30. Running with Geezers

30. Running with Geezers

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Runners

Running with Geezers

Age is not measured by years.… Some people are born old and tired while others are going strong at seventy.
 ~Dorothy Thompson

You’ve heard the phrase “Never judge a book by its cover?” Nowhere is this more true than in the world of marathon running. Men and women who — from appearances — look better suited to rocking chairs in front of nursing homes than running 26.2, blow by thirty-something hard bodies heaving by the side of the road. The lesson? Age is just a number — especially when it comes to running.

I run with geezers, men almost a quarter century older than me. This intrigues people who don’t shy away from asking why I don’t run with peers. Their faces betray their suspicion that I’m working toward some sort of merit badge, as if completing a 10-mile run with people allowed an AARP discount compares to helping the homeless or saving puppies. Very decent of me.

My morning running partners, Jack and Royce, are both in their sixties. We meet twice a week at 5:30 AM to run in our small North Carolina town. Royce’s wife, a lovely woman with a terrific sense of humor, bears the brunt of small town teasing.

“Hey,” say the tellers at our local bank, winking at one another as she walks in. “We’ve seen Royce running around town with another woman.”

She doesn’t miss a beat. “I know,” she says. “And if I could catch her, I’d do something about it.”

Why geezers? Friendships among runners blossom for many reasons, but the deepest bonds form among those who run the same pace. (I’m sure seven-minute milers are lovely people. Alas, I’m destined never to know them.) But what most non-runners fail to grasp is that age and pace aren’t tied together. The perfect example of this comes from my friend Dave who has been running marathons and ultramarathons for almost forty years. Dave tells the story of his first running coach, a man fifteen years his senior. In their first marathon together, when Dave was nineteen and his coach thirty-four, the coach grabbed Dave at the start line and said, “Let’s get something straight. You’re younger than me and you’re faster. You’ll beat me in any 5K and in today’s race you’ll be ahead of me at mile 10 and maybe even mile 15. But son,” and here the coach patted Dave on the back and gave a slow smile. “Just so you know. When we reach mile 20, your ass is mine.”

I live that truth. Experience trumps my youth and enthusiasm every time. Even on short runs, my geezers maintain a steady stream of dialogue as I wheeze and gasp behind them. I may be twenty to thirty years younger than my running partners, but that simply means these guys have twenty to thirty years of training on me. “Respect the miles,” they tell me, and I do.

True gentlemen, my geezers have never treated me as anything less than a running equal. When we run, we stride side by side. (Unless there’s a car. Then, I inevitably find myself sandwiched, protected from ahead and behind. This never fails to both amuse and comfort me.) In the beginning, they patiently explained terms like “PR” and “negative split,” and turned me on to the miraculous healing powers of ice-baths and Ibuprofen.

People joke about how my running partners are a step away from an old folks home, but I know the only hope I have of catching these guys in a race is if I toss a cane or walker in their path to trip them as they fly by. Jack recently ran the Grandfather Mountain Marathon, touted as “one of America’s toughest marathons.” Forget beating them. I’m just trying to keep up.

As we run in the pre-dawn hours past darkened store fronts and traffic lights blinking yellow, we talk about everything from religion to politics, what was good on TV last night to how to fix the economy, and always, always, we talk about running.

My geezers take an active interest in my running career, for which I’m grateful. The first time I won my age group in a race, Dave, the ultramarathoner, saw the look on my face and proudly said “Oh, she’s got a taste for it now.” In my first marathon, I was running out of steam and despairing of making the time goal I’d set for myself when — as if from a dream at mile marker 23 — Jack appeared. He suspected I might be flagging and fell in step beside me, encouraging me to push through the pain. With his help, I beat my goal time by 4 minutes.

At the end of our runs, Royce high-fives me, while Jack offers a more formal handshake to go with his quiet praise of, “Well done.” Sometimes they say things like, “You had a good pace going,” or “You looked strong.” I’m as happy to receive these compliments as a first grader is having her drawing placed in the center of the chalkboard for all to admire.

A year of running has done the trick. My geezers tell me I’m improving. Soon, they say, the student will surpass the teachers. They seem pleased by this idea. I’m pleased as well. I have a competitive nature and, being truthful, I’d like their asses to be mine at mile 20.

But though I may someday whiz by my geezer comrades in a race, I realize after a year of training that there’s more to our time spent together than just running readiness. Sure, I’ve learned how to work through a muscle cramp and how to drink water and keep moving. But they’ve also taught me lessons about patience and commitment, and what it feels like to accomplish something I once never thought possible. They’ve shown me by example what a difference it can make to have someone believe in you.

In one of those random conversations people have, someone asked me the other day what one item I would save if a fire were to break out in my home and I had only seconds to make a decision. I didn’t hesitate in my response. I’d race to my exercise room and grab the plaque by my treadmill that commemorates the completion of my first marathon, and the celebration of friendship. Beneath the glass it reads, “Presented to Dena Harris, December 8, 2007. We Welcome You To The Marathon Club. Your Running Partners, Jack & Royce.”

That first race is behind me and I have many more to come. But when it comes to matching the wisdom and friendship shared so openly and generously with me by these men, it’s clear I still have miles to go before I’ll ever measure up to their footsteps.

~Dena Harris

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