Two Aging Athletes Confront the Ultimate Opponent: Time

(By Phil Boorman -- Getty Images)
By Benjamin Opipari
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, January 27, 2009

I quit.

After 25 years of running, I quit. I simply couldn't take it anymore.

Oh, that's not "I quit" as in "I'll never run again." It's "I quit" in the simple past: I ran a route that I was unable to finish. And in doing so, I realized I was jeopardizing a bargain I've made with myself to keep running in order to stay young.

Running is my thing, and perhaps athletes more than others notice the moments when we fail to do what we once could. But we all make bargains with ourselves, private pacts to ward off the temptations of giving up. The challenge, I am discovering as I approach my 40s, is learning how to rewrite those bargains, to adjust to reality without giving up.

I quit in Salt Lake City on a business trip, just weeks short of my 40th birthday. A colleague of mine invited me for a lunchtime run. From downtown, we headed up in his car. And up. We parked in a lot high in the mountains near the University of Utah with a breathtaking view of the valley below.

A few minutes into our run, my colleague uttered the words that no one wants to hear from a first-time running partner: "After I finished the Ironman Triathlon . . . ." About 40 minutes later, I was more Tin Man than Iron Man, my lungs and legs battling to match his stride and my arms pumping furiously until I ground to a halt.

I have plenty of excuses, not the least of which is that we were close to 5,000 feet above sea level, far above my usual running elevation of 285 feet in Kensington. But I felt like a quitter as I walked down the mountain.

And once you've quit because you've reached a level of discomfort, there's always the future possibility of quitting -- or not even getting out the door -- because you don't feel like running: because it's cold and dark out in January and February; because you've had a long week and deserve a rest; because it would be more fun (and helpful) to play with your kids.

Those are thoughts I refuse to dwell on early in the morning. For now.

I've always been an early-morning exerciser: I wake around 5:30, drink a cup of coffee and head out around 6:15. Fear now motivates me more than anything else; I worry that after succumbing once, I'll do it again with ease.

The same fear keeps me running on days when my feet feel glued the ground. I had this feeling on a recent run around my neighborhood. After the first three minutes, I knew it would be a struggle. My upper body was tight, my knees had no lift and my lungs were unwilling to let in oxygen. Several times my pace slowed, and I started to ease up. Oh man, I thought, wouldn't a nice cup of hot chocolate feel good right about now? Each time I slowed, though, I had the same sense of failure that overtook me in Salt Lake City. I knew that if I stopped, I could be headed down one long slope full of ready-made excuses in the future:

Is that a drop of rain? Time to head inside!

Running is as much a mind game as a physical activity. Experts offer advice on what to do when you just don't have it.

Many will tell you that this is your body's way of saying that you need a break. This is sometimes true. But when you choose not to run because you just don't feel like it, your lack of willpower can seep into other areas of your life.

Conversely, I've always believed that lacing up your running shoes on days when you would rather watch television gives you perseverance that you can use anywhere else. So after a quarter-century of running, my body and I have a contract: I let it go outside and exercise, and in return I expect it to keep me spry and nimble for at least 40 more years.

And how to adjust as we age, when we can't (and shouldn't) attempt what we once could?

A few years ago, when I was a high school track coach, I coached a girl who, as far as track times went, was not fast. But her mile time was still faster than most people's, and that was her motivation. She told me, "I know that most of the girls on the team are faster than me, but every day I walk down the halls, look at each person and say to each one of them in my mind, 'I am faster than you, and you, and you . . . .' "

The same spirit of competition still motivates me. I thrive knowing that I am doing something that I still have the willpower to do and that some others don't.

But as I turn 40 -- the age that medical professionals have deemed The Year of the Body's Great Decline -- I have to match that determination with a reality check.

And there I look with admiration at some of the people I see on my morning run.

There's a man in his 70s. We pass every day on the same stretch of trail, raise our hands in greeting and offer a simultaneous "good morning."

Then there's a woman who lives down our street. If she can run in her bulky winter coat, I can surely run in my ultimate-dry, super-wick, ultra-light, power warmth running gear.

And finally there are my three young children. They see me walk out the door in my running shoes, regardless of my state of mind and regardless of the weather. And I keep on going in the hope that one day they will walk out that door with me.


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