Nonetheless, a birthday is always a mark of aging, something we’re supposed to fear.
“I’m not worried about aging at all,” she said.
I took another gulp of my chai, using both hands as required by the gargantuan teacup, which was really more of a bowl. That’s not a bad thing. Tea, especially good tea, ones with distinct and strong flavours which we would disgrace by adding milk or sugar, should not be consumed in polite little sips out of cups that couldn’t hold portions fit for even children. It should be savoured in quanities large enough to go beyond a mere sampling. A cup should last long enough to let the drinker experience its flavour more and more with each sip. It should last long enough to serve as accompaniment for long conversations or moments of reverie and contemplation.
I didn’t have much of a response to the comment in the moment, but it lingered in my mind for some time after.
There comes a time in a runner’s journey when every single thing in life is analogous to some aspect of running and running is a metaphor for every aspect of life. Everything is seen through the lens of running. Everything you encounter reminds you of a recent run or someone you ran with. Your anecdotes at parties all involve running and it’s probably insufferable.
I thought then about what running meant to the aging process. Simple facts indicate that running has made the aging process more pleasant. I am healthier at 25 than I was at 20, both mentally and physically. I am running greater distances now than when I first started and there are still greater distances to go. I love myself a hell of a lot more since I’ve been able to call myself a runner. If aging is judged to be positive or negative depending on how comfortable you feel in your own skin, then the past few years have been undoubtedly positive.
Six of us gathered at Canoe Landing Park on a Saturday morning. The conditions were the most pleasant they’d been all winter. The cold was there, but not overbearing. The sun was visible if you stood in the right place. It felt quite mild and no violent winds were blowing.
Our intention was to run a total of twenty-one kilometres, the distance of a half-marathon. We would begin by going north on Bathurst to King and then east along King until River, where we would then cut one street north to Queen. We would run east along Queen all the way until Beech Avenue. This is where the run would get interesting.
The residential streets along the east end of Queen that run between Queen and Kingston Road are frighteningly steep. We would run north along Beech to Kingston, across Kingston to Willow, which we would take back down to Queen. Then it was across Queen again to Silver Birch, which we would climb to Kingston again, then across to Scarborough Road to come back down to Queen. Essentially, it was up one street to Kingston and down another to Queen. Each hill was less than a kilometer in distance, but over that short space boasted an elevation of over thirty metres.
There is no other way to describe these hills other than to say they are monstrous. Thinking about them is harmful when trying to climb them so I didn’t. I did what I was supposed to, looking no more than ten feet in front of me and keeping my back straight throughout the run. I felt myself slowing, but that is expected and necessary. It wasn’t due to exhaustion, but to the shorter and more concentrated strides that were necessary to get me up those hills.
Coming back down proved more dangerous. These streets are so incredibly steep that running down them, I began to feel an increasing sense of dizziness. If I didn’t slow down, I thought, I would fall forward flat on my face. The little patches of ice along the road and sidewalk didn’t make things any easier. I walked down Scarborough until I hit Queen and began running back west as was our plan.
It’s typical for the group to split up into smaller factions throughout a run, each moving at different paces. For the first ten kilometeres or so coming east along Queen, I got wild and ran at the head of the pack alongside one of the group’s fastest runners. I was keeping up. I didn’t keep time, but I’m sure that I had never run that fast for that long. If I were running an official 10K, I would have blown away my personal best.
I paid for this on our way back along Queen. I fell back toward the group bringing up the rear. I was fine with keeping pace with the group, but I worried if I had enough energy to make the full distance that we had planned. I felt like I did the previous week, like the finishing point was being pulled farther and farther away as I ran.
“Just to that bus stop,” our group leader shouted. I looked to my right and our finishing point was in sight. I got there in what I’m sure was the most inelegant of manners. We embraced in a group hug and stepped inside the coffee shop we had designated as our recovery spot.
I am by some measure the youngest of my regular running tribe, yet week after week my biggest triumph is not that I dominate other members but that I am actually able to keep pace with them and complete the distance we set out to cover.
It’s difficult to supress that competitive instinct, that anxiety that drives us to compare our performance to that of others. The immediate reaction is self-pity over the fact that I have been put through my paces by runners with as much as a decade on me.
It’s in these moments that I once again have to put tensions and conflicts into perspective by recalling the distinctions between the elite runner and the amateur.
Amateur running is very rarely a competitive pursuit. It is most often not a path to glory. The only eyes that are scrutinizing the amateur runner are their own.
Though the amateur runner can run with a group, their journey is essentially solitary, one of self-discovery and affirmation. It is a truth nearly universally acknowledged that the amateur runner did not find themselves at a race because of a gift for athletics and professional grooming or training.
The amateur runner found their stride at a crossroads of affliction and self-doubt. Stand at the finishing line of a major marathon past the four hour mark and you’re more than likely watching a long line of recovering alcoholics and drug addicts, men and women still shackled by divorce and personal losses, runners for whom running is medication against psycholigical trauma and disorder. Some are there because they were told by their family physician that their options were to get active or die. They started slowly and became addicted.
Any form of sport or athletics at the elite level is ultimately a young man’s game. There are exceptions, but thirty is typically middle-aged and thirty-five is ancient. Age for the elite runner is almost always a sign that their best days are behind them. For the amateur, who came to running when they were supposedly past their physical prime, their best days are still ahead.
I am one of those runners who are sometimes called “Adult Onset Runners.” I found running late and came to it because I didn’t like the way I was aging. If my early twenties were supposed to be the prime of my life, my downhill years would arrive quite fast because I never got too far up the hill to begin with.
It’s different now. The trajectory of aging is pointing upward because the distances I cover grow greater and greater and because of my enthusiasm to cover these distances so too does my energy. Because I refuse to be held back, the thought of where I might go and who I might become thrills me. I am convinced that at thirty-five I will be better than I am at twenty-five. Each new distance that I complete is a new discovery that tells me that my journey is not complete or ready to slow at any time in the near future.
I don’t greet age as a force that has agency over me and comes with inevitable decline. As bitter as it might initially be to be humbled by older runners, it comes to serve as beautiful proof that you are free to make of age what you will. For me, this is entirely down to running, which illuminated that age can bring physical as well as intellectual enlightenment and that new beginnings are not the stuff of myth.
This is the perspective afforded by understanding why the amateur runner chooses to run. They started when their capacity was nearly diminished and have watched it grow ever since. I feel at least that I have.