Still of Ben Cross and Ian Charleson in Chariots of Fire, 1981

I’ve got two more races on my calendar before my off-season. Saturday is the Jingle Bell Run 5K for the Arthritis Foundation, which I’m doing for the fundraising, and running at a workout pace. The next weekend after that is the Noel Run 5K for the Ruth Lyons Christmas Fund, on a nice flat course at Lunken Airport.

I’ve been letting it sink in about being an “elite” athlete.

The “elite” time standards are those I’m using from the Earth Drummers elite club in Cincinnati, and as far as I can tell, they appear to be centered around the mid-70s “age-graded scores” for each age group. Your age-graded score is how close your time comes to world record time for your age and gender. The age-graded score of my 5K of 21:40 on Saturday was 73.99%.

I just found out that if I can reach 75%, I get to call myself a “Local Champion” by the Greater New York Racing Team standards. So there’s always that! Though I think going around calling yourself a “Local Champion” ought to be grounds for getting your a** kicked, especially in New York.

80% is “National Class” — my dream goal. 90% is “World Class,” and if I can still run this fast in twenty years, I’ll be there! That sounds almost completely reasonable… until I consider the speeds I used to run in high school vs. now.

Because this particular talent I have for running fast over distances keeps insistently elbowing its way back into my life, it seems to want something from me. For all kinds of reasons, some better and some worse, I didn’t follow through as a teenager. One of the better but more unfortunate reasons was that I was always injured. There was little concept of recovery needs at that time, or of individual differences in training tolerance, and my body couldn’t handle the standard volume of training. (I even just read in the book by the New York Road Runners Club authors, that one can’t possibly achieve “Local Champion” times without running 40 to 60 miles a week — and I just came close on 15 to 25! The biases and truisms are still there.)

And yet here, unexpectedly, I find myself, again. I know all these numbers are kind of a game, a silly game, but they’re also a challenge and a measure. In high school, I was impressed with the Scottish priest and 1924 Olympian Eric Liddell in the movie Chariots of Fire, who felt that he ran for the glory of God. “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast,” he said. “And when I run, I feel His pleasure.”

One writer said that when he interviewed ultramarathoner Dean Karnazes — the guy who ran fifty marathons in fifty days — Dean could not easily explain “why” he does what he does. It became easier to shift the discussion to the “what” instead. (I’ve googled a few interviews, and he seems to explain it fine, but the answers seem a little canned — to test human limits, to inspire people. Maybe he didn’t want to get caught stumbling on that one again.)

And for me. Why run, why race, why care about this? Especially why, as simultaneously a masters athlete and a novice, someone who isn’t going to the Olympics or whatever the pinnacle of achievement might be? Who may never set a record of any kind? What makes the time and effort worth it — the effort, especially? It’s certainly possible to exercise for health and well-being without all this striving and intensity. My poetry friends expressed concern for me about that the other night!

I’m not sure we always choose life as much as we think, as much as it chooses us. There’s one line of thinking of life as the Butterfly Effect — that tiny differences in choice or action send us off on huge, irrevocable paths — and I’ve always found that idea fascinating in a sci-fi sort of way. But my own life seems to operate differently. The same themes, even the same people, recur until they’ve banged me over the head and I finally listen. Once I took a job in Boston to escape the painful ending of a relationship, and called the man to tell him. There was silence. He told me his company had transferred him to Boston within the same week. It turned out we still had another three years of relationship to go.

Like Dean, I do run to test human limits. I’m curious to find out what a middle-aged woman can achieve when age is working one way but her potential is still working the other. And like Dean, I also run to inspire people; one of the greatest pleasures of doing this and writing about it is watching other people take up their own exercise goals and programs.

But it’s really more what Eric said: God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. This draw to do this crazy running thing, the recurrence of it in my life, this talent itself, means that life itself has something to ask from me. I don’t know what yet, and I don’t know why. I can only follow it. That was probably Dean’s real answer, too. He just wasn’t sure how to say it.