Friday, August 17, 2012

Ugly

Four minutes in, and I know today is going to be a struggle. It’s gonna be ugly.


The climb up the stairs is exceedingly brutal, the sweat starts earlier, and the second wind ain’t coming. I think about quitting at ten minutes, twelve minutes, fifteen minutes. Those are nice round times, and a man can’t be faulted for one “easy day,” right?

But I keep going. I trod through leafy streets, around dollies used to bring in beer to the convenience store, over dried dog crap (doh!), and by lecherous fifty-year-olds at the bus stop. I keep going, at speeds perhaps approximating those of bronze-medal race walkers, if I’m being generous.

Three minutes to go, ok, I can do this. Three minutes is nothing. That’s only ninety seconds, I mean, 180. It’s nothing. Then I see that I’m off a minute somehow. Four minutes left.

Those last four minutes? Nothing pretty. Sweat in eyes, shadows seeming to disappear in favor of more direct sunlight, cracks in sidewalk seeming to crop up out of nowhere. But I get to the finish line, my apartment gate at 22:50. I do ten seconds of hardcore running in place and finish at 23:00.

Now that’s a round number.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

22:19


The brilliant teacher of writing, Ann Lamott, writes in the book of the same name about the importance of writing “bird by bird.” She uses the example of the blank page being so daunting for the writer, and therefore, the key is to just start by describing some birds. Start by doing something.

For the aspiring dunker and recovering Achilles tendon-er, the advice rings so true. After watching (and watching, and watching) the pitiful first leaps towards the rim since my injury, hope does not seem to be easy to find. With so much room to make up—I barely touched net—it is easy to convince myself that dunking is as likely as Lil’Wayne being named “Best Rapper Alive.” Wait, bad example…

So what to do? Lamott has her birds, and I have my seconds. Though I would eschew running long-distance in a second for sprints and basketball running, I know that all I have at this point is my stopwatch and my word—sorry, Tony Montana.

My stopwatch usually runs to 15 or 20 minutes before I stop, but two nights ago, I ran for 22:18. Do not forget the 18 seconds.

And last night? I had to show some improvement, some Northeast movement on the graph, so I decided that I would, come hell or high temperatures, run at least 22:19.

It’s one of those nights. You know the type. There is no reason that I should already be tired after (what!) four minutes. 18 minutes, 19 seconds to go, and I’ve already approximated that slouchy, head and shoulders not above the knees, posture of the struggling long-distance runner.

I slept well last night, though I maybe lost 15 minutes here and there with that early morning text—stupid Eastern Standard Time. I have been eating well, and not too heavily, for the last few days. Yes, it’s a few degrees hotter than usual, but still, enough to make me want to quit after four minutes?

I take my usual trek across the street and down the level cement to the park that is as close to my “usual” as exists. Running the bike path, I make sure to not look behind me after I pass up walkers—it’s a little embarrassing to see people who should have been left in the dust still shuffling along, not too far behind, in my rearview.

My breathing is fairly regular, and I get a bit of that fabled “second wind.”

At just before 11 minutes, I decide to double back, as the stairs I’m about to climb will delay me enough to break my run into almost-perfect halves.

Oh, man, the stairs. There are three sections, each with about ten steps, and there are times on the stairs that I feel like a stalled car, wondering if I’m making any forward momentum even though my legs are moving. The stairs are my toughest test, even tougher than the last minute of my runs.

Except for today. Today, I feel good, despite the heat, despite the shoulder/upper chest cramps, and sweat that makes me squint like I’m continually winking. I feel good because I have taken myself to my limit, and I even lose track of the stopwatch for a minute.

I see the gate to my apartment that signals the end of my run. I look hopefully at my stopwatch, hoping I have crossed the 22:18 threshold.

22:38. Yep, now I guess the bar has been raised. So much for going at least a second more each successive run. So, tomorrow?

22:58, it is.

August 15, 2012: Chillin with The Bees


I went to the gym yesterday, knowing full well that I wasn’t ready to play with the college ballers yet, but hoping to shoot around a little bit. With the gym floor being redone, I decided to hit the weight room to maybe make an incremental improvement in leg strength. Little did I know I would be entering the World of the Bees.

The name “Bee” was invented by my friend Jay, and it was derived from the fact that these guys are, act like, or want to be, “swoll,” “ripped,” “cut,” etc. They are swollen like a finger after a bee sting.

There are many species of bees, including The Gregarious Bee—the guy who knows everyone at the gym, especially the cute girls. There is the Top-Heavy Bee, the one who has neglected his lower body in favor of his upper body, making him look like those body builders in SNL’s “How Much ya Bench?” skit with Jay Mohr.

There is also that unique Bee, The Bee who is Involved in Pursuing a University Degree—i.e., a College Bee. I was surrounded by these Bees as used the weight room at the college rec center. They are an impressive lot, with their pinkish/brownish liquids drunk out of Nalgene bottles, their endless strutting, and fraternity t-shirts.

Man, it’s amazing how good of shape we are in, or can be, as college students. The same “bros” who drink to excess on weekends and many times on week nights (remember those random Wednesday night trips to the bars?), are the same guys who have the juicehead physiques. While there is that subset of Bees who eats very well, minds their minerals and vitamins, and drinks at or above the recommended level of water each day, many TBwiIiPaUD’s gorge themselves on greasy cafeteria food and cartons of whatever cereal, popcorn, and ice cream can be bought on the cheap at the campus grocery store.

It was during my senior year of college, when I regularly ate grilled, boneless and skinless chicken breast, rice, and sourdough bread (carbs are no biggie when you’re 22!), followed by a fresh-fruit smoothie for dessert, that I was at my peak conditioning. My thin arms rippled a bit with veins and muscle, my chest had gone from concave to pec-worthy, and my abs, while not washboard, were at least rough cement-wall quality.

The fact that I was drinking a good, but not unhealthy, amount—senior year, braghh!—seemingly had no bearing on my physical conditioning, as I played full-court regular basketball games and put myself through long weight workouts with minimal fuss.

And to think that I thought that it would always be this easy. This easy to recover from workouts. This easy to stay in aesthetically-pleasing shape. This. Easy.

As I stare at my slightly-protruding gut sideways in the mirror, I wonder if somewhere inside the gut, and somewhere inside me, is that Wannabe Bee of nine years ago.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Anniversary

video video
Where the great Toni Tony Tone when you need 'em to sing a little "Anniversary?"  Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of my injury, and in a slighty-weird homage, I found that I needed to take a shot from The Spot.  The free throw line where I jumped and landed so horribly seemed not to have shed any tears from the accident, and there was something about the gym and its ecletic mix of surfer dudes, legit ballers, and men of and indeterminate age above 35 that made me think of cycles. 
I was once the legit baller (maybe I will be again), and now am some ten or twelve years older than the youngest guys out there.  I received a hearty greeting from Brad, a guy I used to play against, and before he could get the words out, "What up, man?  Haven't seen you since..." I told him the short story of my post-injury recovery, and had a notion that it seemed like I'd just been talking to him, but at the same time, it had been ages since I'd talked to him.  Brad was the one who remarked that my shoes were "Mr. Rogers-style" and not basketball ready, just a few minutes before my Achilles cracked like a Kit Kat commercial.
We were both a year older, and I hadn't played a single competitive minute in 365 days.  Brad, being That Guy that You Always See (in this case, at that gym), must have played tens or hundreds of times in that stretch.
Was this a well-needed rest for an aging athlete, or a missed opportunity where my vertical and chances of dunking took a nosedive that is impossible to regain?
As I took that jump shot from the spot of my injury, I felt a chill that was dwarfed by the chill I get when I think of the fact that if I fastforward a year, the same guys will be there, and I'll be a year older.  And I know that all of the days in-between, the calf raises, the weight lifting, the (hopefully) pickup games, will seem like nothing more than a breath.
It's up to me, though, how much better, how much fitter, how much stronger I get in the meantime. 

*See above video for the jump shot and my first rim jumps in a year-with me barely able to touch rim...err...net.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

With Age Comes Reinvention

I have always admired those who have maintained their greatness for so many years, largely due to reinvention.  Examples of this include Andre Agassi, Sophia Loren, Michael Jordan, and Betty White.
(I'm sorry, I don't mean that last one.  So she cusses and talks about sex.  And, she's old.  So what's so groundbreaking about that?  I say, good for you, Betty, you were great on "Golden Girls."  Get that paper, player!)
Agassi was a hot shot with hair extensions, a huge talent who did well for a few years, lost his motivation, and then reinvented himself as a well-conditioned, baldheaded workhorse who won multiple majors at an age considered ancient in the Bizarro World that is tennis.
Sophia?  Well, she was a bombshell who made young men and old men salivate, then she aged gracefully and made old men salivate (and some young men, too).
Michael Jordan came into the NBA as "Air Jordan," a guy who seemed to jump into the air, and then decide what he wanted to do, a guy who made the jawdropping dunk, spin move, or steal his Normal. 
He exited the league a still-athletic 35-year-old whose last shot was a perfect-form free-throw line jumper to win the 1998 NBA Finals.*
Though Jordan's "reinvention" did not coincide perfectly with his return to the NBA from minor league baseball in 1995, this time is a good jumping off spot for his relaunching, MJ 2.0. 
Realizing that a basketball player's shelf life is fairly short (just ask Kobe: only 33, but hearing whispers turn into chatter about how effective he will be in this year's Olympics and beyond), MJ turned to the weight room, strength coach Tim Grover, and an improved post game to prolong the prime of his career. 1980s MJ, he of the little patch of hair, cursive Chicago jersey, and butthuggers, looked to drive, drive, drive.  Mid-90s MJ looked to post up, hit turnaround J's, and drive to the hoop when available. 
Can you, then, teach an old dog new tricks?  R.A. Dickey is having by far his best baseball season at the ripe age of 37, reinvigorated by so much success and being held up as such a role model for his courage.
Can Jamie, dunk at age 32 or 33 with more force than the rim-spinner dunk of high school?  Can the teenager who aged too quickly, with a bad back and creaky joints, emerge energetic and limber?
Maybe I should talk to Betty White about how she did it...



*You may choose to include MJ's time with the Washington Wizards as part of his playing career; I just choose not to do so.

Narcissism? (Um, yeah)

Hitting the weight room as a teenager and a twentysomething, as discussed earlier, was a more straightforward endeavor-get stronger and in better shape.  And, get girls' attention.
Now, as a 31-year-old who's seriously training for no varsity team, no starting spot, I ask myself why I still hit the weight room pretty regularly?
Umm, to get attention from the opposite sex.
And, to like stay healthy and stuff.
A friend, using a tone of voice reserved for denunciations of philandering politicians and the type of people who win annual Darwin Awards, scoffed at my regular workouts, calling them "needless narcissism." 
Yeah, it's clearly narcissism, and...?
As I get older, and even now, I am aware that things that were of no concern just a few years ago will rear their ugly heads soon enough-obesity, diabetes, etc.--if not hit with a George W. preemptive strike. 
But I am narcisstic enough to dismiss narcissism as a motivating (the) motivating factor behind my exercise routine?  No way. 
But maybe there is a fundamental difference between the motivations of 18-year-old and present-day Jaime?  It is this: though I've never been an Adonis, I work out now to avoid looking like a slob, while I worked out then with a more optimistic idea that I could soon be that Hulk on the posters?
You could say  that I playing not to lose (pun intended) now, and then, I was playing to win.

Competition

video
A few days shy of a year since my injury, I played tennis.  This was the first time I hit the court since a day or two before my injury, and I will say that in many ways, the tennis stroke is like riding a bike.  If the ball was hit to me by my patient partner (shout out to JP), then I could easily return it, even with a decent amount of pace.  The lateral movement (obvi!) was the tough part, a bit more difficult even than the arduous forward run. 
How to qualify this return to the court?  A competitive match?  Besides a well-placed lob over my head as I "rushed" the net, my partner was very helpful in hitting returns that allowed me to move just a few feet in whatever direction in order to return the ball.  His shots were more or less prescribed, and on a few, I even told him exactly where to hit it.  We rarely served, and when we did, we both seemed to have an unspoken agreement that made us go for a winner down a line that would eliminate any needless rallies if successful or not.  We ended our play with a best of three match ("Sets?" I said incredulously); the winner getting two games.  I'm proud to say that I lost a three game thriller, winning on serve in game two.  Let it be known that the great majority of my points were on semi-long rallies where my opponent could have easily moved me around with a well-placed drop shot, but chose not to take candy from this baby. 
So, all in all, I would say our match was analogous to the "simulated game" a recovering pitcher will use to get himself back to professional baseball shape.
Do you think then, that my pumped fist at the end of my winning game was in some way "simulated" or not genuine?
Hell no.

(See above for some practice footage)