What we can learn from the passing of friends
2011 has been a difficult year for members of the silent sports community. Indeed the past few months have been disastrous. We have lost some well known and not so well known athletes to car accidents, cancer and other health-related issues.
In a four-week span, Birkie founder and master athlete Dave Landgraf and former University of Wisconsin champion runner Henry Dennis were both killed while riding their bicycles. The accidents were stunningly similar. Both Dave and Henry were hit from behind by allegedly inattentive drivers going the same direction as the cyclists.
In that same time period, long-time runner and high school coach Floyd Ripp passed away from a sudden illness. This past winter we lost skiing icon Wayne Fish to brain cancer. I have spoken to other athletes in the past few months who are dealing with their own unique and, in some cases. life-threatening illnesses. The youngest among the group was 35. The oldest was 62.
I have heard that when one gets to be of a "certain age," the number of friends and acquaintances with health concerns rises dramatically. I don't know if I have reached that age, but it is gotten to the point where I am almost afraid to open my email for fear of what I might find. The number of my friends (Dave, Henry, Floyd and Wayne among them) or immediate relatives of friends who have died or contracted serious illnesses in the past two years now numbers in the double digits.
As runners we often think of ourselves as invincible. I once had a teaching colleague tell me that with my running and health practices I would eventually die from nothing. It is safer, he thought, to sit on the porch with a nice glass of scotch and a good cigar. There are moments when I think he might have a point.
The losses in our silent sports community are not more tragic because these individuals were athletes. It just points out that no matter how much you plan and take care of your health, the risks are still there. You can never know what's around the next corner.
These losses have only reinforced my appreciation for the gift I have been given. All of us can reflect on how lucky we are to be able to play and participate in the sports and activities we love. The disappointment of a poor race result is quickly washed away when one considers the value of the effort.
Does this mean we should no longer strive for excellence? Should we be satisfied with participation without regard for results? Certainly not. I can assure you that Dave, Henry, Floyd and Wayne never settled. These were some of the most intense competitors I ever had the pleasure with which to race. Complacency was not part of their lexicon. However, we can all gain perspective on what it means to be an athlete when we examine the role athletics plays in our lives. I like to think that running and skiing help define me and help make me a better person. My wife sometimes wishes that I was a more well-rounded individual. I guess we all have character traits we can continue to work on.
I had a running buddy who once stated during a long run, "If you've got it, flaunt it." He was aware he was slowing down as his age crept ever higher. He could rarely hit a race pace that once came easily to him during training runs. Yet every once in a while he still felt like he could fly. Those were the days he would flaunt it.
As I have advance through age groups, I no longer take for granted my ability to get out the door for a run. Every day I can run is a renewed gift. If we all can take one thing from our silent sports' community's tragic losses, it is to cherish the days we have to run, ski, cycle, paddle or hike.
Maybe this year is the time to try a new event or revisit one we haven't done for years. How many of us have ever raced in a cross country meet as an adult? How about a trail race or an ultramarathon? What about buying a pair of racing flats and seeing how fast we can actually run a 5K?
I don't think the passing of friends is a reason to go off the deep end into some mid-life crisis. But I do think we can all gain a new appreciation of what we may yet be capable of. Besides, a trail race entry fee is far less expensive than a Ferrari.
We may never be as fast as Dave, Henry, Floyd or Wayne. But we all can take something from their legacy. These men were athletes who gave a great deal back to their community. They were teachers, coaches and role models who inspired others to get involved and do their best. Hopefully we can do the same for the people who look to us.
Sports can be a powerful tool. We all have the capacity to carry on the work of those that have come before us. Get involved. Encourage others. And have a great run today!
Tom Kaufman, of Madison, Wisconsin, has run more than 40 marathons in as many years of running. He teaches high school phys ed and coaches high school track and cross country, as well as community and masters athletes. He has a master's degree in physical education and a specialization in exercise physiology.