Remember the famous story (and later the movie) of that title—Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner? As a kid, I was always able to relate to it. I was introverted and drawn to solitary pursuits, such as going off into the woods by myself to look for turtles or salamanders. As an adult, I’d always run alone—alone on wooded residential streets on a winter’s night, passing the warm lights of windows in which I caught glimpses of families eating dinner or watching TV; alone on forest trails hearing only the wind in the trees; alone on a highway shoulder braving the roar of long-haul trucks passing—but rarely with another runner.
In recent years, distance running has become a much more social activity, and I have the impression that there are now millions of people who have never run alone—and who also have a very amicable life with training partners, club members, and Sunday long-run groups. But after high-school and college cross country, I never really got into that. The day I graduated from college, after seven years of running with teams, I remember standing in the amphitheater where our commencement ceremony was about to begin and feeling a sudden, nostalgic sadness that there’d be no cross-country for me that fall, and my running days must be over.
Running for adults, as we know it now, was still so rare that on that day that I didn’t even know it existed. I’d heard of the Boston Marathon, but thought of that as an event for Olympians. Other than that, I assumed running was for people between the ages of 15 and 21. So, if you had asked me in those days what the average age of a serious runner was, I’d probably have said around 18.
Today, it would be a different story. If you said “suppose you see two people running along a bike path or trail together, and they’re an “average” pair, and you add their ages, what would the total be,” my answer now would probably be around 74. A typical pair might include a 36-year old and a 38-year-oold, or a 34 and a 40, or a 28 and a 46—all very common ages in today’s running population. In fact, there may be more 37s than 18s now, judging by how many kids no longer even go outdoors when there’s an Xbox or ipod to play with instead.
If 74 would be a reasonable composite age for a pair of typical running companions today, then I guess my new situation is right in step. I’m 72, and my new running companion—my grandson, Josh—is 2. Together, we’re 74.
Josh doesn’t yet know that he’s “only” two, or that running a long distance is in any way unusual. For me, though, this new partnership has been a huge revelation. As long as I can recall, I’ve heard of kids that age being called “toddlers,” and have just assumed that when they go anywhere under their own power, they “toddle.” Not so!
Josh did indeed toddle for a few weeks when he was one, but even his toddle was a primordial run; he’d wobble across the living room slightly out of control and throw himself into the couch. Soon, he was running all the way around the perimeter of the room, then tackling the couch like a linebacker. And before long, running laps around the living room—smiling, laughing, waving his arms in the air like a striker who’s just scored a goal. His favorite activity was going outside for a walk, and .he didn’t discriminate between a “walk” and a “run”—when he wanted to go outside, he’d just plead “go walk?” And then, as soon as we got out to the road (a rural road where cars are rarely seen) he’d break into an exuberant run. His legs were very short (he was only about two-feet six), but the tempo was almost the same as an adult’s—about 180 strides per minute. He flew!
Now, at age 2 ½ , Josh still has no knowledge that his grandfather is a runner, or indeed that there’s even any such a category of person as a runner, any more than there’s such a category of person as a “breather.” By now, he and I have several times run a good distance together, but never with any particular encouragement from me. If Josh wants to stop suddenly and play in the dirt for a few minutes pretending his hand is a bulldozer (he learned to say “bulldozer” before he learned “run”), that’s cool with me. I intend never to be a Little League grandfather. Josh might have the genes to be a good distance runner, but whether he pursues that or not will be entirely up to him. I’ll be just as happy if he decides to play soccer or violin.
What I love is that I now have a wonderful running companion, and every time we head out the door it’s an adventure.