I’m revising my novel and am at the point in the story when my protagonist discovers her inner athlete for the first time, and I must say, it’s fun pretending to be in her shoes. Nora finally runs one lap in two minutes. I know, multiply it by four and that’s an eight-minute mile, which is not exactly an Olympic-qualifying time, but for her, it’s the fastest she’s ever run and quite an accomplishment. She felt like she was going to die and dry-heaved a few times as she crossed the finish line, but she did it. For me, it has been a long time since I’ve felt that swell of pride and accomplishment for physical feats, and I miss it. I think the last time I felt anything close was losing the baby weight after I had Virginia. And believe me, it’s quite a comeback going from being about as active as a slug for nine months to walking and jogging like a normal healthy person. It was also ten years ago.
I have middle-aged friends who take up running for the first time or give boxing a try or start to get into those at-the-crack-of-dawn boot camp programs, and I listen to them in the early stages as they complain—”I hate getting up at 5:30 every morning” or “my muscles are sore” or “ack, my knee!”—and know that this pain will be temporary. When they stick with it, I watch their new sport transform my formerly exercise-ambivalent friends into budding athletes. And as happy for them as I am for getting into bad-ass shape, I can’t say I’m not a little envious. They get to discover what it’s like to get strong and fast. And as they continue every week, they see improvement. After years with the sport, though, I know they’ll reach a plateau, just as I have. Running certainly still makes my body feel good and keeps my mind sane, but after 30 years of running and counting, I don’t have that high that some of my friends get from their early-morning boot camp sessions. I might get a bit of a buzz from a better-than-average race time, but I’m finding that the challenges with running evolve the more I do it. And if I’m really being honest with myself, the fact that I’m getting older probably isn’t helping either. Peter Sagel, the host of Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me on NPR and an avid distance runner wrote about this issue in an article in Runner’s World a couple of years ago. He was training for a personal best marathon time at the ripe old age of, gulp, forty-six. He poses similar questions about being an over-the-hill runner that I’ve been struggling with as well: “Were my best days behind me? Would the rest of my career on the roads be about different goals—like running my most cheerful marathon, one with the most high-fives from the curbside crowd?”
So I guess the question is, is the cure for beating the exercise plateau blues to increase the ante to achieve the high? Like, should I try for a personal best for a 5K? 10K? Pull a Peter Sagel and go for a marathon PR? Do I dare train for a Boston Marathon qualifying time? Even train for an ultra-marathon? I know I’ll never have the athletic potential I had in college and in my twenties, and I need to make peace with that. I don’t think I’m there yet.