Halfway through the final leg of my first triathlon yesterday, a guy four years older than me passed me like I was standing still. Not only was he older than me, but he had started about three minutes after I did and here he was passing me. I didn’t know the guy—had never seen him before in my life—but because of the system the triathlon’s organizers used to monitor participants, I knew that he was 47 and that he had started 348th. I quickly got over the fact that he passed me so easily.
Ready access to the ages of the 500 racers made for some interesting opportunities both before and during the race. In the hour before the race began many of us were hanging around in the pool area, just chatting with friends, stretching, and warming up. I started playing several mental games as I stood there. The first one was to take a good, long look at someone—head to toe—and then try to guess his or her age. With most people I was pretty close, but there was one impressive 62 year-old that looked much closer to 40.
The other, related, game was to find other 43 year-olds in the crowd and then compare myself to them to see if I looked worse, as good as, or better than them on several dimensions. Once I found a 43 year-old, I wouldn’t stop the comparison until I found some body part where I outclassed them. With some of my cohort, this didn’t take long. However, many of those triathletes were pretty buff and for some I had to get all the way down to, “well, my left earlobe is FAR shapelier than his,” before I could move on with a shred of self-esteem intact.
Before the race even started, my ego was tired.
During the race, Erica and I stayed together, along with a third friend of ours, Kerry. In fact, we helped each other through the hard parts of the race. For me and Erica, the hard part was the swim. For Kerry, the start of the run was troublesome. I noticed that each time someone passed us, both Erica and I performed the very same head-and-eye movements. First, we would look at the two-digit age identifier on the calf and then we would scroll up their bodies to find out when they had started. The worst cases were like the one above—a person older than us who had started after us was somehow PASSING us.
But the whole system gave me pause to think. I spent the last mile contemplating what specific number would make the ideal identifier, when combined with age. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone walked around the world with their age written in dark, permanent ink on the back of their right calf? And instead of starting position written on both thighs and both biceps, we could all have some other important number there to allow others to quickly size us up. Could be income. Or weight. Or maybe years of education. The numerical possibilities are numberless.
I.Q.? College G.P.A. ? Credit rating? Bank balance? Home equity? What would it be? When I mentioned to my daughter Isabel that I was writing this piece, I asked for advice on what would be a funny/cute way to end it. What number could I propose we all wear on our skin to tell others about us? She thought for a second and said, “We could all have a number from one to five telling everyone else how good a friend we are.” She got it just right. Nothing else to say.