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

Monday, December 31, 2018

MMXVIII, in memoriam

Executive summary: 

I gave footracing as much of a shot as I could this year, but I no longer care enough about the outcomes of these to honor my own participation by working my hardest. Worse, even if I did push myself as hard as I routinely used to, the results would still be mortifying. I don't regret spending much of 2018 engaged in what turned out to be a pitiful display; we all need hobbies and goals, especially folks like me who spend a great deal of time alone, and I became friends with some superb people along the way. But it's clear that my energies are best directed elsewhere.

Dolorous soliloquy: 

It snowed this morning, not a storm by any means but enough to slicken the concrete paths on which I conduct much of my jogging. It was also 16 degrees. Since I was only planning to be out there for a half-hour at most, it might have been smarter to run loops in the park two-tenths of the mile up the street from the house. But I decided to allow habit to guide me into East Boulder proper, as is the case at least once or twice a week, usually making it as far east as the municipal golf course and South Boulder Creek. To do this, I have to cross a pedestrian bridge over the Foothills Parkway, which is sort of like an interstate highway with traffic signals and frequent gridlock. This pedestrian bridge is built in the mold of a spiral staircase, swapping a more gentle ascent and descent for a half-dozen 90- to 180-degree turns. Despite being cautious, I wiped out and came down on my left ass cheek. I didn't hurt anything, but my hands got wet because I was wearing remarkably piss-poor knit gloves -- again, I was only gonna be running for 30 minutes at most, so how cold could my hands get? Well, they did get cold. I cut the run short, to 20 minutes, and it was almost that long again before I could use my fingers. Rosie was visibly worried about my distress, as she was doing the nose-kisses thing she reserves only for special occasions. But I'm fine, having expended yet a few dozen more quality epithets.

This was a perfectly apt run to conclude the year. I'm glad I did it even though I incurred some bruises along the way and found yet more reasons to hold myself in contempt. It was quality time with Rosie and I really do enjoy being outside.

I didn't do a specific review of my running here at the end of 2017 and didn't state any explicit goals for 2018. I think that I understood a year ago at a not-so-deep level that any ideas I was clinging to about running reasonably decent times needed to be shitcanned; I could no longer claim at the conclusion of 2017 to still be on the physical mend from years of catastrophic binge-drinking interspersed with spasmodic bursts of unfocused running that never lasted for more than a month or twp. In other words, I was not in a position to make a major performance jump, and I needed such a jump just to sniff respectability.

While I didn't exactly go for it intensity-wise in 2017, I logged enough miles in the first half of the year (about 1,750) to, in theory, understand whether it would be possible to eventually run the kinds of of times I would settle for as a geezer. I think I was aware even after the Bolder Boulder that year that I possessed neither the physical capacity nor the mental determination to run non-cringeworthy times. 38:31 even at altitude on a tough course, should have led me to admit, "Well, I tried," and burn all of my running shoes and apparel in a dumpster. And that was over a year and a half ago.

But I'm as pitiful as everyone else, so I refused to officially find something better to do with my ample spare time than "train." Besides, I've been tormenting myself with my awful races for over thirty years, so why should I let obvious signs of futility stop me?

Nevertheless, by the time the spring of 2018 was arriving, I still had to know exactly how true this was; to either confirm that everything I would ever do on two legs moving forward would be absolute shit, or leverage the advantages of someone else's knowledge and a group training setting to make a measurable leap forward. And despite how I sound now, I still had private dreams of achieving impressive results -- not really wacko stuff like lifetime PRs, but something somewhat kind of close. These flights of fancy turned out to be so far off the mark that I will never admit to another human being how fast I thought I might be able to run for various distances before turning 50, That said, I was motivated to a great extent by these viciously misguided thoughts. So I decided to get a coach who is both knowledgeable and empathetic (and she is truly both), do workouts in her group (which I usually enjoyed doing even when I underperformed, which was more often than not) and run not one race, as I had done in 2017, but more than one (as it happened, I ran approximately four).

The first of these races was the Bolder Boulder at the end of May, in which I managed to do worse in 2018 than I had a year earlier, by quite a bit. The next three were a 5K in July, a two-miler in August and another 10K in September, both of which went better than the Boulder Boulder but were still incredibly disheartening. I also dropped out of a 3K in July, half-assed a half-marathon in September and no-showed a Turkey Trot last month. I could link internally to reports of all of these calamities, but I won't, because I might get caught-up in rereading them, which would be as pleasant as punching myself repeatedly in the groin or perhaps manscaping with a cheese grater.

The fact that I won or placed second in my division in each race that I finished this year underscores the reality that being a "good" masters runner is, with few notable exceptions, a lot like being the go-to math and science guy at a MAGA rally. It's just not a good scene for any self-respecting person who was running during his or her physical prime years, and therefore knows what it is like to feel powerful regardless of true foot speed. But as I've mentioned many times, some people fundamentally enjoy competing for its own sake -- so much so that their ever-slowing times don't discourage them. I suspect that they are stronger people than I am, but in any case they have a different psychological constitution. Maybe they like to go to races in their 40s and 50s because they  are addicted to "free" bagels and yogurt. Some of them are mostly in it to get laid. Still others may relish the stench from inside a portable toilet on a humid August day.

The simple reality is that I don't like participating in this "sport" anymore. It's not that I was ever very good; it's that I was markedly and measurably less bad. While I have historically avoided things I am clearly not gifted at -- more so than is merely practical, I believe -- even I can find enjoyment in doing things I am at best mediocre at it; playing my Casio CTK-2400 is a good example of a hobby that I find rewarding despite the fact that I stand zero chance of becoming a skilled keyboardist, because I can still learn new things and enjoy the feeling of improving, of gaining efficacy. (To give myself some credit, I actually learned quite a few songs this year.) Running would be bad enough for me to continue doing even were the training effortless and the literal costs nonexistent, because I can't not continually realize that I was much far better at it than I can ever hope to be anymore. But it's not effortless or cost-free, like dicking around on a keyboard is. And the results are concrete; it's one thing to believe you may have slipped a little skills-wise in a given pursuit, but running infuses this with further sepsis by telling you exactly how much slower you are than you once were. Meanwhile, you notice that the people around you in races have started looking less and less like runners, and people ahead of you are pulling cleanly away despite looking like inefficient or even comical.

Flapping and flailing in my uncoordinated "Is he having a seizure?" way up the street, my expression that of a ketamine-overdose victim with an inborn mental deficiency, and paying in the range of $50 to $75 a pop just to look like a idiot lurching frantically away from a whorehouse fire strikes me as so staggeringly ill-advised that I'm actually a little of angry at my friends for not doing everything possible to discourage me from entering races in the past two years. Something may have given them the impression that I can be argumentative and callous, but they're imagining this. Hey. I know how challenging it is to intervene when someone you care about is laboring under comical levels of self-delusion, but I would have respected anyone who had just said matter-of-factly told I shouldn't be out there heaping massive amounts of shame on myself just because I was technically fit enough to go for it.

I have also found it strangely difficult to make certain sacrifices in the service of running, and more broadly, in the service of "health". For example, I get most of my work done at night, and then like to watch something Netflix or read before falling asleep. Then I like to sleep in, although having Rosie around means that I rarely sleep past 7 or 7:30 anymore. But I don't like to run hard early in the day. I like to wake up when I've had enough sleep, even though I don't sleep much and never have. I also have what most people would consider a terrible diet, and this, too, is nothing I am ever interested  in changing for more than a few minutes at a time. I would rather just shove whatever I feel like into my face in front of a screen than prepare elaborate or even rudimentary meals. I'm not so sure it makes a huge difference anyway, but the point is that even if I believed that it did, I would be unlikely to alter any of my habits. I like living on Chex Mix and bagels with cheese melted on them. I also like meat, sometimes lots of it, and often in silent, pointless defiance of the idiots who think that vegan diets are as nourishing as they are ethically useful. (I could be convinced under some duress to give up meat -- but not milk or eggs -- for ethical reasons. The idea of giving it up to feel better, either as an active person or a slug, is perverse and often a gambit of people looking to hack an existing eating disorder.)

Again, this conflict I keep bitching about -- "Should I just quit?" -- isn't a big deal for most, and if this blog were aimed at a wide audience I wouldn't whack away at the same theme every month or so. People get older, they start to suck even worse at shit they used to like because they were at least halfway proficient at it, and they stop and move on to other things. I think I might have stood a better chance of more smoothly shedding my old-man pipe dreams if I had disengaged myself from the running "scene" altogether during the years my own running was dormant, but I didn't. I kept writing useless articles and contributing to the occasional pointless book, and continued to watch top-level track meets and road races on television and the Internet because I obviously don't value better uses of bandwidth such as porn enough to abandon such tripe. And it's hard for me to direct the training of other people without thinking about being competitive myself when I'm out on my daily jogs. I can understand why some coaches (I mean real ones, not Internet strategists) who were once elite runners or somewhat fast runners themselves simply stop running altogether rather than tempt themselves to make salvos into age-group nonsense via continued low-level running, but I can't go that far. I enjoy running too much even on days when I don't seem to specifically require the mental-health boost it invariably provides.

The possibility exists that had I not found running early on, I might have slid onto an alcoholic abyss far sooner and more ferociously than I did, meaning that I would have either died sooner or cleaned up my act more quickly. Either would have been fine. I'm now entering my third calendar year without alcohol and have saved up a lot more money than I expected to in the past couple of years, doing things that are sometimes even enjoyable. But most of the time I recognize that I have overstayed my welcome here, don't like things other people do, like things other people don't, and am a relatively high-functioning error of reproductive biology.

I have one more professional running article coming out "soon" (and that whole thing has become a sick joke, considering that I pitched it in May and submitted a draft in early June; I'm almost grateful for how excoriating this experience has been, because I won't be tempted to submit anything to any other publications. One upshot is that for the foreseeable future, even when I have what I think might be useful things to say about running (and when I think I do, I am almost always wrong, as is basically every other aspiring running-writer not named Alex Hutchinson), I won't consider trying to find a paying home for any associated words. Most of those markets are gone anyway. Instead, I will express these thoughts on the Lowell Running Blog. My less cohesive, more personal and scattershot running-related content will continue to stain this virtual porta-john.

Probably the dumbest of my array of foolish running-related decisions I made this year was to join an expensive gym. I liked the sessions I did with my personal trainer, but I knew I had zero real interest in "working out." Again, there are just no rewards there. Whatever reason men my age would offer for wasting their time and money on a formalized strength-work environment don't apply to me. So that was about $350 for three months I could have donated to charity or spent on dog food.

You should be getting the picture here of someone who hates his life when he thinks about it but can mostly tolerate any particular moment of it given the correct mix of stimuli. That's pretty much the case. I no longer create crises for myself through catastrophic booze-holidays, which is generally a very nice thing since it means I now enjoy a level of stability and security that I haven't had in maybe 15 to 20 years, all things considered. The cost is having to live in a world I see as an experiment gone partly right and mostly laughably wrong. I love my dog, and as banal as all of this Eeyore-esque babbling horseshit sounds, I'd be worse off without the few friends I regularly confide in or vent at. I take pride in the work I do not because any of it matters much but because that's about all I have.

I am quite certain I would be a malcontent at the moment no matter what. Even if I had never been cajoled into competitive running, I would have found something else to do just as obsessively despite the potential for terrific setbacks and eventually come to resent just as much. Had my mom not urged me to go out for cross-country in ninth grade, I would have probably continued to have no particular social niche as a teenager other than being good at school and computers and sit-ups, and might have been one of those goofballs who discovered trail running by accident in his twenties thanks to being hyperactive and outdoorsy by nature and only did events that are adventures, not races, for most people, like ultras. Who knows. I'm sure I would have become a drunk and a depressive no matter what because I am constitutionally disinclined to embrace the world -- most of its people, organizations and systems -- for what they are, and have amplified this outlook thanks to living much of my life as an abject wad of shit. The further from the functional consequences of this I manage to get, and the more my life becomes objectively normal in most respects, the more glaring my errors and inadequacies become. There are no real mysteries here; call it a mid-life crisis (a malformed label out of the gate, but close enough) or the fallout from an inevitable accumulation of regrets. I was always resolute about not having kids no matter what, but had I done so, if nothing else I'd probably be spending less time electronically rage-masturbating to my own existence thanks to having a major structural obligation elsewhere.

Having an outlook rooted in "How can I avoid screwing up?" rather than "How can I succeed?" is never a prescription for accomplishing anything of value. At the moment, I find myself trying not to advance my life, but to avoid putting any additional dents in society before in leave it by whatever means in some as-yet-undetermined number of years. It is hardly news to me that I have zero self-esteem right now despite a fair amount of belief in certain assets that I haven't yet squandered, and that my reluctance to try hard at anything is a perfect reflection of the fact that I don't think I would feel any better even if I did reach some of these goals. The idea is to stay sufficiently amped up on coffee, time with my dog, occasional semi-social sorties to laugh several times a day and do quality work for other people. At some point, if I survive long enough, a lot of people I have cared about for a long time will be dead, and my ability to navigate the world without serious daily distress will have lessened greatly. I don't like thinking about that eventuality now, but I take passive solace in knowing that I am not going to rot either before or after I die. That is, I am not going to try to hang on through cancer or dementia or some other nasty, drawn-out deterioration. And I'll be turned immediately into ashes and hopefully snorted off a hooker's ass by whoever I leave the ashes to. And I have no idea why I just went there in particular, but there's no way to change it now.

Anyway, I have enrolled in a class in Denver that starts in the second week of January, and I have a certain amount of hope that it will push me in a direction I have needed to be pushed in for a while. As part of my preparation for this, I have disabled my social media accounts. This would have been wise no matter what my current intentions; I don't like the person I can be on pretty much any of those platforms, though at no time have I seriously regretted any of the ideas I have expressed there. It's all just fucking noise. So is this shit, but now I'm not inviting anyone to look at it by actively seeding the link anywhere. If you found this, it's because you went spelunking and everyone who reads this crap now knows exactly what to expect.

So there it is. I gave running as good a shot as I could. This not the same as saying I pushed myself to my physical limits; on the contrary, I found that "running hard" has a lower ceiling for me now, and that I'm a candy-ass these days. If nothing else, in the past, I was usually a game competitor en route to my pedestrian and wholly forgettable accomplishments. Whatever physical degradation I have suffered as a result of aging has been compounded by basic gutlessness, and I hope that I don't get any more insane ideas about timing myself on foot anymore.

Oh, and I ran every day in November and December. Gotta keep this post leaning positive.

2 comments:

  1. I'm exhausted after reading this but it was worth it.

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    Replies
    1. Don't let me drag you down. I just sometimes like to bypass realism and plunge straight into apocalyptic fatalism. Old guys get it.

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