Former 2:24 marathoner, now in my late 40s and hoping to maximally flatten the curve of my slide into senescence and mediocrity • Magazine writer, book editor and author, and commentator on the sport of distance running since 1999 • Adviser and confidant of other perambulators • Paradoxical hater of exercise fanatics • Chihuahua whisperer Sentence-fragment impresario

Saturday, June 2, 2018

No sir

About three-fourths of the way through the Bolder Boulder 10K on Monday, I was flagging (every single story I tell about my races now flows from an obligatory reference about how much I suck, so please bear with me) and shuffling gamely along a slightly downhill stretch on Pearl Street, when a group of three or four teenagers came up behind me, chatting gaily about the whole experience.

"We like your shirt, sir!" one of them chirped as the group trundled past. They were referring to the words GIN AND TACOS on the back of my T-shirt. I'm sure they didn't know the origin and didn't care to, which was fine. I replied that I pretty much felt like I was in a gin-and-taco bath at that point, and we all had a fine chuckle. Except me.

I saw three distinct things wrong with this interlude. One, the "sir" part, which, while meant in polite sincerity, should speak for itself. Two, the fact that they were passing me, period, even though I'd be used to this by now if I would haul my dumb ass to races more than about once a year. And three, the fact that they were having a hell of a lot more fun than I was despite running sub-6:00 pace.

Yet there is nothing shocking about any of this. In their position, I would have said almost the exact same friendly stuff to an old guy with an unusual shirt when blowing by him in a workout-race with my buds. I'm obviously stuck several levels of efficacy in the past if I find it at all striking that healthy teenagers can pass someone running with all the speed and grace of a drunk marionette with a bilateral hip problem.

But this has helped my crystallize my goals, I don't care how fast I run anymore or how far back in any field I finish. I just don't want to finish behind anyone who calls me "sir" and means it. If it's part of some weird BDSM scenario that I'm not aware of, or I'm mistaken for an Army colonel, that's fine. None of this straight-up respectful foolishness.

Anyway, I wound up second in my age group at the Bolder Boulder, moving up from third last year. Both times, I finished behind a former U.S. national marathon champion. Far behind. (I've also been doing some workouts with a different former U.S. marathon champion, who beat me on Monday by less than the one who happens to be male. This is the Denver-Boulder region in a nutshell; between 4.7 and 11.2 percent of people one encounters at random are former running champions of some sort.)

I have little to report on how the race unfolded. I got at most an hour of sleep the night before, as often happens when I have to get up early for something even moderately exciting (the gun for the A-wave went off at 6:55 a.m. and I am very much a night owl, which is entirely on me to correct). I don't think this affected me very much. I ran my second kilometer a little too hard (3:36) after a somewhat conservative start (3:44) and that cost me soon afterward, but in reality none of that matters when one is running so slowly that someone unpretentiously yanking him off the course with a giant cane, Looney Tunes style, would be entirely appropriate. I completely quit after 4K and was just looking to make in to the stadium. I wanted to stop, not because of the physical discomfort but owing to the apocalyptic futility of willingly submitting to a process that is utterly unjustifiable on almost every basis. I don't think that when I was in my fastest years I ever explicitly told myself, "OK, when running 6:00 pace for 10K is a hard thing to do, you'll be years past considering running competitively anymore," but if anyone had asked me pointed questions in this area, I'm sure I would have asserted that there was no way in hell I'd be out here shaming myself like I am now.

These have been my only two "real" races of 2017-2018, making them by extension my only two serious, wire-to-wire competitive efforts since the Caligula administration. OK, actually since 2007. Both efforts have been travesties by any standard, but this is not shocking. See, running has a funny way of giving back no more than you put into it -- sometimes even less, especially when one attains metageezer status, and especially on unforgiving courses at altitude. I have not been willing to hurt in practice to any meaningful extent since getting serious about running again in the fall of 2017, and that doesn't make for being able to hurt in races. It's not the physical discomfort that I find off-putting but the mismatching of effort and pace thanks to being old and running at altitude. It's that simple. It's the same reality every aging runner confronts, which is why so many of them just stop racing (in turn explaining why someone wobbling his way through the Bolder Boulder in 39 minutes and change can place high in his age category). I don't like sucking and to me age groups are just one more means of handicapping and allowing relatively slow, often very ungainly and inelegant runners to get trophies and even money. So, I guess I'll either find a way to get used to this reality of high input-low output or I'll go back too goal-free jogging in earnest.

Bellyaching aside, it was an entertaining morning among great friends, and when I consider how I've spent the past few of Memorial Days compared to any of the ten-plus that preceded it, I can't help but be glad, on balance, that I did the stupid thing. It's a sign that I am positively engaged in the world. (The people who insist on spectating while wielding oversized strollers on the sidewalks along the race course, however, deserve an especially warm ghetto in Hades.)

I've waited five days to write this not so much because no one should even admit to, much less blog about, a 39-minute 10K (which is true) but because how I reacted in the hours and days after the event has been more instructive than anything about the race itself. Although I'm plainly scornful of my time, even if I allow for the fact that it would have been about two minutes faster on a flat course at sea level, I'm pleased that I didn't do any of the stupid stuff I once would have done in the aftermath of a running letdown. I didn't throw all of my shoes in a dumpster, go on a drinking bender, or stop running. I didn't go to the other extreme and decide to punish myself for my lack of backbone by plowing through a 20-miler the next day in the hope that my knee might give out again. I showed up today bright and early at Tom Watson Park to help one of my friends and club-mates put the final touches on her prep for a significant effort in a couple of weeks. And amazingly, all of this came very naturally. Right now, as I type this, I'm taking care of a little Corgi mix named Barclay. It's a fun time to be a normal human being or at least faking it convincingly.

That is not my voice. Nothing against the guy who owns it.

Also, two days ago I got an assignment from Outside Magazine's online edition (meaning not "Hey, would you please write something for us?" but "OK, we'll let you do that for us"). I'm pretty fired up about this because Outside now turns out better running-related content than any of the few remaining niche publications, and also because I get to write about what some of my friends and former colleagues in New Hampshire are up to. It should be live in a week or two at most.

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