The Back Nine

author : Scott Tinley
comments : 1

by Scott Tinley
Ironman World Champion, 1982 & 1985
Ironman Hall of Famer; Triathlon Hall of Famer

          The masters triathlete can be considered as a mature and skilled performer, someone over 40 years old, or an oxymoron. It is a unique term that is equally powerful when used as either a noun or a verb. When we master a skill with every human element that we possess, then we become one of the best and earn the title. But it is also a goal; a way of working in the direction of that achievement.
          Early triathlon was populated by athletes over 30. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, kids and young adults were not as interested, didn’t have the time to train, or were simply too busy with youth-centric sports. It took many years for programs and events such as IronKids to attract enough youth athletes to sustain the races. Of course, with the sport’s popularity reaching record levels, there are now age-specific categories for everyone.
          In pre-modern times, “masters sport” was inextricably woven within the practices of youth. Youth played alongside adults when the adults were not busy with work, war, and the duties of life. But the post-war period of the middle 20th century brought us the challenges of a youth-centric culture where the aged were relegated to divisions, coaching or the sidelines. They were sometimes celebrated for their physical achievements “later in life” and other times considered as an interesting sideshow for the elite athletes.
          Then along came endurance sports with its athletes seemingly improving with age. Portugal’s Carlos Lopes winning the 1984 Olympic Marathon in Los Angeles at 37 and Dave Scott returning to Kona in 1994 at age 40 and finishing 2nd are but two examples of aging athletes mastering those decades younger. There was hope. Those of us mortals realized we might not be able to stop the clock, but with intelligent training, nutrition, and a decent gene pool, you sure could slow down those hands of time.

*                    *                    *

          This is what can happen when you get older—you go slower. Bet on it.  Still, the reality, or more correctly, the opportunity is that you may go faster. Much depends on that training, those genes, and that other desirable commodity—time. The fastest masters athletes who I know are either unemployed, underemployed or retired. They work very hard at going fast partially because they don’t work very hard behind a desk. Most have earned their right to an endurance sport lifestyle on the backs of hard work, good fortune, and well-placed chips. Many have substituted their former focus, talents, and compulsions spent on commerce or entrepreneurship with swimming, cycling, and running. They are tough to beat. And most of them deserve everything they get.
          What makes a master different than a younger, faster athlete is that a master can use that wisdom gleaned from simply having lived longer and apply it to sport; the master athlete can bask in the glory of winning his or her division or they can soak up the sun on a quiet, slow day of relatively pedestrian jogging, not caring if it takes them ten minutes to run a mile when there was a time when they could do it in five. The youth, they have choices, but they are often driven to build a pedigree if not a legacy. Older athletes can take or leave that medal. There must me another just like it in the drawer. 

Feeling your age, or half your age

          There are many clichés about age being only a number. Well…it is a number: a number that represents something. And that something is different for every athlete at every stage on the continuum where time is counted. Some days you feel the march of those hands as they push you unwillingly into your 30s, your 40s, your 50s and beyond. Muscles ache, waistlines sag, things don’t work like they used to. You feel your age.
          Other times, it is as if all your planning and efforts have paid off and the sand in the hourglass is falling in reverse. You feel half your age, assuming you did feel better when your chronology was split in two. Still, the beauty in growing older within the framework of sport is that you know that while the clock cannot be stopped it can and will vault you into another age group.

Training differently

          Training for sport, especially an endurance sport like triathlon, is different at 40 than at 20. There are logistical and physiological elements to consider. Indeed, you may be faster at 40 than 20, but you’re not faster as often. A youthful vibrant attitude can carry you a long way, maybe even across the finish line. But a little specific knowledge mixed in with that wisdom and training will carry you to the finish line faster. Then again, maybe you want to slow down and enjoy the ride. In recent years, I notice a lot more things on the trail when I plod along at an eight-minute-mile than I used to see when I averaged something closer to six.
          Mastery in sport is one of those things you can be glad you possess, but wish you could’ve just been born with instead of having to earn it. Too bad it doesn’t work that way. I suppose part of the goal is to age both slowly and gracefully, denying the back-in-the-day diatribes of sod-busting silverbacks as they weave stories and swap lies down at the corner shop. To truly know how to be an older athlete you have to be, well…older.
          Fair enough, you might think. But, is knowing how to gracefully surrender the things of youth a white flag wave of submission or a white light of wisdom? 

Illusory youth

          It seems that we are currently witnessing a cultural arms race of sorts. As society continues to embrace all things young, a correlative supply of youth-making activities, diets, devices, and drugs have given us the opportunity to meet the market demands. Or at least look good enough in dim light and heavy rouge to convince a buyer. Currently many of us are at a demographic push wherein temporary mutual détente is the goal—old enough to borrow money, vote, drink and know when to say when, but without the crow’s feet, furrowed brow, and forced compromise. Still, while some boomers cling with desperation to the faux myth of thirty-something, pouring themselves into tight jeans, Botox and Blackberries, the Great Hands of Time sweep them further into this vicarious flirt with their past.
          Less than two hundred years ago, my age (late, late, late 30s) would be considered a full life by most standards. Age has become a relative thing, right? And even though Time still moves at the same speed, we move faster, racing from one time-saving meeting to another time-efficient, health-promoting workout; all the while trying to fend off the recasting of memory, that sure-fire road to the bane of rose-tinted nostalgia. Better that we save it all for the armchair years when we can re-wind the tape and tweak the results to our favor. You know: The older I get the better I was.

          You see, everybody loves old people. We just don’t want to be one.

          How arrogant, though! How self-deceiving that we should force-tune our minds to a hip-hop score when classic rock or even Muzak is what our advancing cells crave. All we’ve done is create our own stereotypes, allowed Madison Ave. to be the architect of our desires and quite likely, increased our aging in the process. It’s the tortoise and the hare with a Sisyphean sub-plot.

Celebrating mastery

          Yet, not all people live with tin foil on their windows. Growing older as an athlete places you in the company of others who know how to walk that high wire of aging-up, how to live in a societal DMZ on a raft between the phalanxes of illusory youth and the rocky shores of unnecessary debilitation; a place that has to be earned, appreciated, and accepted. With a bit of wind, it can be a lovely sail.
          You’ve met them. They know the constellation of possibilities that come with titles like grand master and kahuna. They don’t freak out when a notice from the AARP arrives in the mail. They celebrate birthdays replete with enough candles to set off the smoke alarm. They reserve silicone for caulking the bathtub. They train less but smarter, refusing to consider their commitment to athleticism as one might consider stations of the cross, or a serial monogamous relationship with one route, one sport, one way to keep the blood flowing. Old, smart athletes worship Jimmy Buffet and grow older, not up. They are their own tribe of weathered refugees, happy to be in motion because their arterial flow is fueled not by the media or by golden-calf, ill-motivated, five hour bike rides. Only by the knowledge that they could do it and still be at their desks by noon, fresh and ready to design better widgets.
          It’s hard to meld the past with the future, to exist in the moment with one foot in Gen-X and the other in gentrification. But sport is a kind of friction-free lubrication, a bridge that not so much spans time as it elongates the moments between then and now. Through sport we can play hopscotch on the sidewalk and shun the dystopia of safe and sane-consciousness. Through sport we can wear those tight jeans because larger ones fall down and anything medium has a vanilla-taste. Through sport we can move laterally, dancing between worlds, generations, leaping as spawning salmon or bottom lying, ageless catfish. Through sport we can move through time with grace instead of youthful rage or desolate, peri-menopausal cynicism.
          I suppose that learning how to know how is a life-long process. In the beginning you succeed on instinct. Closer to the end you win because you just don’t give a damn. Ever wonder why kids and grandparents never tuck their shirts into their pants while the mid-term, over-achievers wear flip-top cell phones on leather belts that match their shoes?  I’d like to think that I’m smarter than my training log, heart-rate monitor, and rear-view mirror. I know that appearing objects are potentially larger than what I see or measure. And I pray that if I keep in shape with training by feel, ambition, and some hopeful interpretation of dreams, I will be able to cast off the shackles of immaturity and arrive time and again at the place that I’ve come to know as the beginning.
          Make no mistake; senior discounts at the movie theater do not make up for osteoarthritis.  But by most standards that I know, growing old in sport is better than the alternative. 

Join the conversation


Scott Tinley won the Ironman World Championship twice (1982, 1985) and the Ironman World Series three times. He was inducted into both the Triathlon and Ironman Hall of Fame upon retirement in 1999.

Near the end of his professional career he helped found and develop the sport of offroad triathlon and continues to co-own and manage the longest running offroad triathlon in the world, Scott Tinley’s Adventures in San Luis Obispo, California.

Rating

Click on star to vote
11471 Total Views  |  36 Views last 30 days  |  9 Views last 7 days
date: March 10, 2011

Author


Scott Tinley

As the sport of triathlon gained in popularity Scott turned pro in 1983. Between those early years and his move back to the amateur ranks in 1999, Tinley competed in over 400 triathlons, winning close to 100 of them, making him one of the top three winning triathletes of all time.

He won the Ironman World Championship twice (1982, 1985) and the Ironman World Series three times. He was inducted into both the Triathlon and Ironman Hall of Fame upon retirement in 1999.

Near the end of his professional career he helped found and develop the sport of offroad triathlon and continues to co-own and manage the longest running offroad triathlon in the world, Scott Tinley’s Adventures in San Luis Obispo, California.

Scott Tinley's Website

Author

avatarScott Tinley

As the sport of triathlon gained in popularity Scott turned pro in 1983. Between those early years and his move back to the amateur ranks in 1999, Tinley competed in over 400 triathlons, winning close to 100 of them, making him one of the top three winning triathletes of all time.

He won the Ironman World Championship twice (1982, 1985) and the Ironman World Series three times. He was inducted into both the Triathlon and Ironman Hall of Fame upon retirement in 1999.

Near the end of his professional career he helped found and develop the sport of offroad triathlon and continues to co-own and manage the longest running offroad triathlon in the world, Scott Tinley’s Adventures in San Luis Obispo, California.

Scott Tinley's Website

View all 38 articles