The annual Fox and the Turkey run in Batavia draws more than 2,000 runners. The vibe is wonderful. Dozens of families run the race together. Today was the 21st annual race put on the by Fox River Trail Runners, the largest running organization the burbs west of Chicago.
The race starts up a 200-meter hill with a 10% grade that makes for an honest start, no matter who you are. When you have not been doing hill work or much speed work, that run up the Houston Street hill raises the heart rate precipitously.
Then you run another ninth-tenths of a mile to find out how much the hill cost you against your hoped-for pace. I was planning to run 7:00 miles, but it was obvious that was not going to happen. I rolled through the first mile in 7:23 feeling okay, not under stress, but not feeling like things would get a whole lot faster either.
The race rolls on streets in my old neighborhood. The course circles around a bit, and the morning sun this time of year throws long shadows from every house. November light has a bittersweet quality however you look at it. The sun tries very hard to be bright and cheery, but there are limitations when the earth itself is leaning away from you.
That’s how it is with an aging runner as well. All the instincts to go faster are still there, but the shadows of time lean away from you. Last spring I ran a 5K at 6:50 pace and was pretty happy with that. But today I noticed guys in my age group passing me or staying well ahead during the race this morning. At that point, you realize that it’s best to take what you can get from the day, and run smart.
It’s that I don’t have much concern about whether I get beat or not these days. I’ve ramped this body into racing shape in every decade of my life after the age of 10. My best racing was during my 20s of course, the physical peak period for runners. During my 30s I gave it a good go a few times, but never returned to prime contention for the overall. In my forties, there were age group victories now and then. Then during my early 50s I pretty much didn’t race while taking care of my late wife with cancer
Now I’m in my 60s, and still racing now and then. It’s a happy enough feeling to be dialing it now and then to whatever Red Zone applies at the moment. There’s a quiet pride in even being out there.
No crime at 8:00 pace
So this morning I settled into 8:00 pace and turned my racing instincts down to a mark of 5 on a scale of 10. Instead, I concentrated on “running well,” keeping form and breathing in the rhythm that provides optimal performance without stripping the gears.
Once I did this, my footfalls fell silent in comparison to the many other runners around me. At times I wanted to run up next to some of them and say “You know, there is a better way…” as I listened to their feet slapping the ground. I can’t help it. Noisy runners still bug me. That’s why I’m going to be coaching soon. I know how to help with that.
I’m not suggesting that I was any better than any of the runners I passed or that were passing me because I ran more efficiently. That’s not the point at all. But I maintain there is a worthwhile pride in running well no matter how fast you’re actually going. There really is an art to running if you pay attention to it.
Even back when I was running my fastest times I paid attention to this sense of running well. After one of his New York Marathon wins, the peripatetic marathoner Bill Rodgers talked about how he paid attention to every detail of his motion during the race, even to how he carried his hands.
I’ve always loved that aspect of running. At times it deceived spectators into thinking I was feeling better than I actually. I fooled even my friends and family. I could be feeling like hell but my form would seldom give it away. Here’s the point: Even a Survival Shuffle should be conducted with a degree of dignity.
It’s not about not trying hard enough. I’ve run races where I do fall apart from the raw desire to draw speed out of my body. That’s an art unto itself when you’re fit and throwing it all on the line. Yet there remains a grade of intelligence in carrying yourself the most efficient way possible over the ground. This is especially true the slower you become.
Attention to efficiency shows in the silence of your feet on the ground. So I ran along making so little noise the rest of the world seemed to fall away. As the last 400 meters approached I looked up and saw the hats of runners ahead disappearing back down the Houston Street hill. “That will come soon enough,” a little voice in my head confirmed. Then I kept along in my quiet way.
Keeping it together
There were other rewards as well. The knee strap that holds my twitchy medial collateral ligament in place had done its job. I’d dressed perfectly and it was cool and comfortable coming home those last 200 meters. We all ran together down the west side of the Fox River Valley toward the finish chute.
At the finish line, there were people with turkey hats and turkey costumes. Folks dressed in Fox outfits and full Star Wars Storm Trooper getups. I’d finish anonymously again, no shot at an age group award because the old friggers who are in better shape than me were far already ahead. Good on them. May their paths be quiet and smooth as well. And if not, I don’t want to be around them anyway. There is such a thing as graceless striving.
This much I did know: none of them were having any more fun than me. Of that I was sure. All these decades of running have taught me that while I once had my day in the sun winning races like these, that history leans into time like the sun turns into November light. Those moments of realization are when you instead concentrate on soaking up the Vitamin D in late autumn, taking pleasure in the fact that you’re healthy and alive. 8:00 pace is no crime after all, and the sound of feet quietly striking the street is all the reward you ever really needed in the first place.