TOJs and the Young Mind, Old Body Problem

As we age, most of the physical activities we enjoyed when young don't become impossible, but more risky. Assessing your own risk of injury as a TOJ can be difficult because of an age related delusion regarding your physical condition. Here's how it works -- strange as it sounds, when you turn 30, you think you are 24, or 6 years younger than your actual age. Then when you are 40, you think you are only 32, or 8 years younger than your actual age. Then when you are 50, you think you are only 40, or 10 years younger. Then when you are 60, you think you are only 45, or 15 years younger, etc. See a potentially dangerous non-linear trend here?

One summer almost 20 years ago I went to the track at the local university with my son, who was headed to college that fall to play soccer. He had to run 2 miles in 12 minutes, and I was clocking his time with a stop watch and calling out his lap times. While he was cooling down after his run, I jogged a couple of slow laps. It had be a long time since I had run on a track, and never on one with a nice rubberized surface like it had.

On an impulse, I decided it would be fun to run a fast quarter mile under the clock. I ran the quarter mile one season on my high school track team . Back then I did it in the low 50s. So I turned on the stopwatch and took off. I felt good, and I ran hard. When I crossed the finish line and looked at the watch, I was stunned. My time was in the high 60s. Something had to be wrong. Afterall, I was pretty fit, having completed numerous 10Ks, half marathons, and even a 50K cross country ski race in the past few years. I ran 8 -10 miles on most days.

It got me wondering if they had changed the distance of the track. I walked around to study the various starting lines that compensate for the curvature of the lanes. I knew at some level it was an unlikely scenario; if they had changed the distance, it would be to a 400 meter track, just a few feet longer than a 440 yard quarter mile. But at the moment, I just couldn't admit that I was slower, lots slower.

When I got home, I called the athletic department to confirm that the track was a quarter mile. The receptionist didn't know and bounced me to the track office. I could tell from the tone of voice of the guy who affirmed that it was a quarter mile track that my question was one they didn't hear very often, if ever. It was right then, when he confirmed that distance, that I realized a sobering fact: by the time you reach middle age, even though you think you're strong, you are inevitably weaker. You might feel you are fast, but you are slower. When you exercise, your mind just can't see your body as it actually is.

Most TOJs are not so self-deluded that they give serious thought to trying out for a Division I college football team or stepping into the ring with an Olympic boxer. Luckily our fear and vanity hold us back -- it's bad enough to get hurt, but worse, who wants to look like a dumb ass doing it? We know we're a long ways from a young athlete in his or her prime, but TOJs are inclined the see the performance gap as less than it really is.

Maybe it's too protect us that our competitive culture starts putting us out to athletic pasture when we're still relatively young. Even if we un-youngs don't personally realize it, everyone else does: no matter how good you feel, there are physical activities that our bones, muscles, ligaments, tendons and hearts just aren't up to anymore. That's why the Senior Olympics has sports like archery, badmiton, bowling, horseshoes, shuffleboard and table tennis. You don't find any gymnastics, much less boxing or Greco Roman wrestling.

In 1970 there was a great short film called "Sticky My Fingers Fleet My Feet," based on a story that appeared in the New Yorker. It was about some middle aged, out of shape businessmen who would meet in Central Park to play flag football. One day a talented teenage kid who is hanging around is invited to play. The teenager is too fast and skilled for the soon-to-be TOJs, and runs circles around them.

After the game, one of the businessmen is sitting in a hot tub of water, trying to soothe his bruised and aching body. After his wife pokes her head in to make sure he is okay, he sinks deeper into the steaming water, to be alone with his thoughts. He contemplates what it is that makes him and other great athletes like Joe Namath strive for greatness. A couple years before this film was made, Broadway Joe lead the New York Jets to a victory over the Baltimore Colts in the first Superbowl. It is a hilarious and poignant moment when this average guy fantasizes he's in the same league as Namath.

We all fantasize, especially when it comes to competitive sports like running races. Fantasies are fun and usually harmless. But a TOJ needs to be on alert for the young mind, old body problem. If you don't know your limits, you can get hurt. For their own well-being a TOJ needs to be realistic and humble. That's why most of my competitive days are over. By going easier on my body, maybe it will last longer

After my epiphany at the track a long time ago, I know I'm inclined to fool myself, so I don't. I'm happy to be able to run, even it it is slow. Sometimes it seems really fast to me. Early one morning a few days after watching Jamaican Usain Bolt run that incredible world record 100 meter dash at the Olympics in Bejing, I went to a track to run some 100 yard intervals. On one of them I fantasized that I was running against Bolt. He beat me by only a 100th of a second. I could have beaten him, but my knees would have ached for days.

No comments: