I was 48 hours past an 8-mile training run that left me feeling physically and emotionally defeated. I undertook it as a test of my ability to train for one last half-marathon — a distance I swore off five years ago — but it felt more like an indictment: You are old. You cannot do this anymore. Quit, already.
I awoke yesterday still feeling battered, and my expectations for this morning were low: maybe a half-hearted workout on the elliptical, or a short jog on the trail above my home. But as I stepped out the door, I felt my shoes orienting themselves in the opposite direction, toward a hilly 6.5-mile trail loop I run when I’m feeling good.
I looked at my feet curiously, noting the dirty spots on my running shoes where the bunions are about to break through.
Really? I said.
OK, I said. Let’s go.
And we did, me and my 56-year-old body which, inexplicably, was ready again to run. I unlaced my shoes 66 minutes later, about five minutes faster than I last ran that loop. I was tired in a good way.
Broadly speaking, aging is a predictable experience: the trajectory is generally, undeniably, relentlessly, downhill. But it has elements of mystery, too, of caprice — moments and even days of surprising grace. Running is acutely clarifying in that regard; it reminds me continually of who I no longer am, without ever foreclosing the possibility of who I may yet be.
I was 24 when I began running, thinking — of course — I would do a marathon. But I was young, and more inclined to play than work. I had to grow up a little as a runner to appreciate the severity of the distance, to understand what it would require of me.
That took a decade. I completed the Twin Cities Marathon in 1993, rallying to finish a half-second under the 4-hour goal I nearly lost after hitting the wall and crumpling.
But the long training runs had given me an experience of my body that I had not had before. On the best of those days, I felt as if I was riding the finest horse from the Queen’s stable: powerful and wild-eyed, yet responsive to the lightest command.
I was 34, and I had every joy that makes runners want to go: rhythm, strength, endurance.
Four years later, in 1997, I entered the first of several Triple Crowns, a trio of difficult races here in the Pikes Peak Region: the hilly, unforgiving Garden of the Gods 10-Mile, the rugged 7.4-mile Summer Round-up Trail Run and the Pikes Peak Ascent, a 13.32-mile race that climbs more than 7,800 feet up the mountain.
Twice weekly, I shoehorned myself out of bed to train with other runners on hilly trails and roads as dawn turned to day. It was work of a good and honest kind. But it was fun, too, and gratifying to feel my strength and speed increase as I ran with the group and on my own. If I came home tired, I also came home uplifted. And in 2001 — the final year I did the series — I took third in the Master’s division.
I’m not her, either.
Many miles later, in 2010, I decided to attempt one more Ascent, but by that time race organizers required a half-marathon qualifier. So I began training for Georgetown to Idaho Springs, a gentle, scenic downhill course. A good choice, I thought, if I had to run another 13.1-mile race. As easy as I could make it.
But it wasn’t easy at all. I was 51, and I struggled to find any joy in the training. As I built to long runs of 8, 10 and then 12 miles, my joints ached. I was tired, and not in a good way. I didn’t want to be doing what I was doing.
Yet there were moments of grace, of feeling — however fleetingly — that I inhabited a body that could still do what I asked of it. I completed the race and, a year later, my fourth Pikes Peak Ascent.
But that was four years ago, and today, I am not even her.
So I don’t know about this half-marathon. I won a free entry, and the runner I was 30 years ago, 20 years ago — even 10 years ago — said “go.” But the runner I am today knows this: It gets harder each year. More pain, less gain.
So we struck a bargain, me and my younger selves, about whether to again toe the line on race day, Sept. 7: Try. Train. Listen to the body that carried all of us through all those miles. See what she says.
Two days ago, I thought I heard her say “no.” Today, I’m not so sure.
So for now we’re sticking with it, me and all the runners I have been.
I’m not them anymore, not by a long shot. But they’re with me still — waiting to see who I am, today.