Return of the Middle-Aged Racer

    Return of the Middle-Aged Racer

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    Me, run a race? Nah. I’d quit running races a good 25 years ago, telling myself that I was beyond my competitive phase. Actually, for a long while, I’d given up running altogether. Injuries. No running at all, let alone racing.

    So a lot was going on in my head as I waited for the starting gun last weekend in my hometown’s annual race, Conquer the Overlook —The Toughest 5K and Stair Climb. I couldn’t resist entering this one because I work out frequently on the course, which is a huge local favorite. It’s called Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook State Park, a build-it-and-they-will come place that incorporates a crazy, 282-step riprap staircase as well as zigzag dirt trails to one of the best viewpoints in metropolitan Los Angeles.

    My mind drifted to memories of races past, when I was a pretty fast 10k racer. That was back in my 30s; I’m 62 now. Wistful? No. I’ll never be a gazelle again. I was feeling gratitude for being able to run at all, after those various injuries and surgeries on my hips and one knee.

    And I was aware of a stronger, more mature sense of who I am than I ever had during my harder-core racing days. I had nothing to prove. I fell in with a friendly cohort of graybeards, all of us joking about being happy if we just complete this thing as we dutifully ambled way back behind the rabbits, both out of respect and out of fear of getting trampled if we did otherwise. There was a lot of friendly geezer banter. We exchanged injury stories. Someone hollered, “Beer bellies and bald spots to the back, please.”

    I liked this version of myself. All I wanted to do was be outdoors in the company of others who wanted to be outdoors in the company of others, all of us committed in our own way to being our best. I was here to have fun. It wasn’t a competition. It was an expression of health.

    Now, admittedly, the presence of a lot of other runners was an energizing contagion. There was spirit in the air that I don’t feel during my quotidian workouts. But as pro athletes say in clichéspeak, I was just going to run my race. I’d pay no attention to what others were doing.

    The early going was mostly downhill, which is not at all the strong suit for a masters athlete who values his skeletal system. Multitudes with spongier joints than mine left me in the dust. Downhills are pretty much a tippy-toe affair for me these days. But when we bottomed out and started the 320-foot climb up a winding road I call Alpe d’Huez (after a notorious climb in the Tour de France), a funny thing happened—I felt great. Nearly everyone around me was walking. I jogged past dozens of athletes of all ages.

    I felt proud. Not competitive. Just proud.

    Hey, I was still way, way back in the pack. We still had to repeat the downhill, then the climb up that crazy-steep stone staircase, many of the 282 steps 14 to 18 inches high. My heartrate maxed out. A calf muscle momentarily cramped up on me.

    But I mustered a little burst on those last few stairs, topped out, and looked out at the world and a sea of athletes, some still climbing up the steps, others drinking and posing for hero shots. It felt more like a celebration than a race. I thought, Really, racing at any age can simply be an expression of health and togetherness. Nothing to take too seriously. But definitely something to feel proud about. And, yes,  do again.

    [For those scoring at home, I finished fourth in the 60–69 age group, and 107th out of 231 overall. Yeah, of course I checked the results. Competitive juices? Well, let’s just say I intend to do better next time.]

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