If BoomerCafé is all about young active lifestyles, then this piece by freelance writer Carrie Luger Slayback of Newport Beach, California, is a perfect fit. She knows her limits in her 70s now, but doesn’t let that stop her.
Craning my neck to find my friend Michelle, I stood in the midst of a little crowd of runners at the finish of a local foot race. Behind me, a voice called names and handed out awards. I wasn’t listening. Thirty-five years old and new to running, I knew nothing of race awards. In fact, growing up in the 50s, I’d never participated in an athletic event.
My 4th-grade teacher called me “the teeny weeny girl with the teeny weeny voice.” Needless to say, the smallest girl in class was not the first chosen for the kickball team. The word “athlete” and my name had no partnership.
Childhood ballet lessons were the closest I’d come to physical exercise. Longing for a leotard and dancing shoes, I begged my parents for dance class. The leotard was disappointingly baggy. None small enough to fit my tiny frame— the sleek silhouette I’d imagined was unattainable. My dance talent, negligible.
“Carrie Slayback, 3rd Place, Women, 35 to 39,” the voice called out. Floating to the awards platform, I couldn’t have been more jubilant if I’d won Olympic Gold, nor more surprised if I’d won the lottery.
Running hurt, every step an effort, I had to force myself out the door, hoping to lose weight. My dad’s lovable “little butterball” through college, I yearned for a new identity. Pregnancy in 1976 hadn’t improved my dumpy figure.
Running did. I pulled myself out of bed at 5:00 a.m. to jog though my neighborhood before work. It took a few years, but my waist and hips streamlined. Lean for the first time in my adult life, my husband said, “You have a better figure now than when I married you.” Indeed, the mirror reflected a slimmer version of a petite woman.
What others saw took me by surprise.
At a friend’s, party her husband Jim sought me out. “What’s your next race?” he asked. “What’s your weekly mileage? Your workout pace, your race pace?”
Hitting the road for weight control out of sound sleep did not include athletic calculations, so I could not answer Jim’s questions. Yet I took note: Jim wanted to talk sports with me. MY sports activity. In spite of my technical failure, Jim’s attention represented an elevation of status— recognition as a runner.
I continued to place in races. “This is a podunk race,” I’d tell myself. “Guess nobody showed up,” I’d think. “There are lots of people faster,” I’d add.
Then in 1998, my friend Kim invited me to join her pals who selected a novel challenge each year. That year, they’d run the L.A. Marathon. I thought the marathon distance of 26.2 miles — unhealthy — but signed-up because I wanted to be part of Kim’s group.
Talk about hurt! After the last six agonizing miles, I crossed the finish repeating over and over,“I don’t have to do this anymore!” The LA Times listed me as one of the top finishers though. My friends took me out to breakfast where I ate a big fat pancake with lots of syrup. I’d achieved enough calorie deficit to splurge.
Focused on what running did for my figure and what it allowed me to eat, I was satisfied to look fit. Then my sister, who’d been coached for a triathlon, sent me $100. “It is so much fun to have a coach. Get yourself one,” she ordered.
In 2006, I joined a formal marathon preparation group. Still clueless, I hastily thanked the coach who regularly pulled me aside to discuss my speed-work times. Breathless due to exertion and worried about the next task, I didn’t respond to his enthusiasm for my speed. For twenty years, my strategy had been to go out, try my hardest, and come home to eat.
However being in the company of serious runners made inroads into my ignorance. One of them, Dave, demonstrated his pace watch. I bought one. Another, Mitchell, explained that racing meant you start slowly, and pace yourself for a faster second-half than first. Steve decided I could do a half-marathon under two hours and bullied me into doing it.
A different sort of lesson came from the young female runners. Showing up at speed-work after the flu, I took the extreme outside track, so faster runners wouldn’t have to go around me. A young tough female— one of the elite sprinters— approached with her tomboy swagger.
”What’re you doing running way out here?” she demanded.
“Don’t want to block the faster runners. I’m so slow today, I’ve been…”
Before I could get the word “sick” out of my mouth, she snapped,
“Get back to the inside track, you deserve to be there as much as anybody.”
Well now, here was a new female attitude to add to my running education.
Next workout, I ran beside her friend, a former college standout who’d been on the cover of Runners World twice. “What’s your next race?’ she asked as we ran elbow to elbow. I pulled a local race out of the air. The truth was, I never planned ahead for a race. “Who’s your competition?” she asked. Flummoxed, I told the truth: “I don’t know who’s going to be in races I sign up for.”
Today I have a dozen marathons under my belt, placing age-group first in three of them, and about 15 half-marathons with a first place. People pay attention to my running. THAT is what they want to talk to me about. I’m an enthusiastic reader, but nobody is as interested in my most recent book. Friends erased “the tiny weeny girl” and renamed me “a runner,” and the name convinced me. Daring myself to get first place in the LA Marathon at 70 got me a local newspaper columnist describing my workout adventures. Pitching a column of book reviews would not have flown.
My husband used to tell people, “Carrie’s the fastest women in her age group in this county.” “Baloney,” I’d say.
Early in my running career, I observed a runner who’d beaten me in two local foot races. She came to a race decked out in a fancy warm-up suit. Her posture and presence said, “I’m here to win.” I passed her that day. Now, I arrive at the start of a race, without gear, but with attitude.“Outa’ my way,” I snarl at other runners, under my breath. I’m a contender.
Between that first race and my last marathon, I inched into the role of athlete. Still strange to say. I’m a stubborn slow learner. And I’m a slower runner each year. Shuffling though a nine-mile workout, younger runners bound by. “I used to do that,” I think, wistfully. And yet, I’m going to do one more marathon when I turn 75. I don’t have to be fast, just faster than other 75-year-olds.
Slowing with age is a natural part of running. I never expected it to happen to me. Through my 60’s I managed to beat runners who were two age-groups younger. Now, brisk walkers can match my running pace.
But, “I’m a runner.” That is how I know myself, not so much my identity as my cellular composition. I get up, get out, and move through the dawn. I know no other way to start a day except experiencing the sunrise, the smell of morning air, rhythmic stamp of feet on asphalt, crows cawing.
Racing is optional. Winning, a memory. But expending effort past the ordinary is central to being alive. I crave the sensation of the forward movement. From that baggy leotard to today’s spandex tights, I’ve undergone a transformation. I’m an athlete.