“Wow, you’re dedicated,” Chris said as I came in from a run. We had gotten together for the weekend with a half-dozen friends. Having not seen each other for over a year due to Covid lockdowns and fires and life, we had been up late eating, drinking, talking, playing games and catching up.
Most people had slept in, but our friends’ house is in a small enclave surrounded by National Forest. The National Forests in California were all officially closed due to fire danger, but the rangers had told them that residents and their guests could use the trails since there is pretty much nowhere else for them to go. So my first morning, I had gone running on the beautiful, deserted trails. The second morning, as people slept, I went out to take advantage of the quiet trails once again. By the time I got back to the house and Chris proclaimed me to be “dedicated,” everyone was up, bleary-eyed and downing coffee. As I scanned the group, there seemed to be general assent. I was dedicated.
I think of an easy run in a beautiful place in perfect weather as a “get to,” not a “have to.” I don’t consider myself a dedicated eater because I sit down to a stack of my world-famous (okay household-famous) elderberry pancakes slathered in butter and maple syrup just because I also sat down to a stack of my household-famous elderberry pancakes slathered in butter and maple syrup yesterday too.
There is a difference of course. Sitting on the couch reading a book, it takes more activation energy to stand up, put shoes on and step out the door than it does to stumble over and eat pancakes (though perhaps less than it takes to cook pancakes). But having done the experiment over a vast, vast number of iterations over close to sixty years, I know that I will enjoy the trail as much as I enjoy the butter and maple syrup (obviously the purpose of pancakes is to serve as a delivery vehicle for butter and genuine maple syrup, which is why, when I am king of the world, there will be a royal decree against “pancake syrup” made from colored corn syrup).
I understand that some people, maybe most, run for weight loss or to train for a race. I too want to get better at running, but mostly I run for the same reason that I eat pancakes. I enjoy it.
As it happened, during my run, I was pondering my mortality and finitude, as one does out on lonely trails. I had recently heard an interview with someone who calculated the likely number of days he had left to live and kept a running tally in his journal to remind him to make each day count. I don’t use it, but there’s an app that does the same thing. Momento mori. So when Chris told me I was dedicated, I replied, “I only have about one thousand runs left in my life. I don’t want to miss one.”
Some people laughed nervously. Someone said that was morbid. Everyone seemed to think it was odd. But they are all in the late thirties or early forties. Intellectually, they know we all have only so many days. Intellectually, they know we could be struck down by disease or accident tomorrow. Intellectually, they know that a day lost can never be recovered. But they don’t yet feel the short, glorious preciousness of fleeting days.
More and more, I do. I’m only 59, so truly older people may laugh — it’s not like I’m Donald Hall in his eighties, let alone nearing ninety and counting up my carnival of losses. Nevertheless, I felt a shift at about 57 where the sense of time running out came upon me in a visceral way. It moved out of the abstraction and into the concrete: how much longer do I have to get back in shape and climb El Cap again?
Why then? I don’t know, but I have heard a lot of other people, usually men, both friends and random podcast interviewees, say the same thing at the same age, give or take a year. Maybe it’s because milestones start approaching. Now 59 and a half (as with children, the half years start to matter again), I became eligible for my university pension four years ago, for IRA withdrawals starting this very month (because, again, half years now matter), for Social Security in three and a half years, Medicare in five years and three months.
More than all those, however, is another set of milestones. At 57, I was only eleven years away from the age when language started slipping away from my mother in slight and subtle, but rather odd ways. She started to say things like, “Could I have some, you know, the stuff you drink.” “You mean water?” Then with an embarrassed smile (such lapses were rare and embarrassing at first), “Yeah, water.” I was only thirteen years away from the age when she came to visit and was so disoriented and distraught that my father had to change their flight and take her home early. It was the last time she traveled further than the drive to my sister’s house. I was only fifteen years away from the age at which she gave up skiing after loving the sport since she before she could talk, no longer able to tell her alpine boots from her cross-country boots.
I might be lucky and be like my father, who skied last winter at 92. But I might not. Certainly in looks and much other physiology, my mother and I had a lot in common. If I assume that I am like her and turn out instead to be like my father, that’s great. But what if I assume I am like my father and turn out to be like my mother, wasting days when I could be skiing and climbing and running and eating pancakes and hugging my wife? There will be no getting that time back.
Other people come to mind who I have not even known. There was a day last year when I picked up our local paper and all three people in the obituaries were within a year of my age, all from “natural causes.” A professor in my grad school department who I never really knew has nevertheless always stuck in my mind. Mike Petrovich regularly did century rides on his weekend and retired because he wanted to spend his later years bike touring. Less than a year after retirement, he was dead of cancer at 67, an age that feels like it is almost, but not quite, in the headlights already.
My sister is 67. Her pancreatic cancer has metastasized into her liver, kidneys and lungs. The prognosis is, obviously, very bad. Losing a parent is something we prepare for as we age, but losing a sibling comes as a shock. Mary is perhaps the most resilient person I have ever known. Even before cancer, she has not had an easy life (she suffers from myasthenia gravis which is no joke), but she has lived that life with joy, energy, gratitude, charity for others, and few complaints. I admire her. I feel a great sadness when I think about her and the deck she has been dealt. She lives far away and I miss her more acutely than ever. And a self-centered part of me watches and thinks, “That is less than eight years away.”
In climbing when someone fails on a big climb, people often say, “Don’t worry, the mountain will always be there.” Around 57 is when I started to realize viscerally and frequently that, at least in human timescales, the mountain will always be there, but I won’t. I won’t. In fact, in some ways, that’s already the case. Some climbs that would have been trivial in my 20s or 30s would be hard, perhaps impossible, for me now. In some ways, I am already not there.
I started to notice, really notice, something that had never seemed salient. The number of people who climb El Cap in their 40s is still pretty high. In their 50s, much less so. In their 60s? The numbers seem to go off a cliff, so to speak. In their 70s? I think you can still count them all on your fingers and most of them were only in their early 70s and with a much younger partner. Jim Donini and George Lowe climbed the Nose in 30-some-odd hours when they were 70 and 69 respectively, the oldest average age of any party to date as far as I know. I’m not against leveraging younger partners. I love climbing with the “kids” who continue to teach me new stuff. Even so, at a certain point a rope-gun kid won’t be enough.
And so it was that I realized I will likely run fewer than a 1000 times more. Almost certainly I will run less than 2,000 times more. The number of climbing days will be even fewer since it is more of a production than putting on shoes and stepping out the door. Maybe three hundred? Four hundred? Between the inherent seasonality of skiing and climate change reducing the length of that season, I will be lucky to see a couple hundred more ski days.
The math goes like this. Next year I am 60. Let’s say I can run until I’m 76 and get credit for the half of my 59th year still ahead of me to make it an even 6,000 days (roughly). I plan to continue to ski and climb, so let’s assume my running is going to happen a bit more than twice a week, say twice every six days. That’s 2,000 times. But there are four months per year where I mostly ski and rarely run, so that leaves about 1,400 running days. Take off another 10 days per year for injury and illness and travel and laziness, which seems optimistic, and I’m left with 1,240 days. Subtract another fifteen running days per year for severe smoke from fires that are now part of our summers and falls almost every year. Sure, during a bout of toxic air a few years ago I got so stir crazy that I “ran” five miles doing circles around the couch. I don’t wish to repeat that many times. And let’s not forget that treadmills were invented to punish, even break prisoners, not as a tool for joy and self-fulfillment. That brings me down to 1,000 runs.
It could be that I will run three days out of every 6 and climb and ski less. And it’s possible that I will run until I’m 80. That might get me up to 2,000 more runs. But it’s also possible that I will take a fall climbing and wreck my ankle tomorrow and never be able to run again, like my friend Hans. Or maybe I’ll get pancreatic cancer at age 67 like my sister or Mike Petrovich. Or early and severe Alzheimer’s like my mom. There are too many variables, but looking at my current fitness and hoping that the luck I’ve had so far lasts, 1,000 seems like a decent guess.
Regardless of the number, the first insight is that the number is finite. The second and more troubling insight is that each missed day means giving up about a tenth of a percent of the total running days I have left. If I start counting climbing days or ski days, the number dips even lower. I don’t like to even do that calculation. If I start counting the number of days I have left to spend with my sister or my 93-year-old father, both of them living three thousand miles away, it gets very very low. It weighs on me. The number of days I would get to spend with my father and sister was not something that occupied much space in my mind at 29. It does at 59.
So that means that on a day that I could run but don’t, I am giving up maybe 0.1% of all the runs I have left in this short life. On a day that I could ski but don’t, I have given up as much as 0.5% of all the ski days I have left. It’s too sad to think of what percentage of the days with my father or my sister I give up if I miss one day. It could be 100%. And though unlikely, that could be true even for a healthy young friend or family member. Things happen.
Part of me wants to race off and start doing it all with a frenzy, to have more and more and still more, to make up for lost time, to bank minutes with people I love. But time doesn’t work that way. You can’t actually bank it. You can’t get more time by hurrying. At a certain point, you can’t have more. You only have choices.
I realized that with only a few hundred climbing days left to me, I did not want to spend 3,000 or 4,000 days helping a hotel figure out how to increase revenue by 2% and went to part-time (only to be summarily fired when the pandemic set it). I once loved being a working historian, deciphering old manuscripts and publishing editions so others could access those old texts. I felt incredibly lucky that someone actually paid me to do that work, like a pro athlete paid to do their sport. I assumed I would do it until my eyes failed me. But after 20 years of doing it daily, I realized I did not want to spend another 3,000 reading old manuscripts.
It turns out there are competing enoughs. There is the question of how much money is enough to be comfortable in old age. But there is also the question of how much climbing and skiing and running and time with my father and my sister and my wife and all the people I love is enough. Maybe I will find myself in poverty in old age and regret that the money I saved was not enough. I know people who have that regret.
But I have also seen so many people who think there will always be more time until, as it turns out, there isn’t. They think they have mitigated risk by working longer and saving more, but they do not realize they have not mitigated risk, they have simply traded one set of risks for another. Their children grow up while they are at work. Their fitness fades from day after day at a desk or toiling at construction sites until their body can no longer take that long bike trip they always dreamed of. Their creative energy goes into increasing the quarterly profits for a biotech startup, leaving them too depleted to write the epic poem that rattles in their head. They are at the office while their parents grow old and lonely. I do not want to run too high a risk of spending old age in poverty, but I also do not want to run too high a risk of foregoing joy and love and connection that I can never sprint and catch up on. Once the opportunity to be with those people and do those things that bring me joy is passed, it is passed.
And so it was that on that gorgeous day in that gorgeous place after that late night with friends, I rose in the morning and ran, not because I am dedicated, but because I am mortal.