Saturday, January 21, 2017

Challenge 2017

I often feel the need to shake things up and make it more difficult for myself, especially when it comes to fitness and exercise. As I'm getting older, I see so many people taking it easier and "old" looks a lot closer than it used to. When I see people at sixty who are having real health problems - with the heart, with the bones, and just with getting around and general health - I'm very aware that I have a mandate to keep active and keep pushing this body to do things that I'm not really sure it can do. Sometimes that means doing stupid things, like the time, just recently, when my wife asked me to put a vase back up on the cabinets above the kitchen counter, and (just to impress her) I did a standing vertical leap from the floor to the counter. I cleared the counter and planted both feet perfectly, but then stood straight up, face-first, into the cabinet, cutting a gash across the bridge of my nose. After an evening in the urgent care center and a month of healing, I still have a scar, but at least it's one that, I think, gives my face a bit of character and mystery.

The big challenge for me this year is to run twelve races in 2017, one every month. I already do a 5k race a couple of times a year, and a sprint triathlon once or twice, and last year I did my first obstacle race, and that was really different, and a lot of fun. The goal this year is to have some kind of race every month to train for, and to try to mix up the formats and do some that I haven't tried before, like a 10k or even a half-marathon. I don't think I would ever run a full marathon, because that seems to cross the line from challenge into masochism, and I'm still not convinced that so much running doesn't actually damage the body.

The idea is to see if I can stay competitive all year long, and stay constantly in training. I'm already pretty consistent with exercise, but it helps me to stay disciplined, especially with my diet, when I know I have an event coming up, and this year, I'll always have an event coming up. One of the ways this helps is that it gives me an extra reason to try to get to sleep on time, and a ready excuse for people who are constantly trying to push sweets and baked goods on me. I've found that just saying, "I can't, I've got a race next week," is something that cuts short that conversation pretty effectively.

Also, I really like getting medals, and want more of them.

The first one is already over, since I participated in the Zo's Winter Groove 5k for January. This one was great, since the race started and ended at the same sports complex where my high school used to play its home football games and track meets, before they expanded and got their own field. The course also ran down to FIU's north campus, where I took most of my classes for undergrad, and some for graduate school as well. So, in some ways, it was like running through some parts of my youth and education that had me thinking about those days and how different things are now - in all the best ways.

Mostly, it felt good. I had been sick the week before, and hadn't really run enough to prepare for the race, so I knew I wouldn't get my best time, but I definitely didn't embarrass myself, at least not until the end. There was this one guy. I saw him stretching and walking around the track near the starting line, and noticed that he looked like he was having a hard time. He was an older guy, wearing a knee brace on his right leg, and still favoring it. He was sweating pretty profusely just from the little effort he was putting in, and to make it worse, there was some kind of professional runner on the track with us that was warming up by jogging lap after lap, with different approaches - high knees, running backwards, side-steps. I'm pretty sure he was doing cartwheels all the way around one lap. This guy has on all the best running gear and is just ripped up.

Whenever I race, I always pick someone I think should be hard to beat, and try to keep up with them the entire race. If I pass them, then I just look ahead and pick someone else. I've found that I can pull off some superhuman, or at least super-Jeff, race times that way, cutting off two or even three minutes off of my practice times, without focusing on how tired I feel or how much energy I'm using. Obviously, this time I had my sights set on the Olympic hopeful with the .2 % body fat. I figured if I could just keep him in my sights for the entire race, I'd be doing really well.

The good news is that I could definitely see that guy for most of the race. The bad news is that this was only because the track looped back on itself and I could watch him run mile three when I started mile two. The real kicker was that the challenge in this race turned out to be the old guy with the knee brace. I don't know what that guy was on, but he was snapping at my heels the entire race. By the time I ran out of the sports complex and onto the road proper, he was in front of me, but then I got a slow start, due to a bunch of walkers in front of me that were more interested in photo ops with Alonzo Mourning than actually running this race. Even so, once I passed him, I naturally figured I'd never see him again, and since my chosen race buddy with the legs of iron was already out of sight, I was looking for another pace-setter, when I hear the craziest noise coming up behind me. Every breath this old guy took sounded like it was going to be his last one. I could hear him breathing even over my carefully selected playlist in my headphones, and he seemed to be choking on the inhale and wheezing on the exhale. It sounded like he was trying to run with a squeaky dog bone in his shoe. And this sound was right behind my left ear for at least a half mile.

But then he started to pass me! I couldn't believe it. Fortunately, he was making so much noise that I could track where he was every step without even turning my head. I had to put in extra effort just to get ahead and stay ahead of him, and even that only lasted until the end of mile two. At that point, my power song came on (in this case, Moana singing "How Far I'll Go," don't judge) to tell me that I had about two minutes left if I wanted to hit my goal. Enjoyed the song, but wasn't going to get the time. That whole last mile, this older guy was right on my butt, all the way down the last stretch and back into the sports complex. Even though I knew I wasn't going to get across the line before my song ended, I still had to speed up just to keep him behind me, and he was still gaining.

Then we got onto the track, where we had to do one lap around to get to the finish line. And this guy immediately takes the inside lane, wheezing his way right beside me, shoulder to shoulder. So I'm working harder than he is just to stay even, and the turn is coming up, so I'm going to have to work even harder. Then when we get into the turn, with maybe 150 yard to the finish line, and Wheezy McWeakknees doubles down and starts sprinting, which I definitely wasn't planning to do. He gets at least a yard ahead before I realize what he's doing, and while I catch up with him and stay abreast for a few seconds, something in me just says to let him have it. I'm just getting over a cold, already over my time, according to the clock, and rapidly losing the ability to care whether I beat this guy or not.

So Wheezy crosses the finish line a full second or two before I do, and it even takes me a few seconds to catch up with him afterwards and congratulate him on a good run. I can be a good sport sometimes, after all.