Thursday, August 25, 2005

life course / race course

Fall is transition time for academics, especially those in departments emphasizing life course sociology. In addition to career transitions, I've also passed some formal and informal milestones in one of my favorite leisure activities. Last year I formally gained "masters" status at races, a designation based solely upon one's date of birth rather than any accomplishment. Presumably this makes me eligible for fabulous prizes, but I haven't brought home any trophies or hardware yet, "masters" or otherwise. A glorious diversity of ages and body types assemble at every local 5k or marathon, from the elite skinnybutt racers to back-of-the-pack clydesdales like me. After 10 years of such events, I've noticed that my runnin' buddies don't slow down much over time: we started slow, we're still slow, and we couldn't get appreciably slower without running backwards, which would seem to require more effort than we're willing to put into it. In general, however, most older runners are wily veterans, compensating for physical declines by running smarter races than the kids.

As a rapidly aging hipster doofus, I know that ageist remarks quickly come back to haunt me (Oh, the silly things I said in grad school!). Still, it really bugs me to be beaten out in every race by some old guy clomping along, wheezing heavily, listing to one side, sweating profusely through a worn Bjorn Borg headband and diaphenous "lucky" race-T from '78, and throwing off a powerful smell of onions and Old Spice. The mature female runners are pretty much indistinguishable from these guys except for a slight difference in size and aroma. I'll take off feeling strong and purposeful, but the old masters hold their pace, passing me when I slow for water or tie my shoes. In the end, they kick my butt and I have to force a congratulatory smile as they stagger past me at the finish line.

So, here's my precise life course location in August, 2005. I'm chugging along at a race in White Bear Lake, MN. About five miles in, I hear the wheezing, feel the uneven footfalls around me, and, yes, smell the ol' onionspicesweat. I have a quick look around to see who it is this time. Hmmm ... nobody there. Then I notice that the fresh-faced runners nearby are giving me an unusually wide berth and crinkling their little noses as they pass. Aha! I've become that guy! My shirt only dates to the '96 Lake Monona 20k and the cologne is Old Hugo Boss rather than Old Old Spice, but I've definitely joined the brotherhood. It feels a little like getting tenure, so I'm o.k. with it. I suppose I could probably upgrade the wardrobe and lay off the White Castles the night before race day, but I know it would just prolong the inevitable. More than any formal masters designation, this sort of informal deference and nose-crinkling derogation clearly marks my happy (happy, I tell you!) transition from neophyte runner to full-blown crustihood. Now when I pass somebody at the twin cities marathon this october -- and I will pass somebody -- I'll also be passing along the shame and frustration that the wily veterans instilled in me over the past decade. I can't believe that dude is faster than me...

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