The beginning of baseball season has been lifting my spirits since I was kid. My life, however, became a bit more complicated several springs ago when, at the age of 70, I decided to run in the Pittsburgh Marathon. I’ve been running in the Pittsburgh Marathon ever since, though my wife Anita has limited me these days to the half-marathon with my daughter, Anne.
So every spring, for the past several years, I’ve been running in circles around SIU’s Campus Lake, or what’s left of Campus Lake these days, to get ready for the Pittsburgh Marathon. The Campus Lake path measures 2.2 miles, so to get myself into condition to run the 13.1 miles in the half marathon, I have to reach the point where I can run six times around the lake.
A popular expression about growing old is that you’re going downhill, but for aging runners, it’s more like going uphill, with the path getting steeper and steeper each year. I had a jolting reminder of my advancing age, when a graduate student in Engineering, who also runs the lake, approached me just after I’d finished my practice laps.
He shook my hand and wanted me to know that I was an inspiration to those on campus who have seen me running around the lake. They told him, if that old man is still out there running, then they should be out there as well. I thanked him and felt uplifted by what he had said until I realized he’d just called me an old man. When I got home and asked Anita if I really looked like an old man, she just chuckled and asked when was the last time I took a good look in the mirror.
A few days later, just as I finishing my last lap, I ran into two faculty members who have been walking around the lake for years. As I passed them, they waved and said they’d noticed that I didn’t seem to be running as fast as I had in the past. They hadn’t called me an old man, but it was clear that what they saw as I went by was an old man shuffling around the lake.
I was careful not to say anything to Anita, but she was a witness to my third reminder that I may soon be heading for the Great Marathon in the sky. I was outside, engaged in another spring ritual, the picking up of sweet gum balls, when a large pick-up truck pulled up.
The driver and his helper wanted to know if I knew the location of Lipe Cemetery. I told them that I wasn’t aware that there was a Lipe Cemetery. When I looked at their map, I saw that they had missed their turn from Old US Highway 51 onto Cedar Creek Road. When I pointed out their mistake, they turned around and headed back up the highway.
When I decided to rest my aching back and went back into the house, an anxious Anita wanted to know about the pick-up. When I told her the drivers were looking for Lipe Cemetery, she said that made sense because they had a casket in the bed of the pick-up. She also said that the name of a vault company was painted on its side.
While Anita wondered if there was a body in the casket, I was wondering if this was another omen reminding me that I’m getting too old for running in a marathon. I’d spent an academic career searching out the meaning of symbols in great literature, so it seemed easy enough to read the meaning when a pick-up truck with a casket in it pulls up in front of your house after people keep reminding you that you’re an old man.
One of my favorite lines from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” comes when an old man, thrown into a cart for the gathering the dead, keeps protesting that he’s not dead yet. So I’ve decided to keep on running in the Pittsburgh Marathon, but I will take the advice of baseball immortal Satchel Paige and make sure that I don’t look back because something might be gaining on me. Of course, it was the same Satchel Paige who also said that to live a long life, you should avoid running at all times.