Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks

By: Catherine Barrerra

The other day, someone forwarded me a lead that a local journalist was looking for runners who were at least 45-years old and still PR-ing. I won’t be 45 for a couple of months, so I wasn’t relevant to her case, but it got me thinking again about one of my favorite subjects: getting older. Well, getting older and trying to run fast.

Let me be clear: I am not old. But I’m old enough to give my teammates nicknames like “Baby Eric” and “Amy, Jr.”. I’m old enough to try to boss around my teammates, acting like the village shaman so wise with her years, telling them who they should date, how they should potty-train their toddlers, and what career paths make the most sense. And I’m old enough to have to claim both Mondays and Fridays as “rest days”, where my most intense physical activity comes from getting to and from my kids’ schools for drop-off and pick-up. These “off days”, quite fortuitously as it turns out, provide me with the time to go to the hair salon, where once every 6 to 8 weeks, for three hours at a time, I go sit in a chair and have my hair first colored, and then highlighted, as if the world has somehow failed to notice that I am, in fact, very grey, grey, grey!!

On the other hand, I’m young enough to run. I’m young enough to stick to Carmen’s schedule of prescribed workouts, to meet my goal paces and to sometimes even arrive at the start line hobble-free. To my “non-running friends’, I rock because I get up early on Saturday mornings and run, like a woman possessed, around and around and around the Austin High track, counting my seconds every 100 meters just like Carmen has taught me to do. And to my “running friends”, I’m still pretty cool because I can still finish in the top 10 women for some of our local races. And for all this stuff, I feel super lucky. I love my running group. It is rigorous and hard, but supportive and inspirational. The “push” to keep trying to run faster is nothing tangible; it’s just an offshoot of our team’s “spirit”, I guess. Most of the time, it makes me feel unlimited, uninhibited, almost carefree: in short, young.

But I keep getting hurt. Last year I ran just 2 miles of 3M before my hamstring seized up. I spent 3 months trying to get back out there on the race course again, very fitfully, I might add, repairing the hamstring, only to discover the feet were like rocks, heavy and “stuck” without any fluidity or mobility. I was sad. But as IBM and a “new” year approached, I was optimistic. All summer long, I showed my toes how to wiggle again, I nagged at my legs not to “reach”, so that I could protect my hamstring. And, in fact, IBM turned out to make me happy. I felt strong and unbroken, with a PR of 1 second at 38:45. Yay, me! And then, 2 weeks later, the achilles went sour on me, and here I am 3 weeks later wondering what the future holds. I keep getting hurt, and I keep getting older, the sum of which points to a not-so-positive running prognosis.

BUT, this time, I have been surprisingly upbeat. My husband Steve was walking on pins and needles the first week I sat on the couch, bringing me coffee with just the right amount of milk added, buying me People Magazines to distract my mind, offering to vacuum the house, anything to prevent this runner’s tendency for emotional explosion upon any injury lasting more than 2 days.

Are you ok? He’d ask me every night when he walked in the front door.

How was your day? His head sinking subtly into his shoulders should he need to dodge any kind of outburst.

I’m good. I’d say. Weird, huh? Because even I couldn’t figure out why I was being so absolutely cool and normal and awesome!

The answer came to me on Sunday morning as I watched the 10-Milers go by on Lake Austin Blvd. So a special thanks goes out to my fabulous teammates, Cindy Samok and Chris Kimbrough. Ms. Samok (as she is referred to by my 9-year old son, who is a PE student of hers at Casis) has been battling different wounds for the 5 years I have known her. I know she gets frustrated. She is a life-long runner, and one of the first “serious” runners in Austin, I think. When she was 40 and a newbie Masters runner, she’d win lots of the major races around town. Fast forward to 2011, Cindy is still fast, though she might not be clocking in the same times she did over 10-years ago – because she doesn’t give up. She could’ve thrown in the towel with any of her last injuries, she could have fallen back on the “old age” justification for not competing at the level of a 20-year old; but instead she capitalized on her strength, on her experience and on her mental makeup, and she took home a super significant title on Sunday, one that must be new to her still-growing collection: Grand-Masters Champion.

Congratulations to Cindy, and thank you for reminding me that it’s the competition against our very selves, and not against the clock or the woman standing right next to us at the start line, that makes the race so potentially rewarding.

And then there’s Chris. She turns 43 next week. Her 5th child will be two by 3M (or January, in non-running terms). I knew “Run for the Water” held a lot of significance for her. She knows she’s older, and she’s not sure where she stands up. And what I know that she might not openly acknowledge is that everyone is in fact watching her to see where she ends up. Is she too old to compete? Is she going to be sad if she doesn’t run her goal? This is a situation where women in my age group come together like a small army, holding our collective breath, because if she doesn’t perform well enough to please herself, then what hope is there for the rest of us to keep going, for surely once her growth is stunted, so must ours be. Chris finished 2nd, a long enough distance behind a smooth-sailing Betzy Jimenez, that the competition was clearly defined by Mile 8: it was gonna be Chris vs. herself, not Chris vs. the woman-in-front-of-her. And this is how it ended up: Chris PR-d that day, by 2 seconds. The last time she ran this same race was in 2007. Four years and one child later, she ran even faster than before.

Later that day I asked her, “Chris, are you happy about your race?” Her response, genuine and real, “Yes. Very. One second is one second (referring to her PR).” A short little snicker, and then, “You know what’s great? I don’t hurt, my body feels fine, those hills felt awesome today!”

It still gives me goose-pimples as I write this now. An uninjured body after a PR is possible? This, then, is the “new” victory of a Master runner.

I get to try to run a couple miles later today. I’m actually kinda scared my stupid achilles will let me down. But if I concentrate on the larger picture, on learning to appreciate everything my body can still do, rather than on what it used to be able to achieve, before too long, I will find my way back to the start line. Just like Cindy and Chris.

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