What Keeps Us Running?

Each year, we notice some friends and fellow runners stop competing.  They may run on occasion but the fire that burned to train and submit themselves to the rigors of racing has faded.  In younger years, most said that would not happen to us.  We surely expected to slow down but to drop out, never!  Yet, the numbers don’t lie.  Less than 6% of race fields are 60 or over, in spite of this age grouping comprising about 17% of the U.S. population.  Even the 50-59 age group, also representing 17% of the population – it’s a big group!, comprises about 13% of race fields.*  So it appears the downward trend starts in the 50s.  

Race participation is a reasonable proxy for vigorous training.  I don’t know one person who trains with intensity but doesn’t race.  Racing is the payoff for doing the hard work!  There are numerous reasons why people stop training and racing.  It can be distressing and depressing to belabor them.  So I decided to focus this post on what does keep runners running and racing.  I came up with six relevant to me and perhaps others will relate to them too:

  1. Enjoyment
  2. Satisfaction
  3. Camaraderie
  4. Challenge
  5. Staying Healthy
  6. The X Factor

Enjoyment is relative.  I recall how it used to feel cresting a hill in training or a race, sensing a surge of energy starting down the backside.  That joy has morphed into what might be described as “exhausted relief” of making the incline intact!  I also recall early morning runs, jumping out of bed, tying up the shoes and immediately heading out.  Now I find a need to take time to loosen up and even with that, persistent stiffness prevails, at least for the first part of the run. But the process and run can still be enjoyable.  Ultimately, I see that as my choice.

Satisfaction is also relative.  In the back of my training log, I used to keep my race history for the past 10 years. Every so often I would flip through the pages and see how much faster I ran a decade or even five years ago.  I can still recreate the feeling of many of those races – the steady, assured pacing, the overall race place, where in the race I put the hammer down and how it felt to finish knowing I had done that.  While that is fun, I found myself living too much in the past.  I now include just the past three years.  The rest are in a permanent binder on my bookshelf.  At the bottom of each year’s page, I list the times needed for an acceptable age grade performance.  Age grading levels the playing field with times changing each year, about 35 seconds for a 10K.  Each one has to decide what age grade% they shoot for.  But it allows for feeling good about times achieved, even if slower.

We probably got into running through the encouragement of others.  And hopefully that continues, though COVID has thrown a wrench into group running. But that will pass. Yet, even if the number of runners in our cohort declines, those who remain provide vital camaraderie.  In some cases, we’ve run together for years and know each other well.  But there’s always new things to learn from each other, including how we deal with the aging process.  Often new people join the inner circle and bring a different perspective.  Running clubs are great for this infusion. The honest truth is we find it harder to impose our slower pace on younger runners.  We feel we are either holding them back or pushing ourselves too much.  Neither is fun.  So within these constraints we seek out reliable running partners with whom to continue our journey.

As humans, we are wired to rise to challenge.  The nature and measure of a challenge may change, e.g, our pace for track repeats or a 10K time.  But it’s no less of a challenge.  Also, the challenge remains, whether we are working or retired, to set time aside to train.  In some ways it can be harder when working full time: we have to juggle to make it work.  But the challenge nevertheless remains at all stages of life to organize ourselves to make training a priority. 

Staying healthy almost goes without saying!  We see many contemporaries gaining weight, adopting a shuffling gait, complaining about new aches and pains, etc., etc., etc!  Training helps keep us healthy and engaged.  Clearly, training is more than running and in fact training needs to transition from primarily running to include more weights, stretching, focus on diet, and other aerobic exercise.  Many already incorporate those aspects. But too often when we stop running the rest go by the wayside too.

The X Factor is a bit hard to describe. But we know it when it’s there. Take it out and we’re in the obituaries!  It draws from the above five reasons but is beyond them.  In essence, the X Factor is what animates us, what gets us up in the morning saying or thinking carpe diem!  It’s the intangible aspects of life that make it a fascinating journey.  We have been drawn to running for reasons beyond what we might list, but when we line up for the start of a race, it comes together and we are fully present in that moment. 

The influence of these six reasons vary day to day.  And the strength of each, and others, vary by person.  Each of us could write a blog post describing our own set. These are mine and I suspect they might prove true for others too.  Whatever the reasons, we find we do keep running, and that outcome is worth celebrating!

* These percentages are drawn from 23,000 runners participating in the 2019 Boston Athletic Association’s Distance Medley events.

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