For me, running is a way of life. I hope to still get excited about lacing up my shoes when I am in my eighties. I hope I will still compete in the seventy-plus age group then, like many of my older friends do. Psychologists recognize that humans develop through a series of distinctive stages from infant to wise old geezer. The path from cradle to grave is not always smooth. We’ve all met middle-aged people who never outgrew their adolescent phase. Runners, especially ultra runners, are different form the normal populations,so it’s only natural they don’t fit into the standard categories. Nonetheless, they, too, go through distinctive developmental phases, and, like normal humans, some of them get stuck sometimes:
She thinks about running. She talks about running. She reads Runner’s World. She buys the gym membership, shoes, shorts, cute sports bra, and cool-looking sunglasses. She studies the couch to 5k training plan and goes for a couple of runs. But then she stops, and the shoes and shorts become reminders of a failure to launch. Her gear looks at her accusingly until she can’t stand it anymore, so she heads out the door again and the cycle starts over. When she’s not running (which is most of the time), she dreams of being one of the lean, fast gazelle-like people she admires from behind the steering wheel of her car when she drives the five blocks to the post office. When she actually is running, she dreams of stopping, and of inhaling vast quantities of pizza, chocolate, or beer. But one day, she discovers that running has become a habit.
2. The Beginner:
She hesitates to call herself a runner. She runs mostly on a treadmill at the gym because running outside seems both embarrassing and scary. She can run a couple of miles without stopping, but she’s convinced that this alone does not make her a runner. Real runners, she thinks, run fast, look sleek, and always feel motivated. She believes she looks more like a turtle than like a gazelle, and she believes people who walk or drive by her will laugh about her slow pace and lack of a thigh gap. But she keeps putting one foot in front of the other because there are moments when running makes her feel free, powerful, and happy. She dreams of getting up the nerve to sign up for her first 5k. But one day, she quits caring so much about what others think and just heads out the door.
3. The Road Runner
She runs almost every day and keeps track of her mileage with a gps watch. She runs an extra lap around the block when her gps watch indicates that 0.2 miles are missing from her daily goal. She owns a closetful of running shoes, running socks, running shorts, running tights, running bras and running tops, arranged by color. She wears her sport bra under her work clothes and keeps her gear in her office to squeeze in a quick run while her colleagues have lunch. Her social life is dwindling because her Saturday long run won’t allow her to stay up past 10 pm on Friday nights. She lets her short hair grow because ponytails are so much less of a hassle. Getting older makes her happy instead of depressed because she looks forward to moving into a new age group. She has finished a bunch of 10ks, and a couple of half marathons. She dreams of qualifying for Boston. But one day, out of curiosity or by accident, she signs up for her first trail race.
4. The Recent Trail Running Convert
She quotes Born to Run like others quote the scriptures of their faith. She buys every piece of gear she can afford, and drools into her green smoothie over the ones she can’t. She has tried every shoe, reads every magazine, listens to every podcast.
She has an informed and sometimes overbearing opinion on zero-drop soles, metabolic efficiency training, and low-carb nutrition. Like a running encyclopedia, she knows who won which races, including the latest multi-day event in the Mongolian Steppe or the tundras of Iceland. She has hired a coach, and follows her chosen training plan with the devotion she once reserved for regular manicures. Between driving to trail heads, training runs, ice baths, a core routine, weight workouts, and the uploading of all her data onto Strava she has little time for anything else. It’s been months since she has watched a movie or gone on a date. She has completed her first 50-miler, but dreams of wearing a 100-mile buckle soon.
5. The Badass
She has quit red meat, sugar, diet soda, alcohol, and her full-time job. She thrives on a diet of coffee, kale smoothies, gluten-free organic eggs, and grass-fed coconut milk. She spends her summers living in her Subaru, in remote locations without running water or cell phone service, and winters in her mountain yurt.
Her body is covered in tattoos. Her Subaru is covered in a layer of dust. Her hair is a tangled mess. She has named each of the seven scars on her knees. Between crewing, pacing, racing, and volunteering, she spends time in coffee shops, on her laptop keyboard, because she finances her organic groceries, seaweed supplements and new shoes through a combination of freelance writing and online coaching. She is camping at 12 000 feet as part of her altitude training for her 7th Leadville 100, but dreams of someday getting into Hardrock.
6. The Grizzled Veteran
She still wears her grey hair in a ponytail. She still runs every day, but considers slowing down a bit after her 75th birthday. She remembers a time before Strava, before Ultrasignup, before the internet, before 100-mile lotteries. She has seen every trend in running shoes, running diet, or running fashion come and go at least five times since 1973. Taking anything too seriously now seems absurd to her. Taking herself too seriously never crosses her mind, except before races, when she sizes up the competition within her age group, and while racing, i.e. while running her heart out to beat that competition to the finish line, She dreams of one more PR and one more 100-mile buckle, but in the meanteime, she is happy to just keep running.
It is a good time to be alive and running, until the finish line of life.