This past year I turned 50. On paper that seems old. I don’t feel old, I think, but I honestly don’t know what that would feel like. Maybe I do feel old and I’ve just become used to it, and it seems as natural as breathing. I know things, intellectually, about myself: that I am not as fast as the guy in the picture above who led-off our state runner-up 4 x 880-yard relay team, and could run 2:01 for 880 (sub-2 for you young’uns more familiar with the 800m), and who pounded it out with a cross country team that twice finished state runners-up in the big school division and won it once. I am not as fast as that guy. But I remember that person every day, because he was a very fragile kid for whom running was a safe place, a refuge from violence and darkness and dread, something that was entirely his and owned (or cared about, really) by no one but himself. That kid: I am attached to him. I love him and remember his innocence and pain. I want to throttle him for the choices he made, but I understand them; they’ve made me who I am. His choice to be alone, to run for hours and hours by himself, getting himself straight — that’s a choice that saved him, and one that these days I still try to honor.
For nearly 15 years I forgot that kid. I wasn’t loyal to him. I tried to leave him behind. I tried to leave everything behind. I became very hard to be around, for a variety of reasons I might describe in another post. But for now, let’s just say this: that the kid in that photo had — by accident or by design — discovered not just a way out, but a way forward when he discovered running. And when, at age 40, I realized this again, I changed. I changed slowly, resisting all the way, but whenever it got hard I remembered that kid and my heart nearly broke with the guilt of having forgotten him. I tried to be true to him. I ran.
Oh, I was in terrible shape. I was heavy, I had to kick some bad habits, and I had to develop the humility to know that my quest was not to become that kid in the picture again, but to face my fears like he did. That is, to do what he would do if he were 40 years old, or 50.
I’m in pretty good shape now. I can run a long way, and when I want to, I can go relatively fast for a guy with an AARP card. I coach one of the best high school distance teams in the state — 50+ boys with 50 different personalities and 50 different reasons to run. Sometimes, when practice is going hard and I see them struggling, I wan to shout, RUNNING SAVED ME, but I think they all have their own versions of being saved by running and don’t need to hear mine. But fairly often, maybe once a week, I watch them run like fire and wind and I think, That boy in the picture once needed a coach, and now here you are. I think I am honoring the boy more now than ever.
I suppose this is why I still run, but it’s also why I coach. Running itself solves nothing, except maybe the problem of how to wear out your shoes as fast as possible. But it does present the opportunity and venue for contemplation, facing fears and limits, testing your mental as well as your physical strength. For me, as a coach of adult runners of every level, this is the main thing: what can I do through running to help my athletes realize their strength, their will, the beauty of being alive? The boy in the photo didn’t always know that there was beauty in this life, but the 50-year-old man he became does. And he knows it’s not always easy to see, especially within oneself.
Why do I run? Why do I coach? Because there is beauty in it, and beauty can save us all.