2012: Aging Athlete

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As I hit my second serve I heard a loud “fault” from the side of the court even though the serve was in the box.  It was the short, assertive roving umpire in the official blue jacket who had arrived unnoticed and called a foot fault.  “Its your opponent’s point”, she said.  At the time, my partner and I were up 6-2 in a ten-point tiebreaker that substitutes for a third set.  I kept a Federer-like calm and carried on playing.  Until then we had the momentum, winning the second set and taking the lead in the tiebreaker, but the foot-fault proved to be a turning point.  The umpire’s timing was bad for sure and unfair according to several observers. Our opponents caught up at 9 each when both sides began to make nervous errors until we made one too many and lost the tiebreaker and the match at 13-15.  The loss put us out of the running for the championship.The United States Tennis Association has leagues categorized by level and age in Northern California (and all over the US).  Our team was in the Super Senior (>65) 4.0 level although most of us are over 70.  In the arcane USTA ratings, a 4.0 is a good club player, a 5.0 is an excellent club player, a 6.0 earns a living from tennis and Federer is a 7.0.  Most of the team were varsity players and rated 5.0 at some stage in their lives, but age has taken its toll.  Anyway, for Super Seniors 4.0 is highest league level.  The winners of the area leagues meet for the championship playoffs over three days.  This year it was held at a fancy resort in Napa.Our team has won the local league to reach the Northern California playoffs every year since 2008, but only won the championship once, in 2009.  This year we had an unblemished record, not losing a single local match to reach the playoffs.  I had high hopes of winning the championship, but it was not to be.  We lost all three of our matches.

I have a long list of excuses: at our age enjoying the camaraderie and game is more important than winning (right!); being retired, we travel and, being older, we get injured frequently.  Four in our team were not available for the playoffs.  We need at least 12 players on the team to feel secure of fielding six for matches.  I too have been injured often.  Although the injuries are minor, the recovery time has become longer and longer.

It may be time to phase out of tennis and try another sport.  But that is not easy because I have had a long, although interrupted history with tennis.  I inherited the game from my father who was a keen but untutored tennis player.  To compensate, he got me coached early, starting at the age of eight.  Unfortunately for my tennis game, I attended boarding school for nine months of the year where there were courts but no tutored partners to play with.   After finishing school in Darjeeling, I had a “gap 9 months” in Nairobi with little else to do but play tennis.  Regular practice helped to improve my game.

At the LSE, I qualified for the team in my first year.  Being an intellectual college, the standard in sports was not sterling.  I also qualified for the London University team, which was more of a challenge.   By luck or circumstance, both teams won all their matches that year.  We were all awarded “Colors” (Letters in the US?) for that achievement.  As far as I was concerned, my ambition was fulfilled or “mission accomplished” in George W. Bush’s memorable words.  I hung up my tennis racket.

For many years other leisure activities were more important than playing tennis, or keeping physically fit for that matter.  Then, in 1974, I met Rich Buck in the Stanford gym’s changing room.   I was getting ready for a Squash game and he was going to run.  He is responsible for converting me into a runner.   I began with short distances of two or three miles and then progressed to five or six.  One day, struggling up the hill behind campus, huffing and puffing, I decided that I had to choose between running and smoking.  Luckily, I chose running.  That was my first huge gain.  A few years later, I ran my first marathon in New York at age 39.  It was the biggest thrill of my sporting life.

Although I am better at sports that need hand-eye coordination and quick movement, I benefited more from running from the get-go.  I became calmer and my concentration and stamina improved.  I learned the important lesson that I needed to train every day to be able to finish a marathon months away. Without that understanding, I would not have been able to finish my doctoral dissertation.  I also learned to my surprise that I was more comfortable with the internal struggle to stretch my capacity than compete to win or lose.

Running became my main exercise for the next 20 years in New York and later in Washington DC.  I ran six marathons–five in New York and one in Washington—and many other shorter races.  The conditions in New York were difficult: cold in the winter with the occasional icy wind and snow and hot and humid in the summer with sporadic downpours.  Most of my runs were round and round Washington Square Park like a rabbit, relieved now and again by whiffs of marijuana.  Going up to Central Park at weekends, when it was free of car traffic, was a pleasure I looked forward to.  The weather was worse in Washington in the summer, but the places to run were much better.  I used the canal towpath in Georgetown and Rock Creek Park as my running paths.

Early in my running career, an experienced runner told me that we have a finite number of running miles in us depending on our physical structure.  Towards my mid-fifties, I began to feel my limit approaching as my lower back pains mounted and knees wobbled.  Meanwhile, encouraged by Arichandran, a colleague at the World Bank, who had played for Sri Lanka’s Davis Cup team, I restarted playing tennis.   But it was not easy to play regularly: I traveled a lot as did my partners; the climate was not congenial and access to courts was problematic until I joined Georgetown University’s gym facilities.  Running remained the most convenient exercise, especially while traveling.

Moving to California towards the end of 1999 at age 60 gave me the opportunity to get back into tennis consistently.   With practice and occasional guidance from a coach I was able to achieve a USTA rating of 4.5 (rating increments are in half points) within a year and was at the lower rungs of 5.0 in another six months.  Although I hate to admit it, my level of play has gradually declined with age.  Also, most of my partners stopped playing singles, some took up doubles and others started to play golf.  I have been lucky to remain fairly agile, but it’s a challenge to play with people a decade younger who are at the same level.  I don’t want to emulate the older (50+) players at the Delhi Gymkhana for whom balls more than an arms length away are too far to chase.  They let them pass by and demurely say “good shot sir”.

You would think, at age 73, that I’d go for a sedentary sport like golf, but it’s not for me.  It’s a difficult game that does not provide much exercise, but takes up a lot of time and money.   During my running days, I harbored the fantasy of doing a triathalon.  Well, if not now, then when? Age is apparently not an insurmountable barrier.  Norman, a neighbor who is my age, does triathalons regularly and Gerry, a tennis partner, recently ran 30 miles as a rabbit for a friend running in a 100 mile race.  Because of past injuries, I have learned remedial exercises to strengthen my back and other body parts to absorb the wear and tear of running better.  Indeed, I spend a good chunk of my day remedying my body—good thing I am retired and have time.

I am at the initial stages of training for an Olympic length triathalon, which is about a quarter in length of the famous Iron Man.  Having just started, I am making slow progress in each sport, but I do them on different days.  I aim to achieve the race lengths in a few months and then face the real challenge of doing them on the same day consecutively.  It’s a very long shot.  The main goal is to finish, but there will be an added bonus of coming in second or third in my age group because, likely, there will be only two or three participants.

Running, swimming and biking are solo activities that stretch capacity and improve concentration and stamina.  I wonder if the training will help me to write a longer piece as running did for my thesis.  I need the blast of endorphins to propel me into sitting at my desk for a few hours each day.