Do Not Go Gentle:
Why the Aging Athlete Runs
by Peter Holleran
When the aging athlete is asked why he runs, the usual answers come to mind. It’s healthy and it’s fun. It gives the body more energy, and helps one grow older without “getting old”. On the trail nature inspires with beauty and brings tranquility to the soul - the mind is cleared, and the feeling of youth is prolonged. Most of the time these are our motivations, and they are more than enough. Yet for some, especially the aging competitor, a more elaborate response may be required. Friends and relatives question the sanity of an old fool in shorts running around not acting his age. Our hero must mount a credible response to their doubts as well as the well-meaning attempts to get him to stop what he is doing for his own good. “Be sensible,” they say, “you might hurt yourself. Why not try gardening, or golf?” Of course, we’ve heard all that before and know better.
The problem is that normal adult behavior is often seen this way: after a relatively active early life one grows up, gets serious, surrenders his foolishness, and then at some undefined point more or less packs it in and waits for life to wind itself down. A somewhat depressing proposition! Psychologist Jung went so far as to make philosophy out of this view by arguing that man naturally progressed from a first half of life extroversion to second half of life introversion. For Jung the geezer in athletic competition is a pathetic and even presumptuous denial of normal human development, if not an outright pathological relic.
But “runners ARE different”! They know a way out, and a more refreshing vision. While the young speedster is serious about himself AND his quest, the elder runner is serious about his quest - but not himself! He thus avoids the trap of Jung by the deployment of humor. The passage of time has mellowed his ambition, and he takes his sport a bit more lightly. He still gives it his all, but he knows the final joke is on himself.
As he ages he enjoys an advantage the younger man does not. Having suffered his share of hard knocks he becomes 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 carries on with humor, for fun, perhaps mindlessly, at last, and thus stays one step ahead of his detractors, including his loved ones. This hard-won talent, in fact, is a key to his ultimate success!
Aware that “life is like a roll of toilet paper - the closer it gets to the end the faster it goes”, he continues to run like the wind. Yet he does so not from anxious concern over his mortality, but in sympathy with the body as a temple of the living spirit, as long as it lasts. He runs because he is alive, and has more life because he runs. He lives in the present, with only the slightest attention to limitations of age. In short, his wisdom - if one can call it that - is as follows: the game must be played. That is where the challenge, the creative struggle, and the fun is - not on the sidelines.
“To run or not to run”, then, is not really a question, but an example of a primary dilemma, with a choice to be made. For Socrates “the unexamined life is not worth living,” but our man insists “the unlived life is not worth examining!” He therefore runs, and lives, with abandon, experiencing the thrills and disappointments, the simple joys and pleasures, the anguish and the tears. He jumps in with both feet, letting nothing pass him by.
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! He appears highly motivated, but the fundamental reason he runs is simply because ..... he CAN. He tries to do better because he can. He sets goals to spike his interest, and his life retains an edge. He remains a creature of passion, and somehow feels more complete. Yet the question of motivation ceases to arise, and only his enthusiasm remains. He thus leaves Jung and the philosophers far behind. Unconcerned with deep thought, he is free of their burden, 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 truly born.
Of course, he has aches and pains. And yes, he slows down. He is not spared all “the ills that flesh is heir to”, nor is he promised to be faster, only better. More alive than before, he enjoys a fate unknown to those who share not his secret and hypnotically ask that he rejoin the sleeping herd. To those resigned to a life on the couch he pleads, with T.S. Elliot, “do not go gentle into that good night.....rage, rage, against the dying of the light!”
Can you blame him for his exuberance? Running has given him so many things. He is a happy man, energetic, youthful, healthy in mind and body. How many are blessed like that, at any age?
(This article first appeared in the March 2002 issue of Running Times magazine)