Arc of an Athlete

My thirteen-year study: the effects of age on an athlete’s performance.

I’ve recently expanded my use of the term athlete. There was a time I would only use it to describe an elite crowd. The professionals, the college stand-outs, the runners who win races but still need a day job because running doesn’t pay the bills. These guys, these men and women, they’re clearly athletes. Peak performance, top of their game, all that crap.

Recently, I’ve been using athlete as a term for anyone who competes. The Merriam-Webster dictionary agrees with me: a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina. They make no distinction for professionals or for NCAA Division I players — most of whom are recruited to attend college specifically for their athletic prowess.

Merriam-Webster even takes it a step further. They offer the title to anyone trained or skilled.

My study kicked off when I moved to Gettysburg in 2005. I was exercised-focused before the move — in my twenties and thirties, fitness was my first priority. I ran (a lot). I ran the monuments of Washington, DC. I ran the biking trails adjacent to the Potomac river in Northern Virginia. I ran the C&O Canal towpath out of the city and into suburban Maryland. And I ran the wooded trails interlaced through DC’s Rock Creek Park.

But by the time I hit my forties, back in the early 2000s, my primary exercise was the walking part of my daily commute. A couple of miles — out and back from the Metro. Home ownership, a challenging job, and a new-born baby gobbled up all of my time.

Gettysburg is a paradise for runners. Twenty-six miles of park roads, eleven miles of hiking trails and endless country roads radiating out in every direction. Runners have countless routes to choose from. With my move, I joined the ranks of the remote work-force. Suddenly I had no commute. After work, I was free to lace up for a run before dinner.

I’ve never been an awesome athlete. In general, I’d call myself competent. In school and as a young adult, my sport was soccer. I played two or three days a week. Another player, once asked about my skill, referred to me as “Good-ish.” And as a runner, good-ish works as well. I’ve spent most of my career in the mid-pack.

Gettysburg is a small town. Every road out of Gettysburg leads to a city — Carlisle, Harrisburg, Westminster, Frederick — but each city is fifty or sixty minutes away. Gettysburg is a rural exburb situated right in the middle of nowhere. Here’s something city folk don’t know. People living in small towns know way more people than those living in a city. Because I see the same people over and over again, every day, every week, I seem to know pretty much everyone.

One thing’s for sure, I know all the runners. Or I used to.

running-78192_1280Eventually, I wound up working at the YWCA as its Finance Director. The Gettysburg YWCA is a fitness center, a child care, and an advocate for women’s issues and racial justice. It’s also ground-zero for the local running community. Hosting three 5Ks each year, those of us who helped manage the races knew all the area’s top runners. Over the thirteen years I’ve been associated with the YWCA, I’ve watched the arc of many running careers.

Yesterday, I went for a run after work. I ran my current favorite route — a series of paths zigzagging across Pickett’s Charge. Pickett’s Charge is a huge field and one of the principal landmarks of the Gettysburg Battlefield. It’s the site of the Confederate Army’s last offensive in the battle. Essentially, it’s an uphill slog across a mile of open space. The Confederate Army got creamed, and this defeat is said to be the turning point of the Civil War. The Union Army rode the momentum of this win through the end of the war.

I’m completely uninterested in Gettysburg battle-history. From my perspective, this is just an excellent place to run. I don’t know how far my route is, I’ve never measured it. And I don’t know how fast I’m running, I don’t wear a watch. I just go out and enjoy my run. This is where I am in the arc of my running career.

I no longer work at the YWCA, but last weekend, I wound up working a race. The Spirit of Gettysburg 5K. I heard they needed volunteers, and I said I would love to help if I could be out on the course. Over the past thirteen years, I’ve seen this race from every possible perspective. I’ve caught glimpses of the race from the parking lot where I’m still directing traffic even though the starting gun has already sounded. I’ve called time at the one-mile mark: 5:54, 5:57, six minutes, 6:03… I’ve watched the top runners battle for the lead in my rearview mirror as I drove the press truck around the course. This past weekend, I handed out plastic cups of water as runner cruised by.

There were five of us passing out water, and in a 5K, half the runners don’t even drink. My job was completely stressless. Mostly, I just enjoyed the race. I was able to cheer on the runners, the runners I’ve known for years.

And where were my runners?

Allison: for years, she contended as the fastest female, annually earning a chunk of the prize money. This year, she’s further back, a dozen women out-pacing her. Seth: I think he took third place overall a couple of years ago. Whoa, that guy’s really put on some weight. Tina: she usually wins her age group. Now she’s running mid-pack and not looking so great. Joan: something’s up with her knee. She walked the course this year. And Jason: So wracked by injury, he skipped this year’s race for the first time in twenty-six years.

Everyone’s getting old.

During my weekly run on the battlefield, I try to keep loose, relaxed. My pace is minutes per mile slower than it was ten or fifteen years ago. And while I was running twelve or fifteen miles at a shot just a few years ago, I now consider four-miles to be sort of long. We age. We age out of our abilities as athletes and we’re forced to adapt. As we slip over those decade milestones and enter a new age group, we’re given new opportunities to compete and excel, but never at the level we did in the past.

Before I realized this was happening, I used to try to meet and beat my previous years’ time. Sometimes I do, but year after year, I can’t. And when I try, I wind up injured. My approach to running has changed this year. I’m happy jogging, and in truth I’m happy walking. I’m doing far more walking than running these days. I’ve decided that consistency is more important to me than competitiveness. Being outside doing something, anything, is my number one goal.

I’d love to sit down with Allison, Seth, Tina, Joan or Jason. I’d love to find out how they feel about their changing relationship with running. Are they still chasing their personal records or are they at peace with the descending arc of their athletic career? For the first time in years, I’m content with my running. I’m not trying to achieve anything special. Not distance, not speed, I’m just going for a run.

22 thoughts on “Arc of an Athlete

  1. I read this with interest. Running and other measure of physical prowess do trend downward with advancing age. I notice it in myself when my hips hurt if I run too many miles or push too hard. But, the compensations you mention are profound.
    Competition and it’s importance as the measure of my success also trends downward as I age. I have the wisdom (finally) of greater experience and wider perspective to see winning or ranking above others as much less valuable than I once thought. Status among a group, no matter what the group,, has cultural importance for better or for worse. But how I rank on any chart or metric tells me almost nothing about my quality as a human being, nor the quality of others .
    And as I age, the only race that matters is, in my humble view, the human one.

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    • I like to think of myself as a relatively evolved individual capable of garnering contentment simply from enjoying a race or a run. It’s where I am now, but history shows that at some point in the future, I’ll be once again looking for external reward. I’ve done it consistently with running and now I do it with writing 😦 – thanks for reading

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  2. I enjoyed running for a long time, but never considered myself a competitor. The last few years I’ve done a couple of half marathons and a 10k, but they were always to raise money. I was more a participant and not a competitor. Hard to compete from Corral J. And I certainly didn’t go into these events thinking I would run the whole distance. I knew I would walk. The goal was to manage my stamina and endurance so that I finished the event. And if I saw someone who ran in the same grouping as I did, I might personally challenge myself to finish ahead of that person. So for those of us in Corral J, can someone who earns a participation medal also be called an athlete? Seriously, that and a stupid medal is all we’re left with for our effort at the end of the day.

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    • I think in a culture where most adults won’t walk a mile to go to the store, someone who trains to run 13 miles is an athlete. I agree, the participation medal is rather stupid, but I also have all of mine tied around the top of a wine bottle on my dresser. I hope the memories of the run/race remain after the medal is shoved in a box.

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  3. My doctor calls me an athlete, but I’ve never been comfortable with that designation. I have no athletic talent, unless being skinny counts as talent. I ran for 32 years until injury stopped me, but I’m still doing weight work and any aerobic exercise I can. Aging is taking so much away, but that’s no reason to give up.

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    • I use the term “real writer” frequently. As in I’m going to a conference soon. I’m concerned because everybody else is going to be a real writer. Impostor Syndrome. Possibly made worse because writing doesn’t pay the bills… but I’ve never earned a cent from running and I always considered myself a real runner. Go figure.

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  4. I find myself walking now more than running. There was a period in 2015-2016 I was doing a half marathon every 3 to 4 months, with 5,10, and 15K’s thrown in. I was never fast. I was always more of a Galloway intervals, back of the pack, I’m in it to finish and beat my own times kind of run/walker that didn’t really take it up until I was already past “prime” years. Even so, I developed tendonitis in left ankle and my right knee gets really, really angry with me sometimes. I stop all together for a while, but then I get itchy to get out, to breathe fresh air and move. For the past two years I’ve signed up for one half marathon a year, the Harrisburg Half, with the walkers who get a 45 minute head start from the official gun start. I still ramp up my distances every week in preparation, sometimes throwing in intervals, but I’m more motivated these days to enjoy the view than reach some PR.

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    • Whoa. You’ve been busy writing comments! My 40s were one long break from running. It seemed like I was always injured. A friend gave me Born to Run and after I read it I was immediately back in the game. I was thinking about this the other day and I decided I should reread the book. I wrote about my rebirth of running here: http://undercrust.blogspot.com/2014/05/portrait-of-runner.html. I’d like to get back into running more, but like you, I really just want to cover more miles so I can spend more time outdoors.

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