What did it take me to get over my mid-life crisis in my early forties?
Maybe the whole world was not aware that I was having a mid-life crisis but I certainly did. I was forced to confront the fact whether life was slipping me by when I received an invitation to the 25th Reunion of the 1971 Matrics of the Alexander Road High School in Port Elizabeth.
Up until that point I would have rated my Personal Satisfaction Index as fair to good. I would never have rated it is as excellent because intrinsically I realised that I could have done better. That feeling was certainly more visceral than intellectual. But now I was forced to confront the issue from a practical point of view rather than in some indecisive way.
It wasn’t so much the invitation which had caused the soul-searching but the requirement that was attached to its acceptance. With one’s confirmation of attendance, one had to enclose pieces of personal information: firstly a photograph but, more importantly, a list of all my achievements since leaving school.
It is that list which set the cat amongst the pigeons. Like many other youngsters when they matriculated, they had set themselves a whole array of goals and I had too. The most prominent were the financial. I recall undergoing an aptitude test arranged by UPE [University of Port Elizabeth] where they assessed my possible future jobs as being an English teacher, a lawyer or a Chartered Accountant. The only reason why I elected to become a CA was because the assessors stated that it offered the greatest salary.
I was fixated on not being as impecunious as my parents and desired – no craved –a better life. I dreamed of having a huge house & a smart car but I understood that effort was required. I envisaged that I would be a director with a company car, a secretary and all the perks that the job entailed.
In this area I had largely succeeded beyond my wildest expectation but it was in the rest of my life that I felt as if I had been a complete failure. I could not rationalise the feeling of abject failure. It was unquantifiable, a cipher that I could not crack. I felt vaguely disillusioned with life in spite of having run the Comrades, been overseas for three weeks, was hiking with great guys, done the Fish River Canyon. What more did I want from life?
This unfulfilled feeling that life was passing me by would not abate. Like a stream in spate it flowed ever stronger.
I became dissatisfied with everything including my job as Financial Director, my running and my life generally.
In my early forties I was 5kgs overweight but elected to lose 15kgs. Imagine being able to drop two pants sizes, I would like my 20 year old self again. Then I decided that my running speeds had to be significantly improved.
I erected a huge white board in my office on which I inscribed my weight & running goals together with progress in attaining them.
I commenced with the 10km times. At this point, I was averaging approximately 55 minutes. “Well”, I thought to myself, “What about 45 minutes?” After 10 years of running I had only managed 50 minutes once or twice when the course was probably short or my watch slow but now 10 years later I set my goal as 45 minutes.
I set myself the target of running the whole of Allen’s Neck from Hendrik Potgieter to Ontdekkers Road at 6 minutes a kay. The only problem was that it was 4 kilometres of steep uphill. Every second morning I would be on that road huffing & puffing as I struggled through this winding pass. But my times gradually improved. Eventually 6 minutes a kay was attained.
Now it was time to start pushing the pace on the 10km & 15km races. My times improved: 54 minutes, 53, 52, then 51. But then it got stuck. I had to push faster up Allen’s Neck. I pushed myself, I cajoled myself, and I berated myself for being such a god-damn useless runner. God must have favoured me because he had tilted the earth. It was not as vertiginous as it previously was.
My pulse still raced, my breath still came in rasping gasps but my times improved. Then I broke 50 minutes in a 10km race, then 49, 48, 47, and 46. I now focused on what my splits were for every single kilometre. To be able to average 4.5 minutes per km, I had to have many kms closer to 4 minutes per kay to compensate for the uphills where I was averaging 5 minutes per km. I pushed my speed on the downhill sections forcing my pace every higher. Then on a Wanderers 10km race, I managed to break 4 minutes per km on a number of downhills. The uphills had been my nemesis so my overall time was a shade over 45 minutes. Not much but a miss is as good as a mile.
Then at a night race in Krugersdorp, I did it: 44 minutes.
Now for the 21km. By goal was 5 minutes per km.
By now I was able to run a sub two hours. My problem was that I did not have the stamina to complete the whole 21km at 5 minutes per kay. At about 18kms, I ran out if steam or hit the wall.
Then at one 21km night race in Van der Bijl, I would attempt the magical number again. I started with Ashley but instead of my usual method of starting at 5 minutes a kay, my body would not respond. This would not be the night. But as Ashley and I ambled along at 5.5 minutes per kay, I started feeling stronger. By the 5km marker, I waved Ashley goodbye and sped off. Quickly I was averaging 4.5 minutes per km. At 18kms I hit the wall as usual. It would now be walk/ run the whole way but if I ran a bit more than walked, 5 minutes per km were in the bag.
It was not to be but it was close.
Now for the huge gigantic stupendous one: 3:30 for a marathon. I set my sights on the Johnson Crane Marathon at the end of January. My ex-boss from Barlows Heavy Engineering, John Passmore, would accompany me as he too had the same goal. What I knew was that he was a more natural runner than I was but if I had a running companion at the same pace, maybe I stood a chance of making it.
On the Wednesday night prior to the race was the Germiston Callies 25km night race. I elected to have a slowish one so as not to spoil my chances on the Sunday. I purposely set off a tad slowly. By the time I had run three kms, my pace had sped up to just over 5 minutes per km which had become my default speed. I convinced myself that the pace would not hurt my legs. Through all the hills in Germiston I maintained 5 minutes per kay but at 23kms, I had shot my bolt. Instead of a 2:05, I broke 2:07, my best 25km ever.
Now for the big one on Sunday. I prayed for cool weather and a light drizzle; anything to assist me in my record breaking attempt.
The day broke but it was a tad too warm for a fast one but there was no retreating. The die was cast, the plans had been made and I was as ready as I would ever be. The start was in Willowmore Park in the centre of Benoni and the course was a single lap. John Passmore & I had stood well forward so as not to lose too much time at the start. A minute or two was lost nevertheless, then we settled down to a steady 5 minutes a km routine. The kilometres flew by. The course was relatively flat with no serious uphills.
At the 21km table an insidious lackadaisical attitude crept up on me. In order to maintain the pace, I would have to start forcing it. No longer would it be the relaxed stroll that I had experienced. I glanced at John. He looked totally relaxed and unperturbed as he joked with all the runners that we overtook. We went through the 25km mark in 2:05 and still we surged ahead. Finally I made 30kms at 5 minutes per km. No longer could I force myself to maintain 5 minutes per kay. As I now trailed John, he imperceptibly slowed down as well.
At 32kms, we were one minute behind schedule. By now the sun was out in full force beating mercilessly down on the runners.
Finally I shouted to John, “GO, GO, I will see you at the finish.”
I stumbled onward not caring about the time, caring only to get to the finishing line & lie down. I used the whole gamut of methods to at least keep up a respectable pace but my body refused to take the bait. It was in an indolent mood, more attentive to its own needs – survival. It was a titanic struggle of my mind over my body and my body was winning.
The time ebbed by. Even a 3:45 now looked unattainable. I made promises to myself that I knew I could not honour but I made them nonetheless.
Finally I entered Willowmore Park Stadium. John was enthusiastically waving, “I made it; I made it,” as if wanting to inform the world.
I was shattered, unable even to get a Coke and walk to my car. John convinced the Organisers to let him drive onto the field to fetch me. I lay back in my car with the air conditioner blasting onto me.
With the seat almost horizontal, I lay back like that for 20 to 30 minutes, then I drove to the nearest shop, a Spar. With my head spinning and my body weak, I stumbled in. While waiting in the queue to pay, I fainted. I fell to the floor without hurting myself & lay there stupified.
I clearly remember people staring at me aghast on the floor but nobody offered to assist me to stand up. I used the counter as a hand hold and unsteadily got to my feet. Now it would be another session of lying in the car moaning to myself until the waves of nausea subsided.
I made a solemn vow to myself, “Never again.”
Never again would I RACE a marathon – ever again. NEVER. Not ever.
By now I had lost close to 15kgs and all my clothes hung on my body like ill-fitting oversize garments, which they were.
Janine, the children – not yet at school – & I had booked a holiday at the Humewood Hotel in Port Elizabeth. The decision was unanimous; no running, just a tranquil holiday on the beach.
We ate our fill not caring about our diets for the whole week. On our return, the scale told the whole story. I had picked up substantially the whole of the 15kgs that I had lost over 6 months.
I made another vow to myself. NEVER EVER again would I go on diet. I was so depressed. How was that possible? Six months to lose the weight and one week to regain it. Life was unfair.
Then it was time for the Matric Reunion. With trepidation I walked into the atrium of the hall. All the walls had the life stories and photos of the ex-pupils. Apart from battling to recognise the balding guys & plumpish females, what struck me was the paucity of the contents of the resumes. One, a school friend – and ex-Rhodesian – for many years had a resume as follows: “Left school, went to work at Goodyear, now a supervisor there, divorced, two children.” Fortunately Mike wasn’t present in person. Perhaps it was for the better for here was somebody who I always admired at school for this “cool factor” and yet now what was he, a supervisor on a Production Line. How bizarre? Surely Mike could have done better. He was bright, hospitable and gregarious, so why had he been a failure in life.
I fly back to Joburg in a plane half full with ex-Alex pupils. I was in turmoil. For all that I never achieved and that was still on my bucket list and still is today, I had nevertheless achieved far more than most in my school. Maybe, I reasoned, I should not be the malcontent aspiring to ever more wealth with an endless bucket list but maybe I should be content with the little things like a wonderful family and the great hikes and runs.
I still managed to run a sub 45 minutes over 10kms for another two years, I broke 2:05 on a 25km in Parys but I never ever got even close to 3:53 on a marathon again.
As my mid-life crisis abated so did my running times. Slowly 50 minutes and then 55 minutes became the norm.
But I was unconcerned, content that I had achieved more than my body was capable of.
Finally a year or two later, I was able to make the transition from Finance to IT.
Now I was finally content.
Other Articles on Running:
My Comrades Marathon: An Abiding Memory
My Comrades Debut and Swansong, all in one Race
My Running Redux
The Journey from Searing Back-Pain in late 2013 to Running Races again in Respectable Times
Poisoned Chalice or Fool’s Errand?
Report back the Dawn to Dusk 80km Running Race in August 2013
My Mid-Life Crisis: How did I attempt to regain my lost youth?
What did it take me to get over my mid-life crisis in my early forties?
Ashley Wood – In Memoriam
IoT: What impact will it have on Road Running?
The possibilities of the latest technology – the Internet of Things – are ruminated upon
A Drab and Unremarkable Race with Pretensions: Gauteng Sports Challenge
Gauteng requires a big city marathon on the scale of the London Marathon but the Gauteng Sports Challenge doesn’t fit the bill
A Running Experience: A Hill too Far
On this day, the Loskop 50km ultra marathon running race had one hill too many, Faraday’s Hill. It was to be my nemesis.
The First Time
Andre Hydenryck – In Memoriam