Time’s Arrow: Reflections on a Life in Running Shoes

“Time’s arrow neither stands still or reverses. It merely marches forward.” 

A week or so ago, I turned 75, the same age George Sheehan, the great advocate for running was when he died of cancer. Numbers tend to take over in life, for those of us who are in our dotage, and for runners who are driven, relentlessly, by data. 

For me, a runner of, now, 50 years, numbers are less important than in the past although I’ve already mentioned them twice in relation to my age. As a journeyman runner, and now a hobbyist, numbers have been the be-all and end-all, but they can also drive runners and their aspirations into the ground.

In my 40s, I ran a 2:46 in Detroit, placed 6th in Boston in my age group in my 60s and ran a 23 and change in a 5k Mothers’ Day Run a year or so ago here in Ontario where I live. Again, numbers, always numbers. Runners aspire to the exceptional no matter how modest their previous achievements. 

This morning I ran my standard 10k. My legs seemed a little heavy, I could hear my breathing without listening for it, and I felt no real urge to “pick it up.” Part of the reason for this is likely the fact that I’ve begun to leave my watch at home. Occasionally, I’ll try to turn in a quicker (a relative term for a 75-year-old) mile to end a run, but I’m simply happy to be outside, doing something rather than watching others doing something on tv. I admire professional athletes, of course, their training, their gracefulness, their ruthless efficiency, but for me and as one with little coordination, what others do, apart from their breaking records during the Olympics or winning medals, has little real meaning. Those victories are important for the moment, but I’m going for the long game, one that has lasted for decades.

For some time now, running has appealed to me on aesthetic grounds. My slower performance times have given me another way of seeing running. True, running has stood me in good stead as my teaching, writing, and efforts to be of help to a disastrously ill wife have all benefited from running. I’ve made full and constant use of the state (endorphia?) in which solutions to life’s dilemmas surface from out of nowhere mid-run. Now when I’m running, I’m not necessarily thinking about running. The activity is a catalyst, one that brings about other unexpected possibilities and responses that I can use in dealing with everyday issues, my writing, my relationships with others. 

Back in the day, I looked for windless days, optimum temperatures, flat roads, benign traffic, perfect solitude. Today, I rejoice in the opposite: winds, challenging weather, hills, and dozens of drivers who wave at me, a codger plodding along, one they’ve seen for decades. Hitting the wind head-on during winter storms, maintaining some kind of momentum on hills I’ve run for years, dressing appropriately for whatever the weather—all of this has given me a different taste for running and a rationale for continuing my morning routine. 

Yes, I’ve been lucky. I’ve had injuries over the years, but because I’ve been at or slightly below my optimum weight, with a little rest and patience, the minor tears and pains have gone away over time and are for the most part, only vague memories. I’m also fortunate to run in a community of runners. A few years ago my town of 8,000 had eight runners in Boston, and runners I’ve coached and run with over the years are always friendly and willing to chat briefly, of course. 

Running, possibly because it’s one of the most elemental sports—a singlet, shorts, shoes—holds a particular appeal for such simple reasons. Other sports, and numbers-driven runners, with their gadgets and gizmos, interject things between athlete and activity, and this is another reason why running continues to appeal to me. I let the body take over, as runners often do, and the mind is free to do its own touring, randomly picking up and disclosing ideas and impressions that are as recent as today or nearly as aged as I am, all of them making up my morning ritual outside. 

 I’ve run in North America and Europe, and in those early morning runs, I’ve met thousands of runners of all ages. They are in the memory banks as I run my familiar routes virtually every morning of the year. You see, runners (and joggers) have a respect for one another. They wave in the ways that members of any sect, secretive or otherwise, do. They admire others for simply being out there, wherever “there” is, be it on trails, tracks, or streets. 

Most runners do so on their own because no two runners are ever traveling at the same pace, and the pace will differ in the course of the run. Runners are not herd animals; they enjoy other runners, but the real joy comes in the feeling that they were made for this activity, that the wind, road, sun, cloud—whatever is out there—is part of the day’s experience that taken collectively over time becomes more than the individual run or race however memorable that event was at the time. For such reasons, running is an intensely personal thing, one that engages body, mind, and environment in singular ways that are both familiar and unique on every occasion.

I’ll miss running when it comes to an end as it inevitably will. I’ll miss the dawn on the river, the moon over the harbour, the old houses, the novice runners, the everyday things that lie beyond the numbers game and make running such a supreme pleasure. My watch now stays at home most mornings. I’m not fixated by numbers as I know daily how time’s arrow will eventually end its flight. For now, it’s enough to ride the arrow, to stay out in front of it, to think about how privileged I am to still be out on the roads while many of my peers agonize over weather reports and watch others do what the spectators can only dream of doing. 

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