Competitive Fire

I’ve never been the most competitive guy. I think my lack of a competitive streak comes from being brought up in a family of 3 brothers. I was the youngest of the 3, my brother Randy was 5 years ahead of me in school, and my brother Paul was 4. In terms of physical games, that gap is pretty significant. I got a lot of basketballs shoved back in my face, got run over continuously on the football field, and generally ended up somewhere out in the outfield for pickup baseball games. And that was when I was allowed to play. Most of the time, the little brother was deemed too little for participation.

Not to say I didn’t try as hard as I could. I did. But, it’s hard to fight that kind of biology. When the person you’re playing basketball against is a foot taller and 30 pounds heavier, the only way you can make anything happen is to aggressively foul, which means anything from kicking and punching to jumping on your opponent’s back. Which usually results in a well deserved punch in the face. Which usually results in crying and running into the house screaming for Mom.

It also might just be the way I’m wired. It could probably be the subject for a good “nature vs. nurture” debate, but I’m not going to do that here. Let’s just say my upbringing and my DNA probably are equal factors here.

Because of my lack of competitiveness, I tended toward more individual rather that team sports. I was much more concerned with my own performance than anyone else’s. I was a swimmer in high school. I didn’t win much. If you needed the points from a second or third place finish to win the meet, I was your guy. And if you are thinking, wait, swimming is a very competitive sport, you’re right, it is. But, it’s still an individual sport. You can’t play defense in swimming. Although, that would make it WAY more interesting.

Announcer- “Phelps has a slight lead over Lochte as they hit the wall for the last turn, looks like this race is over and OH MY GOD! Lochte just grabbed Phelps’s foot and pulled him under! He’s got his suit, and he just YANKED IT DOWN! A stunning turn of events!”

I would totally watch that.

As I got older, I tended toward more individual sports. I became a runner, I loved riding my bike, and I started golfing more. I know those sports can all be competitive, but I have a tendency to just concentrate on my own performance. My golfing strategy is as follows:

Hit it. Find it. Hit it again.

I don’t really care how you’re doing. Actually, that’s not true. I hope you’re having a good game, because it’s much more fun if you’re playing with someone who is golfing well. Much less swearing and carrying on. If you’re doing well, I can concentrate on my own swearing and carrying on.

I also don’t think golf is a sport. It’s a game, but not a sport. I know, that’s a hot take that could be debated on a sports radio show, but I have three points that prove golf is not a sport. These three points have a common theme. See if you can pick it out.

Point #1

Now, you might make the argument that the game the PGA guys are playing on the weekend is a sport, and I could agree with that. DJ, Ricky, Justin, et al, are athletes who train hard and play a game that requires precision and lots of practice. But that’s not who I’m talking about. I’m talking about when you and your buddies head down to the local muni to hack out 18 holes.

You drive the golf cart up next to the green. You get out of the cart, grab your putter, and as you walk the twenty yards to your ball, you flip your cigarette into the grass. Your ball is about 20 feet from the cup. First putt goes 5 feet past. Second putt ends up a foot short. Third putt goes in. You head back towards the cart, swearing under your breath, pick up your still lit cigarette, take a long draw, jab your putter angrily back into your bag, open the cooler behind the seat, grab a cold beer, snap it open, take a big gulp, and then drive off to the next hole. Just an amazing athletic feat.

Point #2

John Daly. Not exactly the picture of an elite athlete.

This guy. He somehow won two major championships in his career, one of which was The Open Championship at St. Andrews. Yes, that actually happened.

Point #3

The greatest golf shot I ever hit in my life was back in May of 1980, a drive on a 330 yard par 4 from an elevated tee box. I crushed it. The ball took off like a missile, soaring into the beautiful blue sky before settling down right on the front fringe of the green.

At least I think that’s what happened. My friends Jeff and Brian told me that’s what happened. You see, after I hit that shot, I ended up on the ground staring at the sky. My tremendous shot had caused my feet to slip out from under me. Well, okay, maybe it wasn’t just the shot. It might have had something to do with the fact we were drinking a beer a hole, and my epic drive happened on the eighth hole. Yes, dear friends, the best golf shot of my life occurred when I was stone cold drunk.

I’m sure you picked up the theme of all three points.

I eventually gave up golf after deciding that it was too expensive and there was too much swearing. So I concentrated on staying in shape by becoming a runner and a biker. I “competed” in two marathons, 9 Riverbank Runs, and countless 10 and 5Ks over the years. I say “competed” because, once again I was more concerned how I was doing and not the outcome of the race. It’s not like I was gonna run down the Kenyans. I just hoped to finish somewhere in the middle of the pack. I was a mid-pack guy. I once ran a 10k in northern Michigan that was part of a family reunion. I came in third. Out of 6. Solidly mid-pack.

Some of my running medals. I have more in a shoe box somewhere, but I can’t find it. Oh well.

My bike riding had an element of competition in it also, but mostly I declined to participate. I’ve been “dropped” a lot. When you ride with a group of people, it’s easier to go faster if you stay with a group or ride in a pace line. You see this in races like the Tour de France, where the main guy on the team is surrounded by his teammates, making it easier for him to ride. When some poor guy can’t keep up with the peloton, this is called being dropped.

As a rider, I never much cared about going fast. In a pace line, you line up right behind the person in front of you, and basically stare at their back wheel as you zoom along. If you get out of line, whammo, you’re dropped. I would get out of line cuz I would get sick of staring at the back wheel of the dude in front of me.

Back in 2013, I rode in an organized ride called DELMAC with a bunch of my friends. It is a 5 day ride from Lansing Michigan to Mackinaw City. Most of the time on that ride we took it pretty easy. But one morning, my friend Stu, an Ironman triathlete, decided it was time to go fast. He took off, and we all got in a line and followed him. As we were zipping along at around 25 mph, I looked over and saw the blue green waters of Torch Lake off to my left. Torch Lake is one of the most beautiful lakes in Michigan, it was a gorgeous September day, so I pulled out of the pace line so I could admire the amazing scenery, eventually catching up to the guys at a coffee shop in Bellaire. It just wasn’t that important to me to go fast. I’m weird like that.

Team Larry at the end of RAGBRAI. I’m in the back row, all the way to the right. 

Back in 2010, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. I had surgery, and that was followed up with 38 sessions of targeted radiation. During that time, I continued to run and bike. My first attempt at running was 3 weeks after surgery, a little jog down to the mail box. I peed myself. A little early after the surgery for that intense of activity. Eventually I figured out how to run without peeing my pants, and I ran the Irish Jig 5k just four months after my surgery. I was pretty proud of myself for that. Eventually I also got back on my bike, and started riding again with my friends and back a forth to work. I felt great. I felt normal. It felt like nothing had changed.

But then, in 2014, my PSA started going up. My cancer had returned, which meant getting a shot of Lupron every three months. I continued to run. I continued to bike. But something had definitely changed. I didn’t have the drive I once did to get out there and do a run. My muscles were starting to atrophy, and riding became harder. I noticed this for the first time on a summer day when I planned on riding from my house to Rockford, about a 50 mile round trip, a ride I’ve done many times and usually very much enjoy. I got to Riverside Park in Grand Rapids, which is about halfway, and decided to rest and turn around. I was afraid that if I went any farther I wouldn’t be able to make it back. That shook me up.

But not as much as what happened a month later. I went for a 20 mile ride, a daily amount that a few months earlier would have been a breeze for me to complete. As I struggled that day to ride, I came to a hill that I normally conquer with ease. I usually just stand up on the pedals, I don’t downshift at all, and I just power my way up and over. As I labored up that small hill, I had to downshift off the big ring onto the small one, stood up on the pedals, and barely made it over. That one broke me. When I finally arrived home, I chucked my bike into my front yard, sat down on the front step of my house, and started crying. I’m not talking a few tears here. I am talking major sobbing, shaking with rage and sadness and frustration. It wasn’t pretty.

This is my favorite bike off all time. It’s a commuter bike made by Giant. I’ve put thousands of miles on this bike. It’s also the bike I threw into my front yard.

You see, even though I have said through this entire blog that I’m not very competitive, it turns out, I really am. I am very competitive with myself. I have certain standards for my fitness and abilities, and turns out I get very upset when I can’t meet those expectations.

The single hardest thing for me during this whole cancer episode is not the fear of dying or dealing with things like the lack of a sex drive, or the hot flashes or anything else on that side effects list. It’s my feeling that I am a failure as an athlete.

I know I have a ton to be thankful for. I can still walk with Zoey everyday. I can still go to work everyday. I am still alive. But I never realized how much my daily exercise meant to my general feeling of well being. And I don’t mean walking the dog. I mean a five mile run in the heat of summer. I mean biking a hard 30 miler, with lots of hills and finishing with a strong kick. I miss it. I miss it so much that as I’m writing this the tears are falling on my keyboard. It’s why I’m battling depression. My feeling of self worth has tanked.

So here’s what I have to do. I have to get used to a “new normal.” God, I hate that term. I have to take joy from a 5 miler with Zoey and realize how fortunate I am that I can still do that. I have to take joy from meeting with friends that I used to run and bike with, and laugh about the old days and not feel too bad about the fact that I can’t do it anymore. My friends are getting together to ride RAGBRAI again this year, a bike ride across Iowa that I’ve done three times. I see the emails about organizing the logistics around the ride, and I quickly delete them before the tears come. I keep telling myself, I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive, until I believe it.

It is a sunny spring morning, and right now Zoey is bugging me to get up and go out for our daily walk. I will take her out, put in my ear buds, and I will listen to some good music and try to revel in the glorious sunshine and try to realize that I am blessed.

But some days, it’s really hard. On some days, that competitive fire is really hard to put out. Some days, I have to mourn my former self, and just keep on going the best that I can.

Thanks for reading.


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