As kids most of us grew up running and playing, riding our bikes and generally exerting ourselves without the term “training” associated with our activities.
When we got tired, we either stopped or begged others to stop the game while we sat in the grass, catching our breath until another session began.
It was a simple thing, getting out of breath. But it said you were alive. Having fun. Trying your hardest.
By the time you hit 12 years old (and much earlier nowadays) the games get more serious. Coaches stand around watching, or parents. Sometimes that was the worst. Knowing dad or mom were watching from the sidelines put some pressure on you. That never used to happen at practices. Today you see queues of parents hanging out at club or school practices, nervously eyeing the efforts of their Division I, II or III prospect in action.
From middle school on, play turns into something else besides mere fun. Competing in sports is supposed to fun, of course. And a healthy kid playing sports has plenty of fun over the years. Yet it is easy to forget the fun and let the competition define who you are, rather than the other way around. Then getting out of breath is not so much fun. It puts you at risk of not doing your best.
The first time I came back to playing competitive soccer after 1o years of coaching my kids through various age groups, it was a rude shock. I’d kept up my running but that was mostly long, slow distance. Indoor soccer was the opposite. You sprinted from end to end, side to side without stop. Pretty much you ran until you were completely out of breath and then you fell into the player box outside the field, gasping for air and water. Then you went back out and did it again. It took weeks to develop any sort of anaerobic fitness. And by then the season was pretty much over.
I especially recall one night game that started at 11 p.m. We had no subs. Zero. No one to spell you on the field. The game proved fast and furious, and by halftime at that late an hour there was literally nothing left in the tank for any of us. The game was tied at 3 each when a teammate passed me the ball at the top of the box. It was a clear scoring opportunity. But despite the good chances for a goal, it was impossible for me to move the two steps to trap the ball. Not possible. My teammate shrieked at the missed chance, and gave me the chill treatment back on the bench.
At that point I did not care. The game was no fun at that point. I was out of breath.
That sharp, short feeling of exhaustion returned the other day during the slowest run of all. All that fitness built up over the last year and previous years slipped away during the month after my bike crash. It all has to be rebuilt. For running, that means lots more strength work on the quads and tendons supported the knees and hips. Without that work, my 50,000 miles of lifetime running catches up with me, and I get hobbled.
On the bike, the core muscles of my gut and those tender lower back muscles are the challenge. That is going to take some time to get back too.
But when I tried to go faster on the run, that not-good feeling of “out of breath” came suddenly upon my lower trachea. Oh my God, I’m out of breath!
It’s been a long time since I was this out of shape. That’s not to say I’m blaming myself for laziness or anything of the sort. But when you’ve built up a lifetime of expectation and dedication to fitness, getting out of breath is just an unacceptable feeling.
I’ve decided the thing to do about it is to go out and have a little fun. Like a kid. Don’t time the runs or even check the distance. Walk a little if necessary. Stretch the wounded hamstring that is still giving me fits.
And cycling. Earlier this week my friend Monte Wehrkamp and I went on a mountain bike ride down the Fox River Trail and over to the expansive campus of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. The roads and trails there are quiet, and we were about to turn home because it was getting to be twilight, when Monte asked about the spot where I wanted to try to find a bird I’ve never seen, a Harris sparrow. Monte is a hunter, not a birder, but he likes being outdoors doing anything. We’ve gone bass fishing together, for example.
I turned to him and said, “You know what? Let’s turn around an go. It’s not dark yet, and this is when the bird is supposed to come out.”
We rode across Fermi and pulled onto the grassy two-track leading to the sparrow hedge behind a big lake. On the way we encountered a well-known birder who had found the bird originally. I asked directions and we pedaled on.
It was growing dark as we stood there listening to dozens of sparrows twitter and chirp. But no Harris sparrow. Above us Canada geese were fighting the same stiff breeze that was keeping the sparrows down in the bushes. It was October, and twilight, and it reminded Monte of many a hunting trip where he put the bow or gun away at dark and sat watching the coyotes or bobcats emerge from the woods. This was shared time in the wild. This was us on bikes out in the wildest place we could find. This was us having fun.
And neither of us was out of breath.
On the ride home we cruised through the dark and took the back streets. “It’s like being a kid again,” he told me.
Yes it was. Indeed it was. And worth every minute.