The irony is predictable. I think I’m doing them a favor. Come along children, let the great wizard of trail running share his wisdom with you. I’ll show you the ropes and encourage you when you begin to tire. I’ll share my secrets with you, and one day, even if not today, you’ll understand just how great I am/was.
The first day left my ego intact. I led my oldest son and one of the neighbor kids on a trail run. That’s my terrain, and I know the trails I took them better than I know what’s in my refrigerator. They went out faster than I would have, so I took that as permission to run fast. After the first mile, I took the front and then steered us up a long climb.
By the top, I was working pretty hard, but the boys were no longer on my heels. One of them was well off the back, and the other was doubled-over, hands on his knees, trying to get his lungs back in his mouth.
It was then that I caught myself doing that thing you must not do, which is torturing your kids to make a point that doesn’t need making. So I high-fived my kid and walked back down the trail to sheer the other one on as he came stumbling to the top.
Having proved to myself that the old man can run, I reset and made a new plan to get them back to the car. They were looking a little shell-shocked from the climb, so I told them that was the hard part, and we’d just soft shoe it back to the car.
This time I ran on the back and handed out praise like stress balls at a convention. In the car home I said, “You boys ran well. That was fun.” They looked dubious, but teenagers usually do.
In my defense, the boys have been running together, which is brilliant, and each day they report faster and faster times, times that I find, let’s say, hard to believe. When they went out fast, I thought, “Oh, ok. I’ll need to run faster than I’m comfortable to keep up.” When that scenario didn’t play out, I let my ego run the show for a few minutes.
The next day I took them to a flatter spot they’ve both been before, a place you can run quick mile laps, and I expected our pace to be reasonable. I thought the kids might feel chastened from the day before and set out a little more slowly.
As usual, I was wrong.
We blazed out from the parking lot like we were late to an ice cream social. My old man legs take a while to come up to any kind of speed, so the first half mile was hard work. “This,” I thought, “is just what I deserve, the day they show me all those times were real, and that I really ought to have checked myself in advance of wrecking myself trying to keep up.”
The good news, for me anyway, is that I settled in and ran along with them and even managed to be encouraging. Also fortunately, their idea was to run two miles as quick as they could, so I didn’t have to raise my game for very long.
When we crossed the theoretical finish line, they pulled up to an almost complete stop. Done. I kept jogging and I yelled at them to stick with me. I took it down to a slow shuffling, and we did another lap at that speed, them complaining the whole way that they didn’t want to run anymore.
“We’re not running,” I said. “We’re cooling down. We’re compounding the benefit of the fast run we just did by keeping our heartrates up just a little longer. This is better for our endurance training and better for our legs.”
They looked dubious, but again, how can you tell?
So this is a big part of what is so compelling about running. It’s a really simple game. Experience matters, but legs and lungs can overcome experience, especially at shorter distances. It doesn’t take much distance to deflate your ego. I ran 200 miles last month and then barely held onto a couple of teenagers kicking it around a one mile, flat course. Youth doping. It should be illegal.
I am reminded that, when I’m running with kids, it’s not my job to win or even to prove that I can win. It’s to encourage them to keep running, at least while I can stay within earshot.