All athletes eventually confront the compromise of age.
Some cope. Some quit.
BY TIMOTHY HARPER
Ah, March Madness. This is the time of year when millions of sports fans catch hoops fever watching national college, state high school and even local grade-school basketball tournaments. Inspired to play themselves, many adults, warming up with the weather, seek out their own pickup basketball games. A few find mine.
Itís a signature thing about March Madness: a few once-in-a-while players, and sometimes complete strangers, suddenly show up en masse inspired by what they saw on ESPN the night before. They commit cheap fouls, take bad shots, try foolish passes, set awkward picks, initiate silly arguments and play lazy defense. My good old reliable four-on-four or five-on-five pickup games Ė little or no waiting for next Ė are suddenly flooded with 14, 18, maybe 22 players. We regulars have to take our turn sitting out instead of playing nonstop like we do the rest of the year.
I used to hate that. Instead of coming away from a pickup game tired and relaxed, Iíd be grumpy every March when big turnouts kept me from playing enough to fix my jones.
But no more. This year, Iím taking my seat when itís my turn, and Iím not grumbling.
Itís a maturity thing. Not emotional maturity; Iíve still got a long way to gothere. No, Iím talking about physical maturity. Iím getting older. If I could still run the court like I used to, Iíd still be griping when I have to sit out. But the truth is Ė and this has taken longer to admit than it should Ė itís better for me not to play nonstop. Playing alternate games is good. Rest is good.
This epiphany is the latest landmark in my long and winding journey as an aging athlete Ė a trip whose bumps in the road have introduced me to my share of orthopedists, podiatrists, physical therapists, masseurs and other assorted healers. In my 30s, I noticed that cuts and scrapes didnít heal as fast. In my 40s, I was still sore two days after waterskiing or taking a particularly hard run. (Sadly, recovery time is longer for other excesses, too; my friend Rick says he knows heís getting old because when he stays out too late at the local tavern his wife forgives him before his body does.)
Now, in my 50s, my metabolism is slowing down and I donít have as much energy. Many minor aches and pains have become pretty much chronic, and I live with them all the time. My wife, with not as much empathy as Iíd prefer, notes that seeing me get out of bed in the morning is like watching one of those old grade-school cartoon strips of the evolution of man. As our strength and speed and stamina diminish in middle age, some of us would-be athletes try to manage the process. Some of us just keep going until injuries put us on the sideline and itís too much effort to come back. For a few of us, doing sports after 40combines both. We try to balance playing the way we used to against our fear of injury or embarrassment. When weíre injured Ė and it is when, not if Ė we try to come back with some modifications.
We stretch more, warm up and cool down more diligently. We stop running as often or as fast, we get off the streets and onto a treadmill. We take vitamins and supplements. We strap on knee braces or stick orthotics into our sneakers. We play doubles tennis more often than singles, and settle for tiebreakers instead of another set, especially on hot days. Iíve done all those things, and more. But Iím not always sure when to give up a sport altogether. My friend Mike, in his mid-40s, is a former college basketball player who recently announced that he was giving up the sport. For more than two decades he had been one of the best players in almost any pickup game. But lately he was often only the second-best or third-best player on his team. I urged him to come and play with me in different game, in a different gym, where the players were older and the game was slower. He would shine once again. ďNo way,Ē he said. ďIím not going to play down.Ē
I thought about that a lot. Not playing down. It was like a professional athlete retiring at the top of his game. Going out with the dignity of undiminished skills. Perhaps there is some nobility in that notion, but in truth most aging athletes go through a long process of playing down. The trick is in managing: You must cut down on the sport before the sport cuts you down.
But donít look at me. When I have cut back, itís usually because of accident or injury or both Ė drama and trauma. As in most sports, my ability to ski never matched my enthusiasm. A few years ago I found myself trying to keep up with some much better skiers on a run that was too steep and too icy for me. I went too fast, and had a nasty crash. During several weeks of painful physical therapy (is there any other kind?) on my neck, I considered retiring from skiing. But I decided I simply needed to be more careful. The first time out the following winter, though, I realized I wasnít a good enough skier to keep from getting hurt again unless I stuck to the bunny hills. Unless I skied down. No thanks. The pain in my neck was nothing like the pain of recognition. I hung up my skis.
Thatís not to say that recognition means only giving up. Sure, after a torn meniscus and a partially torn anterior cruciate ligament in my knee, I run more slowly than I used to, not as far. Once in a while I actually think about joining the old guys who walk through the neighborhood every morning. At the pool I spend less time swimming laps and more time soaking whatever is sore in the whirlpool. And instead of getting on my bicycle and pedaling off into the weather and traffic, sometimes I drive over to the gym and climb onto a stationary bike.
But it occurred to me a few years ago that an aging jock who can swim, run and bike can do a triathlon, if slowly, and thatís been a real twilight highlight in my long and mostly futile sports career. Simply training now in the hope of
completing the local mini-triathlon (half-mile swim, 15-mile bike, five-mile run) in stet is a terrific boost for my sports self-esteem. I typically finish well behind the leaders in my weight group (officially, Clydesdale) and age group (unofficially, Jurassic) Ė and way behind the overall leaders, but it has been great to find and meet a new athletic challenge.
At least it was until last year. I came out of the water with a good time, hopped on my bike and got off to a quick start. Then, somehow, in a pack of riders going fast around a corner, another cyclistís front wheel nicked and then locked with my back wheel. I flew over the handlebars, and in a bundle of bikes and humanity skidded across the blacktop into a curb. The other guy wasnít hurt beyond some bumps, but I had a broken shoulder and some seriously ugly road rash.
Summer-long physical therapy provided time to review my sports menu. The permanent loss of about 10 percent of the range of motion in my shoulder means my jumpshotóabout all I still could do well before the bike crash-- has moved solidly into middle age. The shoulder also means I canít give my tennis partners as robust a game. During triathlon training, my shoulder aches with every swimming stroke, running continues to wear out what little cartilage I have left in my knees, and I fret that my fading reflexes might invite another bike wreck. Maybe itís time to give all that stuff up and start walking with the old guys.
I jog slower, and protect my knees a little by sticking to a wooded path. My shoulder exercises, done religiously, make it less painful to swim. If I donít try to ride wheel-to-wheel with the serious guys, I should be able to keep the bike shiny side up in June. Iíve found some new tennis partners who donít like the ball hit as hard as my old partners do. And sitting out a pickup game now and then Ė all year round, not just during March Madness Ė should help me keep playing hoops. Iíve decided I donít mind playing down, and I donít mind how far down. I just want to keep playing. The walkers can wait.