2016 has not been a good year for old rockers like me. Three great music icons have died and a great void has been left behind. I still shake my head in disbelief at the thought that David Bowie, Prince and Leonard Cohen are gone.
The sense of loss is profound for few reasons. First of all, these great icons aren’t supposed to slip away. They’re immortal, or at least their music is. They have no business being normal. Secondly, there is that awful realisation that from these three creative giants there will be no more masterpieces penned, no more songs to marvel at or albums to treasure. Now there are just the “best of” compilations to anticipate.
But probably the greatest shock of their passing – certainly for those of us born in the 50s and 60s – is the stark reminder of our own impending mortality. The Afrikaans expression, “Nou kap hulle die bome in my deel van die woud“ sums up that humbling, numbing feeling best. (Now they are chopping down the trees in my part of the woods.)
We runners don’t need the deaths of our heroes to remind us of our human frailty. Quietly, and almost without warning, a day arrives when we realise that that p.b. is always going to be our p.b. We are slowing, and not only is Father Time catching us, but we aren’t catching too many youngsters anymore.
The funny thing is we don’t feel any slower. The effort is still there, the legs feel as if they are ticking over at the same rate, but unfortunately the stopwatch doesn’t lie. We are getting slower.
Strangely enough, it was at a moment of victory that I was struck by a blinding moment of clarity about the ageing, slowing down process. As I won the 1990 Comrades, I realised my days were numbered. I had won, but in my slowest winning time (5:40) and, for most of the race, I had felt sluggish and heavy; not nearly as in control of the outcome as I had wanted. At that moment, I knew I would not win another Comrades marathon.
A couple of years later my good running friend, John Burgess, summed up the feeling of the great glide path of one’s running life really well. It was at the end of an 8 km time trial we had just run. As he sat on the pavement in pouring rain, breathing heavily, he gasped “ China, I don’t mind hurting. In fact, I don’t mind hurting a lot. But at the end of the race I want to see a good time winking at me from my watch, not this rubbish I am staring at now.”
I felt inclined to agree with him that day and for a few months I toyed with the idea of permanent retirement from the sport I loved so much. But I didn’t want to let it go. Like so many of us, I just love running too much. It is in my blood. Now it has been part of my life for almost half a century and I cannot imagine a life without it.
A few days later I happened to bump into Derek Marcisz while running on the Durban Esplanade. Derek is an old running friend and rival of mine (Derek’s marathon p.b. is 2:17:17 and mine is 2:17:18). Derek told me he regarded his running as a long book he was busy reading. The first chapter was all about those heady, halcyon days when we flew around race routes and set ridiculous times, and were almost immortal.
He told me he is very proud of that chapter, but it was over. He had closed the last page of that exciting adventure and was starting the next chapter. It’s the one in which us older runners are set to enjoy our running as much we possibly can.
We tone down the serious nature of running as we have known it and learn to enjoy more sunrises. We have more fun trying to jump puddles and crunching over autumn leaves. We also thrive on more laughter, and more companionship out on the road.
And it’s actually remarkably easy to achieve. We don’t stop running. We simply reduce our mileage. Do we really have to run 5 marathons a year? Is that 30 km training run really going to be enjoyable? Probably not. Then do we really have to do 30 km?
I have learnt to love the half marathon and the race over shorter distances. When the competitive juices flow – and trust me, they still do – I love to run a hard 5 km parkrun, racing the other balding, grey-haired men rather than the young speedsters. And I still enjoy seeing that I was first in my age group (who knew turning 60 would have such advantages!).
During training I avoid running hard down very steep downhills wherever possible, and I am never afraid to cut a run short. Occasionally I like to walk. I listen to my body and take days off when a potential injury is niggling or I feel I am getting sick.
I still get up when it’s dark and go for a morning run. I still do my gym sessions. I still plan to run another Comrades. But I treat running as a journey and not a race.
And sometimes, as I run, I hum my favourite songs from the three great rockers who have left us. They may have gone, but their music lingers on. As I paid my own personal tribute to Leonard Cohen by listening to my favourites this weekend, I realised that it in’t so different for those of us who still love to run. Even though our faster competitive days may be behind us, we’re still runners… and it’s a passion that will last for a lifetime.
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