A Runner Looks at Fifty

(Or Twice a Runner)

By Frank Norris


When I was young, I used to smoke.I smoked a pack and a half a day.I tried jogging once in a while, but smoking and running hurt.I had to stop one of them, so I quit trying to jog.

By my late twenties I really wanted to quit smoking, but it was very hard to do.I was addicted to nicotine.I realized I was getting close to thirty.I was starting to realize my own mortality.I had seen older smokers hacking like they were going to cough a lung up and I had heard of many who had died from heart or lung diseases.I kept telling myself that I did not want to die of lung cancer.I wanted to live a long and healthy life.

Then one day when I was 28, I saw the most amazing thing.It was August of 1984.The summer Olympics were on.I turned on the TV one Sunday.The womenís Olympic marathon was just starting.I didnít know much about road races, but I decided to watch it.

The race started as a large pack, but didnít stay that way very long.I think it was about 6 miles into the race that a slender little American woman with a painterís hat on named Joan Benoit began pulling away from the pack.She was soon out of sight and she just kept running and running, down miles of city streets and then onto a deserted freeway.She was all alone, running smoothly and effortlessly, or so it appeared.It seemed that nothing could stop her.

About two hours and twenty minutes after starting the race, Joanie, as I have come to call her, entered the stadium to the roar of the crowd.It was very loud over the TV; I am sure it was deafening in the stadium.She calmly made one last lap and crossed the finish line with a smile and a wave.You could see the joy in her eyes and on her face as she made a victory lap carrying the American flag.She had won the gold medal in the first womenís Olympic marathon.

I almost started crying.That was it; I was never going to smoke again.I wanted to be a powerful athlete like Joanie.I knew I probably was not going to ever win an Olympic marathon, but I knew that I had felt powerful and strong running as a teenager.I witnessed that in Joanie and I was going to feel it myself again.

I put on some shorts, went outside, and ran around the block.I came back very winded, but feeling pretty good.My block went around a man-made lake and was just short of a mile.I donít recall how fast the run was, but it really didnít matter.I was inspired to run.

I made a habit of this over the days and weeks that followed.Every time I felt like I needed a cigarette, I would go run around my block again.The nicotine urges would go away for at least a couple of hours.If the urges came back, I would go for another run.

As I quit smoking, I went from not running at all to running about 4 miles a day pretty quickly.I was already thin and was now starting to get in shape.I was getting stronger and feeling better, so I wanted to test myself to see how good I had become.

Six weeks after I quit smoking and started running, I entered a 2 mile race on the track.I went out too fast and wound up dropping out after about five laps.However, two weeks later I entered my first 5K on the road.It was a very small, low-key race, with only about 30 or 40 runners, which was probably for the best.I paced myself a little better and finished second in my age group in 21:20.I was so proud of myself.I was just giddy all the way home, admiring the ribbon I had won.

I kept running.I read books on the subject.I started doing speed work and eating a healthy high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet.I got faster and started winning age group awards more frequently.I raced often, competing each year in the local ďSpace Coast RunnersĒ runner of the year series, finishing as high as first in my age group one year.

I often felt powerful when I would run.I remember certain runs, like one day while training for Boston in 1994, doing an aerobic threshold run down a bike path in a drizzling rain at 6:30 per mile with a feeling like I could do this forever.I had become the animal-like athlete I wanted to be.I was racing well and feeling great.

This health and strength lasted for many years.However, at almost 42, I was starting to slow down a little.I was working as hard as ever, but my times were getting slower and slower.I got frustrated and stopped racing.Soon, I stopped running almost completely.I would run once or twice a week for a couple of miles, but nothing like my former training.This went on for about 8 years, though I did try to get back into it a couple of times, only to restart too quickly and injure myself.

Then my second inspiration occurred.My 14 year old daughter Katie started running track for the local junior high.I watched my daughterís races.I cheered for her and almost cried again watching her run her heart out.

I remembered watching Joanie on TV so many years ago and how that had inspired me.Another thought also crossed my mind.I realized that 10 years ago I could have outrun every one of those kids, at least in the distance events.I had to get back at it.

I started gradually running, only to have another set back.I ruptured a disc in my lower back (not from running).I had a wonderful doctor who corrected the problem with minor surgery.However, the result was five weeks before surgery and seven weeks after surgery with no running.That only made me want it more.I walked a couple of miles every day after the surgery until he said I could run again.

When he said it was OK, I proceeded slowly and carefully.I had learned over the last few years that my body could not go from nothing to training hard, like I had done twenty-two years ago.I alternated days of running and days of walking, starting out with runs of about a mile and a half and slowly increasing that to two miles, then two-and-a-half, and then three.It worked.I slowly built a little bit of fitness and a base.I am running again and slowly building up my mileage.

My daughter and I train together now that cross country season is over.My pace is a little slower than it used to be, but I am starting to feel that powerful feeling of running effortlessly on good days.I have started running 5Ks with my daughter and even signed up for the Atlanta marathon.I may never beat my old PRs now that I am fifty, but that is OK.I will just have to start new ď50 and overĒ PRs.I may not be as fast as I once was, but God itís great to be running again.

About the Author

Frank Norris is once again an avid runner, including a 50 miler, a 50K, 2 marathons, a relay across Florida, and a few shorter races in the last year on a training base of about 50 miles a week.He is a member of Space Coast Runners and lives in Titusville, Fl with his wife and 3 children, ages 13, 17, and 20, all of whom are runners.He is president of a new running organization Florida East Coast Runners (http://www.fleastcoastrunners.com).This article was based on his personal experiences up through January 2006.


Copyright 2009 by Florida East Coast Runners and Frank Norris.Reproduction or reprinting without written permission is illegal.

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