[Editor's note: Conventional wisdom dictates that I should do an editorial about the fund drive, bang the drum a little for donations. I always hate reading those kinds of editorials, though, so I'm going to break with conventional wisdom this time and just go ahead with a regular editorial. You should, of course, donate to our Fall Fund Drive anyway, to show that I made the right decision.]
Back in June, I spent a morning volunteering as a course monitor for the Double Dipsea, a 13.7 mile race up by Muir Woods in Northern California. At the Double Dipsea, runners start at Stinson Beach, run the Dipsea Trail to Mill Valley, then turn around and run back to Stinson Beach. It's up and down hills the whole time (the race organizers say there's about 4500 feet of climbing over the length of the course), and they're running on a hiking trail rather than on a regular road or running track. On this particular Saturday, it was sunny and warm, with temperatures getting up to the high seventies and low eighties by mid-day.
As a course monitor, my job was to stand around and make sure no runners got lost. Runners coming up the Dipsea Steps would find me, dressed in a bright orange safety vest and waving a big orange flag, directing them to go up one branch of the path rather than down a different way. I threw in a lot of cheerful encouragement—"You guys are looking great! Nice work! There's a water station three-quarters of a mile up that hill!" when they were on the way up, "You're doing great! Watch out for the steps!" on the way down—but mostly I just waved my flag. It's pretty easy work, being a course monitor. I spent the afternoon in one of the most beautiful and scenic areas I've ever seen, they gave me a free T-shirt and a couple of snack-sized bags of cookies to get me through the morning, and then after the race was over they had a cookout for the race volunteers at Stinson Beach (also extremely beautiful and scenic). A lot of the runners, as they came past my station, thanked me for working on the race, and my instinct was always to tell them not to thank me. After all, they were the ones running nearly fourteen miles up and down hills in eighty-degree weather. All I had to do was wave an orange flag and eat cookies.
I do understand why the runners wanted to thank the course volunteers. A race of that size, with nearly 350 people running, can't happen without a lot of people giving up their mornings to stand around with orange flags or hand out cups of water or keep track of all the times and set up the post-race picnic. There was something really nice about being thanked by the runners, something nice about people in the middle of a really difficult race taking a second to thank the support staff. The Dolphin South End Runners Club, which organizes the Double Dipsea every year, puts on races almost every weekend, and they're all completely volunteer-staffed. It's a great thing to be a part of, and I did appreciate being thanked. The reason I wanted to deflect all the thanks, though, was that I was nearly completely in awe of a lot of the runners—especially the women, and most especially the older runners.
Ten or eleven months ago, I took up running. This was a big thing for me, coming after twenty-some-odd years of generally sedentary behavior. I wasn't what you'd call an active child. The stars were aligned against me: a minor heart problem, pretty severe nearsightedness, a slightly overprotective mother, and a general inclination towards bookishness. Put it all together and you've got the kid who took a book to recess and hid in the stairwell when her classmates tried to put together a kickball game. I took a medical exemption out of phys ed class in high school. The counselors at the summer camp I attended, up in the woods in New Hampshire, took us on hikes sometimes, but I was similarly medical-exemptioned out of the more strenuous hikes. The less strenuous hikes I managed only with a lot of wheezing and whining, banding together with a severely asthmatic cabin-mate to demand frequent rest breaks. It's not that I entirely resisted physical activity—when I lived in the moderately urban environment of Cambridge and Somerville I was happy to walk places if the bus schedule proved inconveniently timed—I just never sought it out.
All of that changed a couple of years ago. There were a lot of factors involved, a few major life events that got me thinking about what kind of person I really wanted to be, a bunch of that new-agey life-philosophy kind of stuff. Mostly, though, I started seeing a lot of very active senior citizens. I'd see men and women in their seventies riding bicycles around in Berkeley, hiking in Muir Woods, doing tai chi in the park. A friend convinced me to try a yoga class at the student gym, and there were a group of women my grandmother's age in the class. (I paired up with one of the older women for a partner exercise once, and she cautioned me to be careful with her since she'd had two knee replacements and one hip replacement in the last couple of years; bionic joints notwithstanding, she still managed a much more elegant bridge-pose backbend than I've ever been able to do.) Every time I saw one of these very active older people, I'd have the same thought: I hope I'm that healthy and active when I'm that age. It would be great to be able to go hiking or bike riding when I'm seventy or eighty.
The problem with that thought, of course, is that in order to be a healthy and active older person, you really ought to start by being a healthy and active younger person. After this thought had been kicking around my head for months, it finally settled down and took root, and I started working on becoming a healthy and active younger person. For a year or two I went to the campus gym pretty regularly, settling in to a routine of reading magazines while using the exercise bikes or elliptical trainers. And then, eventually, after moving to a new apartment and shifting to a work schedule where I don't go in to campus as often, I decided to change my exercise routine, give up the elliptical trainers and take up running. I've always loved the idea of running, the fact that it's a really portable form of exercise, the idea of eventually competing in races. It seemed like the one kind of exercise that was off-limits, though. A bad and only partially-healed sprain in my early twenties had added an unreliable knee to my minor heart condition and severe nearsightedness, and besides, running seemed a little more of a serious undertaking than just popping in to the gym to read magazines while riding a bike that didn't move. Further demonstrating that I lack basic common sense, though, I decided to give it a try.
I'm not very good at running. I'm really not. I've been doing it pretty regularly since late last fall, and I can mostly only manage a mile or so at a go. I don't run very fast, and some days I give up halfway through my planned route and just walk the rest of the way home. I also have a tendency to skip running entirely for a week or two at a time, which is probably why I haven't succeeded in building any meaningful stamina. I like it, though. I like being out in my neighborhood in the morning, feeling familiar with all of the houses and the gardens and the weird things people do with their yards. I like the slightly exhausted and very sweaty feeling right near the end of the run, when I can think about how close I am to finished. I like the fact that I'm having an easier time with long walks up big hills (a daily feature of life in Berkeley) than I used to.
Watching the runners at the race in Marin, I realized something else I like about running. I like feeling like there's reason to believe I'll be able to do this for decades. The oldest competitor at the Double Dipsea was seventy-seven years old. The race times were handicapped by age and gender, and the overall winner was a sixty-two-year-old woman. Even when you take away the time handicaps, that sixty-two-year-old woman took only half an hour longer to finish the 13.7 mile course than the person with the fastest actual time. Not even taking speed in to account, there's something I find genuinely inspiring about the fact that a whole lot of the runners were over sixty years old, and each and every one of them ran a good race. I don't have to be good at this now—I've got years to practice.