Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Master plan

I am a competitive person--competitive with myself and competitive with others. When I'm out running or on my bike and I see another runner or cyclist up ahead, I shift into predator mode. My main objective is to overtake my prey. I stalk, strategize, and then strike!

But there are plenty of times when I am the prey, the one being conquered. As an endurance athlete, speed is not my strength. So, on the rare occasions when I am leading the pack, I cling to the feeling and milk it for all it's worth because it rarely lasts.

When I first started swimming on a master's team more than a decade ago, I was easily one of the slowest swimmers in the pool. I was regularly lapped by just about everyone, including the grandpas and the senior ladies from aqua aerobics. I'd arrive at the wall, gasping for breath, hoping for a short break, but all of the swimmers in my lane would have already headed out for the next set. So, it was push off and try to catch up or be lapped once more. It was demoralizing.

But I didn't give up and after a year on the team I'd actually moved up to a speedier lane--which was a good thing, except I had to start all over at the bottom of the food chain again, becoming prey once more--the little fish swimming with a new group of sharks.

Flash forward to the present and, while I'm not setting any speed records, I've become a decent swimmer; no longer a fish out of water gasping for breath at the wall. I do not practice with a masters team but I regularly participate in a swim fit class at my local YMCA, which is run very much like a master's team and is led by the Y's swim team coach.

To my surprise and delight, I am one of the faster swimmers in the pool and it feels so good and is such an ego boost. And if the instructor says to do ten laps, I can usually do 14. If she says we can use fins, I leave mine on the deck and can still keep up with the interval.

Today my ego was knocked down a few pegs. This has happened on several other occasions when a far more accomplished swimmer has shown up for class. It's a good reminder of how small I really am in the great big sea. But today, it wasn't another swimmer who left me in their wake; today I was eating my own bubbles.

We were given a backstroke drill using the pull buoy. The instructor warned us to take it easy because the buoy would force our shoulders to work harder than usual, that we might feel a "pulling" sensation as a result and should consider doing only one lap on our backs instead of all six.

Pshaw. One lap in and a I was feeling great, so I did another and another, until I'd done the whole set on my back. I was the only one who did and I was the first one back to the wall. By the time I'd gotten to the showers, I realized I was the only fool in the pool.

My shoulder was sore and tight. For most of the day, it hurt to lift it beyond ninety degrees. And something became abundantly clear to me as never before--I may not be swimming on a master's team, but I am within months of officially becoming a masters athlete so maybe I'd better start behaving like one!

In triathlon, a masters athlete is anyone age 40 or older. At some point, I've got to realize that pushing my body the way I did in my 20s may now result in injury instead of a bump up to the speedier lane. There were no awards today for who could swim the fastest or the longest, so the only person I was competing with was myself. I'd become my own prey.

As I move toward my masters years, maybe it is okay to not always be the predator. Maybe slow and steady is what it will take to win the race.

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