Now bring on the victory laps

When I first began to formulate the metaphor of victory laps in 1977 (much more later), my wife, Donnie, and our children—then 16, 14, and 12—were living in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania on a little circle of houses kept for new faculty at Westminster College.

The Original Victory Laps

The first approach to the notion of a “victory lap” was no more than self-talk. Part of my life at this period was running 34 (and change) miles a week every week for a year. [1] That wouldn’t really have been so bad, but things happen. I took a couple weeks off for a backpacking trip in the Rockies—and none of those miles counted—and then I got sick a time or two. By the spring of 1977, I was several hundred miles behind and looking for any way at all to pad my total.

It turned out that New Faculty Circle was half a mile around, if you start and end at victory lap 5our house, so after every run, I would add that extra half mile. I called them “victory laps” after all the victory laps I had seen superb runners like Steve Prefontaine take at Hayward Field in Eugene. [2] And that’s all there was to it at first.

But running distances is an intensively mental activity and after a while I noticed that my body didn’t feel the same when I was running that “extra” half mile as it felt during the “real” miles. There was a 19 mile run I used to do, for instance and I remember coming down the hill to my house in real distress; cramps or blisters or a side stitch or a headache or something. But when I started the extra half mile, those feelings went away. That helped substantiate the notion of “victory lap.” It was a celebration lap. A “victory” not over any competitor, but over my pain barrier and my tiredness.

That was a very carefully phrased sentence, I hope you noticed. I didn’t say that in that half mile the blisters healed themselves. I said the feelings went away. Did I just stop paying attention to them? Was there something about the gentle grades of that last half that didn’t aggravate them? Running pains of various kinds seems to have a wave character and the come and go, even as the condition that produces them stays the same. I have no idea what the truth was. What I cared about was that the extra half mile was ordinarily pain-free and took on a celebratory cast.

The Victory Lap Metaphor

I was about 20 when I met Donnie and we were together for 20 years, roughly, and I began to move toward imagining that if I lived to be 80, I would have “run” four 20 year “laps.” Life as mile race, where every lap was 20 years long. The proverb that runs, “The days of a man are fourscore and ten/or by reason of strength, fourscore” has been familiar to me nearly all my life. I think that accounts, in part, for my early attraction to 80.

The timing has gotten a little ragged since age 40, but Marilyn and I were together for] nearly 24 years and by the time I reach 80, Bette and I will have been together for 12 years. [3] It’s not a perfect division, but it’s good enough for me and it raises the question, “What is a “victory lap” after you have run all four of the two-decade laps and have turned 80.

Getting Serious About Application

I honestly don’t know. I have memories that that was the time the pain went away or at least that it stopped bothering me. I have the notion of a little extra running to celebrate that the “real” running is done for the day. I have the sense that during many of those victory laps, I let my mind range back over the run, celebrating the best parts, reconsidering the pace I had chosen for the hills, building a new strategy for the next run.

And then, just a few days ago, something really heart-warming happened. I got a letter from Donnie, who really understands the “victory lap” metaphor because she was there at the time. [4] She ended her note to me with this:

“However, in my heart and my mind, I will always…want you to know I care enormously about your “victory laps.”

victory lap 3This is Britain Lake, by the way.  The faculty circle loop is just to the right.

I loved that warm thought and it made me think that maybe it’s time I get to work deciding what the victory laps will mean to me in their new metaphorical clothes. The original “victory lap” was a time of physical relief. It’s hard to be against that. It was a time of critical assessment of “the run.” [5] That seems worth doing in both the immediate sense of the run just concluded and also in the more general sense of strategy for that course. It was a time of celebration. However that particular day went, I had completed the run that day and I picked up a certain number of miles against my accumulated deficit. I think I like that one too.

Those three, at least, ought to make up my present day about-to-turn-80 victory laps. If I called them Celebration, Physical relief, and Assessment, I could say I am working on my CPA. Probably I wouldn’t want to say it very often.

Celebration of completing the eighth decade certainly ought not to be a problem. At the very least, I could celebrate not having died yet and on beyond that, I have, in fact, had moments that I can recall with real pleasure and I could celebrate those. I could celebrate them as many old people do by telling stories about them.

Physical relief is going to be the hardest one to apply metaphorically. There are two reasons for that. The first is that over a long life, I have associated strenuous exercise with virtue and avoiding it with vice. If I have no more to guide me than “If it doesn’t feel good, don’t do it,” that is going to require an adjustment. What happens to all that virtue foregone; all that vice avoided?

The second is that if things like a good soak in a hot tub feel good, I have the time victory lap 1and right downstairs by the pool is the hot tub. I do have one new trick about physical relief. My body has felt bad in a lot of different ways over the years and I am familiar with those ways. I am capable, now, of getting up in the morning and actually experience the “not hurting” of a joint or a muscle. That is something I never experienced at all at the time I was running the 1776 project.

Assessment will be the easiest one. I do that anyway. What has worked on this course? Where have I too often failed to pick up a challenge that would have benefitted me later? When have I overestimated my energy and spent too much too early? Those are all very physical question in the original scenario but they are provocative prompts in the new one. Good answers to those questions could shape my life going forward.

But what is a lap?

That leaves the question of what a “lap” is—not what it is for (we’ve just established that) but how long it is.I’m inclined, at the moment, to make the lap a season. That would give me four of them a year, rather than four of them in eighty years. It would orient me outward toward the natural world, rather than inward as “quarterly” would. And the notion of “season” as a metaphor for part of a life is already well established. [6]  New Wilmington is surrounded by Amish farms, so sights like this one (this stretch looks very familiar, so I think it was part of this run) were common.

victory lap 2And I think I will start with winter. Winter will begin five days after my birthday. That doesn’t seem too long to wait. And my brother John, who has greatly enriched my appreciation of seasons, begins his survey [7] with winter on the grounds that it is the simplest. Productivity has shut down and “life” is resting—unless it is trying to find a way to live through the winter—and the whole cycle is getting ready to begin again.

Also, the church year begins in the winter with Advent. There is no historical reason for placing the birth of Jesus in winter, but the church has done it for a very long time now and I began accepting it long before I had any idea how arbitrary it was. Besides, now that I think about it, Advent is the time when Christians reflect on the many scriptures that, in retrospect, point definitively to Jesus’s birth. These scriptures are very much like my reflection, at the end of the run where, looking back, everything seems clearer.

Now if you will excuse me, I need to finish this lap so I can get the celebration started.

[1] I know it sounds odd, but I had signed up for a National Joggers Association project which called on members to run 1776 miles between the 4th of July 1976 and the 4th of July 1977. It was to be a celebration of the bicentennial.
[2] Of course, Prefontaine’s victory laps marked the races where he came in first. Mine marked training runs where I managed to come it at all
[3] I will be 80 on December 16 this year and Bette and I will have been married for 12 years on the 28th, less than two weeks later.
[4] Although I have to say that my kids were there at the time too, and they just hate the victory lap metaphor. Nothing I have ever said to them has moved them off the notion that “finishing the race” is just a metaphor for death. It is heartwarming that they don’t want me to die, of course, but it would be nice if they would take the metaphor in the way I mean it. I am a teacher, after all, as well as a father.
[5] The quotation marks there indicate a small complexity. “The run” includes the most recent run over a particular course, but it also includes “my strategy on that particular course” generally. I might conclude that I take that long uphill toward the cheese plant too fast and pay for it for the next several miles. In that way it is a more general reflection of “the best way to manage that course,” not just how I did on that course today.
[6] I am thinking, certainly, of Daniel Levinson’s The Seasons of a Man’s Life and probably also Archibald McLeish’s summary, in which he refers to autumn as “the human season.”
[7] See John Hess, A Perfectly Ordinary Paradise (the working title), forthcoming.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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