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Back to the future

What you carry with you on your runs can be as important as what you leave behind.

Any trip down memory lane is likely to bring up old emotions. I used to play the bass trombone (professionally, I mean), and I recently came across the audition tapes I made nearly 20 years ago. I never actually got a job by using those tapes, but they represent an important part of my life nonetheless. An injury (pinched nerve in my arm from overuse) ended my musical career shortly after I made the tapes, so there is some sadness to be sure. But there is also a sense of wonder that I'd ever had the skill and discipline to do something at that level.

All of this got me thinking. I wondered if anyone would take up the trombone at, say, 43, and expect to perform at a near-professional level in a year or so. I wondered if anyone would believe that an adult who couldn't so much as read music could quickly and easily learn a vast musical repertoire. Then I wondered why adult-onset athletes in general and adult-onset runners in particular think they should be able to run as fast or as far as lifelong runners do.

I wonder all this because that's exactly what I did. Middle-aged, overweight, smoker, drinker, overeater, I thought I could train like a seasoned athlete. In my naiveté, I thought that beginners' running programs were for beginners. Real beginners, like, oh I don't know, a 2-year-old child who had barely learned to walk.

I'd run for 12 weeks 20 years earlier when I went through Army Basic Infantry Training, so I wasn't really a beginner. I was just coming back to running after a two-decade hiatus. I knew I wasn't an advanced runner, but surely I was capable of using the intermediate program. I just assumed that it would all come back.

It didn't. What did come back was the knee pain I remembered from Basic. And the foot pain. And the hip pain. And the boredom. And the hating to run.

For whatever reason, we accept that starting late as a musician limits us. And so it was with my running. In time, I came to accept that the days before I started running were every bit as important as the days after. No amount of effort or training was going to overcome a lifetime of indiscretion. This acceptance came as quite a shock. And I wasn't happy about it.

I wasn't happy that I'd never be able to place in my age group. I wasn't happy that I wouldn't achieve the sort of unquestioned recognition that I had achieved as a musician. I wasn't happy, but I didn't stop running either.

Now I'm content with running in the context of a life lived fully, if not well. I'm content in the way the adult pianist is content with clawing his way through Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. I know that even if I'm not doing it well, it's better than not doing it at all.

And on those days when I find that the baggage I'd need for a longer trip down memory lane is just too heavy for me to carry, I remind myself that no one can make me carry those bags anymore. I can't change the road I took to get here, and I'm not sure I would.

For now I try not to look too far back. But I also try not to look too far ahead. Keeping my eye on today is about all I'm capable of. And today, I think I'll go for a run.

Waddle on, friends.

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