Competitive spirit: No regrets

Diana Nyad: No regrets.

“I’m thinking about doing Georgia this year,” Alan said midway through our weekly 18-mile mountain bike ride at Umstead early yesterday morning. He said it wistfully, and punctuated it with a sigh.

The mention of Georgia a month into the new year was a trial balloon of sorts for Alan. Not so much to gauge my reaction; rather, for him to think out loud about what Georgia really meant.

“Georgia” is a three-day training ride organized by some of Alan’s younger (he’s 59), hard-core racing buddies. It’s a test of their pre-season conditioning: three days of riding Georgia’s bumpy high country, including at least one assault of legendary Brasstown Bald, a 10.3-mile grind that gets bell-curve steep as it nears the 4,643-foot summit. It was the climb fatale of the Tour de Georgia, the nation’s premier bike race from 2003-2008. It’s a climb that Alan, a born climber, once relished for his ability to put younger and otherwise stronger riders in their place — namely, off his back wheel.

Alan last did the ride two years ago. Last year, he discovered a life outside cycling, a life that included more hiking, more backpacking and, not coincidentally, a new girlfriend who likes to hike and backpack. Alan is quick (but not too quick) to acknowledge he’s happier and in better overall shape, but that wistfulness surfaces on occasion when he speaks of his past life in the saddle. To get in shape for Georgia, just two months away, he’d need to step up his riding, significantly. “For one, I’d need to start riding 100 miles a week immediately. I’d need to get in some long rides; I’d need to do some 60- and 70-mile rides … .” And that would mean less time hiking and backpacking with Lois. Hence the sigh.

Balance and happiness vs. the drive to compete.

I’m familiar with the competitive dilemma. For the past three months I’ve been training for this Saturday’s Uwharrie Mountain Run, a 20-mile race on rocky, rooty trail in the Uwharrie National Forest. For the last three months I’ve also been training for a series of mountain bike races, starting with this past Sunday’s Mountain Bike Marathon in Sanford. Now, I’m a big advocate of cross-training. It keeps you from getting bored doing the same thing over and over. It also reduces your chance of injury from overuse. And it insures that a non-natural athlete such as myself finishes 81st out of 112 riders.

Not that I have illusions of winning. Still, I like to at least feel competitive.

The competitiveness issue came up during a backpack trip in December with Chris David. In the 1980s and 1990s, Chris, who is 67, was a competitive marathoner, logging 68 races with times dipping under 3 hours. He took racing seriously, putting in the requisite miles and watching his diet. A traditionalist, he bemoaned the recent trend of people who sign up for a marathon only to walk the entire thing. “To me, finishing in six hours isn’t ‘running’ a marathon,” he huffed.

Another contemporary, Peter Hollis, claims not to be competitive. He says he races mountain bikes just to stay in shape — the fact that he frequently podiums in the 50+ age group is an unintended consequence. The notion makes me smile every time I run into Peter, who is especially fond of “staying in shape” in front of younger riders. Like when I saw him training at Umstead last month. “My race age this year is officially 60,” he said. “I think before every race they should announce our age.” Or more recently when I hobbled to the finish of Sunday’s 42-mile Mountain Bike Marathon. Peter, having finished more than a half hour earlier, was already in street clothes and looking refreshed. “You know what I’m thinking of doing?” he asked. (I was thinking of getting the feeling back in my legs.) “I’m thinking of doing intervals at Umstead once or twice a week over lunch.”

You know, just to stay in shape.

Then there’s Steve Rogers, also a fellow 50+ mountain biker who’s a bit more forthcoming. I was clinging to Steve’s wheel during the Huck-A-Buck mtb race at Lake Crabtree a couple years back when suddenly he slowed and pulled over. I pulled up beside him. “My seat’s coming off,” he said. He fiddled with it for a minute or so as I watched. Suddenly, he stopped and looked up. “We’re in a race, you know,” he said, trying not to overstate the obvious, that as fellow 50-plusers we were racing against each other. “Go,” he said. “Go!” Steve was competitive to the point of having to remind me that we were competing.

Society tends to swing on the competitiveness issue. One decade it’s “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,“ the next, “We’re all winners!” Sometimes, though, the “prevailing mood” is declared by those not intimately familiar with the subject. Did the leader of the “Everyone’s a winner!” movement ever lose a podium spot by a stride length in a 5K? I’m guessing no, because if finishing in the back-of-the-pack is as rewarding as winning a sprint finish, what’s the point in training hard? Why get up and run at 6 on a frigid winter morning, or go for a training ride after a draining 10-hour work day?

Or why, if you’re already a record-setting endurance athlete and an icon in your sport, feel compelled to come out of a 30-year retirement at age 60.

For the 1970s, Diana Nyad was the world’s top long-distance swimmer. Routinely, she was in the news, for swimming the 102.5 miles from Bimini in the Bahamas to Florida, for swimming around Manhattan Island in a record time of 7 hours and 57 minutes. Yet it was a failure, her 1978 attempt to swim the 100 miles from Cuba to Florida that stuck with her. After swimming for 41 hours and 49 minutes, Nyad withdrew due to strong currents and bad weather. Despite her storied career, despite being a pioneer in the nascent arena of athletic extremism, that one failure haunted her. In the ensuing years she’s been plagued by what she terms “monkey chatter” in her head.

“I’d do a 100-mile bike ride and I wasn’t looking at the horizon of the ocean,” she said yesterday on public radio’s The Story. “I wasn’t taking in the flora and the fauna. The whole hundred miles I’d be asking myself why, why am I not doing this better? Why? Why? Why? I was just beating myself up.”

Last year, she decided to try the Strait of Florida again. That attempt was foiled when stings from a school of jellyfish sent her into respiratory distress. She plans to try again this summer.

“At 60,” she told The Story host Dick Gordon, “I’m gonna to do something that is so tough, so big that it takes so much of me that there’s not going to be room for all those regrets. … There will not be time for that.”

Essentially, in the struggle over one’s own competitiveness, that’s what it comes down to. Whether you go to Georgia, or split your time between two passions, or convince yourself that it’s only about staying in shape, or need to silence the monkey chatter, you want to make sure of that one thing there won’t be time for in the end.

Regrets.

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Listen to Dick Gordon’s interview with Diana Nyad on The Story here.

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