Photo Caption: On recent a 5K race in South King County, Ron Chew leaves a younger racer in the dust. Photo credit: Dave Greer.
I recently discovered that I’m what’s called a “masters runner.” This doesn’t mean that I’m a masterful runner. It just means I’m over 40 years of age, and I participate in races. It’s a clever euphemism, an acknowledgement that it’s okay for an older person to continue competing. It’s way better than simply being called an old runner.
This past year, I took up running as a way to wind down from stress. I now run at least a mile or two every day. It’s a pleasant habit. I don’t push myself too hard. My thoughts ease into free fall when I’m moving. I’m happy. I’m doing something to invigorate my old body. And I especially enjoy the free dessert of endorphins.
For convenience, I usually run along the streets near my house for about 15 to 25 minutes. I finish by going up a few steep hills to punctuate the outing. After a few months of this, I decided to sign up for a few local 5-kilometer competitions. I wanted to see how fast I could go. While I relished the serenity of my solitary runs, I also wanted to experience the camaraderie of competing with a crowd of runners, each of us, in our own way, struggling to test the physical limits of our bodies and to strive against the ceaseless tick of the clock.
My first 5K outing was a Halloween race at Seward Park. I found myself lost in a sea of several hundred participants, including walkers festooned in ghoulish costumes and painted faces. I also encountered the elite runners — the hardcore speed merchants wearing formfitting, Day-Glo tech shirts, dark tights that accentuated the ripple of their thigh muscles and high-end running shoes.
Thankfully, I didn’t see anyone I knew there. I was secretly afraid that I might drive myself too hard and end up collapsing near the edge of the road, waking to the smell of the half-digested ma-po tofu I had unwisely eaten an hour before the run. Fortunately, I didn’t have that kind of spillage. The many days of jogging on the streets right after dinner had helped brace my stomach. Although I found myself gasping for air during last third of the race, I finished with enough leg strength to sprint the final 100 yards. The pay off — the endorphin rush — was sweet.
Later, when I looked online for my running time, I was stunned to find that I had come in first! I thought to myself: “How could that be?” What happened to the wave of younger folks in the svelte, aerodynamically-designed outfits? They were going so fast that they had completely vanished after the first 100 yards.
Oops! After more careful examination, I realized that there were top finishers for men and women in different age categories. As a 59-year-old male, I had finished first among men ages 55 to 59, of which there were only four. Yes, I finished first, but, in one sense, I was really only competing against three moderately old men like myself — three “masters.”
While that realization might have diminished the magnitude of my personal feat by a bit — well, let’s be truthful and say it diminished it by a whole lot — I still felt pleased. I rewarded myself by replacing my ill-fitting Target sneakers with a new a pair of running shoes from the clearance rack at Big 5 and snagging a red Adidas waterproof training jacket at the Goodwill Outlet.
I then decided to sign up for five other 5K races in November and December. I told myself: “Let’s see if this minor triumph was just a major fluke.” In each competition, I also finished near the top of my age group, again benefiting from being in a small class of 50-to 59-year-old males.
Not bad. I realized that if I kept going for a few more months, I would nudge into the 60-to-64 grouping. If I stuck to obscure local races — (maybe there were contests in places like Eatonville or downtown Tenino) — I might capture a few more first-place finishes before I retired in glory and move on to leisurely, nature walks to fulfill my craving for exercise.
I’m fascinated by the paradox of being an older runner. Here’s how I see it: With a little work, I’m guessing that I might get faster. But how fast? Because of the inevitable waning of my body due to age, I would also be getting slower, too. What’s the bottom line value of becoming a fast old man who would still be slow next to a fast young man? I wondered if old farts like me shouldn’t be competing in segregated meets just to be more comfortably matched against peers who are aging at the same pace. Of course, that would rob some of us “masters” of the divine pleasure of finishing ahead of a few younger, athletic-looking competitors.
A recent British study concluded that older “extreme” athletes such as marathoners were damaging their heart muscles through excessive, strenuous exercise over many years. In contrast, runners who put in less than 20 to 25 miles a week (count me in this group), reaped the greatest health benefits.
As expected, running enthusiasts quickly challenged the legitimacy of the study. I’m intrigued by the controversy. What does it say about a society that still loathes to embrace the reality of aging and an aging, baby boomer generation that is actively redefining what it means to be healthy and old, sometimes at the cost of denying their own mortality?
For my own part, there is no way anyone can coax me into trying to run 26.2 miles in one stretch. My instincts as a cautious person and parent are weighted toward reasonable risk and self-preservation. If I did a marathon, I’m guessing that I would be limping for the next week, making it painful to get up, sit down or do simple things like cook dinner for me and my kids. Nope. I’d rather stick to the glory of lesser achievements earned in modest, small, short bursts. After all, even a “master” should have the wisdom to know what the old body can reasonably handle.
Ron Chew is director of International Community Health Services Foundation, spearheading efforts to raise $12.8 million to open a new community clinic in Shoreline in 2014. He has pledged to run every day until the fundraising is complete. To date, he has run over 300 days in a row.