A new goal, by half

I’ve pulled the trigger, so to speak, on running my first half-marathon.

I sort of can’t believe it. Actually, no sort-of about it. As I often tell friends, there is no way I pictured myself as an endurance runner, biker, swimmer, endurance anything ever in my lifetime as recently as two years ago. That kind of torture-your-body stuff held no appeal for me. Zero. But once I accidentally fell into doing triathlons – my first was a sprint in Santa Cruz two years ago on a whim to accompany my daughter – it gradually, to my surprise, became serious enough that I now pay a trainer every month to design workouts so I can get stronger and compete better within my age group. I am down that rabbit hole, in other words. 

By that relation, then, my physical stamina has improved to where the thought of a six-mile run no longer intimidates me or my knees; I actually look forward to them. (Who IS this stranger?!) But only recently have I considered stepping up to race twice that distance (plus 1.1 miles).

Among the many things that training consistently, really for the first time in my life, and confidently have taught me is to not be afraid of new challenges. Respect them, for sure, and protect myself from injury always. There is nothing I dread more, except hitting a fly-over-the-handlebars pothole, than a foot or leg injury setting me way back and canceling all the conditioning gains I’ve made. At 60, lengthy rehab processes are not welcome.

That’s a long way of saying I stopped pondering signing up for a half-marathon in Richmond in five weeks and actually committed to the 13.1 miles the other day. (Dee, a strong natural runner despite her denials, will join me there for the 8K.) Longtime runners and endurance racers will scoff at my little proclamation, and that fact that I admit to being a little afraid of it. Trepidatious? I’m pretty sure seven miles is the longest I’ve ever run at one time; I pokey-poked out that distance sometime last year. But wonderfully amid all that, I have discovered a new-found belief in myself as a (competitive) athlete that I thought was long past. It brings me back every day. I train with gratitude for being able to run, ride or swim (with relative little pain at this point) in the first place. I find satisfaction in a new identity and a physical relevance that makes me happy.

Advice I’ve found online, as well as from my coach, cautions me to focus on completing this first half without a time goal, to not let the adrenaline of race day and a too-quick start ruin my run, to more than anything breathe in the scene. Accept as its own reward the act of stepping up to a challenge and staring it down.

So yes, I hope to keep my wits and keep it real, firm in the faith that this half is just another next step toward keeping me whole.




In the zone

Orange Theory Fitness. Know it? Ever hear of it? I hadn’t until about a month or so ago, when Dee started attending workout sessions at the OTF studio newly opened in Williamsburg. She loved the 55-minute, high-intensity interval group (20ish people) workouts overseen by a highly caffeinated coach barking out marching orders over an ear-splitting hype soundtrack. Man, just writing that sentence was a high-intensity workout.

Anyway, I just entered my rest-recovery-maintain fitness phase of my budding, old-guy triathlon career. Orange Theory sounded like something that could potentially work into the mix. Turns out my theory was correct. It is in my mix, and not going away soon.

The philosophy behind Orange Theory is all about heart, specifically your heart rate. Exercisers wear a heart monitor around their chest or upper arm that reads out on a screen above the treadmills and rowing machines that are essential to an OTF workout. (Half the workout also involves dumbbells, body weight lifts or TRX bands.) Essentially, everyone has a “maximum heart rate” based on age and gender. The coaches aim to harangue, um, urge and support, you into working the various exercises at a pace that will keep your heart rate in the green (71-83 percent of your max rate), orange (84-91 percent) or red (92-100 percent, lung-busting, obscenity-screaming) zones up on the screen.

Much has been written the last few years about how the best workouts for cardio, strength and weight loss are high-intensity interval workouts. I believe it. And while I have tried to do those combo workouts on my own, along the lines of P90x and such, for years, having a coach pushing you through the pain raises the bar much higher than you, meaning I, can maintain it on my own.

At the end, your calories burned, average heart rate for the workout and number of minutes you spent in the orange and red zones, called splat points for a reason I’m not sure of, appear on the screen, so you can chart all that based on whether it was designed to be a  “power” workout, “endurance” or what have you.

As in everything, you get out what you put in. I go twice a week with Dee (she goes more) — usually pre-dawn, which feels nuts most mornings – and leave a puddle of perspiration. It is satisfied sweat, though. We know challenges are being met, fitness increases are being seen, and great mojo for the day – and the spring tri season — is being cultivated. In more than just theory.






Merging from the shoulder

A year ago I wouldn’t have believed I could or would attempt, let alone finish, an “Olympic” distance triathlon. A year ago, the thought that I could or would swim a hair shy of a mile in open water, bike just under 25 miles and then run 6.2 miles — in successive order with barely a couple of minutes in between individual exertions — was crazy. Crazy to me, I mean.

I was aware people did it all the time. I, with my balky knees, tight hamstrings and vast disinterest in cardiovascular suffering, just wasn’t inclined to ever be one of them. About a year ago, it was all I could do to jump off the proverbial psychological cliff and actually commit, in word and dollars, to fly to California and attempt a “sprint” triathlon in September.

A sprint is roughly half the distance of an Olympic. It had been a while since I felt proud of a physical accomplishment. But just registering for the sprint and beginning my scattershot preparation for it gave me a mental kick, one I liked. I ran and biked and swam and over-prepared, by all accounts, for my big day, which went well to the degree I won a towel for finishing top 3 in my old-guy age group (albeit a small group).

Nonetheless, a spark, well, sparked, as I’ve previously shared here. Now I’ve done an Olympic, I train in at least one discipline most days  and I at least pretend I want to get much better and compete for age-group prizes in Olympic-distance tris.

I say pretend because I’m finishing a recent book written by endurance athlete and author Matt Fitzgerald called “How Bad Do You Want It?” He’s filled the book with new sports psychology and brain science amplified by real-life stories of endurance athletes demonstrating jaw-dropping physical and emotional strength in competition — although strength puts it lightly. Champion athletes like cyclist Greg LeMond and triathlete Siri Lindley own indescribable, implacable will. By describing their training and important races to their career and legacy through gripping narratives, Fitzgerald tries to tangibly get at the intangibles that set them above and beyond other supernatural-seeming athletes.

It is inspiring, intimidating and humbling to dip a toe in that kind of pool. I would answer the open-ended question “How bad do you want it?” with “a lot” or “pretty much.” But to honestly back those words up with honest effort, to push or get angry over wavering intensity and use it as searing motivation in ways that don’t injure muscles and joints and nerves, is challenge on top of challenge that I wonder if I am up to at this stage.

That’s among the reason triathletes and ultra-endurance racers, all of whom can be a precious bunch I know, like to reference the “journey” they are on via their hobby/passion/reason to live. The road goes and climbs and twists around blind corners that they often never see coming, but they lower their head and rebuckle in to their driving mission.

A year ago, I noodled around on the edges and decided to at least step out along the shoulder. I’ll just say the journey has gotten interesting — consuming? — much quicker than I would have believed.





A diamond season

I was fortunate to sit in the dugout and watch one of the finest high-school baseball games I’ve ever seen Wednesday night.

Hanover, a dynasty in Virginia 4A baseball, needed 13 innings at home to take out Jamestown High of Williamsburg 2-1 in a game that sent the winner to the state semifinals.

It was a stunning display on both sides of skill, desire, resiliency, poise and coaching, a state-final caliber contest, no doubt. Wheels were turning, stomachs were flipping, fastballs were buzzing, bats were mostly flailing. That didn’t reflect on the hitting so much as the pitching, two guys apiece for each team. Both starters are committed to Division I programs and threw like it. It was top-notch stuff, a man’s game, a street fight, as they say.

Jamestown — I am a JV coach for the Eagles — pushed a run across early on a triple and an RBI ground out. It took Hanover till the bottom of the fifth to even the score on an error and calm, temporarily, its nervous crowd.

Seven innings later, the length of a full game, consecutive two-out doubles ended Jamestown’s 20-game wining streak and 20-3 season.

Heartbreaker. Heartbreaking.

John Cole managed his brains out in the Jamestown dugout, calling pitches, moving fielders, flashing signals at third base trying to get something going, rallying the troops. Cole spent a career, that may not be through, in college coaching, as an assistant and then leading a Division I and a Division III program.

He came to Jamestown last year and took the senior-laden Eagles to the state semifinals with a team that included a couple of Division I recruits, including in the ACC. This team wasn’t as talented or experienced as that one, but it was enterprising and baseball-savvy thanks to Cole, who pretty much conducts a coaching master’s class at every practice. It’s why I always tried to attend at least an hour of varsity practice before the JV practice, to expand my own knowledge base and become a more confident, accomplished coach.

Cole spoon-feeds nothing to the high school kids, even the first-year varsity guys. As in college, he expects a lot, demands a lot, moves fast, teaches constantly, brooks no nonsense. He is stout in his belief in himself and what he teaches. For the obvious reason that it is tried, true and effective.

The proof is on the field and, better, in the players’ heads and hearts. Players that move on to college ball report back that it’s as if they took graduate courses in high school by playing for Cole. They come in to their higher level of baseball significantly ahead of the curve, they mean.

But for the greater number of kids who will never play beyond high school, their season or two with John Cole will unquestionably serve them when it comes to the (old school?) life and business skills of listening, respecting, committing to a task, following directions and setting challenging, even elite, standards for themselves and for their colleagues.

Expect nothing, get nothing.

I expected fun, satisfaction and reward when Cole accepted me into his program to work with his future varsity players. I had no idea.

Thanks, JC. What a night that was. What a season.

Rocky mountain life lessons

This is not Caleb.

Caleb peed his pants.

I don’t know Caleb, but evidently he is 4-years old. Someone, presumably his parents, dropped him off Saturday at the Breckenridge, Colorado resort ski school. Caleb was among the half-dozen children, all ages 4 to 6, assigned to my son, a snowboard instructor who is finishing his second month at Breck.

He is a newbie instructor, a year out of U.Va., so newbies get the wee ones by default. New high-school teachers get the convicts, new snowboard instructors get the pants-pee-ers. That’s how it works.

Caleb faltered early in the day. He had to have been nervous, probably scared to death. He is 4, for crying out loud. It was cold and he was surrounded by strangers and a blanket of white.

I don’t know how my kid handled the situation; all he reported via good-natured text was Caleb, well, you know. I suspect he comported himself well, that he calmed Caleb and paged one of Caleb’s responsible adults back to the school to gather their pup.

But it both amuses and heartens me that my kid has been thrown into the abyss to deal with cold, scared children with odd appendages lashed to their feet, and their parents, always an unknown quantity as well.

He is out there in the Rockies doing what he wants to do, living how he wants to live, supporting himself and his dreams. While he is at it, he is learning the best kind of lessons — how to think on his feet, how to talk to and persuade people young and old, how to be patient, kind, confident and certainly stern as necessary. And to take distinct gratitude when an envelope appears with a tip and a personal thank you note from a parent appreciative of my son’s attention and demeanor.

From what I know, “ski bums” need not apply for these positions. Slobs? Not when spot checks of his resort-owned, four-person apartment are frequent. Professionalism is a thing, every day, all day, on the mountain or in the office. This is wise to remember.

I have no idea how long he’ll stay at Breckenridge or that particular vicinity. The work is seasonal, of course, and at 23, the time from one winter to next tends to be especially unpredictable. But I know out West is where he wants to be, to follow his muse, embrace his youth and savor this life.

If the need to deftly deal with a childhood bladder accident or two is a prerequisite along his path to somewhere, that price is small indeed. His rewards are already rich, and getting richer.

Nose in a book

Somewhere along the way I became much more a magazine reader than a book reader.

It seemed to better fit my life, I guess. I wrote sports columns and features, some long-form but mostly quicker-hit, short-story stuff. So it was natural I’d be drawn to read, and be inspired by, similar reporting and non-fiction in places like The New Yorker, Esquire and Sports Illustrated.

(I tried Vanity Fair years ago, too, for a little while. But the cloying “famous actor said while spearing a piece of seared tuna drizzled with ginger marinade from his lunch plate” BS in the Vanity Fair celebrity puff wore me out.)

Anyway, I morphed into reading only a couple of books a year, maybe. A presidential biography; Lincoln, Jefferson, Truman. The mysteries of dogs. Golf psychology. A bit of fiction; “Life of Pi.” “The Kite Runner.” Stuff like that.

So I am proud to report — if only to myself on this blog for intellectual affirmation and behavioral reinforcement — that I have reacquainted myself with the delicious adrenaline of picking up a book I cannot put down, of carving out blocks of time to keep the pages turning and my imagination ignited.

It is “All The Light We Cannot See,” a masterful World War II novel by Anthony Doerr that won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The characters are simply but sharply drawn in short, pulsating chapters, most only two or three pages. His multi-tentacled, richly woven story drips with visceral description, dialogue and emotion.

I got it from the Old Dominion library, grabbing it as an afterthought – lured by the Pulitzer note next to it on the shelf — on my way out after picking up the book of essays I actually walked in for.

I waited to start it but have raced to the final 100 pages, waking up early, putting off household chores, losing myself again (as it should be) in literature, ending this post (in a second) . . . to dive back in.

I hope to be again like my daughter and certain friends who have the next one — and the one after that — waiting even as their current pages flip and fly by, ink on bound paper, the wonderful melody of elegantly arranged words leaping forth to enrich my life and inform my own writing, such as it is.

It is so easy to drift. But I like myself more when I realize my lapse, even in this case if it has taken longer than it should have to right the course, back to the savoring of art and toward the land of the better read.




Crying For Baseball

One little kid standing at home plate wearing an oversized helmet, wielding a bat as tall as he is, trying and mostly failing to make contact with rainbow tosses arced softly by a dad-coach. Six or seven or eight other little kids arrayed about the skin infield, standing with their baseball gloves on their heads. Kneeling in the dirt sifting for pebbles or bugs or something as dad pitches and kid swings and misses, over and over. A mom standing alongside, urging Morgan and Cody to stop gazing into the dirt and to pay attention. To pay attention . . . um, why?

This soul-sucking scene plays out far too often on far too many dog-walks I take at the field across the street. Well-meaning (I suppose) but coaching-clueless parents leading “baseball” practices for 6-year-olds who have no idea why they are being made to stand on a dirt infield, with little or no activity in their midst, learning nothing at all about baseball other than to hate baseball for, well, making them stand on dirt with little or no activity in their midst, while kids in the other corners of the field are yelling and chasing soccer and lacrosse balls.

These bored kids will not be long for the game, and I do not blame them. I blame societal circumstances that long ago made neighborhood pick-up baseball games extinct as dodos, that left “organized” baseball the only baseball left to be played by kids, that forced well-meaning, coaching-clueless parents to lead baseball practices they have no business leading.

They have no business there because they are blind to what they are doing, namely killing baseball for the kids they are trying to excite to baseball.

This conundrum has puzzled me for the 15 years I have coached in rec ball, American Legion ball, high school ball and observed the coaching that goes on around it all. The puzzle is why moms and dads cannot and do not take the minor steps necessary – minor as in reading articles or viewing YouTube videos for basic drills every kid can do at the same time — to think about structuring practices that include no standing around but steady skill-building, fun activities for 30 or 45 minutes — 60 at the very tops. Run-the-bases races. Catch the easy rollers or pop-up competition and throw-the-ball-at-the-target contests. The underhand tossing of tennis balls — coach to kid, or multiple parents to multiple kids simultaneously — so they can feel and instinctively know what it is to swing a bat (however they swing it) and to feel and see and sense the joy of connecting a rounded stick with a rounded ball in flight.

It is not that hard, not in the least, except that it is being made to seem so at the very entry point where baseball cries out for simple joy, simple activity, simple simplicity.

It hurts my heart, because the kids, and the game, deserve so much better.



Suited Up

I’m so happy I’m able to still wear a baseball uniform.

You sometimes hear big-leaguers talk about the thrill of putting on their team’s colors – the pinstripes and the script across the chest and the fitted cap. But it really is true for them; the most self-aware players, at least. Those who understand the rare gift they possess and, in most cases, its minuscule shelf life.

But it is also true for high school coaches, the ranks of which include me as a volunteer assistant who makes it out to the field when he can. That is hardly as often as I would like. Nowhere close. Bills must be paid and office hours logged, it seems. Still, “community service” hours offered and encouraged by my new employer allow me to be out on the field, in the uniform, in the base coach’s box, a couple times a week at games – practice times unfortunately do not mesh with this new schedule. Yet there still are chances. And every chance is a chance I do not take lightly.

In that regard, with first pitch pressing or often already taken place, I have become deft at dashing from the office to the car, the uniform piled in the front passenger seat. Shoes and socks easily slip off as I drive barefoot to the first stop light, which affords ample time to switch out to the uniform socks. At the inevitable next light, the business shirt gets doffed into the back seat as the T-shirt and school-logo coaching shell slide over my head.

The momentarily naked man from the waist up behind the wheel perhaps raises eyebrows in the vehicles nearby.  I never notice, though. I am too busy taking off my pants.

This is easier than it looks, although it does involve unbuckling the seat belt and squirming to the side at just the right angle (while seated at the light, of course!). Lift up, slide down, slip off, toss in the back, slide on most of the way – then snap up, buckle and align at the next light. Probably 10 or 15 seconds flat. Done.

By that point, it’s all over but the donning of the weathered turf shoes that reside in the trunk once I’ve parked at the field. By then, the game face is on, and usually so is the game, so I jog over and slide into the dugout to soak up and savor it all again.

I get to take up space in the first-base coach’s box, cheerleading, congratulating those who make it that far, encouraging those – much more frequent, of course, because baseball is totally a game of failure – forced to make U-turns back to the bench after making out.

I started coaching years ago to touch the part of me that went dormant when I chose a bird in the hand – a sports writing job – over the concurrent pursuit of a college baseball graduate assistantship.

I started as a way to honor my father, who literally built a youth club from the ground up across the street from our house and introduced me to baseball. I think of him, and how proud he was of me even reaching the minor leagues, every time I am on a baseball field, without fail.

I started and continued long after my son and daughter put baseball and softball aside, because being on that perfect field and teaching the game’s finer points — and feeling warm and worthy when a particular lesson takes root — “feeds my soul,” as a helpful confidant of mine likes to say.

You bet I am proud to still wear the colors.

You bet I am blessed to still take the field.

With luck, the kids around me sense a soul being fed — and perhaps might aspire to the same for themselves. Today, and over their countless tomorrows.