Why the Aging Athlete Runs
by Peter Holleran
Dylan Thomas perhaps had the aging runner in mind when he said, “do not go gentle into that good night... rage, rage, against the dying of the light!” Presaging the struggle to stay in shape, and thus avoid the rather grim destiny of those resigned to a life on the couch, the poet knowingly or unknowingly raised the question of motivation. Precisely WHY does one continue to run, long past the age of reason? The usual answers, for the runner, at least, readily come to mind. It’s healthy and it’s fun. It gives the body more energy, and helps one grow older without “getting old”. For myself I love nothing better than running to the top of Mt. Whitney and Pikes Peak, or back and forth across the Grand Canyon. On the trail nature inspires with beauty and brings tranquility to the soul. The mind is cleared, and the feelings of youth are prolonged. Most of the time these remain our motivations, and they are more than enough. A blessed few have an even simpler reponse: “in some ways it’s still exactly the same as it was the first day I went out for cross-country,” says Bill Rodgers, “although I don’t think people believe me when I say that. But it’s true. It’s just like the beginning. I just love to run.” Yet for many an aging competitor, and those with more complex, even hidden, motives, desires, and assumptions, or those facing a critical turning point in their lives, running and the working out of a psychological or spiritual problem may seem to intersect at some point. A deeper answer may be called for. To these complicated souls I offer the following, which flowed from my keyboard in a moment of inspiration - or delusion - with the understanding that I could be wrong and will wake up embarrassed for having put my name to this. Yet here goes.
There are two contrasting “strategies” in life, and they seem to be loosely divided along cultural lines. These can be called a “western way” and an “eastern way”. The western way is an extroverted, achievement oriented, somewhat gleeful, life-for-its-own-sake approach that is brought up hard in the face of the inevitability of death and parting, wherefore some turn to the “east”. The eastern way is introverted, despairing of life, and obsessed with impermanence, renouncing body and world in pursuit of the “other” or “inner” side, an obvious encounter at some point (ie., death) - hence the logical appeal - yet intuitively felt to be not-the-total-picture either. In short, the west says “get into it here”, while the east says “get out of here!” Some choose between either of these two extremes, while many of us simply gravitate, as it were, from west to east as we advance in age. That is to say, after an active life we grow up, get serious, surrender our foolishness, and in a sense pack it in, waiting for Godot or something or other as life gradually winds itself down. Indeed, such is considered appropriate adult behavior. Sounds depressing, doesn’t it?! Psychologist Jung similarly argued along these lines, proposing that man naturally progressed from a first half of life extroversion (“west”) to second half of life introversion (“east”). From this point of view, geezers in athletic competition would be considered a pathetic and even presumptuous denial of normal human development.
But , as the saying goes, “runners ARE different”, especially those spiritually inclined. They know a way out, and a more refreshing vision. They avoid the trap of Jung by the deployment of humor and insight. The young speedster, like the seeker after truth, is serious about himself and his quest, while the elder runner is serious about his quest - but not himself! He lives in full awareness of the verse penned by Andy Rooney that “life is like a roll of toilet paper - the closer it gets to the end the faster it goes”, and he therefore runs like the wind even while his flesh faces constant and inevitable decay. He can afford to run, as he neither indulges in meditation on the body as a rotting corpse (unless such thoughts motivate him!), nor is he burdened like his counterpart with the pursuit of nirvikalpa samadhi, but prefers to sympathize with the body as a temple of the living spirit, as long as it lasts, while he rests comfortably in the Unborn, free of worry and concern. He thus chooses neither to merely “live life for its own sake” (“the west”), nor “avoid or escape life” (“the east”). While somewhat difficult to put into words, his wisdom on the matter can be summarized as follows: the game must be played! That is where the challenge, the creative struggle, and the fun is - not on the sidelines. Someday it will all end, and he will then deal with that, too. But for now he is alive, with the world as his playground.
“To run or not to run”, you see, is not really the question, but rather an example of a primary dilemma. Walt Stack, S.F. Bay Area resident famous for his legendary workouts, said “All this work I’m doing, it don’t mean s--t. I’m going to croak just like the rest of you.” In moments of sadness, disappointment, boredom, or dispassion, one can latch on to comments like Stack’s and turn away, turn inward, “to the east”, where competition and even running itself, or perhap doing anything at all, seem futile or senseless. But these moments pass. One is ALIVE. One remains a player. You see, old Walt spoke with humor, he didn’t stop running. He knew one is only as young as he feels, and he lived with gusto (“four miles per beer”), in substantial compliance with the dictum of running guru George Sheehan to “first be a good animal”. This is a reasonable approach, especially for the younger man, possessing the gift of time. Jung himself would have little problem with it, but he would continue to view the AGING jock as a pathological relic. Our more enlightened runner, however, is keenly aware of living on borrowed time. Having suffered his share of hard knocks he is comfortable with his imperfections. Above all he knows the value of getting out of his own way, having made at least a few strides in that direction. Consequently while running he wears no hair shirt nor does he mercilessly flog brother ass. He feels a bit like Jimmy Stewart in the movie Harvey. He knows that among the living one must keep in motion, but as he goes through his workouts he carries on with humor, for fun, even mindlessly, at last. He does so of necessity, as if his life depended on it - because, in a sense, it does. If he then makes a fool of himself, he nevertheless emerges unscathed, having already “laughed his head off”. And having lost his head, with his running no worse for it, how could he possibly loose any more face? He thus stays one step ahead of his detractors. This hard-won talent, in fact, is the key to his ultimate success.
Make no mistake, it is not that our man does not try. Certainly he does. He plays by all the rules. Indeed, when blessed with early retirement he puts in the time and becomes an age-group champion! At times his reach may exceed his grasp, and he may tempt the gods by identifying with the motto of Nietzche, “whatever does not kill me makes me stronger,” (or as they say in the Boulder running community, “whatever does not make me stronger, kills me!”) but always returns to his central truth, that the fundamental reason he runs is simply because...... he CAN. He tries to do better because he can. He enjoys the feelings of aliveness. He sets goals to spike his interest, and his life retains an edge. He remains a creature of passion, and somehow feels more complete. He may even look focussed, and seem to have an agenda. When asked why, however, he can find reasons, but none of which explain much and none of which are adequate. For he no longer thinks that his running, or his life, is leading somewhere, nor, on the other hand, does he trifle with thoughts of its meaninglessness. Such is an unnecessary indulgence, a luxury he does not have - nor can he afford. He agrees with Socrates that “the unexamined life is not worth living”, but also that “the unlived life is not worth examining,” and so, WHILE TIME FLIES, he lives with abandon, experiencing the thrills and disappointments, the simple joys and pleasures, the humor and amusement, the anguish and the tears. He lets little pass him by.
And yet all along he knows nothing, and eventually knows he knows nothing (nay, even less than that), but strangely, delightedly, enjoys and finds solace in this odd realization. Reaching the "asylum of rest", he is unconcerned with deep thought, and thus free of Jung’s burden. His mind hangs on tenuously, like a ripe piece of fruit, and his body works the better for it, its parts no longer in conflict. Indeed, it seems to have acquired a life of its own, and perhaps only now is the runner, and the man, truly born.
Of course, he has aches and pains. And yes, he slows down. At some point he will come to a stop. For he is not spared “the ills that flesh is heir to”, nor is he promised to be faster - only better. Even in the end, with the end of the thing he loves so much, he will be the better for it, because he has loved so much. He then moves on to the next thing, and his heart will lead the way.
On this journey of life he learns many things, among them to love, to laugh, and to be STILL. At times the “stillness” overwhelms him and dispassion rules his being. He loses touch with desire and the life of running becomes like a dream. This is perhaps inevitable, and a glimpse of things to come, a necessary pause and gift that refreshes and restores him to the source of life. In such a moment he may even wonder about the point of it all. Yet the mood passes. He emerges from this condition, born of confrontation with self, and grace mysteriously bestowed, to find his passion renewed and increased. Only now it is set free. Resting in the disposition of sahaj, he embraces everything, and excludes nothing. He knows the stillness, even in the midst of running. He finds his peace, and there is no problem. He remains a man of action, but questions of motivation and fulfillment cease to arise. He thus leaves Jung and the philosophers far behind. And so, having come full circle, but not quite knowing what he is doing, yet in thorough amusement, and without missing a step, he boldly signs on for his next race. Bereft of answers, a bit awkward and foolish, he simply smiles and says, “someBODY has to do it.”
Note: Everything in this article was verified by the author after going out on frequent long runs, according to the advice of Nietzche who said, “never trust an idea you come upon sitting down!”
(This article in simpler form first appeared in the March 2002 issue of Running Times magazine)