Friday, January 24, 2020

A life of sport: I have a real track record

Maryland Senior Olympics, 2008

            Today if I am able to walk 400 steps and stand up from sitting 36 times, I call it a successful day physically. But this wasn’t always the case. I had a lifetime of trying out different sports—doing well in some and mediocre in most of them, but enjoying them immensely while I was participating in them. I am pretty proud of my last real effort at serious athletic adventure—track and field—which I participated in from 2007-2012.

            My last track meet was in September 2012 at the 37th Annual Potomac Valley Games in Falls Church, Virginia. I would get up early on a Sunday, eat a light, protein rich breakfast, pack some snacks, Gaterade, water, and my shot put and discus then drive across town to the track and field meet at Falls Church High School. Rarely were there any women in my age class. Typically, the meet was populated by high school aged track stars who were interested in getting some extra practice in. Young men in their 20s and 30s gathered to do the 100 meter dash. For the field events, discus and shot put, mostly older men, even in their 80s, were common. I won three gold medals that day in shot put, discus, and the 100 meter dash, but it wasn’t my personal best. I’d done much better in previous years, but nonetheless I enjoyed concentrating on my event and was elated when it was over. How I ended up doing something slightly unusual is due to a number of fortuitous events.

            In 2005, I was in way northern Svalbard on the AMASE Expedition (see earlier blogs on AMASE). Our ship, the M/V Polarsyssel, was anchored in Bocfjorden in clear view of Sverrefjellet volcano and the Devonian-aged red beds that looked like Mars. We’d spent the day on Sverrefjellet examining the unusual rocks called xenoliths that come from deep inside the Earth’s mantle—tens of kilometers below the surface. These xenoliths are apricot to apple sized sphere-shaped rocks with a core of green minerals that are mostly olivine—which as this mineral’s name implies is green--surrounded by black volcanic basalt. Each year on AMASE, our fearless leader Hans Amundson and the crew planned a barbecue for everyone that took place on the shore directly adjacent to the ship. On this particular year, one of the Norwegian scientists was celebrating his 40th birthday. 

AMASE barbecue on shore. Marilyn in blue down jacket, center 2005

            There is an old saying “when the Norwegian takes the cap off the Aquavit bottle, he throws it away.” Well, maybe it’s not a real ancient saying in Norway, but I’d observed this to be true.

            The birthday party continued from early evening to early morning. As the senior woman on board ship, I felt a sense of motherliness in watching how people were behaving. Around 3 am, one of my younger colleagues was bundled into her bunk after some drama that included some tears and some ragged laughter. After she was safely in bed, I needed a last breath of fresh air and headed back to the upper helicopter deck where the birthday celebrant and our resident artist were smoking cigarettes. The ship was illuminated by early morning light that graced the towering volcano. It was magical. I recall standing next to the birthday boy on one side with artist Eammon Shaw on his other side staring at the mountain and taking in its beauty.

            Suddenly, I found myself on the hard metal deck of the ship. I was bewildered then realized that my colleague, who was obviously still very much under the influence of the Aquavit, had thrown me down. WTF?! Eammon was also manhandled down as well but he fought back. He was uninjured, but I, on the other hand, struggled to stand up. This one brief incident caused years of pain, surgery, and jump-started my track and field career.
Carnegie Team, 2005, day one of torn ACL and MCL


            After two knee surgeries to repair two ripped ligaments (my ACL and MCL), I began a long period of recovery with weekly physical therapy. I was out of work for about a month and worked as much as I could from my laptop sitting on my bed. When my physical therapy ended in 2006, I joined an exercise group at my local YMCA in Silver Spring Maryland. The group met at 7 am three times a week. The leader was a Vietnam vet with a white ponytail and leg warmers. My fellow exercisers were mostly in their 70s, if not older. The class worked for me to get me going but eventually I need something more.

            The YMCA had a bunch of personal trainers and I was assigned to Anthony Segun Sokenu, a young man who hailed from Nigeria and came to the United States in high school. His nickname amongst his peers was “Black” and during his college years he was a super Decathlon athlete mastering all ten of the track and field events. Anthony is an Olympic class athlete, but owing to a pulled muscle, he was unable to qualify for the Olympic trials in his last year at University. This misfortune for Anthony benefited many more people in so many ways. Anthony’s day job was working for Special Olympics of Washington DC where he works with young people who are developmentally disabled, but often physically able.
Anthony Segun Sokenu and Marilyn consulting during track meet, 2008

            I was a different challenge for him. As a high-functioning adult in terms of mental capability, I was a pathetic specimen of an older female who couldn’t run 100 feet without collapsing in exhaustion. Anthony took me on as a special case. We met twice weekly at the YMCA gym and fields for a year. He was pushy and demanding as well as patient and understanding. By the end of 6 weeks, I was running and walking a mile. By 8 weeks, I ran my first mile without stopping! It was a redletter day for both of us. We paired our running exercises with strength training in the gym. I became a bit of a gym rat with my weightlifting gloves, spandex pants, and Nike t-shirt. After 9 months, I ran my first 5k race and finished without walking, albeit at a slow comfortable pace. I could bench press 80 pounds easily.

            Anthony’s strategy worked. After the serious physical training, in 2007 I was able to summit the Sverrefjellet volcano once again without a problem! I was jazzed and kept continuing to build my strength and abilities. 
Hans and Marilyn summiting volcano, 2007


            One day in 2008, Anthony said, “I’d like to ask you a question. “

            “Sure,” I answered.

            “Are you just in this for fun or would like to take this seriously? Are you interested in perfecting this as a sport?”

           I stammered. I’d not considered doing anything more serious than a few 5k runs and some weights. “What do you mean by that?” I asked.

            “Let’s take this to a new level,” he answered. “Have you considered training for something further?”

            “Like what?”

            “How about something like the shot put? I think you could do it and be good at it. It’s something to work for.  Take things to a more competitive level.”

            I thought about for a minute then answered, “Let’s go for it!”

            We embarked on a training regimen three evenings a week for the next 4 years. One day we did track and field specific work. The shot put requires minute adjustment to position along with strength, flexibility and coordination. I needed to work on all of these aspects. One day we worked in the gym on strength and flexibility. The 3rd day we had fun—played tennis, went for a fun run, learned golf and soccer skills, played basketball. I was ready in September 2008 for the Senior Olympics of Maryland.

            It was a sunny morning with cool temperatures for September on the east coast. I awoke early—nervous and excited. I stopped off at a local 7-Eleven and downed a Red Bull energy drink. I was pumped. I arrived, registered, then headed to the shot put circle where a few other “senior” women were warming up. As we got nearer to the competition, my son Evan and his buddy Nick Smith Herman arrived to photograph and video the event. Coach Anthony came as we were starting.

            You get three tries at shot put in a formal meet. Your best score---the greatest distance you were able to heave the metal ball--is your final score. The strategy is to make sure your first throw is “safe”—no faults, no going outside the shot put circle, just a good attempt. Your second throw is one with your best energy. With each throw, you shout out a loud “Eeee-yah!” The third attempt should be when you put it all together—technique, energy, and perfection. My third attempt was my best. The judges huddled together to compare the scores of about 6 women in my age class. I was awarded the Gold!

            The following year Chris and I went west to Stanford California where I participated in the National Senior Olympics. People from all 50 states gather for the Nationals. While I did “OK”, very fit and strong women who really knew how to throw a shot put seriously outranked me. Usually, they had started the sport during high school. I was on the more unusual side, starting as a senior myself. It felt so invigorating to be participating in such a large event with people of all abilities pushing themselves as they could.
National Senior Olympics, 2009


            Anthony “required” me to sign up for no fewer than three track meets per year as well as several 5k races. It kept the pressure up to maintain my skill levels. Monthly, we “ran hills”, a day of extreme exertion in which I ran repeatedly up a fairly steep hill to train for the 100 meter dash. Typically, we trained during the year at a local high school track in Northwest DC.

            I recall fondly hearing some kids in the bleachers shout out, “Man, that lady sure is fast!” I may not have been actually that fast—but you could see I was giving it my all.

            Given where I am now, those days fill me with great pleasure. I was so fortunate to have taken the time and made the relationship with Anthony to be a senior track and field medalist. 
2009, Maryland Gold Medal


            Looking further back, I spent about 5 years learning shuri ryu karate with a women’s karate group in Takoma Park Maryland taught by Sensei Deb Friedman. I was practicing with the group for many months before I realized that this was mostly a gay women’s class. The strictness of the sport and the social interaction with women outside my normal sphere was eye-opening. We scientists tend to stick together without a particularly wide social network. I learned even more when a mother-daughter pair joined our group. Elizabeth, a high school student, has Downs syndrome. It was a challenge for Deb and our class to work with Elizabeth, but at the end of the day, we learned much more than just karate moves. As a group, we made our way from white to yellow to blue to green belts, taking regular tests and mastering techniques. None of us were super karate women, but we had a wonderful time meditating, working out, and being together. The Zen of karate and the camaraderie with these women made a permanent impact.

            After my separation and divorce in the 1980s, I learned sailing with my friend Nancy ‘Nat’ Peters. We learned a few basic moves on a 470-cm (about 14 feet), small sailboat from her brother Eugene, then practiced a couple nights a week out on the Chesapeake Bay by ourselves. The ‘470’ is not a forgiving boat. When the sail comes around for making a turn, you needed to hit the deck or suffer being swiped over board by the boom. One evening when we were returning to the dock, a puff of wind capsized our boat. We had been slightly careless and did not have our life jackets on. The mast of the main sail stuck in the Bay’s gooey mud—we had “turtled” and were stuck. Hard stuck. We scrambled for our life jackets and clung to the up-turned boat. Fortunately a couple of guys came by in a motor boat and pulled our ‘470’s mast out of the mud, picked us up, and towed the boat to shore.  

            These were glorious evenings. We’d leave DC after work, sail out in the Bay for a couple hours. It was a great workout—vaulting from side to side as we tacked, leaning way out to balance the boat, and managing the sails and lines. We capped off the evening at a local restaurant with a couple of Miller Lite beers and burgers. On Saturdays, Nat and I raced the boat competing with about 10-12 other ‘470’ sailors. Although we were usually the slowest boat, we finished every race. Racing provided a real sense of accomplishment.

            In later years, Chris and I went in on purchasing a larger boat—a Lightening, a 19-footer—with our friends Charles and Nabeel. With young kids, only one of us could sail at any one time. We raced this boat a few times, and once came in first place in a pretty decent field of competitors. But by this time in my life, however, children took precedence over sailing. We gave up our share in the boat after a couple years.

            In retrospect, my life of active sport extended from childhood football and baseball games in our Jersey backyard with the Greenvale Raiders (the neighborhood kids) as players through swimming butterfly for the Moorestown High School team to competitive sailing, karate, and track and field.

            I could never have guessed that sports would be out of my reach as a senior. If you have the chance to workout, do yoga, hike up a mountain, or play on a team, do it! And do it with joy and gusto.

            I’ll be rooting for your team!

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