Better Late

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

In high school, I might've been voted Least Likely to Run a Marathon, but sometime in my thirties, I decided it might not be too late

My parents made me literate at the age of three, using a kit called "How to Teach Your Baby to Read." First they coached me with flashcards the size of license plates—words like "Mommy" and "book" in cherry-colored letters—then smaller cards featuring harder words in black sans-serif type.

The method worked. At age six, I appeared on a local talk show, dwarfed in the lap of actor James Earl Jones, while the show's host placed a copy of "A Tale of Two Cities" in my hands.

I'd never seen the book before, nor heard of Charles Dickens. I opened to the first page and read aloud: "It was the best of times. It was the worst of times."

Being publicly precocious—at least, as a reader—seemed to have an inverse relationship to my social cachet. While my closest friends didn't care (they were bookworms themselves, kids who had to be shoehorned outside on a glorious summer day), other classmates regarded me from a curious distance, the way you might look at the okapi at the zoo. Fascinating. Weird. Definitely not our species.

By fourth grade, bored with endless iterations of the Bobbsey Twins, I successfully lobbied for access to the adult stacks in the school library. In my early teens, I wandered away from the tumult of a family party and found refuge in my aunt's collection of college paperbacks. Becoming conversant with J.D. Salinger and Khalil Gibran did not improve my rep; I could chat fluently with adults, but I tangled my feet in the double-dutch rope and dissolved in tears if someone snatched my stocking cap for a game of keep-away.

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"Each carries a tender spot," wrote the poet Naomi Shihab Nye. "Something our lives forgot to give us." My gift—an agile mind, fed by print-happy parents—was conjoined twin to my vulnerability. I couldn't throw a softball or run a mile. I didn't roughhouse or arm-wrestle. I wasn't quite sure how to play.

I read early and learned to dance late. Floated on my back in the day-camp pool at five, but remained terrified of diving for seven more years. Sipped my parents' wine while still in middle school, but never tried a cigarette (and only for one hazy, hacking weekend) until the New Year's Eve I was 22. Celebrated a bat mitzvah 20 years behind schedule.

I had a kid at 38. Took up guitar at 45. Sang in public for the first time … oh, how about two months ago?

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"Better late than never," goes the adage. But maybe there's truth in the first part of that cliché. Better late. I'd have been a self-absorbed, distracted mother in my 20s. And in my early thirties—a period when I struggled with panic attacks, worked the kinks out of my long-term relationship and tried to figure out which coast to call home—I'd have been even worse.

Remember that board game, Life: the little cars, the gendered pink and blue pegs? While the course wasn't a straight line, the progression was still unidirectional—a forward march through high school, college, career, marriage, house and babies. There was no way to loop back, reverse course—kids before marriage, job in advance of high school diploma—or step boldly, treacherously, off the conventional path.

Real life is branchier. You can be miles ahead of the tribe in one way—those prodigies who graduate from college at 17 and own companies by 24—and lag behind the curve in others. Sure, I'm a grown-up with a mortgage, a teenager and a couple of IRAs, but I'm also a toddler, off-balance and arms-akimbo, when it comes to asking for a raise or fingering B-minor-7th on the guitar.

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We laud the wunderkind who glimmer early, but tend to overlook people whose flames don't flare until middle age. I gather anecdotes like so many baseball cards: Grandma Moses took up the paintbrush at 75. Julia Child began hosting "The French Chef" at 50. Laura Ingalls Wilder was 65 when the first book in her wildly popular "Little House" series was published.

Early? Late? Right on schedule? What would it mean to lose that urge to measure and compare, to read about someone (a millennial who just founded a non-profit, say, or an octogenarian who studies trapeze) without doing the math and concluding that A) I've missed my chance or B) I've still got time.

In high school, I might have been voted Least Likely to Run a Marathon. But sometime in my thirties, I decided it might not be too late. I started by panting around the block, then worked my sweaty way up to five miles. Ten. An astonishing 20. I discovered that I was neither weak nor clumsy, that I could run and run until, on a chill and rainy Sunday afternoon in 1987, I crossed the 26.2-mile mark.

After five hours of pounding the wet streets of Washington, D.C., after a hot bath and three cups of tea and the fear that I'd never, ever feel warm again, I wasn't eager to repeat the experience. But I continue to run half-marathons, nearly every fall in the city where I was born (early, by the way, and just in time to foil my mother's planned shopping trip to Snellenburg's).

I pretend an attitude of laissez-faire; the truth is that I'm determined, each year, to shave a few seconds off my previous time. But in the most recent Philadelphia half-marathon, there were no clocks. Maybe because nearly every one of the 18,000 runners had an iPhone strapped to her arm or a Fitbit gripping his wrist. Why invest in those giant digital marquees—not to mention the electricity to power them—if most participants are gauging their own pace to the millisecond?

I was not one of those runners. I wear a Timex watch that cost $25 at Target. It cannot count my heartbeats or calculate my pace-per-mile or compare this run to the one I did last Wednesday. I didn't even glance at it when the starting gun sounded. And for the next 13.1 miles, I had only myself as measure.

Without the clocks to admonish me—gotta push harder; nope, too fast, save some for later—I had no idea if I was early or late, lagging or speeding. I ran that race not with agitation, not with self-doubt, but simply with presence, immersed fully in each moment: the pinked edges of maple leaves above, the faint calls of coxswains from the river, the whoops of a grade-school pep squad.

What would it be like to live this way, tuned to the voice inside, only breath and blood-beat to tell me if I'm pushing too hard or dallying too long? What would it be like to live without reminders that my hair grayed early and my periods ended late (um, still not done, actually).

I gallop through my days, trying to honor that Zen paradox: Life is so short. We must live very slowly. Because I know, sooner or later, we'll all stop counting. Stop being counted. Meanwhile, we have these times: the best, the worst. We have one another, our weird and fascinating species. We have this minute—so swift, so sluggish—collapsing into memory before we blink.