The Age Card

Will I ever be old enough to outgrow my ridiculous spirit of competition?

More often than I’d like, usually when we’re climbing a steep hill, or even one that’s nothing more than a gentle incline, I think to myself, and sometimes say out loud, “Remember, I’m two and three decades older than you people.”

Yes, I use the ugliest construction in the English language to remind the friends I regularly spend 3, 4, or 5 hours with on Sunday mornings that they belong to a group that doesn’t include me. Because age is not excuse enough, I feel compelled to mention that a couple of them also benefit from that performance-enhancing drug, testosterone.

This is a relatively new experience for me. Not long after I started running, at age 30, I joined a club and, with good coaching, improved steadily for 10 years, my marathon times dropping with each race.

When I moved to Missoula, Montana, a dozen years ago, all my long runs were with men a decade younger and often nearly a foot taller than me. While I was never the fastest, I was almost always the person with the most ultras under my (fuel) belt. They had all been triathletes and had speed and overall fitness, but were not the mileage hogs like me and the boys I had left behind in North Carolina.

When I moved to the “last, best place,” there were four of us who did ultras; Missoula is now a locus of ultrarunning and, due in large part to the energetic work of a local running store owner and a handful of die-hards, the town of 65,000 has a running club membership of 1,500 and a marathon that draws people from all over the world.

I moved to Spokane, Washington, two years later, found a bunch of different groups of runners, but like Goldilocks, none fit me just right. I stopped doing long runs and maintained just enough fitness and endurance to be able to go back to Missoula each year to lead a pace group at the marathon. Since there are so many fast runners there willing to pace, everyone signs up for a time slower than they’d like. My groups have gone from 4:00 to this year’s personal slowest, 4:30. It’s just more time to enjoy the course and the people, I tell myself. The truth is, it’s less stressful to amble along.

In the last year of my forties, I trained hard for the first time in ages, under the tutelage of my friend Bill Pierce, whose books Run Less, Run Faster, and the more recent, Train Smart, Run Forever, help folks who are no longer, um, quite so frisky, maintain their health as well as their pace. I thought I was done chasing times, and knew I’d never beat my PR of 3:14. I didn’t think I’d care about running another mediocre marathon, but I was wrong. Bill used all sorts of scientific measures to assess my fitness, and his data, factoring aging into the equation, said I could run 3:30. I ran 3:31, giving up that one stinking minute because my mind proved weaker than my body.

So, then I was done. I’d sleep in on Sunday mornings and while I often panicked around the end of May, knowing I’d have to cover 26.2 miles in Missoula in July, I always managed to pull it off. Until, two years ago, when one of my former graduate students decided to run his first 50-miler.

Mostly, I agreed to run with Matt because I missed him. Our meetings years before to discuss his masters thesis were always fun and I learned much from him. He’s a smart, gentle, edgy guy, always interesting to talk to, and my dog Helen has had a giant crush on him since she was a puppy.

Every weekend we’d go out for hours. We grunted at each other, fed each other, sometimes cursed each other. We took turns having bad days. We stopped to let Helen swim in the river and he shared his gels with her. Our previous mentoring relationship morphed into a friendship of equals.

Last spring, as she was getting ready to defend her thesis, Lisa joined us. She’s 10 years younger than Matt, laughs easily, and has a coltish look about her. This fall her husband, Kort, an engineer who takes his time warming up and always finishes strong, started coming along.

This little group has been a boon to my spirits, my fitness, and my dog’s social life. I learn about new podcasts, movies I’ve missed, and generally stay woke.

Recently we decided to run a small trail race at a local ski resort I’d done before. Put on as a fundraiser by my university’s physical therapy graduate students, it was small, low-key, and as you’d expect from an event whose leadership changes every year, often had organizational hiccups. Matt and I decided to do the 25K, and Lisa, who had only recently started trail running and was hanging on to a cold, opted for the 10K.

I told Matt that it was every runner for themselves; in other words, he didn’t have to wait for me. He’d been doing hill workouts and had become adept on the ups. Since I’ve always been good at downhills, particularly in races, we managed to stay together for the first two-thirds. Then he lost me on a big climb and I was happy to slog it out alone. There were only around 30 people in the 25K, it promised to be a lonely morning.

And it was, until a skinny woman with gray hair passed me.

Now let me just say, I am unaccustomed to being passed in trail races, especially by women. Let me also say that I haven’t been doing a ton of racing recently. And let me confess that I have no idea how much gray is in my hair since I spend enormous amounts of time and money to have it covered up with blond.

But it occurred to me that, not only was the person who passed me a woman, she also may have been older than me. Do any of us really know what people our age look like, especially those of us who spend most of our time hanging out with folks two and three decades our junior? Had I just been passed by an older woman?

While I was stuck on this, huffing up the pitch of a black diamond ski run, another woman, this one who looked reassuringly younger, breezed past. I said I needed a bigger booty. She laughed and said, “I’d give you some of mine, but I doubt it would help.” Wrong. It seemed to be doing wonders for her, as she powered by.

Matt crossed the line 2 minutes before I did and the first thing I said to him, after complaining about how much my quads and ass hurt, was to ask if he’d been passed by that “old woman.”

He then went on to wax rhapsodic about her prowess, how amazing she’d been, how she gracefully whisked by, how she’d left him in the—”Oh shut up,” I said. “I know, I know.” He kept talking about her as I huddled in front of a wood stove in the Nordic ski lodge and sulked.

Naturally, they announced only the overall winners of the 5K, 10K and 25K races. There were no age groups, not even a category for masters. And it took days for them to post the results. Even though there was absolutely nothing at stake, no shiny metal object for me to win, no public recognition, I was obsessed with finding out if that woman was older than me.

When I suggested to Matt and Lisa we do the race I knew it would be good for us, well, for me. I tend to slack off in training, especially around good friends where I don’t feel like I have anything to prove. Racing is a different story. In a race, I revert to the badass I once thought I was and will push myself past limits I didn’t know I had.

That afternoon I had to acknowledge that you can’t beat biology. The only race you can win is in aging. Only two people older than me had even run, and they were both men (one faster, one slower). The speedy gray-haired woman who passed me? She was 44. The other was 47.

At 55, I know I should be pleased with myself just for getting out there and being able to cover nearly 3,000 feet of elevation gain in 25K and still go for a run the next day with my restless dog. I know should be happy to have friends from a different generation who like my company enough to slow their pace. I know I should appreciate how much benefit beyond the merely physical I get from running, especially on beautiful trails in the mountains. And I am. I do.

I can only hope someday to be old enough to outgrow my ridiculous spirit of competition.

Rachel Toor
Rachel Toor is the author of five books of nonfiction and a young adult novel. She has been an editor of scholarly books, a college admissions officer, a high school cross country coach, a college counselor, an SAT, MCAT, GMAT, LSAT, and GRE prep class teacher, a freelance writer, and the devoted companion of an assortment of pets. She is currently a professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University in Spokane, where she lives with her photogenic Mensa-smart dog, Helen.