About halfway through a recent long run, I was making my way slowly up an incline when another runner – much faster, stronger, and younger than I am – passed me on the left. During the brief moment that we were shoulder-to-shoulder, they looked over at me and said “You are so impressive!” It was a nice, if startling thing to hear, and as they continued ahead I stammered out some kind of thanks, we waved and wished each other a good run, and they were gone.
Impressive? I mean sure, there are some things about me that people who actually know me might find impressive. (I’m what psychologists call “hyperfunctional,” and parts of it look good from the outside but believe me it’s a mess in here. I’m working on it.) But to a complete stranger out there on the road, I am here to tell you that there is nothing objectively impressive about me. Especially if you’re a runner, and know what good running – and good runners – actually look like. I have a very average build, am not particularly lean, and my carriage and footstrike are so neutral and normal as to attract no notice whatsoever. And I am slow. I’ve never been fast, but these days I am, by any reasonable standard, a slow runner. I am strong though, and I can run for miles. I was in the middle of a 18-mile training run when this person saw me, but they had no way of knowing that. So it wasn’t my endurance they found impressive either. They were passing me, quickly and easily, up that hill. What were they talking about? I had another nine miles to go, so I let my mind wander.
I took a quick scan, imagining what they saw. In recent years my stride has shortened, and I have the typical choppy gait of a longtime runner with short hamstrings and stiff ankles. No long, bounding strides here. Today I weigh just a few pounds more than a decade ago, when I was my fastest. I’ve never had a low body fat percentage – always more of a swimmer’s build than a runner’s – but what’s happening over here now is that the fat has just sort of shifted around to my thickening middle, and my limbs have grown more sinewy. And I’m vigilant about sunscreen, but reapplying it during long runs is gross, so despite my best efforts those sinewy arms and legs are currently Floridian-level tanned. (Yeah I think you know just the look I’m describing here.) My hair has gone quite gray, so they would have seen plenty of silver in my ponytail as they approached, and then, of course there was the sweat of the morning’s long workout all over my sun-baked face, and its deepening creases. Forehead lines, crow’s feet, parenthesis, neck wrinkles … yes, it’s all happening.
“You are impressive!” they had said. “… for your age” was what they didn’t say. I look like a middle-aged runner. Strangers can tell it about me with just a quick look: I’m old! (For a runner.) For a moment I cringed, and then I checked my internalized ageism, and shut that right down. I’m transforming into one of those badass old lady runners that I’ve long admired, and always hoped I’d stay healthy enough to become. Getting “over the hill” is the goal here, and I’m probably somewhere near the crest. Everyone knows that the downhill is the best part!
I’ve been running a long time, and I certainly feel the impact of the years, but I’m happy to report that they’re not all bad. Mostly good, actually. I’m slower, but I’m smarter. I’m far less physically flexible, sure, but I’m much more cognitively and emotionally flexible. I know how to fit training into my life without running myself ragged, and don’t beat myself up over stupid stuff anymore. (Okay no, I still do that … but far less than I used to.) Training takes more out of me than it did before, but I rarely get injured these days, and enjoy distance running more now than I ever have. I’m about to run my 23rd marathon, and am excited for the adventure of running in my 20th state (Utah). Whether that runner could actually see it on me that morning or not, I am a badass old lady runner and – dare I say it? – kind of impressive.