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

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Reconciling passive nihilism and legitimately supporting others

I'm 48 years old. This is not ancient, but almost certainly means I'm more than halfway done with my stay on this 8,000-mile-thick incubator of indignities, cheating and strife, a reality that in turn allows me to be reasonably certain about a few things concerning my own future and absolutely certain about a few others.

One of these is that I'll never be a parent. Starting in my early twenties and maybe earlier, I was fairly sure I would never want to be a dad, but obviously my chances of following through on this unofficial mandate have improved with every passing year, and I can confidently declare the outcome decided. If you don't think humanity would be worse for the addition of my DNA to its profile, then you haven't smelled it up close.

Another is that I don't expect to ever have a career in the traditional sense. This isn't a consequence of having no primates to help support, because for while I did intend to have a serious career, and the plan persisted after I'd already disposed of the idea of having kids. But the two "goals" are clearly complementary. I've been saving more money than I spend every month for quite a while now, and frankly I don't have to work very hard to do it. Other than rent, food, gas, and my car insurance, I don't have any regular must-do expenses. I'm actually very good with money and overall planning now that I'm never shitfaced and wandering the streets in a suicidal funk.

I hope it's clear by this point that I'm not boasting about my relatively easy life any more than I'm griping about the surety of leaving no descendants. I didn't take the most deliberate route in landing where I have in life;  I'm just putting forth a few facts to lay the foundation for even more bullshit in the joyless paragraphs to come.

What the foregoing implies is that I'll almost certainly be without any meaningful long-term purpose between now and the day the lights go out for good, be that a forty-year period or a forty-week one. Whatever one makes of the decision to have kids, it undeniably adds purpose to life, one with a limitless range of good and bad flavors. You will never hear responsible parents of young children say, "Next week is gonna be s-o-o-o boring." Having kids in your life, even once they're adults, offers a point of focus and a sense of necessity in keeping on. My own parents became noticeably happier when my sister and her husband had kids. 

Lacking anything like this, I'm just playing out the string. I don't mean this to be negative; technically, from the moment each of us is born, that's what we're all doing -- finding ways to stay amused until we die. (I once heard a clinical psychiatrist -- not my own -- declare, "Life is an quest to avoid boredom between orgasms." His own life ended badly, for what that's worth.) And not having any long-term focus doesn't imply existing in a void that can't be filled by a succession of shorter focal blips. I have a great many shallow yet legitimate interests -- e.g., watching mysteries, reading books, and playing my keyboard -- and besides, I can think of a few longer-range goals I haven't completely abandoned, too. 

In any event, I see my main objective going forward as not getting the way of anyone who doesn't get into mine. I attend social gatherings only when I think the other person or people will benefit from it as much as I will. I try to do well by the people I work for even when I am inclined to gripe, because they allow me to work literally without getting out of my or any other bed. (Don't take that the wrong way.) I question my primarily using social media as a bullhorn through which to blare my broad grievances and pointless bits of reflection, but I suppose that if nothing else I'm fairly typical in this way. I strive to be in the lower 50 percent of humanity on the overall disruption-of-others scale, even if not my that much in some areas. If I accidentally cut off 10 people in traffic in the next year, I will be OK with that as long as I think at least 11 others have done me the same discourtesy. 

My often-jaunty, sometimes-dour sense of purposeless interacts with my running malaise in a cyclical manner. I am never going to come close to the training or performances I achieved when I was younger, meaning that my running can never be as purpose-conferring as it once was. The resulting dent in my overall capacity to remain amused at life makes me even less inclined to look at running as being any more important or useful than the other silly shit I'll be doing for the rest of my life. But organizing much of my life around running goals still comes naturally, so I still do it, albeit in a vigorously cynical way (more on that below).

Yet I love encouraging other people's running, in particular youth running. Though I can't help but view my own continuing to dabble in the competitive side of running as pitiful and fraught with blooming sources of dissatisfaction, I recall very well when I believed that chasing running goals, especially when one is on the upslope of his or her lifetime performance curve, was about as noble and worthy a nonessential pursuit as there was. And I don't think I was wrong about that.

This summer I'm helping substantially with the training of a couple of high-school standouts back East. I've seen both of these kids run in training and in races and have met their parents. I'm genuinely excited to be a part of it. So when I see myself again effortlessly littering the Internet with highly detailed and hyper-inflated polemics about the ghastly pointlessness of racing other human beings or a clock to an arbitrary stopping point, I have to wonder how legitimate my fandom really is. Why would I urge people I admire to do something so fucking dumb?

I think there are two reasons. One is the whole notion of having to do something with life other than eat, sleep and breathe one's way toward its terminus. I judge myself as someone who is simultaneously doing nothing more than taking up space and richly deserving of the right to seek amusement. A kid who wants to win a state or district tract track or cross-country title has every reason to seek this source of amusement as long as it is available, and success in this area could lead him or her to additional, unrelated successes thanks to college scholarships and other, less-tangible benefits.

The other reason is recognizing that the shit I do or think isn't necessarily the shit I think I should be doing or thinking. Virtually everyone, I am sure, does at least one thing regularly that he or she is quick to acknowledge would make the world a worse place were the behavior universal and unrelenting. Turning that around, most of us see others doing things we really think we should do but  for whatever reason don't. In other words, most of us are honest enough with ourselves to not pretend our behavior matches our values, and I like to think that a fair number us, whatever our actual behavior, can admit that we have fundamental beliefs we'd like to excise from our frontal lobes even if they don't dictate the totality of how we act. That's a long-winded way of saying that I don't have to be above the fray to recognize that striving to at least be among its top layers is a good thing. Which itself is imprecise, so even shorter: I like some people's running even if mine is crap.

But I can only leave my running out of this for so long, so I present to you yet another inane model, drawn loosely from some of the tutoring I've done in economics -- a discipline I never took a single course in myself -- in recent years.

First, I'll affirm that my running really is in the toilet. Not only was the 39:14 10K I ran here on Memorial Day an awful display and a disheartening experience no matter how generously one cooks up the course and altitude conversions, it was a cesspool of failed resolve erected on a laughable excuse for a training foundation. I've had a detailed and obviously helpful schedule to follow since March, and for all sorts of reasons I've missed major portions of it. I completely gave up at the 4K split, even though I had coached myself to anticipate this being the very suckiest part of the Bolder Boulder course. I didn't give close to my best, but even if I had it would have still been terrible. If nothing else I can't really say I expected or deserved anything better.

I actually had a testosterone level taken for the first time in my life recently. I was half-hoping it would be low so I'd have something specific to blame for my athletic impotence. Instead, it was borderline high. It seems that simply not training worth a damn or racing with any heart can produce many of the same "symptoms" a hormonal problem might, and, as the inimitable Leslie might put it, I have nothing left in the excuse bag.

I've decided I need to decide exactly what to do here. I could either continue both running and racing (the latter however sporadically), continue running but giving up racing altogether, or stop running completely.

In economics, consumer choices can be rated in terms of utils, which approximate the amount of satisfaction the expenditure of a given amount of finite resources on a particular commodity yields. For example, someone might have $100 a week to spend on food, gas, and entertainment in an effort to secure, say, 100 utils. Although you might spend $70 of this on food and $10 on gas, this may only add up to 40 utils, while the $20 you allocate to entertainment provides 60 utils. 

I have three choices within the "keep running and racing" scheme. I can train as hard as I can, adjusting for age and its related infirmities, and be moderately satisfied, but not ecstatic, with the results. I can train at half-steam and achieve mildly disappointing results at best. Or I can train at a low level of intensity and volume and expect every race to be a soul-searing disappointment. At the moment, I am somewhere in the middle of the gap between the latter two, but closer to the third.

If I give up racing outright, I lose the thrill of the chance, which remains annoyingly strong even when the results are abysmal. But I also lose the pressure of chasing something that at my age and station in life is probably more trouble than it is worth. And I might enjoy a lot of my runs more than I do, knowing they don't have to fit into any greater aim. 

Giving up running would mean either finding something to replace it for purely psychological reasons (walking might work for a while, but would hit too close to home) or embracing misery. I am truculent and resentful toward myself much of the time, but I am far from miserable and don't wish to go back to such a state. As long as my body lets me, I need to run at least a little.

Know also that any amount of serious mileage or faster running results in some amount of soreness and, often, a suspicion my knee isn't all right.

I'm going to assign utils to a number of variables in this scheme:

Training hard and honestly, regardless of outcomes: 2
A single very good race or two per year: 2
Mediocre training, regardless of outcomes: 1
Disappointing but not dismal races: 1
Cruddy training, regardless of outcomes: 0
Dismal races: 0
The idea of training to race itself: 1
Regular but unfocused running: 2
Not worrying about training: 1
Not being sore or risking serious injuries: 1
No running at all, balanced by something relatively healthy: 0

This would suggest that training hard would result in a score of 5 of the results were outstanding (2 + 2 + 1), 4 if the results were lackluster but not terrible, and 3 if the results were poor. Mediocre training could at best result in 3, since great races by definition hinge on dedicated training. Cruddy training would add nothing but the 1 util of embracing the chase (and having more running partners) in the longer term.

Abandoning the whole idea of racing and embracing fitness running wholesale would theoretically provide as much satisfaction as hard training and mediocre racing -- 4 utils. I'm not sure that's correct, and it's possible I set this whole thing up in a way I knew would yield a given conclusion. But if I'm honest about what it means to me to be "fast for my age" (and I'm not even that at the moment), it makes sense. If I had somehow run a little over two minutes faster at the Bolder Boulder and wound up first in my division with a pace of 5:59 a mile, I wouldn't be much happier with that than I am with a 39:14. Nothing I ever do will ever be fast if I insist on using my own lifetime peak as a yardstick, and for whatever reason, I can't escape that futile sort of comparison. Having age divisions in running in the first place is, as I've said, a mostly pointless gimmick. Some understandably use chasing age-group placings and age-graded times as motivation, but I don't like the idea of being graded on a curve when the fastest people out there don't have that luxury. Being incomparably worse at something than I used to be and repeatedly exposing myself to objective evidence of this just isn't appealing. At the moment, this is being at least partly offset by competing factors.

All of this bullshit may amount to no more than the huge piles of similar bullshit anyone can quickly dredge up from  the archives of this place. But I think I will know considerably more by the end of this week.

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