Deciding to Race When I Thought I Was Done

I recently decided to enter some races on the track. A good friend encouraged me to try coming back to sprinting and I did. He’s 55+ and I’m 52. For our respective ages, we’re in pretty good shape. I hadn’t run a track race in about 15 years.

So yes, I reactivated my track club membership and signed up to run the 100m and 200m sprints in the Vienna Masters championships. Here are some of my observations from the experience:

  • When we say age is nothing but a number it’s true and it is also true that numbers can have meaning.
  • Running at 50 for me is very different from how I ran at the end of my competitive middle and long distance career at 36. My body doesn’t want to go too hard or too long. Recovery gets priority.
  • As an older athlete, enhancing performance = staving off and postponing decline. I won’t get faster, per se, so the trick is to avoid getting much slower.
  • I prepared for these races by aiming to do ‘just enough’ and not more.
  • Instead of running all the time I opted for inline skating or walking while adding some technique drills along the way.
  • It is a reality that I wake up stiff and my first steps out of bed are tentative and cautious. This is true whether I work out quite a lot or very little.
  • Arm flexibility and strength will likely be a greater factor in racing success than leg speed over the long haul.
  • My goal going into this was to race without getting injured and I almost made it.

     

     

     

IMG_20170723_134743

Hitchhiking or just ambivalent?

I don’t have any previous experience with this aging game; I’m just feeling my way. So far, so good. One of the highlights of participating this weekend was seeing folks (mostly men) much older, 70 – 80, running, jumping and throwing, too.  You see what’s possible and what the sport, the camaraderie can give a person.

Meanwhile, my spunky super athletic 9 year old proved to be a vocal and somewhat critical spectator. That said,  I don’t doubt that it made him proud to see his mom step up onto the top spot and receive a medal. According to him my start in the 200 wasn’t so great but then I was really fast in the curve but at the very end I looked like Voldemort, so yeah. Modeling takes many forms. Impression made.

On the first day I was nervous – like ‘had to go potty numerous times’ nervous. It was a strange throwback – to feel that physical expression of performance anxiety, before a ridiculous 100m race! And in the blocks I messed around with different settings which prompted the starter to give me a few tips. (Mind you, I have been teaching block starts to athletes for over 20 years.)  And then it was, “Auf die Plaetze, Fertig, *boom*.  Behold, I started just fine.

Gearing up for the 200 on Sunday I took a second to think of one of my most coachable athletes who has stellar starts. I was channeling “KL cool” stepping into the blocks and that gave me a little smile. It also reminded me how wonderful and fulfilling it can be to know something so well – this process, the commands, my response, the tension, the release – even after all these years it is still a mystery and an intimacy. That was a gift.

To sum up I want to borrow some words I read in the New York Times recently:

“…that was super-duper…that was very much more than normal…and do you know what else was nice? – It was limited. You know, it was two hours…It didn’t go a whole day. … You don’t want to leave but you have to … the whole thing, it was an incredible thing.”

It was all “an incredible thing” and probably worth attempting again. I learned that I enjoy the tension of competing. I can be “in it to win it” but winning is broadly defined: finishing, staying healthy, following through.

If this is what I’m saying at 50+, I can only wonder what my next decades may bring.

If I’m lucky, more of this.  (Humblebrag, I made my very first GIF!)

 

image: (c) Me, my, mine. Thanks.

Adventures at The Running School

 

Not me. I wish… Image via pixabay.com

I recently attended a two-day training in running theory and practice: Running Technique Coach offered at The Running School. Over the last 3 years I have heard from several of my PE colleagues in Europe that Mike Antoniades and his team at The Running School were game changers and have a lot to offer us.  I decided to book a course in London to see for myself what all the fuss is about.
When it comes to running I think I know my stuff thanks to over 30 years’ experience competing, coaching and teaching.  As a result of the course, while I do know quite a bit, I now see, feel and understand that there is 1) so much more to learn and 2) that I will be able to improve my own running and that of others better than before. The course kept its promise and I am happy I went.
When Mike Antoniades, who led the course, talks about running, his love for the movement performed well and to the best of each individual’s ability comes across loud and clear. Storytelling features strongly in Mike’s presentations. He uses a variety of case studies to illustrate how runners and movers at every imaginable ability level have trained and practiced according to his methodology and gone on to achieve remarkable results. Some of these case studies were accompanied by before and after videos which proved helpful to us novices in recognizing changes made. Mike has spent decades delving into the intricacies of the human body that converge to yield functional running: biomechanics, physiology, neurology, and psychology. What struck me is that his love comes not from having been the best or fastest runner, but from having learned how to recover from injury. Getting better is at the heart of his practice and that makes more of a difference than one might imagine.
Mike has worked with some ridiculously high level athletes, Olympians, pros, European and World Championship material in numerous sports (soccer, American football, track and field, triathalon, rugby) and he emphasized that everyone has room for improvement. The motor interruptions caused by injuries large and small have repercussions throughout our movement lives.  For top athletes, the ability to stay healthy, functional and in good form presents huge challenges to the body systems. Deliberately practicing the most efficient running technique which reduces the risk of injury and increases speed can go a long way in serving the ultimate performance goal of the individual athlete. And for the rest of us the same is true even if we’re not aiming to qualify for a championship team. Essential to the Running School’s practice is this understanding: “Everyone can have their own perfect running technique based on what they are trying to achieve and their body type.” (Running School Manual, Running Technique Course, 2013., p.24) This point was critical for my buy-in to a visibly well-marketed methodology: seeing that the uniqueness of the individual including their goals, histories and specific physical state provides the starting point for determining a program rather than the other way around. Among exercise and training offerings designed to appeal to many this capacity to adapt to and accommodate the individual is not always a given.
Our group of 8 students between the ages of 20 something and 60ish demonstrated plenty of individual diversity. Granted, we were all fairly fit individuals including 3 PE teachers and 4 personal trainers who brought various  movement histories along with us. My goal for the two days was to complete the course without injury. I had been running a bit more consistently for the last 4 weeks in preparation (35- 70 min. 3 times/week) and so felt in reasonable cardiovascular shape but also keenly aware of tightness in both Achilles tendons and the hamstrings.
In total we spent up to maybe 5 hours outside doing the practical sessions. The first 90 minute session allowed us to experience the technique training as athletes going through the full warm-up, technique instructions, a series of practice drills and runs complete with individual feedback. We did this on a grassy area in a nearby park.  In the afternoon we returned to the same space and after an initial review of the mornings points and exercises we were challenged to each take a turn instructing the group in the two fundamental skill areas: leg cycling and arm motion. We each had four minutes to instruct. Think about this: Each person instructs – stands in the center, gives directions and feedback – while the others do the exercises. That means each person completes a total of 8 rounds of practicing proper technique within the nearly 2 hour session. Pedagogically, this worked a charm – lots of physical and mental repetition to reinforce the best technique and the opportunity to teach it to others extends and anchors the learning in a remarkably lasting way.  On the second day, our outdoor session involved 6 minute instruction periods for each participant to carry out which took us a step deeper in checking our understanding of the content as well as focusing attention on delivery-how to be brief, upbeat, encouraging and still give runners the necessary feedback for improvement. (You know, like good teachers.)
The practical sessions had a huge impact on my learning. It was in the doing and processing the doing that my many questions arose. I had so many questions over the two days! What if folks aren’t interested in running faster? Do well-trained athletes need longer to re-pattern their movements? What to do if individuals’ fitness levels are poor (i.e., unable to run more than for short bursts)? What are your tips for recovery between sessions? Why so many reps of this exercise? and how often per week? And what about Paula Radcliffe’s technique? (British Olympic marathoner – look it up) This almost never happens to me in traditional PD sessions. My brain was fired up trying to process and connect all this new input to previous knowledge and experience. During the sessions on theory, Mike’s interjections of stories helped me make sense of the information he was presenting and give it a home in my brain that was feeling pretty full.
When I first sat down to write this post I found that I kept coming back to the past. My own running past. I’ve been a runner for almost 38 years. And my earliest experiences were so positive and affirming that I kept coming back. This course helped me appreciate the fact that I had very good coaches and teachers along the way from whom I learned good technique. Having run track all four years of high school, two years of college and then as an adult with varying levels of intensity, I can count myself as fortunate to have sustained very few injuries. I can likely attribute much of that to good technique. What I also found in reflecting on that long running past was how much love I have for the movement and the sport. That explains why coaching track has been my most consistent professional gig, why examples of excellent running form are easier for me to retain than best times, why I enjoy the camaraderie among runners of various ability levels.
Upon returning from the course I tweeted out:

Truly the running technique course was among the very best professional development opportunities I have taken in many years. I learned. I am applying what I learned. I am sharing what I learned. I look forward to adding to what I learned. I’m inspired, fired up and ready to roll (or cycle, would be more appropriate here.). I can hardly wait to see what’s next.

For Here or To Go?

"Yes, I'll have that lesson to go..."

“Yes, I’ll have that lesson to go…”

This morning I was out for a jog and something dawned on me: Great teaching is something that sticks with you. That was the start. Then the thought began to evolve.

Is it the teaching or is it the learning? I asked myself.

What great teaching am I carrying with me right now as I pick up the pace?

I began assembling my stories; stories of the great teachers, the great lessons, the deep learning I was sporting as I lengthened my stride.

  • Story #1: The speedskating race. I did my first long distance speed skating race on January 2nd. I completed 15 laps of a 2.1km course in a little less than 2 hours and 15 minutes. Throughout, I could hear my coach’s whisper at each step, “feet together, feet together.”
  • Story #2: Reading aloud. One of my greatest joys as a parent was and still is reading aloud to my sons (aged 20 and 7). My mother surely instilled and inspired this habit in me. Every time I hear myself read aloud with passion, I imagine my mother looking on with pride.
  • Story #3: Sticking with the run I was on. It would have been easy to stop and walk, especially as I was plodding uphill. And there I heard a variety of voices, including my own, reminding me that I could and would succeed because: I know how this goes, I’ve tackled this before, I set the pace, the choice is mine and look at the blessings that surround me.
  • Story #4: The will to keep writing. Several folks have had a hand in this one, yet my thoughts actually go back to two of my high school teachers, Mr. Hawkes and Mr. Nelson, who encouraged me to recognize my writing as a definitive strength and that I should therefore dare to be confident in doing it. That lesson took a long while to kick in (some 20 years, at least). If they only knew…

So as I continued to chew on this line of thinking, I arrived at this: Great teaching, which often goes hand in hand with great learning, becomes great because it has staying power. Great lessons stick with you, are portable and transferable. Over time these lessons can become so uniquely and intimately useful to you as to no one else. This is what makes the learning your own.

I hesitate to draw the connection to education or schooling, because we know teaching, learning and lessons to be so much more, so much broader than what we tend to stuff into our favorite labeled compartments of education and schooling.  So think big and broad with me here, let’s go deep and not linger on the surface. When you consider some of your own great teaching, learning and lessons, both in the past and to come, would you like that for here, or to go?

Personally, I’ll take all three to go with a big side of uncertainty because there’s the catch – we just can’t know or predict before hand exactly what will stick with whom and when. All the same, let’s have the “to go” model in mind when we are serving up our best fare to students, colleagues, and loved ones. They will thank us. Someday.

The Uphill Climb Toward Mindfulness

Would that it were this easy.  (photo: omourya via Pixabay.com)

Would that it were this easy.   (photo: omourya via Pixabay.com)

One of my latest personal ambitions involves developing greater mindfulness in my day-to-day. There are thousands of resources out there – books, articles, blogs, groups, institutes, workshops – you name it – all of them eager to get each of us that much closer to being fully grounded in our earthly existence. Which, I will admit, can quickly sound esoteric to even the most receptive ears.

The options in pursuit of mindfulness are several but essentially all forms of mindfulness training involve practicing some type of meditation whether it is called that or not. What I am finding in my beginner’s state is that my opportunities to practice being fully present and alert are numerous and my capacity to focus and initiate that practice is remarkably weak and underdeveloped.

Here are some examples:

Eating
When was the last time you ate this way: Chewing each mouthful fully and swallowing before preparing the next bite? Try it. It’s harder than it sounds. Typically when we eat, we have tons more going on, even if it’s only thoughts in our heads. And we tend to eat on a sort of autopilot – we may taste our food but rarely do out thoughts linger there. One mouthful follows the next and in a flash we’re done and marvel at where it all went.
Try eating differently; mindfully.
Take a bite. Taste it completely. Notice the flavors, texture, how it feels in your mouth. Swallow. Only now prepare the next bite. Repeat the process.

In my brief experience, when I try this I usually make it through perhaps two bites in a row before my regular thoughts highjack the process and I’m back to shoveling in food without registering what I am doing.  It’s amazing how often I need to call myself back to the practice. Yet even that, the practice of calling myself back to the practice, is itself a practice. (Welcome, esoteric voiceover…)

Walking or jogging
Getting outside to walk or jog would seem to offer another chance to develop this new habit. I used to run competitively and my recreational, just-trying-to-stay-trim running therefore tends to be freighted with more baggage than necessary. What a golden opportunity to strive for groundedness!
For several strides I can focus on my even and relaxed breathing- in and out, in and out, and before you (and I) know it, I am despairing my lackluster effort, cursing my less than helpful nutritional habits of late…even as I keep the same steady pace.

I see and appreciate that my road to mindful living will likely be a steep uphill climb at this stage. Effortful, humbling, and elusive are the words I associate with the process right now. And if I understand the underlying premise of mindfulness training, right now is the only time of any relevance.
Right now is the only time we can change anything.

Guess I’ll go chew on that thought for a while.