Wednesday, January 18, 2012

When you're out there, you're family

I've said it before. I'll say it again. I'm not an athlete.
I slouch so much, I wonder if my future job will be ringing church bells.
I can't dribble down a basketball court and run at the same time. My shot is a heave, even at the free throw line.
I can run down a football field, as long as I hold the ball out in front of me, meaning a mosquito could cause me to fumble. I can catch, too, as long as it's a pitch. I can defend, as long as there's no such thing as pass interference, as grabbing the shirt and hanging on for dear life is my only move.
I dance worse than the members of Genesis. I've never tried hockey because I can't skate. I've never swung a golf club, and it's my goal in life to never do so. I was always picked last in kickball. I "roped" too much in tetherball. I was good in volleyball until I got out of high school and I learned the nets were higher than my forehead. Bummer. Because, you guessed it, I can't jump.
Sure, I can climb mountains, pretty well, in fact, even if I've tried to perform open heart surgery on myself many times while learning how to self arrest on snow. But if you want to know the truth, mountain climbing, even at my somewhat advanced level, is full of guys like me, introverted, introspective, semi-geeky types who love mountaineering simply because it gives us a chance to get our grrr on. When I climbed Mount Rainier with the guiding group RMI many years ago, our group of 24 had, I believe, 21 engineers. Seriously. When I said I was a writer, everyone looked up and stared at me, like I was the guy with bottle-coke glasses stepping into a biker bar. In this case, I suppose, it was the opposite.
Somehow, despite all this, I love sports. I love the NFL, sorta love baseball, kinda love hockey and the NBA and dearly love my Kansas Jayhawks and college basketball. When Kansas destroyed Baylor Monday night, I felt a buzz, as if I was drunk off a good lager. Some of my best memories are playing in the basketball band and going to the Final Four with the team and leaving Allen Field House with my ears ringing not from the trumpets but from the crowd.
Yet because I can't do the things they can, the athletes look like a circus act. The circus, if it's not one of those stupid ones that make animals do tricks, is designed to entertain you with acts that seem impossible. And it's not much different when I watch, say, Thomas Robinson grab a basketball with one hand on an alley-oop and flush it through the cord. Go ahead and watch it. I'll wait.
You back? Wow, right? Only there's NO WAY I could do that. I probably couldn't catch an alley pop with one hand with my feet planted firmly on the ground.
I know what you're saying. Not many can do that, Dan. True. But many of you have played sports. So you know what they're feeling. You may not dunk like Robinson, but you know the smell of the court, the sweat off your eyes, the sticky blisters on your feet. How a ball sounds on the hardwood.
Your spikes have stabbed at the grass. You've crushed a ball down the left field line. You've scored a goal in soccer.
I had no idea what it was like to watch athletes and relate to them in any way.
Until I watched the Olympic Marathon Trials Saturday.
Now look, don't get me wrong. Anyone who ran the marathon in Houston Saturday was an athlete, and a serious one at that. Their VO2 maxes are off the charts, their resting heart rates are probably in the 40s, if not lower, and their bodies, as far as I could tell, were so lean, fat was an anti-matter. They were built to survive a zombie takeover.
These guys, and gals, were basically sprinting for 26 miles.
I can't relate to that.
And yet, I knew what they were feeling.
I'm a runner too.
I could see Deena Kastor, one of my heroes, straining at mile 8, and I knew the pace would be too much for her proud, 38-year-old body. Sure enough, she fell off the pace almost right away. I think she finished seventh or eighth. It reminded me of a half marathon in Moab, when my partners were blazing into a strong headwind, and I tried to hold on to their pace for as long as I could, but I knew I'd have to let them go.
I could see Abdi Abdirahman pumping his arms and waving to the crowd, and my wife asked me why he was raising the roof. "He's not," I said. "He's trying to draw some energy from them."
That told me he was struggling a bit, and sure enough, at mile 21, his legs stiffened, his arms pumped like a machine about to break, and his feet seemed to flop forward. That reminded me of my last mile in Vegas, when a crash could wreck my beautiful PR and all I needed to do was just hold on and run. All Abdirahman needed to do was hold the brutal pace of 5-minute miles, faster than I've ever run a mile, like, ever. EVER. And he would make the Olympics.
I'd been there many times. My goal was not the Olympics, or even to win the race. But many times I've been there, just trying to hold on until the end, dreaming about nothing but not feeling that pain any longer.
I love running for many reasons, and I've talked about them plenty in earlier posts. I think one of the best reasons for me is I now know what athletes are feeling during a big event. It adds to the enjoyment of it. I know what it means to run a 2:09 marathon, the times the top three had to run to qualify for the games, even if I'll never run that fast (my last marathon, which I was very proud of, was a 3:43).
Heck, I KNOW an elite runner. She's ran with us many times. She ran in the trials Saturday. She's Wendy Thomas. She finished 12th at 2:34, and four years ago, she would have finished seventh. It's pretty incredible. There's no ceiling for her, either, and some are saying she has a shot at the Olympics in four years. Yowza. I followed up on her performance in my column Tuesday.
Yep. I feel what elite athletes are feeling now.
And now I run with a bunch of athletes. I'm in a group. We all met Wednesday for drinks to celebrate the performance of Wendy and others I run with regularly who ran Sunday and qualified for the Boston Marathon.
I left feeling like I was part of a family.
A family of athletes.
It makes me think that maybe, just maybe, I'm one myself now.

1 comment:

Drizztdj said...

I can do all those things you mentioned but I don't consider myself an athlete anymore.

Athleticism -- that's your 360 dunking, 400 yard golf drive, hitting a 100 mph fastball with their eyes closed.

An athlete is simply: a person who trains their body to better themselves or reach a goal.

Which you do.