In 2013 I entered my first international race at the World Masters Games in Torino, Italy. The World Masters Games is a multi-sport event held every four years. As I have been told these games are organized by the same group that organizes the regular Olympic Games so they are extremely well organized. In Torino there were 26 different sports with 19,325 athletes. I had took Rebecka it would be a big deal, with thousands of competitors but as we walked the streets of Torino Rebecka remarked that she wasn’t seeing anybody that looked like a foreign athlete.
Before the opening ceremonies there was the traditional March of Athletes, and I celebrated it with my traditional “Thank you for the invitation, I will not be participating.” For some reason being part of a large group does not appeal to me. And to Rebecka’s surprise, there were, indeed, quite a few athletes in town marching.
Rebecka said it was exciting! I began to wonder what I had talked myself into!
Here is the official video:
In international competitions my event, track and field, is called Athletics and the other events in Torino included:
Athletes must be at least 35 years old to compete, and each competition is broken down into 5 year groups, so you compete only against your peers. In Torino I was 64 years old so I competed in the 60 to 64 age group. There is a jokes among the athletes that the group looks at someone in the oldest year of a group, like me at 64, and thinks, “Okay Grandpa, try not to get in the way.” The next year, when I would be 65 I would compete in the 65 to 69 group, and the older runners would look at the youngest runners like me and muttered, “Who does this young punk think he is?”
I was nervous about competing against the best athletes my age IN THE WORLD, but I operated under the rule, if I wanted to race at my best, I had to compete against the best. And if the guys in my age group, in my heat (another word for a race which is one of many races within an age group) could run that fast, so could I if I just trained hard enough. Or to put it more simply, if you are going to get your butt kicked, there is no shame in have the best runners in the world kick it because they will show you how it should be done.
And let’s end the suspense right now, I did not win a medal. In fact, in all my international competitions (Torino, Italy; Lyon, France; Vancouver, Canada; and Auckland, New Zealand) I have never even made the finals, I was eliminated in the preliminary heats. But also in each competition I have run a personal best, which means that each successive competition spurred me to run faster than I had ever run before. So I guess there is something about good competition bringing out the best in me.
There has been an evolution in how I view my competitors as we line up to compete.
When I first started running in national championship races, I would line up, look at the other slimmer, more muscled competitors and feel intimidated and defeated before I even started. There was no way I would ever win. But then, as I found myself running faster times in each big event, my point of view became, “These fellas have worked hard, and traveled here, to help me run faster than I ever have!” and I was filled with hope, and grateful for the opportunity to race against them.
In my first National Seniors Game in Cleveland, as we walked to the start line the guy next to me said, “This is my first huge competition, I just hope I don’t come in last.” I patted him on the back. “Don’t worry, pal, that’s what I am here for!”
There is a hiccup in my training. The competition in Torino was to begin in August and my training came to a screeching halt in February. I went to get new glasses and when the technician gave me that little poof of air in my eye he gave an unsettling, “Wow.” After a dozen more poofs, he suggested I see my regular ophthalmologist. At Kaiser they seemed equally concerned and sent me over to talk to Doctor Fang, a specialist in glaucoma. “Normal eye pressure is between 10 and 12.” she said, calmly. “You are at 40. If we can’t get that pressure down today with medications we will have to operate tomorrow.”
Glaucoma is a condition where the pressure in the eye rises, and like blowing up a balloon, as the pressure goes up, the eyeball expands, and the retina which is attached to the back of the eyeball can become dislodged and sight is lost in the eye. If I had not gone to get new glasses I might have suddenly lost vision in that eye and it is usually irreparable.
Doctor Fang was unable to lower the pressure with drops, so she tried a pill which did bring the pressure into tolerable range. As she wrote out the prescription she said casually, “You will find that one of the effects of this drug is extreme fatigue.” “Well isn’t that music to my ears, Doc, I am training for a major track event.” She looked up from her writing, “Good luck with that.”
I won’t bore you with the details, but the drug did cause fatigue. (The day before I met Doctor Fang I had done a workout involving weights, push-ups, burpees, etc. and it took me 17 minutes. I repeated the same workout three days after starting the medication and it took me 48 minutes with long rest periods, laying on my back gasping on the floor of the gym. I carried on and cursed the fates for a week then decided, okay, this is the new normal, I will just work as hard as I can and see what happens. It was a painful process, but two months later I was back to doing that same workout in 15 minutes, pushed by two friends at the ABA, Kara Hunt and Jennifer Renne.
We travel to Torino. My vacations usually are scheduled around Rebecka’s work or my track meets. On this trip the entourage consisted of Rebecka, daughters Elizabeth and Iliana, and my sister Elizabeth who I call Sis. On track vacations there are always two races: mine on the track, and the family trying to finish a large jigsaw puzzle.
We were joined in Torino by Aiysha Varraich, a former intern at the American Bar Association who lived in Sweden. This picture was taken about two hours into the march of athletes when we had pretty much lost interest.
Iliana, Usain Bolt, Aiysha, Elizabeth, and Sis
On the first morning in Torino I went for a jog to loosen up and ran through a park a few blocks from our apartment, and lo and behold, I stumbled upon the track where I would compete – walking distance from our accommodations. (Rebecka has an uncanny ability to rent places with optimal accessibility for my races, even though none of us knew where I would compete until I stumbled upon the Stadio Primo Nebiolo.)
One of the fun parts of international competitions is running into athletes from a country you know nothing about and couldn’t find on a map because the U.S. hasn’t invaded them. Yet. I always wonder what their life experience has been. All I know is that we share a passion for running.
My insecurities almost screw me up on race day! I have always tried to avoid looking like I don’t know what I am doing, particularly when I don’t have the slightest clue as to what I am doing. As a consequence, I am always nervous about doing something for the first time. I used to call this “being shy.” Rebecka heard me say this once and responded, “No, you’re not shy. There is something wrong with you, but it is not shyness” We finally settled on “timid.” Dictionary.com defines timid as, “lacking in self-assurance, courage, or bravery; easily alarmed; timorous; shy.” I am guilty as charged.
For me being timid manifests itself as not wanting to ask how to do things, and I nearly missed my race because of this. The procedure at these big meets is to go on the first day to the registration center to pick up your packet with your badge, your number, and a goody bag.
The next day was my 1500 meter race, which is nearly a mile, 3 3/4 laps around the track. That morning I reported to the Race Director’s table and checked in. This allows the race officials to determine if everyone who signed up for the competition has arrived, and will be competing. In shorter races they take all those who have reported and assign them to “heats,” smaller races because there are only eight lanes on the track.. For the mile there would just be one race, because the runners spread out over the track. After reporting I made my mistake, skewered by my insecurity. I was told, “Report to the call room, 30 minutes before your race.” I said thank you, walked away, wandering what the hell a “call room” was. In my previous races in the U.S. we met up at a tent on the grounds of the track where the runners divided into groups before being escorted to the start line.
45 minutes before the race I began searching the track for “the call room” tent and did not see anything promising. Being timid, I was reluctant to show my amateur status by asking other runners. 35 minutes before the race I was moving frantically around the stadium searching for the elusive call room like a lost lamb. Fear finally overcame my timid nature and I asked someone. He pointed to a set of stairs descending below the grandstands. I scampered down the stairs and found an amazing underground warm-up area.
It had a short section of track where athletes were warming up, sprinting back an forth. I checked in again, was told I was late, but would be allowed to run. Months of training and I almost missed my chance to race because I was too scared to ask directions. I quickly ran up and down, getting the heart going, muscles loosened up, and checking out my competition. Although many age groups were warming up, I could spot my competition because of the age group designation pinned to their back, as seen in this number from another race.
“M70” means the runner is between 70 and 74. These competitions are the only place where I have seen men and women proudly touting their advanced ages. I have seen women proudly announcing to their friends, “Look out ladies! I am finally in the 80-84 age group!” (These age designations are most important in longer races, in which all age groups compete together, such as 5k – 3.1 miles, 10k – 6.2 miles, half marathons – 13.1 miles, and marathons – 26.2 miles. These age designations on your back come into play when you are nearing the end of the race and a runner starts to pass you. You glance at their back and if they are not in your age group, you let them go. If you are in the same age group, you may want to hang on behind them and try and beat them to the finish line.)
To the start line. Having found the call run and warming up, we were lead out to the track as the previous heat was ending. As I stood there feeling as fit as possible, I stared down the track and wondered, “What in God’s name ever possessed me to do this?”
We lined up and we were off! I particularly like the photo below because it looks like I am hanging with the group, but it is actually only 20 steps into the four lap race, and I won’t being the rest of these runners for quite a while, until we get together for a photo after they wait for me to finish.
After I lost sight of the men who would be trying to win the race it was just a matter of pacing myself so I ran fast, while not overdoing it and running out of energy with a lap to go. I wanted to be able to summon a bit of energy in reserve so that during the last 100 meters in front of the grandstand on the way to the finish line I would not be stumbling around like the walk of the dead.
And then with one lap to go, this darned Italian started to pass me, right in front of the grandstand where he got such a big ovation that I thought he was the leader, and was an entire lap ahead of me. So I let him pass but it turned out he had just been running behind me the whole way, using me as a rabbit.
So I ended the race alone, to the scattered applause reserved for the slow poke who is the last pitiful survivor coming in last, a bit of “good for you, old-timer. Glad you didn’t drop dead!” My time was 6:37. I remember seeing that time as I crossed the finish line and thinking, “I should be able to run a mile in under six minutes with two bullets in me! This is embarrassing?”
When I finished I thought I was last, but Rebecka’s co-worker Nana Apenem Dagadu (a track star in her own right during her time at Georgetown) sent Rebecka a message noting that a runner from the Russian Federation got a DNF, Did Not Finish, he had dropped out after starting, so I was next to last! We take our small victories where we find them.
So that ended the track portion of this vacation, and as the entourage prepared to do fun travel I had to fly back to the U.S. and return to work. For reasons I will not dwell on, I always had to beg for time off for vacation. If I had 25 vacation days accrued, and I requested to take14 days, I was grudgingly approved much less, in this case 8. I was considered “essential” when it suited them, but what kind of a leader would I be if my team could not make day-to-day decisions without me? And Karen Castillo, my co-coach would either make the hard decisions, check with other lawyers, or email me. But I refuse to get annoyed about it now, life is too short. In the future, writing about races, I will call on the entourage to fill you and me in on what fun they had after I left. But since this was in 2013, old phones have died, and pictures have been tossed, so they had fun, but it is hard for anyone to remember now what it was!
Lesson learned? Never participate in a race that long in front of a large audience. After this Torino I stuck to the shorter distances, 100 meters (a straight line in front of the crowd) 200 meters (half a lap, starting with running around a curve, my favorite distance because it doesn’t hurt until you stop) or 400 meters (one lap, considered the most grueling distance because you can push yourself until you break, and then find out there is still 100 meters left to go.)
This is what the 200 meters looks like, you run around the curve then down the straightaway. Any humiliation I suffer lasts only about 28 seconds.
My next travel post: Traveling with Rebecka to Florence and Venice