The Athlete’s Mind Never Retires
I’m a retired runner, but regular exerciser (a.k.a. a health maintenance athlete) who is on a steady sprint to deeper middle age; my body may be worn, a little heavier, and a lot slower, but my (athlete’s) mind?
Fierce and fiery, in the most over-the-top, but good ways!
At least I like to think so.
Why? Simple: I’m still that athlete from my younger years: brave, strong, and inspired.
I feel that sporty girl especially when I watch younger folks compete and achieve! She’s in there cheering them on, too.
She also says: I can do that too!
Then I say to her, you did that, too. Past tense emphasized.
Hey, but it’s okay, because we still have a great deal of fun cheering on others (and ourselves!), that sporty girl and me.
My body doesn’t cooperate with this kind of passion. I can tell my body it’s go-time! Age, infirmity, or excuse be gone and be damned!
Thus begins the exercise, made more exciting by the mental reliving of sports glory days. I can overdo sometimes and that typically results in some type of injury, but thankfully tends to be short-lived.
Ego-driven? Vanity? Longing for youth? I’m sure a little.
All I know is that it feels good to get moving, keep moving, be moving and feeling inspired to be sporty and capture that old energy in a bottle and spritz it on from time to time.
And it is fun!
A recent example: the day after the 2021 Summer Olympics closing ceremony, I messed up my shoulder lifting weights doing a routine I haven’t done in some time.
Like in years.
Hey, that’s not too bad! It has been worse.
My college student nephews, two fantastic runners and soccer players, are talented beyond belief. Watching them compete in track and cross-country, especially in high school (we all went to the same high school and ran under the same coach!), was a real treat as the nostalgia was ridiculous and the inspiration was palatable.
They excelled, and I barely survived.
Well, sort of.
After each meet, after cheering them on, I would embark on a fitness journey, which sometimes landed me in the doctor’s office or taking a little time away to nurse some body part that I over-used and abused.
Most times it was the latter. I’m not that over the top.
But it was worth it (again, as I said, at least I’d like to think so).
My beginnings of sports lives on anyway, and I try again, start over again. And again. And again.
A history first, though.
As a child, I did sporty things almost every day.
Formal lessons included swimming, gymnastics and dance. Informal sports with family and friends included basketball, baseball, frisbee, badminton, tennis, roller skating and likely more that I can’t remember. Some of the sports I loved, and some I downright loathed.
But the one sport that transcended time, place, space, and otherworldliness was running. I loved to run, just to run. The movement, the speed, the endurance, the wind in my face, the smells, the sights, the sweat, the breath.
All of it was magic.
As I kid, I was lean and didn’t weigh much, coupled with a natural ability to run fast and far. Most of all, I relished racing boys across the playground or in timed sprints for PE class, often prevailing to my delight.
Better: I beat boys running not always wearing tennis shoes, but instead clunky sandals, and once, even in wooden clogs.
It’s not a surprise that I made my way to the track team at age 13, an awkward and nervous late-blooming girl, with ill-fitting running shoes and baggy and heavy cotton sweats.
My very first race was terrifying as I waited for the starter’s gun to sound. I felt weak and tired, and a little sick to my stomach. But as the gun sounded, in an instant, I felt like I was outside my body, then suddenly back in, and the excitement rush took over and propelled through to the finish line.
I wanted more.
I couldn’t wait until school was over to get to the track for practice. And race days were even better.
I would then carry on competing on varsity track teams and later the varsity cross country teams throughout my junior high and high school days. I loved all my teams and teammates over those years.
I blossomed into a good solid runner, and sometimes, even a great one. I was a point earner, a place holder, a workhorse, a reliable relay team member, and for a couple a teams, a captain.
So, imagine my excitement when a small local private college sports scout came to seek me out to run for their school. REAL running. Professional running. Running in the big time!
I’ll cut right to it: the collegiate story ends before it began. In fact, it ended before I even made it to one collegiate practice. After a routine summer Sunday run, a light and easy five-mile jaunt, I kicked off my running shoes and sat down to enjoy a cool glass of water and suddenly felt a searing pain in my right Achilles tendon, and then a ripping sensation, like the back of my leg was being violently unzipped.
After an immediate visit to the team doc the next morning, and the orthopedic surgeon soon after, my torn Achilles put me on the disabled list for a year. Back then, the wisdom was to stay off it, and I was out of running for a year.
I attempted to try to volunteer to help the team with practices and meets and tried in earnest to be of value. I was damaged goods though, and I could hear the whispers of she’s not coming back. The coach and team reception were distant, even cold. I didn’t have time for that kind of energy or to fret about losing my scholarship money.
I had a comeback to prepare for!
Though the whispers became louder as time passed that I would be done; my body knew it, but my mind was another story.
It was no matter to my mind.
I made plans anyway.
I got ready to transfer the following spring to the less expensive state school, an athletic powerhouse in its own right!
Starting over with training was hard after a year away. Harder than what I had envisioned most surely. I was stiff. Slower. A little heavier. Undeterred though, I had a dear friend (an amazing runner in his own right) on the new school’s team give me some training guidelines. I planned on running that next spring, just in time for track, and I followed his ideas to the letter!
So, in the late winter, despite grasping the beauty and agony of training again, my friend broke the news after I shared some of my timed runs with him.
“Well, you might be able to train with the team for fun!” He said hopefully, not wanting to hurt my feelings. “And there’s also fun runs to train for.”
Alas, I guess it was the time for fun. And that’s what I did, albeit begrudgingly.
What’s funny was the passion and magic of running fast and far continued, even in fun runs.
But the older I got, the busier I got, and the fun runs were fewer and farther in between.
Having two babies changed my body forever.
More aches and pains.
A broken foot.
But I always LOVED the thrill of the shot of the race gun, the fast kick start, the sprint at the end! No matter my shape or speed, I was transported to being thirteen in the first race.
I would get tears in my eyes (in a good way!) watching others race, especially kids.
I could never see myself leaving the sport I loved so much, that had given me so much.
Until it happened.
I promised myself, the day I really disliked any part of a race, would be the day I retired from racing.
That day came in the fall of 2012, after an ill-fated half-marathon I got talked into, while dealing with an ongoing illness, and that I had neither the training time nor energy for.
I loathed every painful step, feeling bitter and resentful, and hobbled in the last mile on a badly hurt toe. My time was pitiful. I felt pitiful.
The thought of another race made me shudder. I was tired of injuries. Tired of lots of training.
I decided to run for my health and welcomed myself to health maintenance 101 athletics. I stopped racing, and it was okay because it was on my own terms.
My next promise? If I get too hurt, the kind of hurt that’s catastrophic, like that Achilles tear, while I run for my health, then I would retire from running all together
My second catastrophe arrived in a different part.
It came in the form of my left knee that imploded several years ago. Maybe less than that time, maybe more.
I choose not to remember the exact day or year I retired from running. That’s okay too, as it was also on my own terms.
My athlete’s mind still lives in the days of running like a fresh cool wind across the playground, winning my first race on the track, trudging through the mud along the cross-country course in torrential weather only to have a personal best time, and receiving a best women’s time in my age bracket in a fun run many years ago.
It’s all there in my head, even when I go walking, do yoga, hike, or lift light weights.
It’s all there in my head to draw in during the tough times I’ve had in life: the determination; the imagination; the celebration.
I feel it with others, I feel it for others. And I feel it for myself. That doesn’t age. It will NEVER retire. Long may it live on, forever young.