(Editor’s Note: This essay first appeared in Changing Aging with Dr. Bill Thomas.)
It was Thanksgiving, the year before I turned 70, when it hit me that being 70 (at least for me) was a big deal, and that I should make it a memorable year. For my “birthday present,” I asked Catherine, my wife and Liz, our daughter (turning 40, another big deal year, certainly to her) if we could all do something adventurous together. We reserved a few weeks in September for who knows what.
So, what to do for the winter? I have always loved interesting retreats and been on quite a few from different traditions — including Catholic, Zen, bicycling and meditation in the Colorado mountains with a group of like-minded men, a week caring for homeless animals and a few utterly marvelous week-long stays in the Swiss alps. I had read about long winter retreats in unusual places, but that was not what I wanted. Catherine and I have a very engaged life, live on a little “farm” of sorts with dogs, horses, chickens, ducks and even wildlife who need daily care.
So I reframed my inner request to “how can I turn my daily life into a retreat for the winter months?” I really did not have a clear vision, but I needed to begin somewhere. I decided to start with physical exercise done as intentionally and mindfully as possible. Gordon College is near my home, has an excellent fieldhouse with an indoor track, Olympic pool and a fully equipped weight and exercise room. They are generous to the community and sometimes allow use of these facilities if there is a physical therapy need or you are senior citizen. I qualified for both. My plan was to use the techniques of “chi-walking” and work on breathing, posture and intentional awareness. I began in December, 3 days a week. After just a few weeks, I was beginning to get the hang of it. It is a different way of walking and requires attention and relaxation at the same time.
Then the invitation showed up.
I need to tell you what I mean by an invitation because it is the crux, the heart of my story. Even though the invitation comes through ordinary means, it does not feel ordinary. In fact, if it comes through another person, it is not even required that they are aware of being the channel.
There is a sense that it comes from a deeper, higher, more inner, more mythic place and it beckons me to follow. It is like a subtle call and what is important is how I receive it. Can I be available to even notice it? It is as if the gods take a moment from their busy schedules of cavorting and probably world-maintenance and contact me. Sometimes I think we are being invited and called this way quite often but simply don’t hear it.
So Catherine and I were at a Christmas party and I was chatting with two friends. One of them said he was not going to do the Pan Mass this year. That is a charity bicycle ride completing 200 miles in 2 days (quite a feat in itself). Instead, he was doing the Crane Beach Triathlon. Crane Beach is a beautiful five-mile sand beach in my town of Ipswich, Mass. Although I am involved in many town activities, I knew nothing about the Triathlon because it was out of my sphere. I had never even dreamed of doing anything like that. Out of general curiosity, I asked what it entailed — a half-mile swim in the ocean, a three-mile run and a nine-mile bike ride.
And then it came — the invitation. “Want to do it together?” He said it so nonchalantly, but I knew he was a channel for the gods. In my mind, I heard them say “So Dave, you said you wanted to do a winter retreat or something like that, maybe even a spiritual retreat of some sort, well, here you go.” I had never swum a half mile in the ocean, nor even run a mile. I do bike around the area but it is not for speed — more like “toddling” and often stopping for an ice cream in the middle.
But the invitation was given. A chill ran up my spine. Beyond the fun and challenge of doing something new, there was something more. Something in me was engaged. I heard it as a call.
And so, there it was, my wish fulfilled and you might have thought I said YES, YES, YES, and if I had let my 20-year-old self take control of my mouth, that would have certainly happened. But as I mentioned, this was my 70th birthday, and I had been married over 40 years. So balancing my excitement with my fears, I said: “Let me check with my wife” — not fully knowing what I wanted her to suggest.
At home that night, I asked Catherine for her thoughts. She simply said, “Sure, why not? And even if you never do the race, you’ll have had lots of good exercise.” That was the push I needed. I called my friend, told him I was all in, and went on the web to figure out how to train.
I discovered that this type of race was actually called a sprint triathlon and they are popular throughout the country. They are used for quick sprints for the longer triathletes to get them into the groove. They are also the way beginners like myself get started, and fortunately there were lots of coaching tips. They ranged from the Navy Seal-style coaching of pushing oneself beyond typical self-imposed limits to more grandmotherly advice like “don’t hurt yourself, you are not as young as you used to be.” And of course there were schedules, timetables and other do-it-yourself tips that I quickly embraced.
Since the race was eight months away at the end of August, I thought I had plenty of time to get ready. The Gordon Track is one-tenth of a mile, and I quickly discovered that I could only run one lap without getting winded. So I ran a lap and then walked a lap to start. It took 16 minutes to do a mile.
Then I tried swimming — and again I could only do one lap of freestyle (that’s two lengths of the pool). A half mile is 18 laps! But I could do the sidestroke, so I tried the same approach: one lap hard, one lap easy. I still could not do a half-mile.
But it will not surprise you that doing my practice most every day made me stronger, and my body and muscles really liked it. I worked out in the weight room and my weights increased, really almost doubled within a few months and that is without getting hurt or any heroics. No pain and lots of gain in this case.
And as a real bonus I even noticed that I was noticing details more clearly in my daily life — the kind of thing that sometimes happens on retreats.
I like to believe the gods (those rascals) got together again and said, “Gee, he seems to be doing well, let’s drop him another rope and see if he grabs it.”
I arrived at the men’s locker room and there was a simple black and white 8 ½ x 11 flyer tacked to the door: Gordon College Triathlon — May 6th — Saturday Morning 8 a.m.
And, oh yes, I knew that invitation was for me — sort of like the old army posters — Uncle Sam wants you.
I checked out the details and the swim was easier, not in the ocean, and only one quarter mile (yeah!). The bike was 12 miles, a little bit longer and the run was the same, a 5K through the beautiful Gordon College woods. Only 36 people could sign up, because of the logistics in the pool. I came home, checked our schedule and the next day I registered and paid my fee. There would be a few community members in the race, but mostly college students.
So now it was real — only six weeks. The experience entered my dreams — I saw a 10-year-old boy with a crew cut in the 1950s wearing shorts and a tee shirt running and swimming. I upped the ante of my practices and found it was actually possible to run more than one-tenth of a mile without stopping; and same with swimming. But I still could not get my mind around running or swimming without stopping so often.
I was watching the Boston Marathon on TV and tens of thousands of people had figured out how to keep going. My car was at a repair station in town that is over a mile from my home. I needed to pick it up and I said to myself, “OK, let’s “run” into town.” I started and then my thoughts kicked in and recommended stopping. But I said: “Well, just a little more running” and I simply ran into town — the whole way. It was amazing.
The next day, I swam the entire nine laps using the crawl without stopping in 15 minutes. For me, that was a small miracle. I rode my bike around the course which consisted of three four-mile-loops on the county roads near the school. I bought a new pair of sneakers, got a form-fitting bathing suit and put little cages on my bike pedals. I was ready.
I found out that the winners last year took about an hour. My goal was simply to finish and I thought I could make it in about two hours.
The day before race day, it poured. The street had puddles and I knew the woods would be muddy. Rain was also forecast for the race day, but it was unclear how hard. I slept downstairs so Catherine and the dogs would not be disturbed when I left early. I couldn’t decide what to wear for the bike ride, so I brought a few sweatshirts and raincoat and figured I would choose at the last minute. I put the bike into our pick-up truck, drove over to Gordon and saw the other participants setting up their transition areas. I was nervous, excited and really happy to be there.
I took clues from what they were doing — leave the bike in a ready to go position and cover the bike clothing, sneakers and socks with a towel, so they won’t get too wet.
All the participants met 10 minutes before the race in the bleachers of the pool house. Since Gordon is a Christian college, they naturally began with a prayer, “God Bless the athletes…” And I realized that included me. Then before I could indulge, my name was called for the first heat — the slow swimmers went first so that everyone might finish close to the same time. “Into the pool please – 3-2-1 Go.”
And before I knew it, I was swimming. Whatever I had practiced and learned would simply have to kick in — freestyle, side stroke, breathing, turns — just keep going – “only” 9 laps. Finally the lap counter assigned to my lane — yelled “last lap.” Later I found out I had done my fastest swim — 13 minutes.
It was misting outside but not really raining. I had not really thought through the transition – like what I would wear, what would be on top, how my number would show, and should I use the bathroom before the hour bike ride. I also wanted to take in and enjoy the whole scene. I really didn’t want to rush, even thought it was a race – or was it a retreat?
By the time I got going, all the people from my heat were gone and there was no one in front of me. It was a private retreat bicycle ride. I was pedaling as fast as I could and also enjoying the experience immensely. It is an act of courtesy for cyclists to say “on your left” as they zoom past you. I heard this refrain many times. Then, around mile 10, I saw a person struggling to climb a hill and I realized I could pass her. And I heard myself screaming with way too much enthusiasm “ON YOUR LEFT” as I shot by her.
The final leg was running a 5K through utterly lovely woods. By this time, the rain had stopped and there was kind of softness in the air that comes after a rain. The trail skirted around ponds, went up some hills and was filled with wildlife. Again, I was mostly alone. There was no sense of strain, I ran as much I could and then walked some and then ran again. I was just doing my best. I emerged from woods with one more pond to traverse. I could see the college buildings and I knew I was at the end. As I rounded the end of the pond, a red-winged black bird balancing on a reed sang her sweet song to me. It felt personal. And if that wasn’t enough, a large duck exploded out of the water making a tremendous commotion as if to say “Good job Dave!”
I ran to the center of the campus where a small bevy of cheering well-wishers welcomed the returning athletes. I wondered if I were the last one but no, there were still two more to come. They told me to change into something warm and meet in the lobby. The lobby was a feast of oranges, bananas, bagels and coffee. There was a sense of having come through something together and an easy sense of camaraderie was apparent.
A Final Surprise
I have saved the “best for last” surprise for you because it was a surprise for me.
About a week after I had registered, I was in the locker room chatting with another man around my age range and in excellent condition. I told him I was doing the triathlon. I literally “saw” his thoughts: “Hey, if this guy can do it, then I can certainly do it, but even better.” I asked him why he didn’t sign up since he said it was something he always wanted to do. He responded that he did not swim well. I just laughed and told him I was a triple threat — don’t swim well, don’t run well and not so hot at biking. And at that moment, I was aware that I just might be the vehicle of an invitation for him.
I did not see him after that and really forgot about him. He had finished the triathlon already and was eating a banana. He came up to me and thanked me. His daughter was with him and he told her: “Hey, this is the guy who told me about the triathlon.” She had come to cheer him on and even brought the family dog. She reminded me of my own daughter, about the same age, wide open and loving face. “How was it for your dad?” I asked. “It was great. You know he really needed this.”
Does it get better than that?
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Changing Aging with Dr. Bill Thomas 2017