My coworker Bob called them chapter breaks—those steps in our fitness level that we periodically tumble down, never to return. I noticed this first in my thirties. I lined up a string of successes, personal records in a couple of races—a 10K and a ten-mile—a respectable marathon time, twenty-third overall in a thirty-three-story stair climb race. When my knee started hurting, I saw it as a hiccup.
Years later, after physical therapy, after surgery, after infants, I started running again. Muscle memory—I quickly regained my fitness, but never my speed. I lost a full minute per mile off my pace. I spent the next ten years chasing those old PRs, constantly injured from pushing too hard.
~~ Chapter breaks ~~
I could write about them all, maybe four obvious ones over the years, but I’ve done that before. This one is different. In the past, these steps down followed an obvious break in exercise—usually an injury, but sometimes just changing priorities. This time, I’m watching it happen even as I exercise daily.
Four years ago, Eli joined a mountain bike team for teenagers. During his first season, several coaches suggested I serve as one of the coaches the following year. After a few weeks of consideration, I decided to give it a try. My primary concern was injury. Not the sore-knee-overuse type of injury, but broken bones and torn whatever. As a guy in his late fifties, I lack the elasticity I enjoyed during my twenties through forties. Mountain biking is a rough sport. If you stay on your bike, the worst you should expect is modest lacerations from plunging through a thorn bush hanging across the trail, or if you’re unlucky, a bear-trap bite on your shin.* My personal safety plan when I signed up to coach was “stay on the effing bike!”
My safety plan worked well. For those first two seasons, I only crashed hard twice, well hard enough to result in some moderate injuries. Disruptive, yes, but no broken bones, no torn ligaments or tendons.
This year is ridiculous. With my flagging fitness, every time I ride now, I push myself to breathlessness. When I get tired, I get sloppy. I can’t count how many times I’ve fallen this year while riding simple obstacles. Yesterday, I got hung up in a stretch of rocks. I tried to get my foot down, but I was too slow. I floppy over onto my side. One of the other coaches just finished a lecture about the prevalence of rattlesnakes where we rode. I count myself lucky that I didn’t land on one. Even more surprising, I didn’t land on a rock.
Last week I fell flat on my back and landed on my tailbone. Again, thankfully, no rocks. A few days before that I fell off a low bridge and flew head first into the deep grass lining the trail. Eli’s concerned. “Dad, you gotta stop falling. You’re going to get hurt.” He’s right. Any of these crashes could be season enders, life changers. A sharp rock where my elbow or hip hits the ground will seriously mess me up. Older riders like me heal poorly. A smashed elbow might never be the same.
Later today, I’m riding with Eli and Sophie. Sophie is a novice. My plan is to stay with her while Eli zips ahead. I’ll ride a relaxed pace and just enjoy myself. On Friday after work, the temperature hung at ninety-four degrees. I had a frustrating day and needed to blow out some negative energy. I drove to a shaded section of the park and ran for forty minutes. Because of the heat, I couldn’t push myself, I avoided raising my pulse very high. I jogged a relaxed pace—a really slow pace—and I loved every second of it. Running for the sake of running, not trying to race the clock.
I’ve decided that this is my last year of coaching. Quietly, I’ve been looking forward to this year. I turn sixty in October. I’ve secretly been applauding myself for continuing to mountain bike three times a week at this advancing age. But I’m learning—in my stubbornly deliberate manner—that trying to exercise at someone else’s pace is causing me stress, risking injury. I’m always out of breath and worried that I’m not moving fast enough for everyone else. I’m done fighting this chapter break, this decline. At an age where many of my peers are retiring from their jobs, I’m trying to lead a group of teenagers ripping through the woods on their mountain bikes. It’s no wonder I can’t keep up.
While I’m no where near ready to retire from the workforce, I’ve put in my notice. It’s time to retire from coaching.
* Bear-trap: When a rider puts inadvertent downward pressure on a pedal at the top of its arc, the pedals may spin backwards at a high velocity, make a full circle and slam into the rider’s shin.