In my last post, I said I'd do something terrific at the JFK 50-Mile. What I ended up doing was a terrific disappointment. I won't say embarrassment, because this is way beyond embarrassment. It's what I'll euphemistically call a "peak learning experience."
I predicted that I'd win my age division at the race on November 19, and that I'd break Anthony Cerminaro's over-70 record of 9:09. Ouch.
First, a little comic moment: When I finally did cross the finish line, the announcer on the p.a. system said, "Here's Ed Ayres, our 1977 JFK champion, and now our first finisher in the over-70 division . . . congratulations, Ed!" I should stop the story right there, but.... I winced, and it wasn't because I had stopped running and now maybe my left leg would never bend again. I knew, from what the clock told me, that there was no way I could have finished ahead of Tony Cerminaro, or even near him.
Put it this way: If you'd told me before the race that Cerminaro would have what he later told me was an "awful" day and had finished over an hour slower than his record, I'd have said, "I bet I'll beat him by an hour and a half!" So, after the announcer inexplicably said I'd won the division, I went to the wall where they were posting the results (which wouldn't lie, because we wore chips on our shoes), to look for Tony's name and confirm what I already knew. I noticed a rugged-looking, white-haired guy who was also peering at the same part of the posting, sort of squinting--said he couldn't see very well without his glasses. There was something about him. I asked, "What's your name? I can help find it."
"Funny thing," I said. "That's the same name I'm looking for!" I had never met Tony. I told him that they had announced at the finish line that I had won the division, but that I knew it couldn't be. "I just came over here to confirm that," I said.
"No," Tony said. "You must have been way ahead of me. I had an awful run."
But as the results confirmed, I had been more awful than he. Tony had finished nearly half an hour ahead of me. More to the point (this is the part that's really hard to write), I'd been about 2 hours slower than the time I'd planned to run. And over 4 hours slower than I'd run this race in my 30s.
So, what happened? I honestly don't know,but I did think of three possible explanations (not excuses).
1. The knee? Somehow I got through the notoriously rocky Appalachian Trail sections without a face-plant this year--then about two hours later did a face plant on the C&O Canal Towpath, where the footing is so good and the rocks are so few that I guess I stopped watching for them. In all my previous runs on this course, I'd never taken a fall on the Towpath. But somehow, Saturday, my feet managed to find a place where a thick cover of fallen leaves covered a few rocks, I tripped, and down I went--gashing my left knee. The problem with this explanation, though, is that I'd been feeling inexplicably awful even before the fall, which may even have been a factor in the fall. I think I'd been getting a little woozy. By 25 miles, I'd been thinking about actually dropping out. So, although the knee might have made the situation worse (today I'm limping), it can't be the main cause.
2. Heavy stress in my personal life? Again, this is not an excuse. To me, excuses for bad performances or broken promises are a big turnoff. I mention this only because it might be useful for other runners to consider what stress can do. I won't go into details. But I know that a lot of people are deeply distressed these days, and it might have more of an effect on performance--whether at work, at home, or in sports--than we realize.
3. Aging? My good friend Jim Hall, a Methodist minister and family counselor whom I coached through his first marathon (Boston) many years ago, and who has said it changed his life, is the guy who waited for me at the finish line Saturday. Jim is now 82, and after I told him how mystified I was about my ordeal (and how sorry I was that he'd had to wait for over 2 hours past the time I suggested he be there), he gently suggested that maybe aging is more of a factor in the slowing of the body than we want to believe. (Jim had done a half-marathon a couple of weeks ago, and was quite content to walk it.)
I agreed that maybe I'd been in denial, but here too, it didn't entirely explain what happened. For one thing, Tony Cerminaro is older than I, so it was the older guy who'd won our little competition-within-the-competition.
And then there was that little experience I had in the final five miles, where I felt like I was in a Soviet forced march across Siberia, trying not to pass out. As I shuffled along, runner after runner streamed past. And then, also passing, was a little old lady who looked like one of those curly-white-haired women you might see playing canasta or whatever it is they play in the game room of an assisted-living facility. And next to her, a much larger, old white-haired man like you might expect to see in the VFW lodge, explaining that he has to walk with a cane now because his knee had been shot out at the Battle of the Bulge, in WW II.
The white-haired couple were discussing their strategy for the final miles. The last 8 miles of the JFK are on a rolling country road, and since coming off the Towpath they'd been walking the uphills and running the downhills and flats. The man, who apparently had run this race 20 or 30 times, said to her that if they continued going as they were, they could make their time goal. "If we go any faster, we won't."
Somehow, hearing that aroused the very last ounce of competitiveness in me. I don't like the now popular strategy of interspersing walking breaks with the running (we never did that, back in the day), but since leaving the Towpath and hitting that first hill, I'd had no alternative. Or my courage had failed and I'd just given up. So I had been walking the uphills just like this couple, for the past 3 miles. But when they decided on their plan (to just keep on keeping on, so to speak), I saw an opportunity. (I feel awful writing this; it makes me feel like a vulture.) Instead of walking the uphills, I'd now "run" them! "Wobble" is more like it, but that was what I did. And I eventually finished ahead of them, even though I'm pretty sure I'm older than they. So aging, too, can't be the whole explanation for my ordeal.
In the last mile, I passed a group of five or six runners who were walking, talking as if they were out for a stroll in the park. My impression is that even ultrarunners who walk intermittently as part of a pacing strategy don't generally do that in the last mile or two--the last mile is where you stop conserving whatever you have left and go for broke. But this group evidently had a different approach. It had been a perfect day for running (sunny, cool, no wind, and beautiful vistas all the way) and they had obviously been enjoying their companionship and weren't going to interrupt it with a pointless dash to the finish. The age-group winners in all their divisions had finished hours earlier, no doubt. What did it matter of one of them finished 514th instead of 517th?
Here too, I saw a competitive opportunity, old hungry wolf that I am. I toddled past them, exhausted and nauseous, but intent on beating them to the finish line. Why? My chance for a meaningful competition had died on the trail five hours ago. But if a half-starved, three-legged dog that had to stop every few seconds to sit down and use one of its three remaining legs to scratch its fleas had limped out on the road and headed for the finish line banner, I'd have raced to beat it.
So, as I say, this was a peak learning experience. Competitiveness can be a gift, but also a curse. With my 54-plus consecutive years of competitive long-distance running, I may be the most experienced runner in America. But when it comes to the rewards of running with friends, enjoying the adventure and camaraderie of doing something truly difficult together, I'm just a beginner. I envied the old couple who ran together, and I felt wistful about the group of younger men and women who so exuberantly shared the experience of running 50 miles on a gorgeous day, and whom I had so intently passed in that final mile. I'm guessing that they know better than I what it is to really live.