Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Evolution of a Middle-Aged Jogger

I’ve been a runner since I was at university back in the late 1970s.  By this I mean I would go out for a 3-4 mile run 3 times a week.  Occasionally I would up my mileage to 5.  I ran a 10k in 1985 (Hampton, Virginia’s Bay Days 10k), which was the longest run I had ever made.  I thought I might die.  That was my first and only race until our family moved to Ethiopia and a colleague was working with the great Ethiopian long-distance runner Haile Gebre Sellasie to organize a mass-participation 10k race in Addis Ababa.  That first year (2001), I joined more than 10,000 others to run 10k through the streets of Addis.  Never mind that Haile, who also ran (and won) in the elite runners’ race, could have completed the course twice in the amount of time it took me to do it once!  I was chuffed  at having finished, and done so at an elevation of about 7800 feet.  We lived in Ethiopia for another six years, and I was able to run in every subsequent Great Ethiopian Run but one, when we were out of the country.

Me running the 2004 Great Ethiopian Run

I have since moved to Kenya, where my normal pattern prevailed for more than four years.  While I’ve always been able to run 3 or 4 miles, I have always struggled to add distance to my routine.  After doing some reading, I decided to start having one ‘long’ run a week, and seeing if I could slowly slowly increase my distance.  This past year in Kenya, my long runs started out about 5 miles. After a month or so I increased to 6 miles.  Then came 7, which was exciting as it meant I was running what previously had been my maximum distance.  Then came the day I chose a new route that bumped my long run distance up to 8 miles.  I then did a long run of more than 9 miles before Christmas, and on a visit back to the States over the Christmas holidays achieved a previously unimaginable 10 miles on an early morning run in South Carolina.  There must, however, be an asterisk with this run, as I was still benefiting from having gone from my normal operating elevation of 6200 feet in the Nairobi suburb of Karen to Hilton Head Island’s elevation of maybe 2.
I was able to maintain this pattern once I got back to Kenya, three runs of 4.5 miles and a longer one of 7, 8, and sometimes 9 miles, depending on how I felt.  When we returned to the States for an extended stay in May, I used my elevation change three-week window of opportunity to see what I could do.  On a muggy morning in flat Virginia Beach I somehow managed to run personal record 10.5 miles.  But I felt terrible, mainly because I became dehydrated.  In the meantime, my daughter asked me to consider running a half marathon, so I started looking into training programs and discovered that I was already well on my way, in terms of training, not just for a half marathon, but for a marathon itself.  By May I was running around 25 miles a week.  I decided to start increasing mileage again.

Virginia summers can be brutally hot and humid, so my normal time to run is just before dawn.  But this summer I have been able to do many if not most of my runs with the temperature in the 60s.  This past week it has been in the 50s, which is crazy for August.  I’ve also followed advice and started stashing a water bottle at the halfway point of my longer runs, and this has made a huge difference.  My mileage has steadily increased over the summer from the twelve mile runs I did at the end of June, to the 13 mile run I did in July, and the 15 mile run I did two weeks later.  And then two Saturdays ago I did the unthinkable, a 17 mile run.

A year ago I remember thinking that I was too old to contemplate a half marathon, much less a marathon.  Today I find myself somehow thinking that running a marathon is within reach.  The Richmond (VA) marathon is on Saturday, November 16, and I have unofficially made finishing that race my goal.  ‘Unofficially’ in that I have not yet registered for the race, and I’m still watching my mid-50s body to see if all of its constituent parts are up to it.  But I’m training like it's on and will have to make a decision by the end of the month when the rather steep registration price goes up even more.

I still don’t think of myself as a ‘runner’.  I’m slow and old enough to be the father of many of the other people I see out on the roads and in the races.  But I have surprised myself with what this body can do.  And I’m also struck by how fragile all these systems that make up our physical existence are.  It doesn’t take much to undo us.

Race day is a long ways off (90 days according to the countdown clock on the marathon webpage!), and a lot can happen between now and then.  I could get injured or get sick and the whole process get derailed.  However if it is only for today that I have been disciplining my body and pushing myself to find the limits of what I can do, then it has been more than worth it.  I have my cake.  Finishing on 11/16 would just be the icing!

These  next four pictures show some of the places I get to see when I go running.

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