We all travel through this life anticipating the milestones, passing through them, looking toward the next one. Sometimes we even look back at where we’ve come from to examine the changes, what we’ve learned, who we were and who we are now.
Satchel Paige said to never look back because something may be gaining on you. He also said, “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?” Sage advice for all of us and especially true for those of us who find ourselves racing as “Masters.”
I find myself thinking about it more often as I approach my 7th decade.
Some of the milestones are the decade markers. When we are in our 20s, 30 seems old. I was told to never trust anyone over 30.
We eventually arrive in that decade and understand that 30 isn’t so bad, nor is it substantially different than being a 20-something.
As we end our thirties, 40 seems like a turning point. I’ve tried to forget 40! As I wandered through that decade, my life changed: bankruptcy, divorce, new career ideas, but my self-perception remained solid.
As 50 loomed, I began to realize that age is only a state of mind and I passed through that decade with a new marriage, pretty much unscathed by the rest of my life. And then I turned 60. Lost both of my parents, realized that now I was the patriarch of my family, gained 4 grandchildren.
Still, I look in the mirror every morning and wonder who is that guy with all the wrinkles is because it certainly can’t be me. I’m 68 now, looking at 70 and still convinced that aging is all in your head. Each one of my life mile markers has brought challenges, loss, grief, but also a deeper sense of myself and above all joy.
If you’re still reading, you may be traveling the same road or, you may be thinking, “maybe this old man has something to teach me.” I hope that both are the case.
Many of the challenges of being an aging athlete are the physical ones. Hard training rides take longer to recover from. I need more rest days. In the past, I looked skeptically at the riders taking rest days or even weeks. I still struggle to give myself permission to rest, but I’ve gotten wise enough to realize that it’s important. My advice, if you don’t rest, do it!
Injuries take much longer to heal now than ever before. I’m “blessed” with a high pain tolerance, which is a curse as well. There have been injuries where I should have backed off, didn’t, and paid the price with compromised performances.
I used to be one of those people who would fall asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow and then sleep through the night. Not any longer. I still need sleep but have a hard time getting it.
As far as racing cyclocross is concerned, there is, I believe, more of a difference between a 60-year-old and a 68-year-old than I ever experienced in my 30s, 40s, or even 50s. These days I’m thrilled with a finish in the top 50%. A few years ago, that would have put me into a funk until the next race. These are some of the negative results of growing old.
What do I love about growing older? First, on those rare days when I am racing in the top half, I relish comments like, “I just hope I’m still racing as well as you are when I’m your age.” My friend and training partner John tells me that I’m his inspiration. Feels good to hear, even when he’s pushing my heart rate through the roof.
I feel more satisfied with the simple experience of racing my bike now. I’m aware that I’ve been given a gift. I see other men my age who look—and act—much older. By contrast, the men I race and train with the same enthusiasm for life that they’ve always had.
I’ve been around the racing scene long enough to understand that it’s only bike racing. It was only bike racing when I was 30 as well. I was too young and yes, too blind to realize it at the time.
I’ve been told more than once that I smile when I race. Sometimes it’s a grimace, but most of the time I am smiling. I’m 68 years old, I’m fit, I’m a competitor. Why shouldn’t I smile?
I can also smile as I line up to start, knowing that I’ve worked for, and earned the right to challenge my mind and my body. It’s an honor. It’s a gift. It’s what I understand now that I took for granted when, like most younger riders, I thought I would live forever.
A few weeks ago I was walking with my two-year-old granddaughter. She is wise beyond her years. It was starting to sprinkle. I looked at her and said, “Willoughby, do you think it’s going to rain?”
Without even hesitating here’s what she said, “Grandpa, if it rains it rains.”
So, now, when I start to take things too seriously, racing in particular. I think about her and what I tell myself is, “If I win, I win.” It’s really about my being able to do what I do.
Winning isn’t the goal, living life to the fullest is.
I can start looking forward to 70 now. That will be my racing age next season. I deal with my own mortality more often now, but having cyclocross in my life softens the blow a bit.
I’ll still see myself as competitive and I’ll still have a hard time when someone in their 50s or even 60s beats me. Why? Because I’ll still look at that person staring back at me in the mirror in the morning and refuse to admit that it’s me.
I will still line up to race and thank the universe for giving me the time and the energy to do something that’s been such an integral part of my life since I turned the page to 30. I’ll laugh at myself when I take myself too seriously, and I’ll still burst with pride when someone tells me that I’m their role model.
Growing old isn’t the worst part of life, at least not in my opinion. It’s just the next step.
Ok, time to go for a ride. You should do the same.