I started riding and racing bicycles at age 57 when four decades of recreational running served notice on my knees: enough pounding! Uneasy in an easy chair, I invested in a mountain bike, and discovered that low-impact pedaling made exercise fun and fulfilling again. A few inelegant crashes and successively costly bikes later, I was soon finishing two-hour bike rides near the front of the pack. Once I became irrevocably addicted, I found myself working to support my habit, and avoiding work to indulge it. I got older, too, and soon enough, Social Security and Medicare became my unwitting sponsors. Further symptoms of late-in-life lunacy included garish euro jerseys and a cupboard full of exotic energy drinks and gels. Then came the purchase of a high-end, carbon fiber road-racing steed and an unexpected third-place finish at the 2007 Senior Nationals in Louisville, Ky.
My hilly little home town of Lyme, N.H., boasts an unusually high percentage of endurance athletes. Maybe it’s our proximity to Dartmouth College and the sports-obsessed town of Hanover, where a second-place finisher is referred to as the first-place loser. Or maybe it’s the water in the local micro breweries’ brew. Whatever it is, every garage in these parts is stuffed to the rafters with equipment for biking, rowing, skiing, soccer and ice hockey. The kids in town might as well be named Nike, Trek and Rossignol.
Sandy, Barney, Pete and Greg are a few of the knuckleheads in my local biking posse, all of them unfairly gifted whippersnappers who are kind enough to let me tag along on their high-octane rides. We bust on one another relentlessly, and the unspoken competition is always friendly and funny, and occasionally fierce. They’re 20 years younger than I, and sadistically fit. They’ve nicknamed me “Padre”, and show no mercy ”You made it up that hill without your walker?” is the closest they come to a compliment, which I interpret to mean that they love me. My darkest ambition is to someday lead them on a lung-searing, leg-cramping, quadruple-bypass ride to the top of a mountain, where they’ll collapse at my feet and beg for mercy. Is that too much to ask, Jesus? Just once?
Oliver Wendell Holmes remarked, “Men do not quit playing because they grow old: they grow old because they quit playing.” All sorts of studies indicate we seniors can enjoy a variety of sports well into our seventh and eighth decades, and everyone agrees that a rigorous regimen of exercise improves physical health, mental acuity and chances for greater longevity. As we grow older, however, each passing year sees a decrease in muscle mass, reflexes and VO2 max. Exercise slows the inevitable decline, but nothing can stop it: that’s life.
For north-of-50 athletes with strong competitive instincts, the five-year age brackets in masters and seniors events offer plenty of opportunities to play. Competing within my age group makes sense, but the metrics of progress are decidedly different than they were when I had a full head of hair. In my prime, I could measure the current year’s accomplishments against the year before, and if I trained hard, I’d see my performance improve. Now, I need considerably more recovery time, which means I can’t train as long or as hard as I’d like. These days, my standard for improvement is measured in terms of staying injury-free, performing almost as well as the year before — and outliving the competition.
For well-worn competition addicts like me, the inevitable questions are: Why is the need to keep score still important? Why do we volunteer for so much discomfort while our well-adjusted classmates are content to unbutton their cardigans and watch tennis on TV? Am I going to be a better granddad if I ride uphill until my ears bleed? Of course not, but some of us elders just need an occasional fix of righteous rivalry — as if it mattered, as if the universe really cared about which geezer staggers quickest to the finish line. Dr. Phil might ask if our need to compete means we’re masking feelings of inadequacy, or searching for affirmation and self-worth. Could be he’s right, but I suspect he’s never known what it’s like to race a bike, and I prefer to imagine that some primordial, predatory instinct is what compels me to ride through injuries, filthy weather and pitying glances from super-fit young women. Plus, it’s nice to know that this morning’s 2,000-calorie workout gives me permission to eat like a hog tonight.
Last year, I was looking for someone to help me with training, and tricked my old friend Donald into switching from running to biking. I figured I’d finally have a riding partner my approximate age (our combined years = 129), and imagined him as my unwitting domestique and all-purpose punching bag. Donald is a retired lawyer, ironic, funny, low-keyed, irrationally afraid of snakes, and a masochist when it comes to a tough workout. In a social setting, Donald is friendly enough. When he gets on a bike, he morphs into an untrustworthy weasel — stealthy, lean-muscled and willing to strike at the slightest sign of weakness. In less than a month, I created a monster. My obsessive-competitive behavioral patterns bloomed like a mutant algae all over this previously reasonable, affable, non-competitive friend. Our wives saw it unfold in all its senior silliness, and yet they’ve remained surprisingly stoic. They’re currently talking about taking a long vacation – without us.
Donald and I are still best of friends, although his exceptional skill and speed are putting a strain on our relationship. But the hundreds of miles we rode together last spring paid off and inevitably led to our first race together. (After everything I’d done for Donald, now he wanted to humiliate me.) And so In June of 2008, bemused by the vanity of our Quixotic quest, buff and balding, we entered the two time trials and two road race events at the Vermont Senior Games in Burke, Vermont. This was supposed to be a big deal: the top two finishers in each age group qualify for the 2009 Senior Games, aka The Senior Olympics (!) in Palo Alto. The Vermont races would test our fitness, and Donald and I both swore we wanted the other to win. (We’re such liars.) When we arrived at the event, however, we were puzzled to see so few cars in the parking lot. Where were the hordes we’d imagined we’d ride against, wheel-to-wheel over hill and dale in a fast-moving peloton? Where were the fancy TT bikes and the spaceman aero helmets? We’d trained ourselves as hungry predators, ready to pounce, but where was the prey?
A total of twelve seniors showed up, one dozen elder racers spread out though five age groups. At the starting line, the officials may have outnumbered the competitors. Not a huge field — but old. And snappily-dressed. Especially admirable was the septuagenarian in a plaid windbreaker, riding a rusty commuter bike with mud-flapped fenders and a luggage rack. But the day wasn’t about the bikes, or the size of the field or the level of the competition: it was about having fun. And fun we had. Donald and I rode fast and well against two younger guys in close quarters through the 20k and 40 k road races. We all crossed the finish line within inches of one another (okay, Donald was slightly ahead, but he probably cheated . . ). And here’s the surprise: Despite our unbelievable performances, they didn’t bother to test Donald and me for drugs, which seems unprofessional, but Vermonters are a trusting people. Best of all, we took home a quarter-pound of genuine imitation gold medals and qualified for the Games, which draws the top two riders in each event from all 50 states.
As of this writing, we have six months in which to prepare for some serious competition at the big California Kahuna. We’ll begin with several months of weight-work and long endurance sessions, conditioning our mitochondria to welcome stress and tricking our hearts and lungs into delivering super-oxygenated blood cells to whining muscle groups. When the weather improves, we’ll get outdoors, do interval training and longer, hilly rides. We might even average 20 mph if the wind is behind us all the way out and back. On a good day, we’ll bump fists when we get off the bikes and call each other Lloyd or Lance. On a really good day, we might read the obituaries, find an unfortunate rival’s name, and do a fist pump —Yes! . On bad days, we’ll try to reconnect with whatever noble cause our inner elder child insists it’s pursuing, and remind ourselves we’re still alive having fun.