Almost exactly 20 years ago, on the occasion of my 50th birthday, I wrote a column titled “An Out and Back Life.” I was reflecting on the similarities between getting older and looking back on one’s life and reaching the turn-around point of an out and back course.
At 50 years-old my life was chaotic, complicated, with an uncertain future. The “Penguin Chronicles” had been in Runner’s World for a little over two years, I was beginning to get invitations to speak at running events, and I was just getting a glimpse at what the next chapter of my life might look like.
I had friends who, at 50, were well into their careers, were getting close to paying off their mortgages and were making plans for an early retirement. These were the people who had reached the turn around point and were well ahead of me personally and professionally.
I had friends who, at 50, had suffered career setbacks, health issues, and financial problems. They were, in some cases, no further along in their lives than they were when they were 30. These were the people who were behind me and still trying to get to the turn-around point.
At 50 I was quite sure that I was past the mid-point of my life. At 70, well, there’s no doubt that I have long ago past the orange cones and am on my way towards my own personal finish line.
Some of those people who were well ahead of me at 50 are STILL way ahead. Others, oddly enough, I’ve managed to catch. Still other, I’ve actually been able to pass.
Of course, some of those that were behind me at the turn-around of my life have caught up or passed me as well. Life, and racing, is funny that way. It doesn’t matter where you are at the turn-around. The only position that counts is the one you hold as you cross the finish line.
So, what’s changed in the intervening 20 years? Well, my life is often still chaotic. It’s only a little less complicated. And, what was once an uncertain future has turned into a remarkable past.
That is the lesson from running and racing. Standing at the starting line of a local 5K or a major marathon there are far more unknowns that knowns. You show up as prepared as you can be. You stand there filled with equal measure of hope and fear. When the gun goes off and you cross the starting line you step into your own version of chaos.
I’ve run marathons where I knew in the first mile that I was going to have a great day. I’ve run 5Ks where I wasn’t sure that I could finish until I crossed the line. For me, I think that was a large part of the attraction – or addiction – to running and racing: the adrenaline rush at the start line, the simultaneous abject fear of what might happen and the intoxicating euphoria of what might happen.
That may also be what makes life so interesting: the constant vacillation between fear and euphoria. In many ways I feel sorry for those that have never stood at a starting line and faced the uncertainty of the next 30 minutes or 6 hours. Those who have never faced their fear can never truly know their potential.
There’s a point in every race when you know that you’re best is nothing more or less than your best on that day. There’s a point in every life when you have to face that same truth. Your best today, as a person, spouse, parent, or anything else, is just that; your best today.
But your best today doesn’t tell you what your best will be tomorrow, or a year from now, or – like me – what your best will be when you’re 70. My personal bests, at every distance, are behind me. Many of my personal aspirations are also behind me. I’m pretty sure I’ll never be a professional pool player, or bowler, or the first baseman for the Chicago Cubs.
That’s not to say that my bucket list is complete. What it does mean is that my priorities have changed. I can accept that there are things that I had hoped to do that I will never do because there’s much that I’ve done that I could never have imagined doing.
Waddle on, friends.