Lifestyle

Richard, 70: I Had To!

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At 10:00am on July 14th, 2012, I approached the starting line for my first competitive 400-meter dash since high school, 42 years ago. It was the Tennessee Senior Olympics state championship. The temperature was in the low 80s. The sky was overcast, and a light rain started. It wasn’t windy. Everything seemed surreal…

“Growing old isn’t for the faint of heart.”

Fifteen months earlier, at age 59, I was forty pounds overweight and a quarter century out of shape. After failed back surgery in 1987, the surgeon advised me not to run anymore. He suggested cycling. I tried it — intolerable. I tried jogging, but soon gave up that, too. I had to.

In the downward spiral that followed, I became pre-diabetic, had high blood pressure, arthritic-like pains in my joints, and a variety of other maladies. My grandfather’s words, “Growing old isn’t for the faint of heart.” rang truer and truer. I needed to make changes, but was in denial about how much I had to.

I started getting into shape through CrossFit, but they don’t emphasize running. With better fitness came better health. On a whimsy, I discovered I could run again. A friend told me about the National Senior Games. “No way!” I thought to myself. “Too much risk to the back.” But, the seed was planted…

On your marks

So, I took my spot outside in lane six for the chance to qualify for the 2013 National Senior Games Association’s Championships in Cleveland, Ohio, at a university a few miles from my childhood home and the junior high school where I first participated in track. Qualify? I had to!

“On your marks.” I mentally rehearsed this countless times. I had to finish at least fourth to qualify. There were four runners who had times as fast or (much) faster than I had managed in practice. I knew I had to start very aggressively and expected a tough fight for fourth.

“Set.” Most of the other runners wore spikes. I didn’t. The track wasn’t slick yet from the rain, but still, no spikes was a disadvantage. I didn’t care. I was a “mudder” anyway. I focused on a fast start. I had to.

“Bang!” The first curve seemed to last forever. At 100m, I was running well. No one had made up the stagger. The 400 is really a race to 100, then seeing who fades the least.

An incomprehensible feeling

At 150m, I felt the exertion so much that I questioned “What have I done!?” Fearing I started too fast, a pit formed in my stomach. Around 180m, I realized I couldn’t hear the footsteps of anyone else. “Where are they?? This isn’t right!”

200m — halfway and heading into the second curve. Fatigued, I wondered how much I had left. Then, around 250m I heard footsteps. Two sets, maybe more. “Here they come!”

I saw the hands and feet of one runner in my peripheral vision. Another one was there, too.  Miraculously, they didn’t pull even or pass me. Maybe they were just waiting to start their kick.

“Where’s the finish line!??”

Runners usually kick after the turn, but I planned to go about 20 meters before that. By then, at 280m, I was down to grit and dreaded the moment when muscles tie up due to the lactic acid. Grit got me a half a stride. It had to. “Where’s the finish line!??”

“Oh, no! It’s waaay down there!” I couldn’t see it. Intense tunnel vision. No sound, no rain, just the strain to keep them at bay. “Now I see it! 30 meters to go. 20-10-5, LEAN!!!

…. I stopped and looked around. The finish was more surreal than the start. I had won! The challengers finished 0.25 and 0.33 seconds behind. It must have been an exciting race to watch.

My time was six seconds faster than my best practice time, and less than a second over USATF’s All-American standard for my age group. Incomprehensible.

Enjoy the journey

15 months prior, if you had told me any of this would happen, I would have laughed in disbelief. (Sometimes I still do.) It clearly wasn’t possible. I never would have set out to do this. Back then, I didn’t have any goals except to make it through the month-long intro CrossFit class unhurt. It was a big goal.

Now, my goals are simply to excel at what I can control: Go to the gym 2-3 times per week. Run and train 3-5 times per week. Eat for health and performance. Enjoy the journey and the new friends I’ve made along the way.

Richard Westbrook is one of the 2023 Senior Planet Sponsored Athletes, and he’ll be sharing updates on his health and wellness journey through the rest of this year. Richard, age 70, believes that being fit is like getting a new lease on life. His decision to begin exercising regularly in his late 50s changed everything for the better. Today, Richard wants to provide as much encouragement as possible to fellow older adults, especially those who aren’t yet fully committed to fitness. Be on the lookout for a “Wellness Wednesday” session with Richard in June, at seniorplanet.org/fitness.


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