Thursday, April 5, 2012

Adult-Onset Athlete

Many of you out there in the running blog world have been athletes for a long time. Off the top of my head, I can think of a baseball player, a horsewoman, a gymnast, a figure skater, and numerous participants in cross-country and track (of course).

But there are others of you who are like me: adult-onset athletes.

I wasn't a complete non-participant in sports as a child. I played several seasons of elementary-school soccer, made one sad attempt at being on the basketball team in seventh grade, one attempt at cross-country in ninth grade and spent a miserable season in tenth grade on the high-school soccer team. Despite these desultory efforts, or maybe because of them, I never would have called myself an athlete back then.

Nor do I think I deserved the label. The elementary-school soccer was entirely at the behest of my parents. I remember numerous ignoble attempts to avoid going to games, including faked illnesses and one day where I hid under the bench to avoid being made to play goalie. (Goalies, I had learned, were always blamed when the team lost.) I quit playing soccer as soon as my mother's will crumbled before my lack of interest.

I tried basketball, cross-country and soccer because as I got older, I became aware that people who played sports were cooler than people who didn't. This was not, however, a good reason to participate, and so I eventually failed at all these efforts too. It didn't help that none of those teams had coaches with any interest in or empathy for kids who exhibited little talent from the get-go. I'm not saying I'm an advocate for the "everyone's a winner" attitude. Far from it. But I'm also not a fan of those coaches (and the three in question all fit this description) who gave off a tacit "If you're not a winner, you're a loser" vibe.

Middle- and high-school sports did nothing for me but make me feel like a loser: cowardly, awkward, the furthest thing possible from an athlete. There's a famous John "The Penguin" Bingham quote: "The miracle is that I had the courage to start." The Penguin (I think) was talking about running a marathon. But in my case, the miracle is that I ever had the courage to enter a race. Someday I'll tell you the story of that first race, and why I think it "took" when nothing else ever had.

For today, though, I'm thinking about these things because Jeff at The Logic of Long Distance has a recent post about how un-reflective he was as a young athlete and how reflective he is now, and how he views this change. He writes, "What would the 20 year old runner I used to be say about the runner who now writes these blog posts? Then, I did not think of running as therapy, I thought of it as an expression of passion, joy, and competitive spirit. I engaged in it recklessly....[running] needed no further justification beyond the fact that I was good at it, loved it, and wanted to do well for my coaches and teammates."

Reading it, I felt a little sad that I have never been that kind of runner (or that kind of athlete). Yes, I'm grateful to have become a runner and an athlete at all. Given my past attitude toward sports, it really is a sort of (very) minor miracle. And, yes, I do have chill-down-the-spine moments during good runs and races. My running is not without passion.

But I still envy those of you who had that young, impetuous, all-in athletic experience, who fell in love with sports early enough to bring an unpremeditated enthusiasm to them, who remember a time when you didn't need to think so so hard about what running means to you or why it should mean anything. Jeff, and many of you reading this, got to be both kinds of athlete. I will only ever be the reflective, sometimes hesitant adult variety.


Do you remember a time when you were a young athlete, the kind Jeff describes? How much of that is left in you, and how are you different now? Do you regret the change?

Or are you the adult-onset variety, thoughtful, grateful, still a bit in awe that you're doing it all?

26 comments:

  1. I don't think running long distances carried the same joy and release of stress that it does for me now.  I was a sprinter and jumper in high school and I had a love of competition but I never thought I would be a distance runner of any kind, the three miles in cross country was far enough and I kind of just petered out once I was tired.  I am mentally tougher now and know I am a distance runner.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I wrote about this only a few days ago! I too have never been an athlete of any type (local baseball league each summer while I was young was the extent and baseball allows for a lot of time sitting in a field looking at the flowers...) and I too am jealous of those that remember what feeling fit and exercising regularly was like.  I'm a recent follower through Erin and Caroline and RLAM and have been enjoying your blog!

    ReplyDelete
  3. "thoughtful, grateful, still a bit in awe that you're doing it at all". YES! What a perfect expression. I completely feel this way about running, biking, and adventure racing. :)

    I played soccer in grade school, softball (badly) in grade school, and basketball through grade school and high school. I loved basketball and was even a little good at it if I worked really hard...but none of it gave me the kind of surprised joy that my current "exploits" do.

    ReplyDelete
  4. BostonboundbrunetteApril 5, 2012 at 8:42 PM

    I was never an athlete in high school or any time before that.  I was a cheerleder in high school and those girls like to be called athletes so maybe I kinda was!! I wish I would have known running then. Hope things are going well.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I'm also on the adult-onset variety!  Got into running in the last couple years.  Casually dabbled in sports previously.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I think I have a bunch of both...but my body might think otherwise :)

    I didn't even think of myself as an 'athlete' until I was on a national team. How weird is that?

    ReplyDelete
  7. i was a competitive cheerleader all through HS and college and it was year-round and kept me in decent shape.  in grad school, i wasn't doing anything (and sitting on my butt studying for hours) and i felt terrible.  there was this void.  that's when i started running.  but even in my early running days, it was just something i did a few days a week.  now, my attitude has changed completely.  i NEED to run and it is a huge part of my life!

    ReplyDelete
  8. I was so not athletic as a child, I failed gym and despised sports (I'm still not a sporty person, I don't play team sports, I don't like watching sports of any kind). 
    I was into ballet and theatre.
    Even now, I can't see myself as athletic, I just really love running(even though I'm slow). I do find it shocking that I consider myself a runner now, as the teenage me would never believe it.

    ReplyDelete
  9. It's funny, I consider myself an adult onset athlete too, even though I was a figure skater growing up. I do, however, reflect back on the fact that I had a very disciplined approach to figure skating (my coaches loved this) and how I still have it. 

    ReplyDelete
  10. I never thought about what sports or running gave to me, it was just something I did... and if anything, it created more stress in my life (our soccer team was so competitive!) Now, I value running as part of my life that fuels me in so many ways, and takes stress away.  It's definitely changed!

    ReplyDelete
  11. I am an adult onset athlete.  I was pretty much a non-athletic band geek during high school.  I was picked last for any team and HATED freshman girls PE with a passion because of it.  I think the 16 year old me would be *shocked* at the adult me doing the things I do athletically now!  It's nothing I ever dreamed I would be doing.  Ever.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I'm an adult onset runner -- still have trouble considering myself an athlete though since I've never ever done anything particularly physical in my entire life.  I'm constantly surprised at how much I like it and wish I'd found it earlier -- but then earlier, I might not have embraced it as much.  Who knows.  

    ReplyDelete
  13. Slomohusky/Generation XApril 6, 2012 at 11:26 AM

    First - you know - you are a good writer. Thnx! Second, I grew up trying to be the best basketball player ever. Loved the sport. One problem - shot up to 5' 4" by the 7th grade - then stopped. Over the next 10 years I grew a whopping 1 inch. Played baseball some, wrestled and tried football all during elementary/jr high/HS years. Nothing seemed to click like basketball for me. One thing was a constant though - I always ran. Mainly just to stay in shape for the other sports. Tried X Country, but I was too slow. Yet, no matter how slow I have always been - I just love running. Soccer was my sport in college and 20's - at least a few years mixing indoor with outdoor. Yet, running has always been my thing. A simple thing I can always do as long as my body lets me. Lace ' em up and go!

    ReplyDelete
  14. It's funny but that ghost of the younger self used to haunt me: he was intimidating! I quit running for about 4 years in my late 20s, and coming back was difficult because I theorized my running a lot in terms of competing with those old memories.

    I think that I re-find that old self sometimes on runs. And I bet that you know it better than you give yourself credit for; if you didn't have some sense of it, you wouldn't feel that envy (or be able to describe that self, its impetuousness, so well.)

    Cheers!
    Jeff

    ReplyDelete
  15. Jennifer CrispinApril 6, 2012 at 6:30 PM

    I was never a team sport player, despite several seasons in elementary school baseball as an outfielder (daisy-picker.)  You were just supposed to know the rules, and I didn't.  I was very active as a kid, though.  I loved biking, hiking, and rock climbing.  I still bike like I did as a kid, but that might be because I've never treated it as a "sport."  To me, it has always been as essential as breathing.

    ReplyDelete
  16. As you know I was a figure skater growing up but I never considered myself an athlete...how weird is that? What I had then was boundless confidence. I set the bar high and there was no question in my mind in would achieve. Somewhere along the way, in the corporate world, that all got squashed. Running has helped me begin to rekindle that confidence and now I realize that ability has been there within me all along.

    ReplyDelete
  17. I'm not sure I remember it...but I played soccer from a young age and all the way through my first year in college....

    On good runs (or anything else) I still face life with enthusiasm...not that long ago I was bouncing up and down because a friend was unexpectedly able to run my 10 miles with me, that counts, right? :)

    ReplyDelete
  18. Well, you know me and my athletic history - or lack there of. I vacillate between wishing I had discovered the joy, strength, and self assurance at a much earlier age and gratitude that I found it in my 30's ... somehow I think it means so much more that I am a late in life runner.

    ReplyDelete
  19. A very interesting and good post. I often think about it. When I was young I was lazy: I won 4 swimming free-style races of 4 but .... I left because the workouts were tough and the same happened with judo (regional champion). I preferred to play rugby until the day I got married.
    When I was 29 I began to run. I don't know why I keep on running even if I don't have (and I didn't have) any chance not even in my age groups.

    ReplyDelete
  20. I am definitely an adult-onset athlete.  I attempted to play tennis in high school, but I kind of sucked and was pretty lazy about it (it got me out of having to take a gym class).  Anyways, I love this post and it's very well-written!

    ReplyDelete
  21. For me I think all my life I was somewhat of an athlete...except for a break of maybe 6 yrs where I got lost.  That is when I had the kids and I had post partum depression.  I was on the swim team and I played basketball.  The running that came only much later...much much later!!!

    ReplyDelete
  22. I was never any kind of athlete.  It cracks me up when people ask me if I've been athletic all my life.   I never did anything athletic until I was in my 40s.   When I was a kid - I hated PE because I was ALWAYS the last person picked to be on a team and was always an "easy out" at kickball. I still have traumatic memories of everyone making fun of me at that time. I often wonder (as you do) of what it was like to be young and an athlete.   BUT if all those kids that made fun of me could see me now!!!  :)

    ReplyDelete
  23. I too am an adult onset athlete.  Athletics and I did not mesh.  I tried a few things, softball, basketball but nothing ever stuck.  Running was the furthest thing from my mind.  Closest I came was being a dancer. 
    I hear you, I wish too that I didn't have give my running such meaning and try to justify it all the time.  I have nothing to prove! I just like to run :) Hard thing to remember though. 

     

    ReplyDelete
  24. I thought I commented on this! I think I did but then my phone or school computer wouldn't let me post.  I hate it when that happens!!

    I played basketball all through school and had to work really, really hard to be good at it.  I just started running in 2010 (just realized that today is my second race-iversary!! I ran my very first 5K on April 10, 2010 and was soooo proud of myself for running the whole thing!) and it took me until 1/2 way through marathon training to call myself "a runner".  So weird.  Even now, I don't really consider myself an athlete so much as just someone who does stuff outside.

    I definitely wasn't reflective about sports in high school, it was just something I did.  Now, the writing is almost as important as the doing.  Almost.  If I couldn't write about it, I'd still run and bike and race, but I love the fact that writing about it lets me hold onto the experience and return to it over and over again.

    ReplyDelete
  25. I was in a variety of sports growing up, though if someone had asked me if I was an athlete, I would probably have said no (even though I was competitive at a national level in judo at one point and was a pretty strong ringette player - which is sort of embarrassing now, because I'm not currently a big fan of the whole ringette thing...sorry.  tangent.)  Anyway, I still don't consider myself an athlete, really, especially since my running has largely been derailed by injury and dental school, but my 8 year old son thinks I am and tells people that I'm an athlete, so I guess I should just "run" with that - haha.

    ReplyDelete
  26. This is such a thoughtful post! I was an "athlete" from as far back as I have memories. And I can appreciate how you look back and wish for that "throw yourself in without thinking" feeling that young athletes have...but it also goes the other way. I have so many regrets about the lack of effort and the lack of hard work that I put into my sports as a younger athlete. Sure, I thought I worked hard (maybe because it was more effort than those around me?) and I had some success, but as an adult, now I know what it is really like to work hard! And I wish that I could go back and instill some of that in my younger self. I can now appreciate that the outcome is usually proportionate to the effort and take accountability instead of making excuses for myself or blowing it off. For me running now provides an outlet for all that competitive energy that I had growing up. It's different but it satisfies that need to perform and then have immediate feedback of how I did. Does any of that make sense?

    ReplyDelete