Masters racer Lee Waldman is back with another column filled with his invaluable perspectives. With the sad news of Steve Tilford’s passing today, it has some timely life lessons, despite Waldman writing it before the news.
I’ve noticed that it’s popular these days to look back in time. I’m seeing articles in magazines and programs on television with titles like “I love (heart) the 80s” that revisit a decade. Another cycling website that I read has been running a series titled “I Love 90s.” Reading it got me thinking, which is always a scary proposition. So I’ve decided to create my own version called, “I love the 60s,” but there is a slight difference. I’m not actually referring to the decade of the 60s, rather the age range of 60 and beyond, but that doesn’t mean anyone younger should tune out now. Hopefully the perspective and lessons I’ll share are useful for readers of any age.
A little over seven years ago, I wrote my first column for this magazine. I was much younger then and began the article by sharing my goal for 2009 of making the podium at Cyclocross Nationals in Bend. Unfortunately, despite all of my best efforts, I didn’t quite make it. Missed it by “this much” (picture my fingers almost touching). I was close for a time, actually until two laps to go. But, a bad line choice through one icy corner with the four leaders in my sights derailed my chances.
That’s in my past, but I still begin each cyclocross season with that same goal which I’ve yet to achieve. Little things like hamstring injuries and hit-and-run drivers just keep getting in my way. It’s funny how trips to the emergency room can ruin a perfectly good ʼcross season. They’ve also forced me to wonder, what is the message or lesson that I’m supposed to be learning from all of these setbacks?
I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on this question, and if I were to sum up the answer to that question in one word, it would be “acceptance.” Acceptance of the roadblocks that life throws in our way, of the continual march of time, of the limitations that we all must face. And in the political world we currently live in, acceptance of some serious backsliding. But, since this is a cycling publication, let’s keep politics out of it.
When you’re 18, accepting looks and feels different than it does at 66, but the concept remains the same no matter our age. To survive as a competitive athlete one must accept constant change. Our bodies respond to training differently as the years pass and we’re forced to train differently and more mindfully. Those consecutive hard, long days in the saddle that seemed so easy and so enjoyable when we were younger now take their toll. One hard day doesn’t just roll right into the next as it once did. Rest and recovery become a critical part of our training. I read somewhere once that Ryan Trebon’s favorite training day was the day he was off the bike with his feet up on the couch! If we refuse to recognize and accept (there it is again) those limitations, the hole that we dig for ourselves on those hard days becomes increasingly more difficult to climb out of. Overtraining becomes that monkey jumping on our backs. I should know, I’ve been labeled the overtraining poster child by my riding buddies.
I train as hard, if not harder at 66 than I did at 35, but that doesn’t mean that I can keep up with a 35-year-old racer. Satchel Paige once said, “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” At first glance it might seem as if he’s telling us that we have to accept aging and just give up and give in. But then I look at how he lived his life, and I know that’s not what he meant. I think what he’s really telling us is not to give in to advancing age. Accept that we do get older, but not that it has to limit what we can achieve. Those 35- year-old riders are always going to be stronger and faster than I am. That’s what I have to accept. It used to bother me. But then I think about Satch again. He accepted getting older. He refused to accept giving up on his dreams. Nor will I, nor should you.
If we hang on in the race scene long enough, it’s inevitable that most of us will experience some sort of injury. In my case it’s been injuries in the plural. I’ve lived through broken ribs, separated shoulders, broken elbows and collarbones, detached hamstrings and most recently a broken neck. After each one of these “catastrophes,” I’ve been forced to accept the fact that recovering takes time. We also learn that the older we are, the longer it takes to recover. I’ve learned, the hard way, to never underestimate the value of accepting my age during the recovery process and to accept the limitations imposed because of the healing process. The more I push it, the longer the physical and mental healing takes.
As time passes, our abilities change as well. Through an unstoppable process, those things we were capable of at 20 are out of reach at 60. That’s not to say that we don’t still continue to learn and to improve as we age, but we do so in a different way. Early in my career, simply being able to ride up to a barrier, dismount and remount quickly and smoothly was a difficult skill to learn and take some time to get it right. Watching younger racers skip the dismount and just bunnyhop the planks made me want to skip the steps and do the same. However, even though the mind is willing, the body just doesn’t respond that way it used to. I’ve accepted that I’m simply too old to learn to bunnyhop. This isn’t good or bad, it is simply what it is and I need to accept it, otherwise I’d go crazy futilely trying to resist it, or get injured.
There has been a bright side for me though. As I’ve traveled this road observing my limitations, I’ve also gained new respect for who I am as an athlete and a person. I’ve gotten to the point where a key part of that acceptance is also experiencing a level of satisfaction. I’m proud of what I can do and have been able to stop apologizing to myself and to others for the things that I can’t do. I’ve spent a good portion of my racing life trying to live up to a multitude of “shoulds”: I “should” have won that race, I “should” be able to beat that guy, I “should” be out training in the rain today, etc. As I’ve come to grips with what I can and can’t do, the shoulds have been replaced by, and here’s that word again, acceptance. And it feels so good!
Life is too short to dwell on regrets, and I’m out training again with my eye on my goals, and focusing on enjoying the journey. I may never win Nationals. I might not even ever stand on the podium at Nationals, but I’m becoming okay with that because, if I look at everything that this sport has given me, it goes well beyond the short-term feeling of accomplishment that any sort of win might offer. It’s made me healthier in body and in mind. It’s allowed me to be part of an incredible community, almost a family. Irrespective of limitations and shortcomings, I’ve grown because of my learning to accept and appreciate them, and accept that it could end at any point.
I’m going to close this reflection by congratulating USA Cycling on their well-considered decision to “accept” the feedback that they received as a response to their survey. I understand why they made the decision to move the Cyclocross National Championships to January. They were attempting to accept the necessity to prepare Elite riders for Worlds in the most effective way possible, and still be consistent with member preferences at the time. Unfortunately, after trying it, it didn’t work for much of the cyclocross population. I’m looking forward to Reno this year, but I’m even more excited about Tacoma and Louisville in December.
Grab your bike and enjoy the ride.