Athletes are tremendously invested in sport and the entire community that is built around it. We have had highs and lows with our sporting friends and thrived on the adrenaline of achievement. We checked off Personal Bests (PBs) with a big smile.
Eventually though the time for PBs ends, we stretch it for a while with new PBs based on age group, or particular race, or distance, or while wearing a hat or not :-), whatever we can do to find that high of accomplishment.
Many athletes have had to come to terms with the physical losses of age or disability. For me it happened very early so I have had a long time to ponder it. At 25, fresh out of Graduate School with a Master’s in Physical Education and a professional coaching job, I woke up one morning to legs the shape of stove pipes and burning up with fever. After weeks in hospital I was diagnosed with acute Psoriatic Arthritis. The prognosis was grime, I would never run again and would likely only work another 10 years is what I was told. Long story short, with some amazing healthcare and very supportive family I was able to continue an active life, albeit, with many limitations, and I worked until a normal retirement. Along the way, heart disease, diabetes, esophagus issues, joint replacement, fusions etc. all stole a bit more functionality and eventually some complications of my Arthritis medications woke up latent Primary Progress Multiple Sclerosis, stealing a little more. But I have been fortunate and great care has kept me moving, so what!?
There is life beyond the PBs. There is the shear joy of movement. As I’m writing this I am overlooking the circular driveway of my apartment building and all the motivation I ever need is right there. Every day I see people doing their laps. Some are using walkers or canes, some are in small groups, others alone, some even in their 90s but every single one looks happy. There is often laughter, the occasional stop to chat with someone learning out their balcony. They have a collective wisdom that is critical for athletes to learn.
Truth be told, it is very hard to deal with the loss of function. I find myself wanting to explain why I’m so slow when I show up at a race or running group. I find myself wanting to explain why I need help getting something off the higher shelf at a store. I want to explain why I have to have poles if I hike or try a bit of trail running. Why, why, why does that explanation need to happen? I think it is because as athletes we have so much of ourselves locked up in our bodies and being our “best” that we need to have an explanation why we are not our “best” like we were before. But let’s look beyond the PBs.
Beyond the PBs there is still life, beyond physical activity even there is still life. It is critical that we never forget that and that we work hard to foster other things in our lives. We need to have broad horizons and interests if we are to cope with the changes of age or disability. That is not giving up, that is being wise. Keep moving with all your heart and soul, like the great lap walkers outside my window, but also develop interests that will fill the rest of the day.
Recently I had a chat with an elite athlete who was contemplating this very thing, beyond the PBs. His body was giving signs and his Doctor confirmed that the world of PBs was coming to an end and it was time to deal with that. His response impressed me so much, he was taking one last kick at the can and then backing off so he would be able to keep the joyful part of running beyond the pursuit of PBs.
Beyond the PBs is where some new adventures begin. I have become a baker and love the whole process of creating bread that not only is great food, but that can be a feast for the senses with the smells, textures, shaping and all that fun stuff. I think I have a greater appreciation for physical activity than ever and I take great joy in my own humble movement and in supporting athletes in reaching their PBs. This essay is not an indictment of PBs, quite the contrary. Personal Bests are how we learn about ourselves and how we appreciate the limits we discover, and how we ponder those limits for cracks we can take advantage of for one more PB. When the time comes to not pursue PBs it is not giving up, it is transitioning. Moving to a new level of understanding ourselves, our bodies, our mortality and the world around us. Beyond the PB there is a new story to be written. So enjoy the PBs but don’t be saddened when they fade, enjoy the metamorphosis and begin the next stage.