November 20, 2005

Post Peak Athleticism

I reached my athletic peak in my early twenties, somewhere north of fifteen years ago, if my abacus is working correctly. Unfortunately, at the time I didn’t realize that I was in the midst of my prime athleticism. But you never do, do you? When you’re young, everybody older than you tells you to make sure you treasure your youth. But why would you pause your childhood for even a second to listen to those seemingly old bitter people who clearly are outraged at their own private stupidity for not capitalizing on the youthfulness of youth. And then you grow up and realize that those old bitter people aren't really that old, nor that bitter.

As you grow older you eventually hit a point where you start contemplating your childhood. According to my study, that point is somewhere just nigh of 40 years old. You may be out for a run, driving in the car or sitting at your desk just sorting through your monthly bills when you suddenly find your mind wandering through the dusty alleys of the past. Perhaps you find yourself wishing that you had done more of the stupid things you had thought about doing at the time. Or maybe just far less of them. And so for the next few days you walk around town telling kids, in your own private ironic tone, to enjoy their childhood while it lasts. And though you don't recognize it, there is something within their sarcastic sneer that seems so familiar to you. But you shrug it off as misguided youth. Damn kids, you might say to yourself, completely oblivious to the true irony of it all.

You never expect things to fade away in your youth, including your youth. But it does fade away, ever so slowly, until one day you wake up with a little extra squish in your pouch and a little less milk in your proverbial cheerios.

The thing is, I’m not really that old, just nigh of 40. But as I think of the declining level of fitness I’ve experienced over the past few years, I can only wish that I was still that sprightly 23 year old again. I was fast back then. Really fast. Unfortunately, there were a few holes in my bag of training smarts. Perhaps if I had the training knowhow then that I have now, maybe I’d be able to sport a trophy or two on my shelf. Maybe I’d even have a shelf. I don’t have a shelf like that now though, I just have a closet filled with medals. And they are not the medals that say “Winner” or even “2nd Place”. Not a one of them has any of those words on it. No, Catherine has all of those. She’s the fast one. I just have the medals that say, simply, “Finisher.” You know the ones, they mass produce them before every race and hand them out to every soul who manages to crawl across the finish. They might as well just give away postcards that say “Congratulations, you showed up. Now grab a banana and go home, and try not to bore everybody with your stories.”

In my early 20s, I could run like the wind. I was tireless, able to race almost every weekend throughout the year. I’d zip along, running sub-6 minute miles and consistently finishing 10k races in 37 or 38 minutes. Ah, those were the days. I remember the first triathlon I did, it was the Rose Bowl sprint in 1992. Because it was a pool swim, they switched the order of activities from swim-bike-run to run-bike-swim. I was nervous, but knowing that I was a strong runner and a pretty good cyclist, I figured it'd all turn out fine. So when the starting gun was shot, I took off at my usual bat-out-of-hell pace. As I neared the end of the run I realized I was in the Top 10. Nervous that I was oblivious to the true secrets of triathlon, that there was no way I could remain in the Top 10 with so many experienced triathletes, I slowed down my running. I soon learned that there is is no hidden secret to it at all. Sure there are things you learn along the way, but the fact is that anybody can go out and finish a triathlon. I was just a fast runner at the time, yet too young to understand any opportunity behind it.

I still finished the race in the top 10%, but knowing now what I didn’t know then, I may have done a lot better. In fact, I finished every race back then within the top 10%, despite myself. I can only imagine what would’ve happened had I learned to train properly – or even to race with a modicum of smarts. As I got older my finishing times dropped to the top 15th percentile. And then the 25th. 35th. ...And on and on down the spiral. It was about the time that I bottomed out at the 50th percentile when I realized how to train effectively. Too little too late? Yeah, whatever.

I am in Florida now at my mother’s place for Thanksgiving. We went on a run today. It was a nice five mile jaunt. Five miles in fifty-eight minutes. That’s somewhere on the darker side of 11 minute miles. The funny thing is, we were ecstatic because we did it nearly two minutes faster than yesterday. Sure I could’ve run faster, but my heart rate was already far too high. Fifteen years ago I'd be kicking myself for running a slow 6 minute mile, today I’m patting myself on the back by running 11 minute miles.

I realize that I’m not getting any younger. I’m only going to get slower as life goes on. In the meantime, I’m trying to enjoy what youth I have left and collect all of the medals I can, even if it means nothing more than that I just showed up.