Maybe Next Time. Maybe.
I sent a telepathic message: Sit this one out, Jane. Take a rest. No luck. Jane finished second, I was third. Jane and I compete in that dwindling class of runners, women over 70.
My first half marathon, at 70, was a personal challenge to defy encroaching old age. I trained hard, and by race day I was ready, eager as I awaited the start. Running was exhilarating--Look at me, I wanted to shout: “I’m doing it!—and exhausting, but I recharged as I passed each mile marker. I huffed and puffed up the hill at mile nine, and the rest was downhill, literally. I was euphoric when I crossed the finish ahead of my three-hour goal and looked back at streams of runners and walkers—younger and older—still behind me.
Twelve half marathons completed, I’m stronger and faster. Proud and grateful for each finish.
My competitive streak was unleashed when I placed third of eight in my age group at the 2015 San Diego Half. Heading the pack was 73-year-old Nancy, who beat me by 25 minutes, while number eight trailed an hour behind me. I’ve finished in the top three since then, but never first. Maybe next time.
Jane surfaced in the 70-74 category last year. She’s fast—I couldn’t outrun her. But as I neared 75 I saw a gleam of light. I’d be older, but so would my competition. I’d leave Jane behind, have a shot at that elusive first.
But no. Remember Nancy, first to my third in 2015? My new nemesis is 76 and runs sure, steady, swift. As my next race approaches, I try ESP again: Take a rest, Nancy. Sit this one out.
Is that last vowel an “e” or an “a?” Sedentary as both word and posture was alien to me. Till now. Sidelined, slowed, snowed in, stationary, static, shelved, suspended—by a stress fracture in my foot, spasms in my back. I rest, ice, heat, stretch.
“Give it time,” my sports doc says. Six to eight weeks—“given your age,” he adds.
“Be patient,” my chiropractor says.
As an older runner and a late starter I trained conscientiously for each race. When I placed second in my age bracket in the San Francisco Rock’n’Roll Half Marathon, I was galvanized. Driven by possibility, I pushed harder. Too hard. When I should have rested I kept running, determined to complete the next race, the final leg of the Triple Crown.
A two-month moratorium is a harsh sentence.
Injury free, eight weeks of training with a running coach, the force was with me on my thirteenth half marathon. Nancy got the message and stayed away. I was the only runner in the 75-79 division—my first first.
Two weeks later I’m awaiting the start of the Wonder Woman 10K. The stadium parking lot a sea of scarlet, the mostly-female, mostly-young runners sport red racerback tank tops with the nested “W” emblem on the front, #IAMWONDERWOMAN on the back. Some embellish with Wonder Woman socks, armbands, and capes, starred blue shorts and tights, sparkly headgear. Superman and Batman mingle in the crowd. Wonder Woman herself, Lynda Carter, launches the race from giant screens. My run buddy Jeanne and I don’t need fancy costumes. At 70 and 75 we figure we’re wonder women by virtue of our participation alone. We stretch and take in the commotion at a healthy distance, line up mid-stream for the countdown, the “GO!”
The mid-November morning sun climbs as we circle the parking lot and head out to the road. The flat, easy course has no ocean view or awesome scenery, but I’m oblivious, in my own world. We double back around the stadium and funnel onto a road that skirts the freeway. Ignoring traffic din and exhaust fumes, I focus on my hips, legs, and feet, my steady pace. We enter the parking lot for the third time, the asphalt now radiating the sun’s heat. I know I’m having a great race. I sprint into the stadium, circle and cross the field to finish at the 50-yard line. My name is called out, and “75 years young” to a smattering of appreciative cheers from spectators. I claim my race medal and check the results. First and only in my age group. Again. The last one standing, I’ve conquered the field. Until next time.
I was prepared to end this on a high note, but the thrill of victory is short-lived. Ten days after Wonder Woman I’m brought down by a back strain while tying my shoes for a routine run.
Pain like a steel band across my lower back. Spasms. I stumble to the freezer for the ice pack, lower myself to the bed, call the chiropractor. I’m back on the disabled list. It’s a recurring condition, not a running injury, but still a sharp comeuppance. A reminder of mortality.
How do you know when it’s time to hang it up?
I believe my body will tell me, but will I recognize the real signal, distinguish it from the false alarms, the temporary setbacks?
Is this it?
I rest, ice, heat, stretch. Ponder. Argue with myself.
Is it worth it? My chiropractor believes the constant pounding of running takes a toll on my joints and already-weak back.
On the other hand I’m convinced running is what keeps me strong and healthy.
Until it doesn’t, until diminishing returns outweigh benefits.
But giving up means giving in, and I’m not ready for that.
If it’s true that I’ll know when it’s time, this can’t be it. Or can it?
Gloom and resignation see-saw with confidence and grit.
I’ll be back on the road, strong and fast.
What am I trying to prove? I’ve achieved my goals—I don’t need to set records or outrun anyone.
Then again why not? If I can, as long as I can.
Maybe next time.
About the Author: Alice Lowe reads and writes about life and literature, food and family. Recent essays have appeared in Ascent, Bloom, Concho River Review, Hobart, Superstition Review, and Waccamaw Review. Her work has been cited in the Best American Essays and nominated for Pushcart Prizes and Best of the Net. Alice is the author of numerous essays and reviews on Virginia Woolf’s life and work, including two monographs published by Cecil Woolf Publishers in London. Alice lives in San Diego, California; read her work at www.aliceloweblogs.wordpress.com.