Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Sat, 1 May 1999 12:44:32 -0400

Life's Ultrarunners

(from RC 284)

It's not just the races that demand attention to pacing. A runner's career does too.

We run differently in races where the finish line is visible at the start than in those where the end is dozens of miles away. And we pace differently when running as if there is no tomorrow than when we're running for a lifetime.

A question of pace came to me recently from a runner named Jack Gaskill. He asked about his individual runs, but my answer had more to do with pacing his career.

"I really like the idea of going slower, not worrying about what time I finish a race in -- just whenever I get to the end," wrote Gaskill. "Am I crazy for wanting to run slower? I feel almost guilty for not training the way the rest of the world perceives that I 'should'."

My reply: "If you want to run indefinitely, you adopt a relaxed pace that will keep you healthy and happy. You view your running lifetime as an ultramarathon.

"Just as ultrarunners pace themselves differently from milers, so do you. One day in a year of running is like five strides in a mile race, and a year is like one mile in a 50-miler. Let the early sprinters spurt away from you, knowing you'll stick around and they might not -- unless they too slow down to go longer."

Twice within three weeks this spring I spoke to groups of life's ultrarunners. The first was the Fifty-Plus Fitness Association (see "Aging Agendas" in this issue), then a local Rotary Club. Both times I was one of the younger folks at 55.

On both occasions I told similar stories: Of having older heroes because we can never grow younger but can always age better... Of not admiring the first finishers in races as much as the runners who never stop... Of hearing Old Johnny Kelley say, "It isn't what you once did that really counts, but what you keep doing."

In both talks I told of meeting Whitey Sheridan last year. A race in Hamilton, Ontario, happened to coincide with my 40th anniversary as a runner. I asked the crowd, "Has anyone here been at it longer than that?"

Sheridan had been running almost 30 years longer. He gave me a look that said: Keep at it, kid. You're just getting started.

Another 40th anniversary rolls around this year. It marks the start of daily diary writing in 1959.

I've stuck around for a long time already in both activities and like to think I'm not too far past the midpoint. I remain a midpacker in both activities and have the numbers to prove it in this rare hobby-career where everyone is ranked.

One year at the New York City Marathon I finished in the exact middle of the pack -- 14,500th of 29,000. Amazon.com ranks sales for all books, and mine stood 31,000th and worse on this week's best-seller lists (with none higher than 13th among running books).

The fact is, I don't work hard enough to rate any better. My writing and running rarely top an hour apiece each day.

Those gently paced hours keep piling up, though, and good things keep coming from them. I haven't outrun or outwritten many people, but I've outlasted generations of faster starters with more talent by adopting an ultrarunner's pace.

Pacing is a matter of perspective. You can go out hard to finish quickly, or hold back to last a long time. You can rush toward a nearby finish line or work slowly toward one that is out of sight.

Those older people I stood among at Fifty-Plus and at Rotary are life's ultrarunners. They are smart, patient and lucky enough to win by outlasting those who'd outshone them in the early miles.

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