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.

Coach Spelic

IMG_20170513_091907

a slice of my coaching heaven (Zug, Switzerland)

One of the privileges of my professional life has been to serve as a coach to our school’s track and field teams. I started coaching at the school in 1992. 25 years ago.

I have taught at the school for 21 years.

I have been a parent for 23 years.

If I add on my first 2 years of teaching and coaching at a small private school in the Washington, DC area – then I have 27 years of coaching track under my belt.

I love the sport. I love my athletes but I am not the best track coach in the world. I provide guidance. I offer feedback. I model my expectations. And there are certainly better skilled, more knowledgeable and focused coaches than I. But coaching is my thing.

Coaching is where I develop relationships with students which go beyond instructing and assessing the results. We laugh, sweat and struggle together. I ask them about their lives in progress, how they are feeling and what they are feeling. And often they tell me.

Sometimes they ask me about myself, about my running history: which events I ran, what my best times were, which distances I liked most. Recently one of them discovered my Twitter profile. They asked me: How come you have so many followers? Through my writing, I told them.

When my athletes ask me about school records and past highlights, my memory is remarkably thin, especially when it comes to hard data. I almost never remember times or distances, but I do remember the people. I remember so many stories of athletes and our conversations. Of finding one athlete’s ‘just right’ event at the final tournament of her senior year. Of the boys 4×400 relay that ended with a remarkable swan dive and made me weep in the stands. Of the Spanish teacher’s son who’s poetry of jumping was almost too beautiful for the competition in which he was entered. Of the skinny sprinter girl who went on to attend my alma mater, run track all 4 years there, become an outstanding geophysicist and who is now a high school teacher who coaches teams of her own.

This sport has given me so much. It is what I know. To coach young athletes is one of the single greatest privileges of my professional life. This is the passion that found me long ago; the gift that keeps on giving.

IMG_20170513_090656

Use your arms!

Clearly using their arms. Image via pixabay.com

Clearly using their arms. Image via pixabay.com

I’ve been a track coach for more years than I have taught. For the bulk of my coaching years I have focused on sprinters. While I know a fair amount about technique and training, when the athletes are on the track and in the race, there is not very much I can do for them. I do my best to remain present, bear witness, offer support.

That said, I do have one habit I use to boost their efforts. I find a space outside the track where athletes will be able to hear me. Especially for the 400m, I like to stand near the last curve. From there I watch and wait for my athletes to approach. I shout:

“That’s it. Now pump the arms, pump the arms!”

“The arms! That’s it, your arms!”

That’s what I do time and time again.

Why? Because it works.

Any  hard-running athlete who hears: “Move your legs faster!” when coming around the bend will unlikely feel helped and might be justifiably annoyed.

But the arms, well, that’s something many athletes can do something about. It may not feel like much, but a little stronger swing of the arms back and forth, elbows bent at 90 degrees – that may just be enough to pull someone through to the finish line faster than they thought possible.

I wonder in school how often we stand by and exhort our students with what amounts to the equivalent of  “Move your legs faster”? When what they really could use is a reminder to activate a part of themselves that feels more under their control in that moment.  “Stop for a moment. What thought or thoughts just went through your head? Can you remember? Tell your neighbor.” Rather than demanding that students pay attention, why not  offer an opening to have them locate their attention at that moment? Acknowledge that thoughts are and may be elsewhere and gradually guide their attention back to the topic at hand.

When we shift the focus onto what students can control, we remind them of their own power.

We do this by asking students about what they can do when they say they can’t.

Or by offering choices within an assignment.

Or by allowing students to come up with a different way that they’d like to demonstrate their learning.

There are many more ways for us to bolster our students’ sense of efficacy than we may recall at any given time.  That said, students may well experience more drive and persistence when  they are encouraged to focus on the elements of their performance that they feel are actually under their control.

When our students are in the race, let’s find ways to tell them “Use your arms!”