Used to be, I was the youngster. I scrambled up the professional career ladder of scholarly publishing so fast that I often had a hard time getting people to believe that yes, I really was an editor from Oxford University Press, not a graduate student. I had to devise ways to make sure that wait staff in the fancy restaurants to which I took my authors, often men twenty or a hundred years my senior, gave me the check. I cringed when Hannibal Lector pointed out Clarice’s good bag and cheap shoes. I had good bags and cheap shoes. I labored to be taken seriously and looked forward to the respectability conferred by aging.
Now, in my job as a college professor, I look appropriately mature—some indiscernible point between middle age and death. I don’t need to rely on tricks to establish my authority in the classroom; I’ve got gravitas and grey hairs. This makes things easier.
As a runner, however, I begin to feel my age. Not old, exactly, though I need more recovery than I used to, and I can’t deny that my times are much slower than they were. But it’s more than I am in the minority—I’m once again on the flat end of the bell curve.
Becoming a sponsored athlete at age fifty thrilled me. I knew that my selection had as much to do with my eagerness to write about running and fitness as it did about my somewhat iffy accomplishments, but the weight of responsibility that I felt came with the honor got me out in the dreary northwest weather. Even when I didn’t want to, I had to run. I was, hear this, people, a Sponsored Athlete!
In the spring, for the first time in my life, I joined a team, the Spokane Swifts, a group of fast women. This was a mixed blessing. While it jazzed me to plug into a community of people who cared about running and did workouts together twice a week, it sucked to get lapped on the track. On long runs I slogged along by myself, finishing long after everyone else had cooled down. Worst, I apologized constantly for being so slow and made excuses (I’m old!) until I drove myself nuts.
We started training for Spokane’s gigantic race, the Lilac Bloomsday 12k. In my first effort as a member of that team of fast women, I ran a whole lot slower than I had the previous year. Humiliation. I felt like I didn’t deserve to wear Athleta clothes or a Swifts uniform. My failure felt public.
But as the weather got nicer, I trained harder, tried to muzzle my ego, and kept at it. Three weeks after Bloomsday, I won my age group at a half marathon. Most of the other women winners—overall and age group—were on my team, and we all hung out while waiting for the awards. Except that, by the time the 50-54 year-olds were called up, the crowd had thinned.
After that, I started racing more. For the latter part of the summer and early fall, I raced a lot. I did mid-week 5Ks and every weekend I pinned on a number for a different distance: half marathons, 25Ks on the trails, 25Ks on hilly country roads, an all-women’s trail marathon at the base of a volcano in western Washington, a 10K in Maine, a 15 miler in West Virginia, and I finished the season with a 50K at a local ski resort. By the beginning of October, I was a little weary, but I’d had a whole lot of fun.
Now, as the year is ending, I’m thinking about what it meant for me to be a fifty-year-old sponsored runner.
It’s always been hard for me to say, “I’m an athlete,” because it still seems so unlikely. I’m the girl who searched for excuses to get out of gym class, who ate Oreo’s and read a novel while her friends went out for a jog, who managed to be skinny without being fit. Even though I’ve been running for twenty years, I still feel like a pretender, a fake.
I don’t think I’ve ever once said, “I’m a sponsored athlete,” without dissolving into giggles. But I don’t laugh when I add that I’m fifty years old. It’s a triumph over attrition; I can win my age group because there are so few contenders. But I also want younger women to see that this is what aging looks like. Slowing down—sure. But still working hard, still pushing.
I hate to think I’m becoming one of those people who gets props for “just being out there” but that’s where I’m headed. So I’ve had to adjust and realize what many others know: what matters is not how fast you go, but to recognize the achievement in getting to the starting line. It’s always hard to get motivated, and as you age, you can get better at finding excuses not to exercise. Or at least, I can.
Part of the payoff of being in a less competitive demographic is that it can, well, pay off. Here’s a shocker: I won money in a number of the races I did this year. I started putting it in a coffee can that I referred to in my head as the “Money for Nothing” stash. I added to it fees I’d gotten from the re-publication of essays I’d already been paid for. “That ain’t workin’, that’s the way you do it,” I’d sing, as I stuffed a $25 gift card to L. L. Bean, a $20 bill from a 5K series, a $100 check from the Charleston Distance Run, into the can. Someday, I’ll figure out an appropriate way to spend it, especially because I realized, finally, that it’s not money for nothing.
It’s unexpected, for sure, but it’s not unearned. It’s the payoff for deciding to start running at age thirty. It’s the currency of lasting—of continuing to put on my running shoes and line up with a race number pinned onto my shirt. It’s Title IX cash—the benes of being in the early generation of women who were raised with notions of equality and of access to sport. It’s a reminder that the rewards of being fit at fifty—or sixty, or eighty—are both measurable and immeasurable. And, perhaps most obvious, if you don’t get yourself to the line, you have no chance of winning.