By Christopher Cudworth
Athletic fitness, like the bloom of a brilliant flower, often lasts a few days, or at best a few weeks, before the peak fitness must fade.
The rhythm of blooms
Our bodies, like annual or even perennial flowers, are simply not designed to be in the height of competitive fitness at all times. The human body works on natural cycles of high energies, followed by rest.
It happens at work. And at play. We learn what it means to be in full bloom. And in faded glory. Sometimes both at once.
Recently at a party a friend came up and was talking about having to switch to working the night shift. His eyes grew wide as he described the strange difficulties of tricking his body and brain into being up all night. He was frankly a little pissed that it was necessary at all. Having worked for the same company 23 years, it seemed like some seniority should have come into play. But there are hardly any rules any more. The fact that capital now controls labor so strongly has changed the rules across many fronts. So he’s the one that has to adapt. But you could see the bloom wearing off his exterior self. He rubbed his hair back. Dropped his chin and sighed. We all empathized.
Protecting the bloom of vitality
In Europe workers have far more vacation typically than their American counterparts. Having a month or even 6 weeks off is not uncommon. The restorative power of that type of time off is tremendous, of course.
Those of us who run and ride and swim know that having time like that to train is pretty much a luxury. That is why I’m so glad to have done a bit of a social experiment back in the 1980s at the peak of my competitive running career.
After having moved to Philadelphia for a job and then having the whole department axed because the VP of Marketing wasn’t really doing his job, I felt lost and a bit insecure. So I came back to Chicago to work out my frustrations by running.
In 1984 I raced 24 times and won 11 of those races. In many others I placed high or set PRs for distances ranging from 5K to Half Marathon. It was quite a way to regain some needed self esteem after the shock of a job loss. But even that drive didn’t last forever.
Facing fitness bloom
By November that year the bloom quickly wilted. It only took one extra race to know that my fitness flower was finished. The first two miles at 5:00 felt strained, then came a 5:30, and a 6:00 mile and pretty soon I was jogging slowly, feeling stale and tired as a piece of wet bread. Finally I walked off the course at 33:00 with a half mile to go. The season was over, I knew.
While it lasted however it was a charming thing to feel. There were weeks of 2-a-day workouts and long, solo runs on the lakefront of Chicago dodging girls in bikinis between Oak Street Beach and Montrose Harbor. Almost every day I’d run up and back those 8 miles, clipping along on the cinder paths of Lincoln Park and breathing deep the breeze by Lake Michigan. Getting faster by the week. I knew even while I was doing it that my efforts were a temporary, ethereal effort at enjoying the bloom. And I loved it.
Sure, I could have been working too. I know that now. But at the time it felt right to try to dedicate myself completely to the effort. It earned me a running contract with a shoe store. Our team had fun racing almost every week. It was a dose of unreality, for sure. But it was a fun dose. I lived on severance pay and worked at the running shoe store.
Would I recommend that strategy to anyone? Not really. Companies aren’t fond of career gaps on your resume. Yet when I think about opportunities in life, that was the one time when I could run my very best, and I’ll never have to question whether I could have gotten any better at distance running. I know the answer to that one. Ran my hardest.
There’s a value to that, knowing you’ve done your best at something, even if it has little apparent value on the open market. I do recall being invited to interview with the advertising agency Leo Burnett because they wanted me for their racing team. But times were lean at ad agencies in the early 1980s, so even though the employees who ran thought it a great idea to hire me, that was not enough to get in the door, and I never got to show what I could actually do in terms of copywriting. Rather odd, in a way.
When mentioning that period to my mother years later, I lamented that I might have wasted time or opportunity doing all that running. “Nope,” she corrected me. “I liked you then. You had energy and focus.”
It was true. Perhaps I didn’t even push it hard enough? You never know. That’s the bloom and fade of risk-taking. Sometimes you simply don’t know whether to quit or push on.
Stop and smell the roses?
The sage advice is always to stop and smell the roses in life, lest it pass you buy.
But the facts are more complex: those roses may appear at different times in life.
Your sole bloom may not be in your 20s or 30s or even your 40s. People everywhere are defining what it means to be any age. By chance or by force in many cases, people are moving into different careers at different stages of life. Some start new businesses or switch careers. Others switch sports, from running to cycling, or from cycling to swimming. Many now combine all three, challenging themselves in ways they never dreamed. They are pursuing the bloom of life without apology.
We really are the flowers we imagine in our own minds. So the advice on that front is simple: Enjoy the bloom wherever you find it, and don’t be afraid to go out and create your own.
The garden of running and riding
Recently I’ve become a gardener due to the fact that I inherited a garden on the passing of my wife. And while that sole fact has been a point of remembrance, it is also one of renewal. Because a garden is not a fixed object, but always a work in progress. It so resembles the bloom of running and riding or swimming in fact, that those activities go together really well. There is nothing so rewarding as pushing yourself hard, into a bath of sweat and coming home to rinse off your head with a hose and start weeding and plucking and pushing mulch around. Talk about the perfect cooldown!
As it is said in the book Candide, “We must cultivate our garden.”