by Dante Zappala

On his 9th birthday, my oldest son spent the afternoon in the cool of our basement watching the Minions, giggling and reciting the lines with a well-tuned affect. I asked him what it was like to be older. He said he felt like he was still 8. He consistently shows those flashes of his younger self – the kid who acts unconsciously, showing no concern for how he is perceived.

Yet he seems to recognize he’s in the thick of transition. Our conversations are still deliberate, but there is a mutual impulse to make them more level and less leading. I can’t hide much nor do I feel inclined to.

One of his gifts was a digital watch. It suits him much more than the Batman Lego watch his little brother got as a birthday present. He carries the impression that knowing the time and the date at any given moment is suitable to his needs. Structure and definition are becoming steady parts of his life. He’s on his own road to quantification.

I thoroughly enjoy seeing him get older. Just as I welcome the gray hair that has become a major shareholder of my head, I embrace those definitive features and behaviors he displays that clearly mark his growth.

Depending on where we are in life, aging is a phenomenon that either happens too fast or too slow. Rarely are we afforded the space to say we like ourselves exactly where we are. Milestones marking decades seem to pop up as if they had no permit. We might sign a petition to stop them if that were possible.

I’ll be 40 in just over a month. I’ll move up to the Masters category for fall races. I am looking forward to it. But I’m content with where I am today. I’m comfortable here. I’m in a good spot where I’m confident in what I know and yet I’m still ripe for learning.

At track practice the other day, I caught a little bit of a lecture and a lesson from Derek Thompson. Derek is one of the best coaches in the business. I train with him and his athletes a few times a week. It’s a chance for me to get better as a runner. But more so, it’s a chance to absorb bits of the expertise he possesses.

He was excoriating me for asking him what the pending workout was. His contention is that runners calculate too much. They want everything to be precise in the planning and the execution. Life certainly doesn’t play out this way and neither do races. The best way to prepare for the unexpected is to train with the unexpected.

He’s right, of course. Fear can subtly step on the brakes when we think we’re on cruise control. We can delude ourselves. A goal becomes a barrier while true potential shies away like a shunned suitor.

I don’t feel like I’m afraid of much at this point. I’ve been through some tough situations and I’m stronger for it. I’ve embraced the lifecycle without giving in to the anxiety of what I can’t control. I’m intentionally trying to take from the moment rather than dwell on what it isn’t anymore.

I wasn’t afraid of Derek’s workout, whatever it was going to be. But I did realize I’ve been limiting myself with a static view of what I can be as a runner. In that sense, I’ve been acting out of fear. Surprisingly enough, that fear was masked in accomplishments.

The time goals I’ve set for myself were inventions. The information came from my training runs, sure, but the more I hoped for them, the more they became limitations. I found myself thinking back to my effort at Boston. Pacing in a marathon is, by nature, an exercise in self-control. It requires a formula of patience, common sense and resolve.

In essence, it involves waking yourself from dreams of wild success and being practical. But in that exact way, it’s also a coupon for selling yourself short. I was in shape to go faster. I realize that now.

I lamented not breaking 16 for the 5k. I’ll give it another shot with a different perspective, one that isn’t focused on the number but on the integrity of the effort. Regardless of that outcome, a consensus of expert pace calculators would suggest that my 5k time is worth a marathon time 9 minutes faster than my current personal best. I’m arguably better built for a marathon than a 5k. So, on paper, it’s absolutely possible. If I reach that potential, I could be a top 20 Master at Boston next year. That would be an accomplishment worth more than its weight in time.

The irony is that, yet again, I have a figure to believe in, a goal to be reached. Numbers aren’t inherently dangerous. We just instinctively wield them to make sense of our ambitions and, in that way, they can become the tools of defeat.

The workout Derek gave us that day was a good one. It consisted of five parts and only as we approached the line to begin each segment did we know what we were running. Normally, I’d check my splits every 200 meters to make sure I was running the right pace. I am addicted to going into my training log after the fact and meticulously recording each number, each treasure that defines my effort.

But this time around I had very little to report. I cut through the seam of the safety net entirely. Before the workout began, I ditched my watch under a tree and ran as free as a child.