Notes from Underground: A Rookie Master’s Sprinter Diary

This article is guest blogged by Paul Hoffman from My Two Cents: Thoughts of a Small Town Therapist.     

It was the summer of 2010.  I was watching the USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships.  A light bulb went on in my brain.  I’M GOING TO BE A SPRINTER AGAIN!!!

It had been 45 years.  I was 13  and in eighth grade and I gave up a promising sprinting and baseball career for rock and roll.    It was 1965, and I cast my lot with The Beatles instead of the jocks.

I got in my car and drove to the high school track.  I walked off what I guessed was about 50 yards, leaned in for a standing start, took one step, and pulled my right quad.

Limping home, resting with an ice pack, I started “Googling”.  I read an article by a high school coach named Anthony Holler of North Plainfield High School in Illinois, and promptly sent him an email explaining my pipe dream, and asked for a few tips to get me started.  He wrote back a very gracious letter, offering to coach me via emails and training DVDs that he’d created for his kids.  I was thrilled.  I waited for what felt like an eternity for my quad to heal (Lesson #1:  Older athletes take a long time to recover), and began doing drills and short sprints.  I felt pretty good.  I did them daily, and before long my legs hurt all the time. Rest and recovery.  Not easy for an impatient 58 year old sprinter wannabe.

For weeks and weeks, I tweaked muscles and other soft tissue on a regular basis.  Ice and ibuprofen became my best friends.  After 3 months, things started settling down and I was working out comfortably.  I was ready to race!  I had by then found all the Master’s websites, and made it my zealous and heartfelt goal to be on the rankings list, preferably not last, but I’d settle for being close to the last ranking time.  I found an event at a local college that was open to all.  December 4, 2010…. Paul Hoffman would join the fraternity.

It was a beautiful early winter day.  I got there early,  proudly registered,  looked around at all the 18 year olds. and secretly gloated when they were so impressed.  There were no other older athletes in sight.

I warmed up, felt great, adrenaline coursing my veins, and finally, I was at the start line.  I leaned in for a standing start, the gun went off right as I was losing my balance, I was meters behind, and took off.  I was flying, floating, in a dream world of abandoned speed.  The finish line was in sight, when suddenly I felt or heard the sound of two giant carrots snapping in my upper, inner thigh.  I stumbled across the finish line, and limped to the corner of the arena, filled  with humiliation and embarrassment.

I had a severe groin injury.  I was black, not black and blue, but black….from my hip to my knee throughout my groin.  I had hematomas everywhere.  I felt like a fool.

I quit my little dream.

Does swimming have Master’s events and rankings lists? Yup….and off I hobbled to the pool, an environment I always hated.  I swam for three months.  It wasn’t me.  It was now March 2011, my shoulders and neck were chronically tight and sore, and before long I was back on the track.

Photo Credits: Ken Stone, MastersTrack.com

It’s been 15 months since my injury.  I haven’t raced again (yet).   I switched to working out on the football artificial turf,  instead of the track, and train every 2-4 days.  My 60m time is about 11 seconds.  I’m slow, but I’m healthy, and I feel great. 

Lessons Learned:

  1. Ha…you know what number 1 is.
  2. Lesson #2… The old adage “listen to your body” couldn’t be more true for an older athlete.  I have met lots of wonderful people these past two years.  Folks like Coach Holler, and Jimson Lee, have been extremely helpful and generous with their time.  But I think the key for an older athlete is to find your own way based on how you feel day in and day out.   Take all the expert advice, and use it, usually by trial and error, to create a training strategy that’s right for you.  Young, elite athletes can more or less follow the prescribed regimen as a group I think.  But 18 year old bodies are much more alike than 60 year old bodies.  Older athletes have to be MENTALLY patient, flexible, and resilient, so that they can allow their bodies to dictate what comes next.

My injury in December 2010 was my fault.  I hadn’t  trained the way Coach was advising.  I was holding back in my training, fearful of getting injured before the big race.  So when the gun went off, and the adrenaline flowed, I ran at a speed probably 20% faster than my top training speed.  Recipe for disaster.

Lesson #3.  You can’t make up for lost time. You can’t compare yourself to anyone.  Our bodies at this age are very different from one another.  Your Master’s ability has everything to do with the previous 60 years, not only in terms of your general health profile, but in terms of your time in training and your body’s response to that over time.  Remember, young athletes are self-selected because of their ability.  Older athletes are self-selected because of their dreams.

Again, I wish to publicly thank Anthony and Jimson for their generous guidance.  They have given me a real gift and I am very grateful.  I wished I’d listened better, and dreamt less.  But I’m here now….I’m 60…I train every other day, I feel alive and jubilant every time out, and I’ve learned my lessons.

I am a sprinter.

About the Author

Paul Hoffman is a psychotherapist and musician in East Greenwich, Rhode Island.  He writes a blog entitled My Two Cents: Thoughts of a Small Town Therapist.