According to clichés and rock songs, you’re not supposed to look back. Looking back is associated with regret, remorse and other unhealthy instincts. Indeed, in running and life it’s better to be facing forward than looking over your shoulder.
But sometimes, as long as you’re not in the middle of a crowded race or on a trail run through the forest or wallowing in self-pity, it can be helpful to look at the road behind you. You may find it reassuring to see how far you’ve come.
I used to keep track of almost every single time I exercised (I can’t help it, I’m like that). So one day, when I happened to stumble upon my training log from 2001, it was a chance to look into a bit of a runner’s time capsule.
In March 2001, I couldn’t call myself a runner. I was just a guy trying to stay in shape. Mostly I went to the gym and rode a stationary bike while reading the morning newspaper (that’s how strenuous it was) and lifted a few very light weights. My goal was to get about thirty minutes of exercise four or five times a week. In other words, the bare minimum.
I ran sometimes, usually on a treadmill and once in a while, when the weather was good, outside. But even when I ran, I didn’t call it running. In early April 2001, according to my training log, I went “jogging” for half an hour.
Jogging is a word I have not used in a long time. According to Wikipedia, jogging is “a form of trotting or running at a slow or leisurely pace.” Yeah, that pretty much describes me at the turn of the century. Trotting. Slow. Leisurely.
In 2001, running wasn’t part of my vocabulary, much less my lifestyle or my career. I had never even considered running in a race, so there wasn’t a collection of number bibs and finish-line photos stuck on a wall in my den. Wet and smelly running clothes weren’t hanging from every banister in the house. I didn’t know what a personal best was, let alone have one at any distance. Gift certificates from running stores were not the default birthday and Christmas presents from close family.
When I ran – or jogged – I wore a lot of grey and white cotton. I looked like Rocky in that famous scene when he climbs the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, only slower and less inspiring. I usually wore a ball cap from the Baseball Hall of Fame. I don’t know what brand of shoes I wore, but they were the same ones I used to play squash.
A marathon? That was for crazy people. I got in my car and mapped out two 5k routes through my neighbourhood and figured that would be as far as I would ever need to go. Once in a while, I would get really ambitious and tack on an extra kilometre or so, noting it carefully in my log.
Somewhere far in the future, I would finally stop writing down every single run. By then I had a fancy watch that was recording them all anyway. But I think running became such a regular part of my life that it didn’t seem worth noting anymore. I don’t keep a sleeping log. I don’t write down every time I go to work. Why would I record all my runs?
(There is one other major difference between then and now, according to my training log: after every single run in 2001, I did a lot of stretching.)
But at the start of the new millennium, I was, by my own description, a jogger.
On April 22, 2001, I entered my first event, a 5k race. I enjoyed the experience, but that’s not when I got hooked. I didn’t do another race for more than two years.
Back then, I didn’t expect I would ever be a serious runner, with all the wick-away gear and gadgets, much less somebody who wrote, spoke and published a magazine about running. But somewhere along the way, something changed, other than the fact that I stopped stretching after my runs.
In that exercise log from 2001, I start using the word “running” in September. I don’t know whether it was because I was getting a little bit more serious about it, or whether “jogging” just didn’t sound cool enough anymore.
It would be another six months before I decided one day, on a whim towards the end of my regular run, to do a second lap and run ten kilometres for the first time in my life (I figured it would be easier to decide to do a 10k run when I’d already run 5k than when I was starting from home). It would be almost another two years before I would run my first half-marathon, still draped in cotton and a baseball cap. My first winter of running outside was a few years away. And my first marathon, and that moment when Running Room founder John Stanton referred to me and all the others crossing the finish line as “runners” and “athletes” and I thought, “Yeah, I’m a runner” – that was almost three years in the future.
It’s powerful to see how far you can travel in a relatively short period of time, literally one step at a time. When someone says to me, “I could never be a runner,” I always point out I didn’t start out as one either.
Because somewhere between March and September of 2001, I stopped jogging and started running. And until now, I have never looked back.
Why racing beats everyday life
For the amateur runner, nothing beats the race experience. In a race, you are the focus of attention, just like the elite competitors. That’s why, even though they can be gruelling and don’t always go as well as planned, races are way better than everyday life.
Don’t think so? Then tell me when any of these things ever happen to you on a regular day.
When you wander through the hallways at the office, do people clap as you go past? Or ring bells?
When you’re doing your everyday job, do members of your family gather to watch you and shout encouragement? Do they make signs with markers and bristol board that say, “Go Heather!” or “You can do it”? Do your friends in other countries monitor your progress online and send you congratulatory e-mails?
Is there a rock band or brass quartet playing upbeat music on the side of the road when you drive downtown? Or belly dancers? (OK, that’s probably a good thing.)
When you make your way through a busy day, is there a table with refreshments on it at regular intervals, where volunteers are just waiting for you to arrive so they can hand you the drink of your choice as you zip past without stopping?
When you’re walking around your neighbourhood, is it considered acceptable for you to throw your cup on the ground when you’re finished with it and expect someone to rush over, pick it up and throw it out for you?
At the end of a long meeting, is there a room with free bagels and neatly cut-up bananas and orange wedges waiting for you, to replenish you and reward you for surviving the ordeal?
When you’re driving down the road and you pass someone, do they wish you luck as you go by?
When you’re working outside on a hot day, does anyone ever give you a sponge so that you can squeeze water over your head and instantly cool off?
When you’re strolling through the mall, do you expect that by wearing a shirt with your name on it, there will be complete strangers calling out, “Good job, Rhonda!” or “Go Bob!”?
Does the city ever close a series of major roads for you and station police officers along the route so that you can get where you need to go without vehicles getting in the way?
When you’re trying to find your way around an unfamiliar area, are there volunteers standing there, waiting for you, so they can wave you in the right direction?
Is there a website you can go to that shows you how everything in the rest of your life – your investment portfolio, your cooking skills, your sense of humour – stacks up against other people in your age group?
When you complete a work-related project, or a task around the house, is there any bling? Does anybody put a medal around your neck and congratulate you, even if you didn’t finish on time or perform particularly well? Is there an announcer calling out your name and imploring people to cheer for you?
How often in your life when you are not running a race are there people yelling out, “You’re looking good!” or “Nice legs!”?
When you’re in the final stages of mowing the lawn or doing the laundry, does anybody ever try to give you a last-minute surge of energy by calling out, “You’re almost there!”?
When you finished building that shed in your backyard, did someone come up beside you and put a foil cape around your shoulders and treat you like a hero that had just returned from battle?
Name another circumstance where a complete stranger will high-five you. Or let his kid do the same.
Unless you’re the mayor, is there any other circumstance in your life when there are official photographers positioned strategically to record special moments and then provide you with a selection of photos afterward?
When you get back from a gruelling day of appointments, can you just stop in to the massage tent and get a free rubdown? Does your spouse draw a warm bath for you when you get home?
I didn’t think so.
My last run
I don’t know when it will be. I don’t know why it will be. But someday, there will be a last run.
When I started jogging around the neighbourhood, even when I trained for my first marathon, I wasn’t certain how long I would keep running. Maybe after a time, or having crossed a finish line and checked it off my list, I would switch to another activity.
But once the repetition engrains it into your lifestyle, rewires it into your DNA, it becomes hard to imagine not running. Today I dread even the idea of an injury sidelining me for a few months. I picture myself going stir crazy watching other people still running blissfully by while I wait out a recovery.
So the prospect of giving it up permanently is something I push to the farthest corner of my mind, the place for those topics that are especially hard to confront, like: “Which of the Two of Us Will Die First?” or “Colonoscopies.”
But it must be so. Everything has a beginning and an end, and there will come a day when I will never run again.
I stop short of saying that one day I will no longer be a runner, because I like to think that even when I’m not running, I’m still a runner. No matter when you retire, can you ever stop being a coalminer or a soldier? Once something becomes part of your life, it remains etched in your character even if you let it lapse from your routine.
I wonder sometimes what specifically will make me stop. Though it’s hard to picture now, it’s possible I may just give it up. Maybe due to a variety of factors my running will dwindle over a few years and one day I just won’t be doing it anymore. That must happen to a lot of runners. The motivation slips a little, you grow a little older. Maybe you take up another sport. But before you know it, you haven’t been for a run in weeks. Then it’s months, then years.
It could be that I get injured and never recover well enough to run again. I could get warned off running by a doctor. I could get sick.
And there is another possibility to consider: Will it be my last run because my life, not my running, gets interrupted? Like everyone else, runners die for more reasons than just old age or prolonged illness. Sometimes it happens suddenly. No matter what it does to improve our cardiovascular system and delay this and forestall that, running offers no guarantees.
I’m optimistic I’ll be running in my fifties. But what about my sixties? The numbers, at least in terms of race participation, seem to drop off significantly there. Will I be one of those rare people still running when I’m seventy? Shuffling along at eighty? Even if I’m blessed with extraordinary luck and health, at some point it must end.
And before it does, there will be one last run.
Unless I feel a tweak or a twinge that day that leads to something serious, or I plan my retirement like some professional athlete on a farewell tour, it’s more likely than not that I won’t know it’s my last run until much later. In all probability it will be a routine run, nothing out of the ordinary.
It goes without saying that I want that run to be as far in the future as possible. But more important than the timing, I want it to be a certain kind of run.
About once or twice a month, usually in the final kilometre as I head for home, for just a few moments I think about what I’m doing. I think about the air I’m breathing, the movement of my legs and the feeling of good health I get from a respectable run.
It often happens at a time when I’ve had to deal with something frustrating or unexpected. For maybe the only time that day, I’m living in the moment, enjoying what it feels like to throw one foot in front of the other, just as a child might.
I pick up the pace a little and feel a little bit of pride that despite a busy life I’ve managed to stay in decent shape, good enough that I can head out the door on any given day and run for an hour or more without stopping.
And that gives me peace. And hope. And energy.
I pray that it isn’t soon. But no matter when it is, I want the last run to be this kind of run.
As the final turn approaches, I think to myself, not everything in running and life is as I wish it to be. But it could be a lot worse.
After all, I’m alive and I’m running.