“How do you know when it’s time to hang them up?”
Over recent years, I can recall a couple of my far more talented running friends wonder aloud this very sentiment that has been quietly festering in the back of my mind now for the last several months, or perhaps even longer. Either way, I finally had to acknowledge to myself the presence of such a question, even though it’s the one that I think that any runner at any level who has relentlessly pursued any goal–however realistic or not–are all most reluctant to say aloud, because there is always the question of are you giving up, or simply moving on? The latter is acceptable, the former is not, but it can sometimes be so hard to tell the difference. And then there is the question of do you really, truly, want to move on? Besides, it’s embarrassing, for lack of a better word, to acknowledge that we might have found some kind of limit, whether physical or mental.
It’s not as though I have ever made a living off of this sport. It’s not, and has never been, a “career” by a long shot. Although it did get really close a couple of times. Mostly, I just like doing it, and that’s always been the primary motive. Certainly, over the years I’ve been lucky enough to always have my shoe/gear needs taken care of, and very often race expenses as well, but I’ve only ever really been “sponsored” by a job and my own debit card. But it doesn’t really take away the mental, physical, and emotional time that has been spent on toiling after goals that never really have a guaranteed outcome. As much as we all love the process, a great outcome definitely reinforces that love. When the outcome is the desired one, it is so worth it, but when it’s not, and often repeatedly not, especially when you start “getting on in your years,” it can leave you wondering if perhaps it is time for a new starting line.
There is an old FloTrack interview featuring Kara Goucher, when she wrestled with the question of retiring from professional running several years ago. The question that made up her mind for her was when she was asked, “How does it feel to think about life without doing this?” (“This” being running for a living) and her response was:
“It makes me sad.”
Although her situation is obviously much different from most runners’ given that it is much more for her than just a passion and the pursuit of goals for the sake of seeing how good she could get, I think the feeling is pretty universal if you care at all about what you’re doing.
“It makes me sad.”
Yes, it makes me sad to think of not having having goals to chase after and the gamble of putting in effort in the hopes of eventually having your day, and then having it. I have yet to find really anything that provides the same satisfaction, I think that’s why so many of us keep at it for so long. And it makes me sad to think of not having that race day nervousness of anticipating seeing all of your hard work–that, better yet, never really felt all that much like work anyway–hopefully come to fruition, and it makes me sad to think of becoming a NARP (Non Athletic Regular Person), and it makes me sad to think of that huge part of my life maybe no longer being quite so huge anymore, I can’t really imagine life without it. And also wondering if there really were stones left unturned along the way that might’ve made all the difference. But, no answers can really come to that last question, and in any situation, I guess you can really only ever do what you know how to do with the information that you have at the time.
But the other side of the coin, the side that refuses to let “it makes me sad” be the answer, is one of frustration and a general feeling of complete ridiculousness. Frustration at how much you might be limiting other opportunities in life just by obsessively wanting to maintain a situation that creates an environment so that you might be able to have just ONE more good go at what you want to accomplish, frustration with the fact that it is always a gamble, frustration perhaps with an annoyingly slightly less-than-durable body, and all enveloped with a feeling of complete ridiculousness that you’re no longer fresh out of college with the running world as your oyster, so why are you endlessly trying to recreate that time of life?
And mostly, frustration at not knowing when it’s time to move on, because this thing made you YOU, and it is hard to cultivate a whole new identity.
Shucks. I got so much better at not overthinking this running/life thing for a while there.
Maybe my melancholy musings have been brought on by post-mountain-season blues, maybe I left my mojo up on Pikes Peak a few months ago or something, or maybe there have been too many solo runs on dark and cold mornings lately, or maybe it was the loss of a wonderful job and this subsequent feeling of being adrift and perpetually anxious and uncertain about a future that I thought I was finally starting to figure out, or the somewhat worriesome niggle that cropped up a few weeks ago that’s begun to suck the fun out of every recent run, all amplified by frustration at bearing witness to so much unfairness lately that it has made me wonder if it’s really worth ever fighting for anything…but now we’re just getting way too dark, so we’ll back on out of that particular rabbit hole. I should just stop reading the news. These other things are, after all, all mostly fixable and temporary things experienced by nearly everyone at some time or another, and I know that I am lucky to have ways of fixing them, even if those ways involve one of my least favorite activities: being patient.
Regardless, lately running has not been the comforting friend it has always been, rather, it is shrouded by a pervasive feeling of “going through the motions” just to create some feeling of normalcy. I don’t recognize that in myself, and I don’t know why it’s there, and it’s made the question of whether or not to “hang them up” rattle loudly around in my skull. I keep hoping for some sign or some divine intervention, even if it’s in the form of a divine kick in the ass. I keep thinking maybe if I close this door, a million other doors might open in its place, it wouldn’t be the first time.
But the thought of closing that door makes me sad, so maybe that’s the answer right there.
The “bright side” to those dark, early morning runs.