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Appreciation for the Backside: Reflections on Running After Age 70

A runner’s thoughts on the second half of his life journey as a runner, framed by his account of his annual trip to the Randolph Ramble 10-kilometer mountain race in New Hampshire. 

By on January 1, 2024 | Comments

I’ve just squeezed between two edged and angled boulders whose three-foot drop has made me cautious — which translates in trail-world to slow — when I hear the rustle. I turn and step aside in one motion. There, a dozen feet above me, a thin young man steps out into the air; he seems to float my way. Then gravity draws him down, and he lands lightly in the leaves, which puff apart. Even as they rise, he does too, his next step more walking on air.

“Nice rhythm,” I say as he wings past. “Thanks,” I hear, the “s” elongated as he hares downhill, his back quickly thinning out to a rail. Then he’s gone, and I return to the motion of my own downhill shuffle.

On this mild, late-October day, I am on the backside of Mount Randolph, and my encounter with this swift runner leads me to reflect — yet again — on how it feels to live on the backside of a 70-plus-year trail life. Carried first into the mountains in my father’s backpack at age two, I’ve overlaid layers and layers of mountain images atop those initial imprints. To go there, or there, or there, I need only close my eyes. But closing my eyes here would be an invitation to tumble, so I return to reading the leaves and stones, to making my way down … with as much rhythm as I can manage.

This side of Mount Randolph rises just over 3,000 feet above the eponymous New Hampshire town below. Some two miles to my rear, Mount Crescent pokes its snout a couple of hundred feet higher, and the ridge trail between these two mounts has been a wonder of wander as I’ve shuffled along. It’s even helped me forget the slow agony of the 1,500-foot climb up Crescent’s face that shapes the early going of this good-spirited, iconic little trail race in the northern White Mountains.

Like the 45 of us gathered earlier in loose knots of familiar conversation, the Randolph Ramble keeps coming back to its calendar spot on the variable edge of winter in the Whites. One year there was snow; another year, icy rain; this year, it’s a summer peach of a day.

2023 Randolph Ramble - start

The start of the 2023 Randolph Ramble, showing runners on the faster, frontside of life headed out. All photos courtesy of Sandy Stott.

Set in that calendar just a few weeks past my birthday, the Randolph Ramble is — when I’m lucky — my annual birthday gift to myself. This year’s number is 75.

To get here, I rose before dawn, brewed road-strength coffee, and chunked some assembled gear into the car. I then set out on a 100-mile drive from my Maine Coast home to Randolph. On my way out of town, the setting moon resembled a huge orange pumpkin perched on the trees of my local woods and their trail system, where I practice motion every day. “Beautiful,” I murmured to this late and early light.

After a drive along the Androscoggin River, the land begins to wrinkle: first hills, then ridge lines and small mountains. The way then bends west and aims at New England’s largest mountains, the road-circumscribed Whites. Even as they are ground-down molars of ice-split rock topping out at 6,000 feet, for someone who dwells by the sea, they rise, then rise again, raising the perennial question: “What’s on the backside?”

But all of this is prelude to being there … at the Ramble. Four of us on this day will set off about an hour before the runner-racers. We are the Limmer Division — amblers, walkers, and shufflers — who cannot or choose not to run but want to be here among our foot-kin. Turning us loose early keeps the Ramble contained, ensuring that the volunteers stationed at a few tricky turns won’t be standing at their posts for too long. Most years, their saintly work is rewarded with a wet chill that burrows its way through however many layers of clothing they have on. Today’s unseasonable mildness will spare them that.

2023 Randolph Ramble - child running

A young runner learning the ropes at the 2023 Randolph Ramble.

Named for a well-known — and heavy — mountain boot, we Limmers are a breed unto ourselves. Most races don’t have Limmers or their local versions. When the slow go, they usually go last.

I’ve trained — aren’t we always training? — for this day. But a seaside esker, or some other glacial inflection, is not a mountain. A few hundred vertical feet up the first prolonged climb, my body sends out question #1: WTF, adopting our usual shorthand, WTFAYD?! Distracted, I misread a leaf-cloaked depression and plunge my foot into deep mud. The good news? My shoe stays on.

What all of us seek when climbing — rhythm that carries us up, the plus side of inertia — vanishes. I set about trying to recover it. This goes on. For a while. Longer.

Atop Mount Crescent, amid its cool spruce-filtered light, the trail levels out. The coiled spring of the climbing leg relaxes, my stride goes expansive, my head comes up. Who wouldn’t want to be here? And then, what we all wait for — a mild downhill that cants just enough to make it easy — and I am running. Not in a hurried way, not trying to make or make up time, but as an expression of joy. “Yes,” I say aloud. “Yes.”

Two ridge-miles later, on the way up the raised knuckle of Mount Randolph, I slow, and my mind engages again. I consider my steps, labor uphill, focus only on the next 10 feet.

The backside of Randolph is another sort of drop. Not mild at all, it evokes the trail-descriptor that always makes me smile: parts of it are classed as “technical.” Well, okay, every sport has its techniques, its preserves for true initiates, but “technical” seems borrowed from the rope-strung, vertical world of rock climbing. It seems a bit much for our foot world.

When I was in my teens and apprenticing in the split-rock Whites, I learned to rock-dance. Shod in the cast-like leather of boots, but immune to weight, I watched Appalachian Mountain Club summer hutmen, my father a former among them, run down steep trails, hopping from rock-edge to edge-rock, hoping for good landings. The dance rhythm was clear.

What happens when you can’t spot the next landing? I wondered. “You go up,” I learned from my rock-tutor. You leap as high as you can, buying yourself an extra second or two before coming down. In that bonus time, you invent a landing. Surprisingly, it worked. As the millennium and I aged, and I put aside my boot-casts for running shoes, the dancing changed; it became lighter-footed. But blessedly, it never went away, just became less frequent.

2023 Randolph Ramble - Sandy Stott

The author, Sandy Stott, approaching the finish of the 2023 Randolph Ramble, appreciating the backside of his long trail running life.

Here on the backside of Randolph, I am being caught and passed by younger, more graceful trail dancers, happy reminders of a former self. A few, if I listen closely, even have set up their own exhaled soundtracks. I know that music.

Which brings me to this Ramble’s highpoint: For each passing race-runner — 20 or so in all — I step happily aside. Then I watch the shifting image of the runner’s back — all rhythm and run — lifting over a rise, curling around a bend, growing smaller, and gone. Leaving an after-image of joy in its wake.

Call for Comments

  • Are you in the second half of your running life?
  • How are you working with the changes that come with this phase?
Sandy Stott
Sandy Stott lives and runs in Brunswick, Maine, where he chairs the town’s Conservation Commission. He writes for a variety of publications and has a book, 'Critical Hours—Search and Rescue in the White Mountains', which published in April of 2018, is now in its second printing, and was selected by Outside Online as one of its best books for Spring of 2018. He may be reached at [email protected].