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

Sat, 07 Jul 2007 05:18:35 -0400

Resisting Retiring

RUNNING COMMENTARY 683

(rerun from July 2006 Marathon & Beyond)

Speed is fleeting. Enjoy it while you have it, because it won't last long.

For most runners, racing speed peaks in our first 10 years or so, then slowly erodes. Then our PRs become memories instead of goals.

Paces that we once held for a marathon become those of a half, then a 10K, a 5K, a single mile. If we keep running races, they become slower than our easy training runs used to be.

If that prospect depresses you, consider the alternative: full retirement. I can't speak for you, but I'd much rather be a slow runner than no runner.

I had my allotted decade of improvement and a little more. My PRs first started falling at age 14, and the last big one fell at 25. Which means I've gone without any new ones for almost four-fifths of my running life.

If you run long enough, this will happen to you. Then you'll look back at all your fastest times, and look ahead to... what? That's what you're about to hear, that there's life after the last PR, and that it's a good and active and satisfying life.

You won't just hear from me but from someone who had much more speed to lose. You can pick no better model for slowing gracefully than Bill Rodgers. I've watched it, and have taken inspiration from it.

Few Americans have ever raced better and faster than Bill: a total of eight victories within five years at Boston and New York City, first American to break 2:10 (which he did twice, with 26 more sub-2:15s). Those are his memories now.

In his late 50s he now runs races at his old easy-day training pace and is fine with that. Better to be a slower runner than a former runner.

The years are great levelers. After chasing Bill Rodgers since the 1970s, I finally caught up with him -- briefly -- in 2005.

The first time we ran the same race doesn't count. I "beat" him then, but so did everyone else who finished the 1977 Boston Marathon. Bill dropped out.

He said that day, "The marathon can always humble you." So, he would learn later, can running in general. But it also can make you proud of whatever you're able to do under current conditions.

The second time I chased Bill at Boston, in 1979, he won the race, set a permanent PR and -- not that he noticed -- beat me by more than an hour. I paid no more attention to him that day than he did to me. We had our own races to run, and we both came away with our own special blends of pride and humility.

Only later would I see that Boston '79 would be my last marathon to run as a race. Bill's time that day, six years after his first marathon, would forever remain his fastest. He would announce his retirement from racing that distance in 1993.

Then what? Did we stop running? Of course not, but only easing our distance and pace. Stop running races? Not that either, but only changing what we raced and how.

Few sports define retirement as running does, where few athletes ever retire totally or permanently. Bill Rodgers hasn't, nor have I, nor should you.

(continued in RC 684)
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