No one has ever accused me of being an adult. At family gatherings, I sit at the kids’ table. I still use the phrase, “When I grow up…” I don’t own a business suit. “Doody” is part of my daily vocabulary. I always request a lollipop when I go to the bank. And I laugh at jokes usually appreciated only by the 8-and-under demographic.
Q: Why did the cowboy buy a wiener dog?
A: Because he wanted to get a long little doggie.
Prince—you know, the “Purple Rain” guy—once said, “Act your age, mama, not your shoe size.” This is a fine exhortation. It’s pithy. It’s relevant. It references shoes.
It doesn’t work for me. (Not that I’d recommend taking advice from Prince anyway.)
You see, I’m cursed to act my shoe size. I am a size seven, in case you were wondering, which is pretty much where I max out on the maturity scale—maybe eight, on a good day. I am overcome with the urge to laugh when people get really serious or things get really quiet. (Note: Second row center at Powell Symphony Hall is a really bad place to be afflicted with the giggles.) The same thing happens whenever anyone says the word “subpoena.”
[insert snicker here]
We’ve all heard the cliché, “Age is just a number.” As a runner, I find this adage somewhat ironic, since running is a numbers game. Runners are practically drowning in numbers. Distance. Pace. Mileage. Start times. Finish times. Boston-qualifying times. PRs. We’re surrounded by clocks and watches and mile markers. We live by numbers. We die by numbers. Numbers are the wallpaper on the desktop of our sport.
And yet for the ubiquity of numbers in running, the one that never seems to factor into our conduct or relationships is age.
“But wait!” you say. “What about age group awards? Those are all about age!”
True. But I’d argue that even the “age” in age group awards is different than the more common definition of age as a barometer for how we should act or feel. The “age” in age group awards really isn’t an age at all—it’s a rudimentary dissection of the running community into five-year segments so we can easily divvy up plaques and ribbons. That’s all.
The age I’m talking about is the number attached to our existence as if we’re supposed to abide by a corresponding set of rules. It’s the age that says we’re too old to run that far or run that fast or wear that tutu. It’s the age that tells us we’re supposed to grow up. Well, you know what I say to that kind of age?
You’re not the boss of me.
In running, age is irrelevant. It isn’t a factor when we choose our running buddies. On any given day, you can see a group of runners with an age span of forty years (give or take a dozen) striding around town in perfect synchronization, short-shorts and all. No runner would turn down a pace partner because of an age disparity. (“Hey! We’re exactly the same pace—we should train together! Oh, wait… You’re how old? Never mind.”) Some people may go shopping and think, People my age shouldn’t wear shorts that short. Runners don’t. We see those short-shorts hanging on the rack and snatch them up before you can say two-inch inseam. And who cares that you’re forty-seven years old? It rained all night, and by golly you’re going on a trail run with the sole intent of getting as muddy as humanly possible.
Older runners can be fast and younger runners can be slow. In fact, I used to do my speed workouts on the same track as a seventy-year-old man who, each week, pulled on his old track spikes (which were probably older than I was) and ran 100-meter hurdles. Hurdles. And he rocked a pair of fire engine red split shorts all the while.
How cool is that?
Pablo Picasso once said, “It takes a long time to become young.” It’s a strange little paradox, but as we grow older, we have to re-learn how to be carefree. Somehow we fall into the trap of expectation and perception, and we have to re-learn not to accept the limits others place on us or we place on ourselves. We have to re-learn how to be truly free of erroneous barriers.
By disregarding age altogether, running teaches us to grow young. That’s why age is irrelevant in our sport. That’s why runners refuse to comply with the protocols of age. Age doesn’t exist in running, because deep down, all runners are the same age. An adventuresome one. A passionate one. A hopeful one.
Yes, for all the emphasis runners place on numbers, in the end, they are mere technicalities. The road is a democratic playing field. The finish line is the great equalizer. Whether we need three hours to finish a marathon or five hours, we all run the same course, we all battle the same elements, we all cross the same finish line. Because age is just a number, and numbers are just numbers. They’re not the heart of running. The heart of running is, well, heart. And a young one at that.
And anyone who thinks differently is a doody head.
Amy L. Marxkors is the author of The Lola Papers: Marathons, Misadventures, and How I Became a Serious Runner. Her second book, Powered By Hope: The Teri Griege Story, will be released in 2014.