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?