Getting old just sort of creeps up on you, there are ways to hasten the process (I know, I’ve tried a few) but you can’t stop it, it’s a slow unrelenting march to deterioration. Yet within this depressing fact is the key to the older runner’s salvation. The process of regeneration works just as well in the opposite direction. Similarly, the process is slow but you can be assured that once you start, at whatever age, the benefits will follow. Like the tag line from the old ad for “Pantene” hair conditioner said, “It won’t happen overnight but it will happen!” The following story begins with me putting the brakes on my own deterioration and ends, in time, with my near total transformation.
I’m a 51-year-old Australian expat living in Japan. I’ve lived here for the best part of 20 years. I ran my first marathon here in 4:05:47. Six years later I did one in 2:45:11. My first half was done in 1:39:32 my most recent in 1:18:03. I was running 47:22 for 10K and now my PB is 35:35. While there are, of course, more impressive records of progression and faster masters runners (I’m no Keith Bateman), I believe, my tale holds relevance for the average runner not because I’m special but exactly because I’m neither genetically gifted nor particularly motivated. It took a jolt to get me started but then the ball just kept on rolling.
Not long after my 40th Birthday, I was reversing the car out of the garage, on my way to visit my newborn son and wife in hospital, when I caught a glimpse of my bloated head profiled in the rear view mirror. I hit the brakes grabbed the mirror turning it a couple of times to take in the full picture. Good Lord! What had become of me? I’d moved to Japan 20 years earlier a young healthy surfer. I had since worked and studied my way into teaching University in the process smoking, drinking and eating myself into a caricature of the nutty professor I’d become. I wasn’t the boy my sister knew or even the man my wife married. Slapping the mirror in disgust I sighed, “Man you’ve got to get on to that!”
And so I did. The next day I gave up the cigarettes, something I did often over that first year, fished out the closest thing I had to running gear, a navy blue cotton trucker’s singlet, and my old surf shorts and I hit the road. Later that half hour I was back but resolved to do this as often as I needed in order not to have to look at the rotund dial I’d caught sight of that previous day. I slowly built up to run 5 days a week. I wasn’t gauging the pace on any charts I simply chose a pace that enabled me to jog for 30 minutes at a time without stopping. My commitment was beginning to build but at this stage, I wasn’t quite ready to upgrade the “Billabong” board shorts.
My first marathon changed all that. The first time almost everyone overestimates their ability and thinks they can go faster than they actual do. What is that? Sort of like how everyone thinks they are kind of cool. With only realistically about 20% “cool” people in the world, you do the math. Anyway, my first marathon remains my slowest and most enjoyable to date. I did, like most, over- estimate my ability and underestimated just how hard it would be but I was elated when I crossed the finish line. Later I read this line by Doctor George Sheehan that helped it all make sense. He wrote; “Happiness is different from pleasure. Happiness has something to do with struggling and enduring and accomplishing.” That night I celebrated with a few beers, I smoked my last cigarette and next day I bought some “Neoprene” gear that claimed to “wick away sweat.” You definitely know you’re in a process of change when your vocabulary starts to increase.
The process of regeneration and transformation had begun in earnest. Still, how I managed to keep going in the first few years is a bit of a mystery to me now. I guess the enthusiasm of the newbie played its role. I was able to smile through gritted teeth the frustration and pain of Plantar Fasciitis and IT Band Syndrome. Basically, I was enjoying the day to day, the process, not thinking too far ahead. It was all very Zen. A friend of mine here who practices Aikido told me about an old martial arts saying that goes “The master is the one who stays on the mat five minutes longer every day than anybody else.” I was only chipping away at my times at that stage but most importantly I was “staying on the mat”. This is a life lesson not only for runners. As “Dory” from “Finding Nemo” advises “just keep swimming, swimming, swimming…”
The point where I believe I finally became committed came with the discovery of Australia’s third fastest man “Pat Carroll” and his online running coaching service. I could have just kept on with my own education of reading and self-experimentation but regeneration or not I wasn’t getting any younger and frankly as well as not being particularly physically gifted, I’m not the fastest learner. I do know that it is sometimes better to skip the trial and error method and simply arrange for first-rate instruction.
If you have a choice between being coached online or joining a local running club the latter is optimal. But for me, I wanted to get faster before I’d have felt comfortable joining a club here. You know the Japanese are pretty serious about their running. I got this sense from first few races I entered when, even though I’d be finishing, in most cases, in the back of the pack, I’d have young and old alike sprinting to the line just to beat me over it. I thought it was the Frank Shorter mustache I was sporting but even after shaving it off I’ll get people throwing themselves over the line to beat me in a photo finish marathon. Still, I was wrong in my assessment. I joined a Japanese running club a year later and found them incredibly supportive and non-elitist. However, they still seem to get a heightened joy from beating me.
Through the contact with Pat I met, virtually, some of his real life running group members. The support of the people I met online showed me that runners are the best people. Now that is not hyperbole. When my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, I swear, some of these people I had never met face to face, would have, if I’d asked, jumped on a plane and come out here. Luckily we could save them the fare as it was a misdiagnosis, I didn’t lose my wife but sadly I did eventually lose some of my blogging friends to “Facebook”. I’m not an authority on the character merits of runners vis-à-vis other sports but I’ve played rugby and surfed and had sprigs and fins in my back on many occasions. Never has anyone ever come at me on the track swinging a pair of running spikes! So until that happens I’ll continue to think runners are special human beings. So does running make people better or do better people simply gravitate to running? I’d say, yes to the first and yes to the last and explore this question later.
Somewhere in the fourth year after starting I began to run faster, I also seemed not to be getting injured as much all the while absorbing the harder training sessions and longer mileage. My muscles were adapting, mitochondria were increasing, in turn, imparting more stamina to the body. Tendons and connective tissues were now tough enough. You know how it goes when things go wrong and suddenly the spiral of negativity creates a perfect storm of events that leads inevitably to disaster. Well, the same was happening to me but I was happily spiraling up! The physical changes enabled me to run with more consistency and that in turn made me stronger. It was a beautiful thing to see. It was suddenly coming a lot easier. Is this why long time runners are so kind and encouraging? I think it is, they know that the hardest part is in getting to the next stage and any decent runner/human being has nothing but respect for those going through the process.
Napoleon Hill, “the Father self-help,” wrote that you must be “persistent” if you are to gain success in any field. That statement might also qualify him as “the Father of the bleeding obvious.” Still, I think he was on to something when he noted that you can learn persistence. One of the ways that you can do this is by “A friendly alliance with one or more persons who will encourage one to follow through with both plan and purpose.” Around this time also began to follow the blogs of Canberra running legends “Ewen Thompson” and “Speedy” Geoff Moore, I have since become an honorary member of their running club the Canberra “Speedy-Geese.” They’ve become my proxy coaches and a great support system. Writing in one of his trademark blog post “Speedy” implores: “Take action. Do not stay in your comfort zone. Be prepared for opposition. Expect to feel some doubts. Be prepared to take direction from trusted advisers. Be an “overcomer”. Be determined to see it through. Expect to complete the action and expect to see the benefits.” The advice and humor of the “Geese”, together with many other people I’ve met since starting running has given me the gift of persistence, kept me going when I may have very well regressed to my former non-running fat faced self.
I’m now into my tenth year of running. I’m a much better runner than I was. My times are now at levels I couldn’t have realistically expected when I strained through my first 15-minute jog. I’m now in perpetual training for a sub 2:30 marathon. This is something most knowledgeable people would say is beyond a man of my age, it can’t be done. Well, I reckon it can be. If you can agree that we all get old, you would have to give me a chance, because transformation and regeneration are just as real. And I believe they’re not through with me yet.
Regeneration Starts Today
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Pat Carroll http://www.patcarroll.com.au