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Rites of Passage

Running at 60

By Michael Webster

I didn’t mind turning 30 or even 40. My 50th birthday was cause for wonder but of no particular angst. Turning 60, as I did this past February, was different. I suppose it’s the Baby Boomer in me.

Born in 1948, I’m still horrified by the prospect of getting old. Of course, my definition of “old” has changed over the years. As a teenager, I couldn’t imagine that people over 25 had anything to live for. In my 20s, there was Jerry Rubin’s maxim, “Never trust anyone over 30.” Since then, I’ve learned that 60 isn’t old, but for the first time, it feels like I can see old from where I am.

How to mark this milestone? Another birthday party wasn’t going to cut it. No, what I needed was a challenge, some task or triumph that would make the whole year a memorable one and give a positive spin to what was increasingly becoming an alarming harbinger of the end of my life. I’m not saying my feelings about going north of 60 were rational; more that I needed to get a handle on entering my seventh decade in order to stay rational.

Then, with my birthday still two years away, I had an idea. Maybe, I thought, I could run a marathon. I’d taken up running recently just for a change in my exercise routine. Jogging on a treadmill was so unbearably boring that I switched to an indoor track, where at least the scenery changed on each corner. At first, every lap was more exhausting than the one before, and only my iPod kept me going. After a few weeks, though, I noticed I had more spring in my step. To my surprise, I found myself wanting to run farther, faster.

That spring, I left the track behind. Running outside provided even more scenery to enjoy, and I knew I was hooked when I started leaving the iPod at home. I even entered a
10 km race. When I ran my age (under 58 minutes), I made plans for my 60th. Half-marathon (21.1 km) the next summer, at age 59. Full marathon (42.2 km) in 2008 — gulp.

With the plan in place, my birthday worries disappeared. Suddenly, I was managing 60 instead of 60 managing me. Maybe part of me believed that by running a marathon, I could thumb my nose at the grim reaper. Maybe, but for the most part, I took on the challenge because I enjoy running. The simplicity of it (left, right, left, right) makes a nice contrast to ministry, and the physical demands serve as a great stress reliever. But it’s more than that. I have long believed in a body-spirit connection, and nothing in my life has strengthened that connection more than running. After the endorphins (source of the so-called “runner’s high”) have dissipated, I find within myself a peace, a stillness that I recognize as spiritual. It’s a form of mobile meditation, one in which I am transported, in both senses of the word.

Marathon preparation consists of 18 weeks of training. My world narrowed to eating, sleeping, ministry and running, plus 20 minutes a day of icing various joints.

I registered in the Saskatchewan Marathon here in Saskatoon. The congregation gave me the Sunday off. My daughter flew out from Toronto to run with me. I hoped to finish in five hours and was cautiously confident. I had run 32 km in practice and figured I could slog through the last 10 km. And I did. Hand in hand, arms raised, my daughter and I crossed the finish line in four hours and 48 minutes. After two years of planning and four and a half months of serious training, the race itself — like my birthday, as it turns out — was less important than I had imagined.

I’m not going to claim that running a marathon has kept me young. But it is helping me to age gracefully, or at least with good grace. If nothing else, it has given me something to blame my aches and pains on. 
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