The Mirror Lies, the Runner Dreams
Article by: Michael SelmanReproduced with permission of the author
I swear, I have not aged a day since I started long distance running back in 1982, at least according to both my mirror and my imagination. I look in the mirror, and the image that stares back has the exact same youthful appearance it did all those years ago. Anyone who knows me will readily agree that I don't act any more mature than I did in my 20's. Most would even say I've regressed. I delight in that intentional lack of progress.
I look in my runners logs from years gone by, and know that I can still beat those fast times of prior years if I just train right, eat right, sleep right, and have the right course with the right tail wind on the right day. I just know in my 48 beat per minute heart that my breakthrough year as a runner is still out there, in my future. And if you tell me to grow up and start thinking my age, I'll tell you to get lost. I like believing this way.
Every new year, I wipe the statistical slate clean, and I start entering my runs in a new log. And shortly before the new year, I get to add another increment to the number they call my age. It just so happens that the augmentation I added late last year makes my age end with a five, and that means I get to compete against a new group of runners with higher numbers in their age than those I was racing with before. I don't think that age determines much more than who you are competing against. It certainly is no excuse for slowing down.
Along with every new year, there is, for me, a renewed determination to run more miles, and to best my race times from the previous year. In 2000, I actually succeeded in that goal for every distance I raced, with the exception of the ½ marathon. Part of that is because 1999 was not a particularly stellar running year. My goal for 2001 will be the same, and again, I have a chance, because this past year, although an improvement over 1999, I still fell short of my fullest potential. I figure if I can succeed again, and continue the upward spiral for each of the next 20 years, those lifetime PR's will be within my reach by the time I retire. There are 60-year-old men running sub 20 5K's all the time. I want to be like them. The fact that I've run one sub 20 in my life, years and years ago, and that these speedsters were running 16 minute 5K's at my age shouldn't make a difference, right?
Mirrors don't tell the future, or the past, but with a vivid imagination, they tell lies about the present. They only capture the moment of your gaze, in reverse. The mirror is who you are at any given moment. We age so gradually that, from one day to the next, we can't place our finger on when exactly getting older happens. As runners, some of us are guilty of believing we can buck the trend, and stop the process altogether: maybe even reverse it. Somehow, even among fellow runners, I sometimes think that I am the one will stay speedy while all my age group competition slows to a crawl. Aging and its effects might be for some people, but not for me.
I have raced through the entire 40-44 year age group here in Georgia. I have followed my own progress, as well as that of many others in my age group, with a great deal of interest over the last five years. Very few veteran runners my age have gotten any faster during that time. Most have gotten slower, and some have totally dropped out of the picture. Yet others have disappeared for a while, and then returned, significantly slower than before. It seems so ironic how the years seem to fly by so much quicker, but our race times get slower. I look at my peers' times and think to myself that I could be beating most of them in races by now, except for one minor detail. I've gotten slower too. But in my case, I've got a series of excuses as to why I've slowed, and the justifications as to why some day in the future, I will be faster than all of them.
I know, I know. This way of thinking is probably something I have in common with many other runners. Maybe, some day, I'll have to accept the fact that I can't stop getting older, and I can't stop the reminders my body and the finish line clock keep giving me. Some day, I may settle for being content in just holding steady from one year to the next. In the big picture, even that is a virtual improvement. But although I may be getting closer to that point, I'm not quite there yet. I still plan to break 22 minutes for 5K this year, even though I didn't do it once last year, or the year before that, or the year before that.
What is it that my mind refuses to process when the mirror stares back? I must be how old I am. After all, when I was born, Eisenhower was president, and he was re-elected to another term after that. I must look how old I am. Surely people don't think my daughter is my sister when we are seen together. I didn't learn about the John Kennedy assassination in history class like she did. I was sent home from school early that day, during history class. My teacher could work no more.
So, here I am, 45 years old, and feeling like I'm still 26, as I was when I started long distance running. And I continue to imagine I still look the same, too. I just refuse to accept my aging age quite yet. If I was a coin my age, I would be worth many time my face value today. But I am me, and can't even gauge my own face value. My face looks the same to me as it did way back then.
If all goes according to plan, the mirror will continue to lie, and I will continue to dream. This year may be my breakthrough year, when I suddenly run effortlessly to age group victories, and I finally realize my potential. And if it doesn't happen this year, that's okay too, because I still have my whole lifetime ahead of me. Just don't wake me up.
Michael Selman Roads Scholar Atlanta Georgia USAMichael Selman is a freelance writer who has appeared in publications and web sites throughout the world, including Runner's World, Footnotes, and CoolRunning.