Since I tend to stay in shape by running as often as I can, some people who know me personally have asked me why I don’t enter myself in any masters meets. Or some of my athletes will try to convince me to run in one of those dreaded coaches’ relays. Naw, bruh. Hurdling hurts too much, and so does sprinting.
After finishing college in 1991 I stopped competing because there was nowhere for someone of my ability level to compete. A 15-mid in the 110s is decent for Division III but it certainly wasn’t anything that would lead to running post-collegiately. I ran some open meets in the summers but there was no energy at those meets. You get a mish-mash of talent and ages, and varying levels of conditioning. I had no set schedule and no big meets to build toward. Yawn.
Once I started coaching in my late twenties and was practicing with my athletes, I started getting in shape. I was hitting the same times in practice reps that I’d been hitting when I was in college. I began to really feel the itch to run again, to see if I could do it again like I had done it before, to see if I could even maybe beat my personal bests. When I was 31 I signed up for the Southeastern Masters meet at North Carolina State University and ran the 110s over 39s. I ran something like a 15.81, and was very happy to run that fast in my first race in seven years. Then I jogged right back to the starting line and ran the 110s over the 42s. There was only one guy entered in the under-30-year-old age group. He had no one to run against, so I volunteered to run against him as a non-counter. The officials were okay with it, so I did it. I ran like a 16.18 and beat the other guy. Later in the day, in the 400s, I ran like a 60.7. I forgot how long that race was. I was rolling on the second curve, caught the leader over the ninth hurdle, thought I had the race won, eased up off the last hurdle, then somebody way over in lane eight snuck past me. I remember thinking, Does he even count?
Never stop running until you get past the finish line. That’s what I had always told my athletes, but then I didn’t even do it myself. Still, running in that meet was a lot of fun and I was eager to do it again.
But the Southeastern Masters the next two years fell on the same weekend as my school’s conference championships, so I couldn’t go. The next year, when I was 34, the timing was favorable. I trained for it again, and found that my speed wasn’t the same. My 200 and 150 repeats were two or three seconds slower than they had been three years before. Was I out of shape? It was getting harder to three-step. I’d be stretching just to reach the hurdles. I checked my weight. That was fine. Hadn’t put on a pound. But after workouts my feet were hurting and my lower back was sore. My feet never used to hurt me back in the day. My back never used to get sore back in the day. What was the matter with me?
I went to the meet and gave it a shot, not feeling nearly as confident as I had at age 31. And for good reason. I went out there and ran an 18-something and a 67-something. And the saddest part was, I won both races. How could I run an 18 and 67 and win? Did I really want to keep doing this? I looked around, saw all these 60-year-olds, 70-year-olds, even 80-year-olds in spandex speed suits with cellulite and wrinkles hanging out of the sides. I thought to myself, Is this who I want to be thirty years down the road? Is this where I want to go? I decided right then and there that I had run my last masters meet. Let the young folks do the racing. I’ll do the coaching.
Since then I developed a stress fracture in my right fibula which I assume is the result of so many years of running track and sprinting over hurdles. Though the injury has “healed,” it still hurts when I sprint, and it kills me when I hurdle. When I recently asked the trainer at our school why it still hurts if it’s supposedly healed, she looked at me as if I were an idiot and said, “because you’re hurdling on it.” Which meant, obviously, that I needed to give up hurdling altogether. Couldn’t even do a few drills every now and then in practice. “Most people your age,” she patiently explained to me, “don’t do those types of activities anymore.”
I’m proud to say as of this writing that I’m a recovering hurdle-holic who hasn’t cleared a hurdle in nearly seven months. It’s been kind of easy staying clean and sober, even though I’m surrounded by hurdles and hurdlers every day when I’m coaching. It’s easy because I just remember the pain, and I don’t want to go there again.
This past spring I started trying to convert myself into a distance runner. I’ve always believed that staying fit is a key to maintaining overall emotional balance. And since I can’t sprint and hurdle anymore, distance runs are the next best thing. Over the summer I’ve been running over 40 miles per week. I’ll usually run twice a day. Maybe 6 miles in the morning, and 3 more in the evening. I’m not training for anything. When I run, I take off my watch so I’m not even tempted to time myself. I’ll do laps on the track or I’ll go back on the cross country course or I’ll run in a nearby park that has a two-mile circuit on it. I like distance-running. It’s challenging, it helps me to keep my weight down, it provides me with much-needed solitude, and it helps me to empty my mind of its worries and troubles. I ran a half-marathon three years ago, and I’m feeling like I might do one again this fall. But I’ve got no expectations, I’m not “training” for it. I just like being in shape.
Despite the spandex joke a couple paragraphs ago, I give much props to all masters runners. I was looking at the results of the National Masters Championships from a couple weeks ago, and saw guys my age running some incredible times. One guy ran a 15-mid in the 110s with a negative 3.0 wind. Another cat ran a 56 in the 400s. That’s some fast hurdling for people over 40 years old. Even the slower hurdlers deserve their props. They’re out there doing it, which is more than I can say.
Truth is, if my body would let me still go out there and compete, I would. I’ve been blessed to have plenty of success as a coach, and I feel very good about how consistent I’ve been this summer with running regularly. In the middle of a six-mile run on a cool day when it’s not too humid, I feel like I can go forever without ever getting tired. Even on the days when the heat is oppressive, when it’s hard to get into a rhythm, I feel good about taking on the athletic challenge of trying something that tests my mettle.
Yet as content as I am with my life and though I’m at peace with the inevitable gradual breakdown of my body, there’s a part of me that would give it all away – every championship an athlete of mine has won, every step of a distance run I have taken – I would give it all away if I could just do one more rep over five hurdles, race distance apart, full speed, pain-free. I don’t think that will ever change.
© 2007 Steve McGill