Shaving off the minutes

I went to cheer on my friend AJ during the Stockholm Half Marathon last Saturday evening, in perfect running weather (I already did my 6k earlier that afternoon). I think I was the only one yelling at this stretch — I was so disappointed with my fellow observers! It helped me a ton to have people yelling as I passed in “my first race.”

I ran my first 10-km “race” in under an hour a few weekends ago.  And now I want to go faster in my next event, coming up in a few weekends.  So, how can I do it?  I’m a woman of a certain age, I just started running, and I am doing pretty well, people tell me. But I get the feeling that things are about to get difficult.

I remember hitting my “peak” as a swimmer at the age of about 17.  And oh man, I was one of the slowest people in the pool.  I learned to swim when I was about 5 or 6 years old, but only to be safe in the water as a kid.  I started swimming competitively when I was about 15, as a sophomore in high school.  I had to learn all the strokes, and then get in the pool to swim against competitors who might have been competing since they were about 7 years old.  I shaved my arms once to shave off milliseconds, when I should have been lifting weights to get seconds off my times.

And it was SO much fun.  I might have picked up my competitive streak from that time in my life that I cannot shake, but more likely, competitive swimming was a channel for that drive to win. More important, I made a healthy habit of exercising (thank you, Title IX!).

So, just possibly, competing with the people around me is one path to going faster (and a reason why I went as quickly as I did for my first group run).  I can’t help it — even in the pool these days, I’m still driven by a competitive spirit that pushes me to pass the guy in the next lane over.  As I get older, I have to accept more and more often that I can’t get that extra oomph, but that doesn’t stop me from trying.

Matt keeps saying I’m in the Masters now (and he doesn’t mean golf!), meaning I’m the youngest in my age bracket and perhaps can beat a whole lot of women a little older than me.  Maybe.  But I actually have no sense of what “doing well” means, as I’ve only just started running — I don’t know what my competition can do. And without that rubric, I almost don’t care.

So at this point, it’s not the winning.  I have mentally limited myself to competing with myself, for personal bests.

Running opportunity advertised in Hellasgarden. (Loppet means a running competition in Swedish.) You know you want to!

I also have made a mental promise that I won’t hurt myself.  A headline I saw recently asked if exercise is the next addictive drug of choice. Could be. And to be good, you certainly have to work hard.

You may have read some of Malcolm Gladwell’s essays on the 10,000 hours you need to become expert, or other stories about how natural talent might help if you are starting a sport late in life.  I was reading another New Yorker article about an archery competitor during the Olympics this summer — I thought, hey, maybe I could start doing that too!  But no natural talent and a late start seems to spell doom for budding athletes — and my running career greatness.

Which leads me to my next question:  If I keep training/running, when will my knees start breaking down??  (“Ouch ouch ouch ouch ouch, this is your knees!” my friend SEP wrote me in an email after I told her I was running, and not swimming.)  I can hear the first squeaks already, but I think I’ll keep running, for now!

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