Opinion | Lazarus: Reflections of an aging athlete
I have been an athlete my whole life. One might rate me mediocre-plus, but persistent. Self-taught tennis player at age 11. Big for my age. At 13, I was 5’10”, 175 pounds and shaving regularly. At summer camp that year I was a bit of a softball phenom, could run fast and I had a wicked two-handed set shot. Problem was I couldn’t jump or shoot with one hand. Playing high school football for about five minutes forced me to realize I liked girls and parties way more than dirt in my face. Soon, my short, slightly-built buddies were taller, heavier and faster, while I continued to shave and lose my hair. You know you are follicularly challenged when your nickname in high school is chrome dome.
But I persevered. I had an epiphany at age 27. Vietnam will do that to you. As a newly minted medical corps captain, I arrived in the country angry, depressed and overweight. Plus Jack Daniels was 25 cents a shot. After about a week of drinking myself into oblivion, missing my wife and 1-year-old son, I put Jack on the shelf and never touched a drop the rest of the year. I started to diet and exercise. The docs played volleyball and basketball. I fit right in. Five months later, I was moved to the 173rd Airborne onto a dusty firebase in the Central Highlands. The fenced perimeter was to keep out the VC. It became my running track. Volleyball was now so fierce and fast-paced that our executive officer was detached from his two front teeth. Me: I had dropped to 157 pounds from a peak of 190 when I “returned to the world”.
That was nearly 50 years ago. I have stayed fit for half a century. Tennis craze, 1970s. Check. I was hospital champ five years running. Marathon fever. Check. Completed seven. Skiing, hiking and biking: yes, yes and yes. My medical career was fulfilling, but I wanted to pursue the outdoor life. Early retirement at 54: a move to the mountains of Colorado; nirvana. That was 22 years ago. Living amongst an athletically motivated senior community, I was a leader. Certainly not the best skier, fastest hiker or swiftest cyclist, but I was “up there.” All the 14ers, the Triple Bypass, ski guide and trip host. Check. Finally, six years ago, I could no longer tolerate the elevation. Down the hill to Denver and oxygen. Now, there are day trips to the mountains to ski, no more high-elevation hiking, and flat cycling in Denver.
But in my mind I am still a young athlete. I am 40, 50 or 60. Even at 76. Forget the bald head, lined face and saggy skin. Reality, though, was jarred to the present this past January. I linked up with an online group doing the “W,” an iconic adventure hike in Torres del Paine, Chile. Forty miles, three nights of camping with lots of elevation gain — all below 5,000 feet. My lungs would be happy. At our planning meeting, I looked around the room. No one looked like me, especially the two 20-year-old Norwegian blonde girls, or the muscular hunks from Germany and Tasmania.
The first day out on the trail I immediately fell behind. I could not keep pace, nor would I ever catch up. I was stunned. I was angry. All were so nice and friendly, even obsequious. Were they pandering to the old man? The first day of 14 miles was billed to take nine hours. I finished in nine hours, but they were at the trailhead in eight or earlier. Eyes adverted my arrival. I was not used to being ignored. I was always out front or in the lead group. Now, I had my own personal guide in the rear. Each day. We all parted Chile with smiles and shared photos. But I doubt they will be knocking on my door in Denver looking for a hiking partner.
I continued on my travels alone while ruminating about my age, my newly realized lost speed and agility, and even my own mortality. I had, quite frankly, never thought about it before. My conclusion: Getting old is a state of mind. Clearly, I must have lost mine to think I could hike with the young. However, I refuse to give in until the grim reaper comes calling. On the other hand, in the future, I am going to hike, bike and ski only with my senior buddies — unless there are blonde, 20-year-old Norwegian girls leading the way.
Barry and Fran Lazarus lived in Silverthorne from 1997 to 2014. They were contestants on Season 9 of The Amazing Race on CBS in 2006.
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