Suddenly, at age 70, I am a budding track star.
OK, star is a little strong.
But how would you react if, after five decades of ho-hum jogging and racing, you actually won a medal in your division?
You’re welcome to see it. It’s right over there, alongside my Medicare card, SEPTA senior pass, and pictures of my two grandsons.
Why, along with Social Security checks, am I now receiving running accolades?
Here’s your first clue: It has nothing to do with training, discipline, or diet.
In fact, to win that medal, I didn’t run one second faster or stride one inch longer than I ever have.
I simply went to sleep.
Nodding off on an early May evening as the clock ticked past 12:01 a.m., without a single leg cramp or knee pain, my new running career began.
Who knew that the dawn of my 70th birthday would signal a running renaissance?
Welcome, Walt, to the 70-to-99 age division.
Way fewer runners.
Way slower times.
Way better odds of winning.
At 70, it’s really fun being a rookie again — the upstart challenging mostly older competitors.
I honestly can’t even remember the last time I was the “youngest” anything. Yet, here I was, preparing to blow away 70 candles along with my competition.
Now, in this “league of my own,” I need only run the same speed as always to have a serious shot at winning.
Think how much money I might have saved on running shoes and training. Call it a triumph of calendar over conditioning.
I never had to get faster — just older.
Full disclosure: There are many serious, even “world class” runners in the 70-to-99 division who pass me so fast, I can’t even read the numbers on their bibs. They will always, deservedly, win the gold and other top honors.
Yet, for the rest of us, this division offers new and, in my case, unanticipated hope.
Maybe a silver medal here, a bronze third place there, but most important, the explosive joy of knowing, deep in your heart, “I did that!”
Sadly, though, for many of us in this special division, the power and strength we feel as we race begin fading almost as soon as we untie our shoes.
Outside of racing, ages 70 to 99 too often signal not a new start but rather an enduring stigma, barring us from jobs and other opportunities to excel.
It’s not always intentional. Sometimes it’s just unthinking.
As I signed up for my latest race, a well-meaning person, perhaps recognizing me from my prior career, looked me straight in the eye and said: “I know you. You used to be somebody.”
Equally hurtful: “Oh, you are still working/skiing/skydiving/dancing/writing at your age. How nice!”
“Yes,” I’m tempted to reply with a caustic smile, “I’m even breathing. How about that?”
Perhaps we shouldn’t call 70 to 99 an age division at all.
Rather, an age unifier.
We are making it, together, race after race, to the start, to the finish, and even to the stage for our medals.
Call it the “final” age group if you must, but for me, it’s a new beginning, the almost miraculous reboot of my lifelong love of running.
We’re sweating, and we’re hurting more than ever along the miles these days. I suspect, however, if you look a little closer at the runners in this division, you will perhaps detect a glow of pride.
So, 70 to 99?
We’re doing just fine.
And we are nowhere near the finish line.