The Phoenix Park, Dublin
“My secret?” The guy look offended. I was actually trying to pay him a compliment. An aged face, a shrinking frame, and a mop of wild gray hair, I would have placed him at maybe 65 years old. He stepped closer to me, like corona close, and patted me on the shoulder condescendingly as if he’d just beaten me in a game of 5aside. He leaned in further and said with a hint of anger: “Just Fucking Run”.
I was 36, in horrific shape, and blown away by this old man who ran more, ran further, ran faster, and honestly looked better doing it all too. I don’t know what I expected to hear when I asked about his secret, but I know I was definitely still in the mode of searching for one-click-answers. Maybe he had the right shoes? Maybe it was some running gel? Maybe he had some ingredient in his diet. I guess I hoped he’d offer some little tweak that I could make to my near-permanently unhealthy lifestyle and with the pop a pill or the purchase of a shoe I’d be all fixed.
But, No. Just Fucking Run.
I set off to destroy my body, asking hips & knees to carry weight they can’t carry and shoudn’t have been asked to, and the words kept coming to me. Was that all it was? I plodded my way through an unremarkable 5k. My running app Strava has algorithms to find any bit of good news in your run, maybe you did your 3rd best time for a specific tiny subset of a kilometre somewhere, maybe this was your 5th best time for a Tuesday at 2pm. When I eventually finished, Strava simply said “Run completed” Just about too.
40lbs lighter. I had kept running. I was now able to post what would be considered premium mediocre 5k times. The knees, hips, and back didn’t like it, but they didn’t hate it too bad either. Progress. As I headed the park I saw my nemesis for the first time in a while, quite a while actually.
“Injured?” I shouted across the road.
“Training for an ironman”
“I kept running!” I said with a hint of pride, hoping he’d notice my physical improvement.
He looked at me confused and just ran off. For me our 2017 conversation was significant, for him it was a Tuesday. His words left an impression on me, I left nothing on him.
I saw him a few more times over the years since, always running, always looking fit. Then it stopped. Putting him closer to 70 now I hoped he had just taken up walking or golf. I kept running.
I’m on kilometre 19 of a 21.1km run. My body is starting to struggle, zero preparation and I hadn’t ran this far in over a year, so this was a step up. I’m still running and still keeping my posture upright but my headphones are now dead, my breathing is haphazard, and I’m firmly into the “how much longer, Jesus are these numbers actually moving at all?” territory. A stitch starts to form but I try to ignore it away, that often works.
Someone slapped me on the back, hard. Not friendly, not please step out of my way. Hard. Hard enough to make me realise I was definitely not properly upright as my body lengthened in reaction. Before I can turn he’s already overtaken me. Unmistakably him.
“Just run lad” he says without turning around.
Ah so he did remember me. I’m momentarily flattered, but maybe he say that to all the runners?
I decided I needed to learn what the hell is going on here, because here’s a 70yr old outpacing a 40 yr old, looking fitter, faster and probably running further too. I accelerate, in spite of what my body is telling me. I get to maybe 5:10/km but there’s just nothing in the tank at this point, and I’m not even close to him. The gray blur quickly fades into the distance.
I don’t know who the fuck that guy is. But I like him.