Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Thu, 04 Jul 2013 05:27:09 -0400

Old Times


(The latest, and probably last, home for my magazine column was Marathon & Beyond. That seven-year stay ended in 2011. Now I have permission to republish those pieces. This one comes from the May 2010 issue.)

“Age Unlimited” was the title of this program the day before the Victoria Marathon in British Columbia. We three panelists talked about what hardly anyone in the audience wanted to think about, but everyone who hung around this sport long enough would become: older and slower.

My stagemates, Rose Marie Preston and Ken Bonner, would each run their 30th Victoria the next morning. Rose Marie told of never being injured, and Ken said he seldom had been. They agreed this was because they had run less and cross-trained more as they’d aged.

I spoke last and had the least to say about my recent marathons. They numbered just three in the decade about to end and just one – ever – in Victoria. I have been injured, lots of times in almost every way known to sports-medical science. I don’t cross-train, which might help explain the previous sentence.

So I yielded to Preston and Bonner to advise about training and racing at an age when injuries come faster and healing is slower. When my turn came to speak, I gave but one tip about making peace with age. That was to make friends with the watch. Or put another way: don’t let the old times haunt you.

One of the best features of running is the personal record. No one can set it for you, and no one can break it but you.

And for runners with more than a few years on us, one of the WORST features is also the personal record. It stands as clear and objective evidence of what we once could do and never will again. The permanent PRs will taunt you if you let them, which I don’t.

I’m proud of my old PRs, but no less proud of the personal worsts that fall (or, more accurately, rise) today. I once ran a faster marathon than almost anyone in the Victoria meeting room. Now I am slower than almost anyone there. If I let slower times shame me, they would have driven me from races long ago.

I’m no more ashamed of the PW than I am inordinately proud of the PR. The PW might mean even more to me.

My fastest time came at 23, an age when we can get by with almost anything and we take everything for granted. The slowest came in my latest marathon, after life had kicked me around for another four-plus decades. I take nothing for granted anymore, not even my next marathon.

We’re given about 10 years to improve our times, no matter when we started running. What then? I look to one of my early and lasting heroes for an answer.

Johnny Kelley won twice at the Boston Marathon and finished second many times. When I first interviewed Kelley, he was the sport’s elder statesman. His most memorable line spoken then: “What you keep doing after you’ve done your best racing is what really counts.”

For him it was continuing to run long after his PRs had passed. He kept going, and inspiring generations of younger runners, into his 90s. He judged success not by the stopwatch but by the calendar.

One way to keep time from haunting or taunting us is to ignore it. But that’s hard to do now when instant Internet results-reporting leaves no place to hide from inquiring minds, including our own.

Another way to play tricks with time is to renew the PR list every so often. National records account for age difference with listings by 10-year, five-year and even single-year increments. This should give us permission to do the same with personal records.

My way of making peace with time is to run WITH it instead of against it. Other than in races, which are rare these days and growing rarer, I rarely check the distance or pace. I just run by time periods – 30 minutes, one hour – and let the miles pass unnoticed.

I’ve long sung the praises of by-time running, giving every possible reason except the best one now, which is: minutes and hours are the same length today that they were in 1964 when racing a mile took me the least time, and in 1967 when I finished a marathon the soonest.

Today’s watch simply tells time in the perpetual “now” that Jimmy Buffett sings about in “Breathe In, Breathe Out, Move On.” Buffett tells of buying a watch with a face that simply reads “now” and is “never wrong.” The song ends:

“According to my watch the time is now.
Past is dead and gone.
Don’t try to shake it, just nod your head.
Breathe in, breathe out, move on.”

UPDATE: I have backslid a bit since writing this piece. For the longest runs I now strap on a GPS watch and measure distance covered. But I still refuse to let the pace verdict haunt or shame me.

[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in three different formats: (1) in print from; (2) as e-books from and; (3) as printable and shareable PDFs from Just released was Learning to Walk. Other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log (not an e-book), and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe (e-book only). The middle book of the memoir series, Going Far, is being serialized in Marathon & Beyond magazine.]
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