Reflections on turning 30
This month not only marks a huge milestone in my life (on October 20th I turn 30), but it also marks a number of palpable changes that have taken place in who I am as a runner. The most obvious is a change in age groups: I now move from the 20-29 age group to the 30-39 age group (as my brother would say, I am the “old man”). This may allow me (though there is no guarantee) to place in a race, which would be great. The other changes that come with turning 30 are somewhat subjective and introspective, but even more significant.
Lately, while talking with Katie, reflecting during a run, or even while at work, I have been asking myself a simple question: what does it mean to be a runner? When I ran track in high school I thought the answer invovled a single word: speed. You busted your ass in practice so that you could bust your ass during a meet. Of course, because I was a sprinter my conception of running consisted of anything less then 800 meters—run a mile? That was “long distance,” so no thank you. After high school I did not really “run” at all. That is, I would not consider myself a “runner” in any serious sense of the word. I did not enjoy what I have come to enjoy about running: the exhilarantion, the self discipline, or the freedom. I ran, but it always seemed as if it was from something, never to something or “with” something (I will explain below).
2009 was when I ran my first race (the Father’s Day 5k with Katie) and it began to click in my head what it really meant to be a runner. And yet, as was the case in high school, running was more about “where did you finish” and “what was your time” than about simply running. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with pushing yourself for a faster time or trying to pass that last person on the final straightaway. In fact I still do that. What is problematic is when running becomes those things. When running only becomes about the beginning and the end, rather than the process in between, then you will fail to grasp the heart of what running is and can be.
As Katie and I trained for more races we decided to run a marthon and, in preparation for it, a half marathon. So during the end of 2009 and beginning of 2010 we trained to run the Flower City Half Marathon (Rochester, NY) in May, and then the Lake Placid Marathon in June. We followed a plan that was regimented and methodical: we did tempo runs; we did speed work; we ran hills, hills and more hills; we cross trained; we lamented missed days, and forced ourselves to stick to the schedule. But then (in retrospect) the best thing that could have happened happened: we both got injured. I had nagging ITB and knee problems, and Katie succumbed to hip problems. We had to pull out of the marathon and run the half at Lake Placid. Afterwards we continued to be plagued with these injuries, so why, you might ask, was this a good thing?
Because it showed us that running needs to be about listening to your body, about being in touch with all parts of your body—especially your feet. Actually our problem was twofold: we overtrained, and our shoes did not help. It is easy, now, to see that we overtrained–it is easy to fix that in the future. But fixing the latter problem took a paradigm shift: it meant embracing the barefoot/minimalist ethos of running, and since we have done this neither of us has had any serious injuries (aside from the normal soreness after long runs). More importantly, though, both of use have grown to love running more than we thought possible.
But what does this all have to do with turning 30? Well, I think it took me this many years to learn to a valuable, but often overlooked fact about running: you are more than just your body, but your body is much more than a piece of machinery. Let me explain. As runners we want our bodies to do great things for us—whether that is jogging around the block or running across a desert—and we often treat it like it is a separate entity: something to be honed, fueled, perfected, and then beaten up, all in the name of running. But while I am my body, in the sense that my identity as me (rather than someone else) has come to be associated with this body that I have now, I am much more than merely this external appearance. I am more than the physical form capable of propelling itself forward. I am a lifetime (at this point 30 years) of thoughts, emotions, memories, feelings, and knowledge. And all of these things help to show me that I am a “sensing” being—I am a being capable of perceiving and sensing hundreds of thousands of things around every minute or every day, and then translating those perceptions into new thoughts, emotions, memories, feelings, and knowledge.
If I treat my body like a machine, something wholly detached from who I am, something separate from me, then I will fail to experience the beautiful symbiotic relationship that running affords. Embracing this fact allows me to truly be in touch with the sensations that my body (especially my feet) is sending to me during a run. (This is the primary benefit of running barefoot or in minimalist shoes—feedback.) Understanding this means that I will be much more aware of when to stop beating my body up, or when to push through the pain, or when to slow down and walk. Runners do not like to hear their body say “Why don’t you slow down and walk for a moment,” but I have found (thanks, in no small part, to the wisdom of my wife) that walking is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of being aware.
So what does it mean to be a runner at 30? It means coming to be aware of who you are–body and self, intertwined as one. While there is no doubt that I look forward to getting faster and running farther (perhaps a marathon and an ultra next year?), I am embracing the new and evolved “aware me.” The “me” that listens to a body that is not separate, but is a part of everything that has culminated in the me that is here right now. I am sure that at 40 I will have an even deeper understanding and awareness of that “me,” and I can only hope and wish that more people (runners and no alike) will come to experience an awareness of who they are, whatever their age may be.