There was a time when every run started and ended with a zero. If my 12K run was in progress, I would not be content with a 11.95K, so for the last few minutes, I'd pay less attention to the road, waiting for my wrist to signal when I should stop. If I had to shuffle back and forth, or take a turn around the corner to make up the extra few hundred metres, I'd do it. I didn't want to round up.
This post is about getting older and how you tackle that, take stock of it. It's about peering back and facing forward. It's about evolving your view of all that and, surprise, it has something to do about running. What sparks it is that I'm turning 40 this week. It's not easy to make the public declaration from someone who hides his birthday on Facebook, who would rather spend a birthday not at work and alone with my thoughts, who cringes at attention. But everyone knows. They're expecting me to make a big deal so I am -- here.
Milestones can be weights -- weights we pile on ourselves, of things we want to achieve, things left undone or things you regret. They are, in the end, just things.
I've been never one for birthdays. As an August kid, birthdays melded into that final summer month just as pre-school anxiety starts to spike. I remember August more for working at the burger stand that my family operated at the Canadian National Exhibition for 15 years, where as a child I stood by the monster toaster, shifting from foot to foot on a grease-smeared floor tile for hours, mastering the few deft moves it took to open a bag, dumping the bread into a pile, splitting a bun open and watching them get charred. I was nicknamed "bun boy," only realizing now how silly that sounds. In subsequent Augusts, when I moved into more 'acceptable' working age, I graduated to grill master or fry cook, then manned the till while building my customer service skills at age 11, entrusted with the family's daily earnings. I was rewarded with rolls of quarters I'd empty into the midway's video game booths. I swear I spent many a birthday working 12-hour shifts in my orange and brown Chef Burger T-shirt.
Birthdays in my household were treated much like Christmas -- my immigrant parents tried to interpret these Hallmark holidays or "Canadian traditions" and went through the motions without really grasping why these milestones were meaningful as if they were learning about assembling food and decorations from an Ikea instruction manual -- they got the gist but never built it right, and there were always leftover parts: A plastic tree with ornaments, sure, lets try this; wrapping birthday gifts, they do that? What does a kid want for a birthday? I usually ended up with a few "new" pair of socks every year, one at Christmas, the other at my birthday, tossed in my general direction as if to say, "Congrats, another year since you've been alive. Happy Birthday." In later teen years, I started to buy myself a gift, but by then I had already realized that it really didn't matter much.
The last time my age rounded up, that 30th milestone confronted me with a lot of questions. Why was I working so hard but not taking care of my own health? I charged hard early in a career, a quick-study middle manager, rising in the ranks and putting in the hours but why was I getting little else in return? What was sleep and how could I get more of it? How could I tend to my other passions? Why hadn't I found the one?
The last big milestone was a turning point -- my friends and I made a big deal about it, and I remember coming back from a cottage trip celebrating my entrance into my Miller Years with a sense of renewed purpose. I recently looked at a picture of me back then. I'm essentially the same happy person, but decided after then to take all that energy I put into one thing and do it everywhere else. As one of my close friends told me a few years ago, referring to my running: "Kenny doesn't do things just to do them, he does them to be the great at them." Years later, in the middle of it all, I knew I had a fabulous thirties: I renewed my love of running, fell in love with a person who I thought was a The One, ran marathons, saw friendships deepen, found other passions and saw my professional life -- and health, and balance -- get on track.
Since the last milestone, I progressed up the middle-income ranks, slowly paid off my smartly purchased condo and found a series of 'dream jobs' come my way. A relationship soon became a long-distance one, and I was so sure of myself and her that I thought both our commitments to career would outlast the flights to and from D.C. My parents both retired. I ran, became faster, and ran my first and second Boston. I was having a blast. They were the best years, I told someone by the time I'd hit 35, not yet rounding up to the next decade.
A lot of good things, but as life will give you greatness, it won't hesitate to toss you back into the margins of the statistical norm, where divorce, cancer and death rates hover over you, casting a wide swath impossible to avoid, even if you run fast enough, far enough. By the time I reached my final few years of my 30s, the Facebook-status life-affirming posts underpinned what was not being spoken of: the reality of life. My mom's 25-year sickness came to its final phase. I watched my dad spend her final five years at her side, during his retirement prime, while I figured out where I could fit in, pitch in, get back in to be there. Then she was gone. I was 38, not ready to lose her, so much more to show her. And within a span of a few months, I lost the final grip on my own long-time relationship and I was pushed into a part of my life that my 25-year-old self would never had imagined.
Last year, on that final 30s birthday, I was already rounding up, thinking of all I'd lost, all I've gained, and everything I wanted to get back. Then I realized the futility of it, and I could only look forward. I sold my condo, I bought a townhouse, I gave for myself strict lines of division between work and life. I carved out for myself goals. I started writing for myself again. I started to run with purpose. I find -- and continue to find -- perspective, my voice, my meaning, and I realize that me now versus me 10 years ago, 20 years ago, is not much different but everything is different. By the last birthday, I was exiting a year of melancholy to an understated version of myself where my demeanour now composed of joy, confidence and a love of life I've never had prior to all these years. I've learn to let go, not to dwell on the little things. I look at things like regret, sadness and I'm only now starting to accept that it's a part of life. Life has its complexities and challenges -- with no candy coating -- and i'm fine with that. It's like what they say about friendships on social media and online versus ones you need to tend to in person -- I've realized that real life is always best. Not everything is nice. Not everything is snarky. Everything is, or at least can be, very real. These days, I'm trying to get more of the real.
I've marked birthdays with an epic run, covering a kilometre for every year. It was easier back when I was 32, able to sync up to one of my long training runs. As I round up, I thought about embracing the number by running the hell out of it. I started to plot out a route for myself to run. Maybe it'd be 40 kilometres. Maybe it'd be a run from my townhouse with a route past everywhere I've lived in this city and ending at my dad's place. All of those ideas lost in the end, although, I do have a grand plan.
For my day, what I want most is to remember what I've always gotten out of my birthday. It's a day for myself, not so much to celebrate but to ruminate, to reflect rather than revel and to recommit. Above all, it's just another day. I'm going to have all the same thoughts everyone has about turning 40 -- about avoiding the mid-life chatter, the regrets, or start thinking about the best/worst years ahead/behind. Forty is not the new 20 or whatever headline a magazine uses to sell more issues. It's simply forty. For me, it's like rounding a corner as I add more mileage -- 40 says something more like "keep on going, go and life live, Kenny. Don't stop. Ever."
Maybe that's why I'm on a run streak and can barely remember what day I'm on, only that's it's higher than 250. Maybe it's why I rarely take out the scale to measure my weight. Maybe it's why I'm not stopping up as I round the corner. I'm looking for some reflection, but I'm continuing.
I'm trying not to round up. I look at my watch now at the end of all of my runs and all I see are numbers like 11.7K, 8.3K, 24.5K, all distances that don't end in zeros. I approach running like I need to approach life. I run not just for intermediate goals or ego-boosting reasons. I run so I can run for the rest of my life.
So these numbers -- messy, with not a zero in sight -- how do I read them? To me, they represent less of a need to round up my life in neat stacks. They tell me I need to pick up from where I started the last run. They tell me that one run alone, just like one number like 40, is not the sum of my running life. They tell me that the end of a workout is just the start of the next step that leads to the next run. Rounding up is too convenient, and I'd rather not take the that route, on the roads and in life.
Kenny Yum is the managing editor of HuffPost Canada and a marathon runner. He blogs on running at A Whole Lot Of Soles, where this was originally posted.
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