Satisfied with the Shadows


“You can remember it, he told himself, but you cannot experience it again like this. You have to be satisfied with the shadows.”
—John L. Parker Jr., Once a Runner

I recently went on a long trail run with two good friends of mine. All three of us ran collegiately back in the day and we’ve stuck with the sport to varying degrees into our mid-to-late 30s. We spent the last few miles of the run waxing nostalgic about what the sport meant to us when we were younger and how our respective relationships to it have evolved over the past ten or more years as life, its ebbs and flows, and the increased responsibilities that surface along the way have gradually taken more and more precedence over race results, epic workouts, and weekly mileage. The run, in retrospect, was a good reflection of what it’s really all about: experiences, exploration, and connection, not the paces, places, or mileage we tend to think are so important in the moment.

That said, as runners, regardless of our ability level or competitive background, we have a tendency to compare ourselves to the shadows of the past: times we ran, mileage we use to hit, workouts we once did, races we won, distances we’ve conquered, and the list goes on and on, as if those things define us in some way. They don’t, of course, but the sometimes harsh truth about our sport is that on some level it’s quantifiable and even binary: you can’t round a 3-hour marathon down to 2:59, if you didn’t break the tape, you lost the race, you either hit the qualifying mark or you didn’t. These truths, admittedly, can be hard for many of us to accept. We might spend years trying to do more, go further, run faster, or place higher, and while sometimes we can—and do—eventually we can’t and don’t, and that’s just part of it.

We have to learn to be satisfied with the shadows—which doesn’t mean we still can’t try and chase them down from time to time—regardless of where each of us is on our respective running journey. And while we may not experience something the same way ever again, it’s so important to remember to appreciate the experiences along the way. That’s where the real satisfaction lies.

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