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Mind

Stronger, Faster, Older

September 16, 2015

IMG_0241I spent 10 days in the desert at Burning Man, in a camp of a 100 people who came together to form a lovely temporary community. The winds and the dust were fierce, but I still danced every day, sometimes for eight to ten hours—for those 10 days, that was my fitness.

And somehow I still managed to injure myself. A member of our camp had been given a portion of Timothy Leary’s ashes by his family, and she thought it would be fitting to recremate them in the “Totem of Confessions” (in a Burning Man ritual, the art and architecture is always burned to the ground during the last days of the Festival). When it came time to pick up the litter on which the reliquary that held the ashes sat, some members of the camp volunteered me. It looked like it was made out of paper mache, so I leaned down and picked it up with all the form that you would use to pick up a Kleenex. It wasn’t paper mache. And like that: tweaked back.

It was a fitting end to my month of rest after the Games. No one disagrees that rest is needed after such intense exertion, but people do vary in the amount they suggest is optimal. Some tell you not to take more than a week off. But I struggled to return to the gym. Unlike someone like Camille Leblanc-Bazinet, the CrossFit world champion in 2014, who has the goal of the next Games and the incentive of her sponsorships to keep her motivated, I did it solely for the challenge of working up to my potential. I don’t plan to compete again.

Plus, I had a road trip already planned, which didn’t lend itself to a lot of gym time. But, me being me, I didn’t totally veg out. I stuck to the running program that genius trainer Chris Hinshaw created (he uses an amazing algorithm that takes all your performance numbers and spits out a personalized set of paced intervals). And I feel the gains: I’m stronger, fleeter, and can go much farther than I’ve ever done before.

IMG_4888That success has pointed me toward my next goal. We’ve all seen what happens with age: we slow down, muscles and joints start to ache, and the training that kept us fit and active for years begins to lose its efficacy. We hit a peak in our early thirties, and it just goes downhill from there, even if we train for general physical preparedness—the CrossFit model of “functional fitness”—which is the best way out there to train.

But does it have to go downhill? My experience with running tells me it doesn’t have to; that a generally fit individual can take steps to counteract the effects of age, and maybe even improve beyond what he or she was capable of doing at the peak of fitness. It won’t always be easy—as with anything in life, the worthiness of a task is often equal to its difficulty—but I believe that I can find ways to continue improving.

Almost two years ago, I set out to reach my fullest genetic potential by training for and competing in the CrossFit Games. The feeling of pushing my body to its limits and beyond was exhilarating. But I’ve had countless people say, “I don’t need to do what you do because I just want to fit into my clothes.” Fine. But if you can’t squat down or bend over to pick up something without thinking about it, if you can’t live in a dynamic way well into your 50s and 60s and 70s (and beyond, I hope), then what is the point of those hours slogging away in the gym or around a track? Instead, think about training as giving yourself a gift: the gift of living a joyful life, where there are no limits.

So one great goal—competing in the CrossFit Games—has come to an end, but a new adventure awaits. Through experimentation, consultation with experts, and, of course, more hours in the gym, I hope to find some answers to the conundrum of staying fit while aging. And when I do, I’ll post them here.

 

 

Think Positive

August 23, 2015

Rosalie Glenn won the 2015 CrossFit Games, Master’s 60+ division. Like all the competitors on the field, her strength and mental stamina were astounding, and it was an honor to be on the field with her. Here she shares part of her story.

—SLH

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One day, early this summer, I saw an advertisement for a simple metal bracelet that said “she believed she could so she did.” That phrase really spoke to me, so I bought the bracelet and wore it almost non-stop right up to and throughout the CrossFit Games. In those dark moments during practice when I thought my lungs would burst and even as I stood on that immense stadium field during the Games, I repeated that phrase over and over to myself.

I remember the first time I attempted a CrossFit workout, not because it nearly killed me or because I felt so enlightened or invigorated, but because I approached it in a singular act of desperation at a time in my life when I felt I had exhausted every other option available to lose weight and improve my health.

For many years, I struggled with issues of eating and body image and I assumed that my CrossFit adventure would just be another chapter in that on-going saga. This struggle has not been particularly obvious to most people I’ve known—except for the mean kids that called me “Fatso” during my chubby phase in 3rd grade! Somehow, those little voices have always remained in the back of my mind, even through my years as a normal-weight, athletic teenager and a young professional wife and mother.

Because I’ve always loved cooking and eating and science, I chose a career in the field of nutrition and thus became sort of “food personified” in my work and personal life. As such, I felt an obligation to eat a perfect diet, feed my family perfect meals, maintain a perfect weight, etc, etc. For many years, I religiously counted calories and toiled away every morning in my family room to whatever exercise video series was popular. I’ve done them all—from Richard Simmons to Body Electric, Denise Austin to Power 90 to Jillian Michaels.

But then, after many years, along came menopause and a high-stress job in management and an increasingly growing fatigue with trying to keep up the appearance of personal and professional perfection. Without ever making a conscious decision, somewhere in my early 50s I became a person who felt too old and too tired to worry about that stuff anymore. Five years later, I found myself staring in the mirror at a 200-pound stranger who suffered from plantar fasciitis, chronic stomach problems, and a feeling that bordered on self-loathing for what I’d let myself become.

Against my own professional judgment, I sought help at a non-traditional weight-loss clinic and even managed to lose almost 30 pounds in 40 days on a regimen of human chorionic gonadotropin, a hormone produced during pregnancy (commonly known as HCG). As soon as I went off the drug and resumed my not-so-great diet, however, 20 of those pounds crept their way back. I was so frustrated! I knew better than to let this happen but seemed almost powerless to prevent it. I launched into another round of HCG and watched myself yo-yo back and forth for the better part of another year.

But then something I now consider close to divine intervention happened. The non-traditional physician with whom I’d been working mentioned that he was applying for an affiliate membership to open a gym that promoted a new type of exercise known as CrossFit. I showed up for that first workout and many of the others that followed in desperation. If the gym hadn’t been so new, with such a small and friendly clientele, I probably wouldn’t have persisted. To my utter embarrassment, my once-fit body was now totally unable to perform a single push-up or anything that resembled a proper air squat. I almost quit several times when I found myself unable to perform even the most highly scaled version of a particular movement. I thought, “Who am I kidding? I’ll never be able to do this stuff!”

What brought me back to every workout, however, was the open, accepting, caring concern of the people I came to call my friends there. We sweated and complained together, we whipped ourselves silly practicing double-unders, and bloodied our shins on box jumps. And somewhere along the way, this amazing body of mine began to forgive me for those years of abuse and neglect. My weight and body fat percentages began to fall in line without all of the obsessing I’d done in prior years. In practically imperceptible ways I got stronger, more flexible, and more able.

By 2015, I had entered the Crossfit Open three times, but this year I was amazed to finish in 2nd place in my age division. When I managed to maintain a spot in the top 20 and got my invitation to participate in the Games it really was, again, to my utter amazement!

I realized then that I needed to spend the summer working hard and preparing myself mentally and physically for the Games. I had received some coaching during the Master’s Qualifier from a new trainer who exuded some of the most powerfully positive energy of anyone I’ve ever met, and we worked together again toward the Games. Each session, we worked on strength and endurance, but he also never failed to give me positive reinforcement to help build my confidence. In addition, I spent substantial time doing positive visualization and striving to believe in myself. During these exercises, I would often imagine hearing the announcer say my name or seeing myself on the Jumbotron. When I got to the Games and these things actually happened, the feeling was almost surreal.

The final result of placing first still leaves me in a bit of awe. I sometimes have this funny feeling that I might wake up tomorrow morning and find myself back in Carson, California with the actual workouts yet to be done. But then I see that gold medal hanging from my bedroom mirror—a symbol of how far I’ve come, once I believed I could.

Rosalie Glenn on the Jumbotron, 2015 CrossFit Games.

Becoming Your Best

July 17, 2015
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Photo by Paul A. Smith, Simply Perfection Photography, 2015

The message is everywhere: with the right shoes, the right watch, the right diet, and the right trainer, you can become anything you want to be. In the Age of Aspiration, where we all want to be the best, even hoping to transcend our physical limitations, all we need is the right equipment and the right attitude.

But can we? Can we be actually be more than ourselves? Or should we focus on being our own true selves, the best that we can be, thereby fulfilling our genetic potential? Indeed, each and every one of us is unique, born with the capability to realize our own genius. A few years ago, I decided that’s what I wanted: a chance to become the best that I could be.

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Up until now, I’ve sought challenge and fulfillment in physical exertion. From childhood, I wanted to push myself up mountains, ski down them, ride great distances on horseback. I wanted to do. When I looked at photos of men summiting Mt. Everest, their gender didn’t concern me, but the accomplishment inspired me. I wanted to be there, too.

I got there.

In the early 1990s, I set my goal: to climb the Seven Summits, the highest peak on each continent. Between 1992 and 1996, I traveled across the world and pushed myself past fatigue, past brutal weather extremes, past feet that looked like they’d been in a blender. I attempted Everest three times, and summited once. I knew and worked with some of the most talented mountaineers of the day, and I discovered the inner peace that comes with complete exhaustion.

Yet, as much as I met those challenges, I never felt like I was fully living up to what I could do. Then I discovered the sport of CrossFit and the CrossFit Games, the ultimate test of genetic potential, where players compete at the leading edge of every physical ability humans are made for: strength, endurance, flexibility, and balance. To even make it on the field, to compete against dozens of other supremely talented women, would be a tremendous honor. So I embarked on this grand adventure, the quest to qualify for the Games, just to see where my genes would take me.

Photo by Paul A. Smith, Simply Perfection Photography, 2015

Photo by Paul A. Smith, Simply Perfection Photography, 2015

 

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I never participated in team sports when I was in school. Title IX didn’t come along until later, and girls didn’t typically play sports—they were encouraged to become cheerleaders. That didn’t interest me, so I found my outlet in the mountains, alone. That experience gave me strength, endurance, and a high threshold for pain: all advantages in CrossFit. But I had to learn—and am still learning—how to move efficiently and use my strengths in new ways. I needed to become flexible—both in muscles and mind—in a way I’d never done before.

I first started competing in CrossFit in 2012 . At first, I was solidly in the middle of the pack. But in 2013, I placed third in an All Master’s competition against a field of tough women. Standing on the podium was exhilarating, and I wanted more.

Eighteen months ago, I dedicated myself not only to competing but excelling as a player in the 2015 CrossFit Games. I put together a team of coaches, nutritionists, peers and trainers who advised me every step of the way. I wrote up a plan, I followed it (with a few minor tweaks). To my surprise, I advanced into the 60+ Division this year. And, in April, I qualified for the Games, which commence in three days.

In these 18 months, I’ve seen that anyone, with time and dedication, can meet his or her own potential. People who train for the CrossFit Games have varying skill sets and body types: some of us are tall and strong, others are small and agile. But we all work at the limit of our genetic abilities, and I’ve come to relish the feeling of hitting that mark, the ache of your body and mind stretching forward beyond what you ever thought possible.

I’ve realized that chasing a dream of being the perfect athlete, or the perfect body, is a fool’s errand. We can’t all become the ideal—whatever that ideal might be, in any given age—but we can all strive to be our own best selves, whether that’s to compete in the Games or to lift a weight you never thought possible or to run a mile faster than ever before. In my training, I’ve met many people who are reaching for their own personal bests in many different arenas. They aren’t all doing CrossFit, but they are all living up to their genetic potential. They are all inspiring.

On July 22, I will walk onto the field knowing that I am the very best athlete I can be. By doing so, I will have won the Games before they even begin. I am going into the competition in a state of “personal best”: never stronger, more nimble, faster, or skilled than I am right now.  And I will walk onto that field grateful—for all the support I have gotten these past few years, for the chance to stand among a field of my peers, and for the privilege of living a life that has allowed me to express my genetic potential.

Photo by Paul A. Smith, Simply Perfection Photography, 2015

Photo by Paul A. Smith, Simply Perfection Photography, 2015

Just a Number

July 4, 2015

Super Mamika, Sascha Goldberger, 2010*

The idea of a “fitness age” has been floating around for a while now. When I took the online test, my result placed me at less than half my age. Flattering, but what does that really mean? My training at times takes age into account, but I have never felt constrained by it (and as a competitor, my age as given me an advantage, since I’m one of the youngest in my bracket). Is younger necessarily better?

Of course, what’s excited scientists about “fitness age” is its apparent correlation with a low risk of premature death. And I am really happy that in those terms, I’m as low-risk as it gets, even without my so called “fitness age” achievements: my lifelong habit of (mostly) clean living has rewarded me with with longevity-promoting levels of cholesterol and blood pressure. But why equate youth (the lower your age, the better) with vigor or longevity; what matters is what we do with what we are given, from our stage of life to our abilities.

I’m neither a gifted athlete nor preternaturally strong, and my build is average, maybe a little tall. Whatever I have “going for me,” I earned by working for it. Because I have made fitness my goal, I think I am as fit as a 60-year-old woman of my genetic makeup can be. I’ve had the time, the resources, the curiosity, and the discipline to maximize my own potential. So am I proud of myself for halving my chronological age in this test? Not really. But I am proud of the fact that, in spite of the myth that we can’t improve past a certain age, I continue to challenge the edges of my genetic potential every day.

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Super Mamika and Friend, Sascha Goldberger, 2010.

*These photos, by the French photographer Sascha Goldberger, are part of a larger series called “Mamika,” which feature his grandmother Frederika.

Happy Independence Day to you all!

The Morning Routine

March 6, 2015

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I woke up this morning feeling exceptionally calm. Perhaps there is some comfort in knowing that I have done this before: it was the second workout in the Open in 2014 as well. Every three minutes, athletes are tasked with completing two rounds of a set of overhead squats and pull-ups: the first set of ten each, the second of twelve, and so on, until you fail to complete both rounds. Last year, I got a score of 122, which means I got about ¾ of the way through the round of 14’s.

Over my morning coffee (an Americano, with two shots and frothed apricot kernel milk—recipe below), I calculated the number of reps I want to aim for today. I believe I can make it through the 14’s now, since I am stronger, and at least halfway through the 16’s. So 175 seems to be a reasonable goal.

As I scrambled my eggs, I looked at the Games’ leaderboard and noticed that a few women in the 60+ Division reached nearly 200 last year. Tough to beat. I try and put their scores out of my head, and to focus on what I think I can do.

With breakfast on a plate in one hand—oatmeal, the eggs, and a quarter-pound of prosciutto—and half a cup of the coffee in the other, I crawled back into bed like I usually do, to eat and read newspapers on my iPad. Then, I listened to one of the guided visualizations Invictus has tailored to each of the workouts in the Open.

Hunger satisfied, caffeine kicking in, sated with news, and mentally clear, I got dressed—in compression tights and a tank—and found myself flummoxed over footwear. The overhead squats will be easier in lifting shoes—they help me keep weight on my heels and to maintain a tight midline, which will be critical as fatigue sets in during the later sets. But since the chest-to-bars are jumping for Masters 55+, maybe my regular sneaks—Inov-8 F-Lites—are better, since they are lightweight and springy. I looked in my notes from last year, and found that I had not written anything down about which shoes I wore. I decided to take both.

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Apricot Kernel Milk (makes one quart)

You will need:

  • A quart-size wide mouth canning jar and lid
  • Pure filtered water
  • Several cups of organically grown apricot kernels—I order mine in bulk online, from Sun Organics
  • 5-6 dates, pitted
  • ½ teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon Madagascar vanilla
  • A nut milk bag

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Using a wide mouth quart-sized canning jar, fill ¾ of it with apricot kernels. Then fill the jar with pure filtered water, almost to the top. Place the water and apricot kernels in the refrigerator for 2-3 days, adding more water so the kernels remain covered as they soak and swell. When you are ready to make the milk, discard any water that remains in the jar. Pour the apricot kernels into a VitaMix blender along with two quarts of pure fresh water and blend at high speed for at least 30 seconds. Add the 5-6 pitted dates and blend for another 30 seconds.

Pour the blended mixture through the nut milk bag into a bowl, and squeeze as much of the liquid out of the solids as you can. Discard the solids (and if anyone has a suggestion for ways to use this besides as compost, please share in the comments). Transfer the milk into the original jar. Add salt and the vanilla, put the lid on the jar and shake hard to dissolve salt. Store the Apricot Kernel Milk in the refrigerator (it will keep for about three days). Use it in coffee, just like you would regular whole milk. I have found that it froths equally well using either a milk steamer or a battery operated whisk, just don’t let it get too hot, or it will get clumpy.

Prep Work

February 23, 2015
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Bath, 1925. Imogen Cunningham

 

The Open starts at the end of the week. My coaches have all told me, in so many words, that there is no more training I can do: I can only stay the same…or get worse. So I am going into self-care mode. Here is my to-do list:

  • Focus on mobility in the gym to keep my shoulders, thoracic spine, and hips open, using the movements suggested in Kelly Starrett’s book
  • Take my supplements on time, as directed
  • Eat meals on time and exactly as directed
  • Slather my hands in CrossFixe repair balm multiple times every day to repair blisters and calluses
  • Get body work done, especially focusing on shoulders and arms
  • Break in my new shoes, Inov8 F-lite 240’s
  • Read pertinent sections of “The Invictus Mindset,” especially Chapters Three and Five
  • Soak 20 minutes in an Epsom salt bath before bed
  • Get eight hours of sleep every night

 

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The Unmade Bed, Imogen Cunningham, 1957


 

Do you have any personal rituals you follow before a big competition?

Learning to Compete

January 13, 2015

 

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My first morning at Paradiso CrossFit, David, the owner and a trainer there, was kind to me.  He showed me how to use a giant green rubber band to assist myself at the bottom of a pull-up.  The band had so much tension it practically sent me through the ceiling like a pea from a slingshot. I’ve been known to wear jewelry that weighs more than the kettlebell he had me swing. And after just a few regulation push-ups, I had to drop to my knees to finish a set of ten. Fortunately, I was finishing up this humiliating performance with a few sit-ups by the time anyone else arrived at the gym, so I managed to preserve my dignity for another day. I limped home, leaden in my worn-out limbs, but most sore in my heart with the realization that I had become a person who was resting on wilted laurels.

Working out for a score, which is a hallmark of the CrossFit program, was entirely new to me. In fact, I had never in my life participated in any sport with a winner or a loser. The first time I saw my time and reps recorded on the whiteboard at Paradiso I was horrified to have my place in comparison to the rest of the class become public knowledge. The workout was 5 pull-ups, 10 push-ups and 15 air squats, repeating as many rounds as possible in 20 minutes (a sequence known as Cindy in the CrossFit world). I performed the whole workout with modifications—so I wasn’t really performing the prescribed workout at all—and simply could not get my hip crease to fall below my knees in the squat. I recorded a score which fell in the middle of the group, but even though I’d done my best and gotten an intense workout, it wasn’t truly legitimate.

I worked hard to improve my strength and mobility for the sake of my fitness, but more than anything, I wanted to post a real score. I wanted to meet movement standards and perform at prescribed weights so badly that I simply stopped caring if I was in the middle or dead last. It was about that time, six months after I started CrossFit, that I started to get real. And, apparently, better at it.

There are two CrossFits. It’s a type of gym and a fitness philosophy, but it’s also a sport, and now I wanted to compete. I had strength, endurance, and a high threshold for pain, honed by years of alpinism, and that was (and is) a big plus in CrossFit.  What I needed most was to learn to use my body efficiently and to its greatest advantage—skills most often cultivated in the team sports I’d never played.

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I entered the CrossFit Open for the first time in 2012 and I finished in 70th place out of 194 women in my age/gender class (55-59 years old).  In January of 2013, I entered an All Master’s Competition in Northern California and took third place. While the field of competitors in my class was small, they were fierce, and included at least one Master’s Woman my age who had been to the CrossFit Games the previous year. The three of us standing on the podium were within a few points of one another’s scores. It was the first time I had ever felt truly competitive in a sport. I got a taste of winning, and I liked it.

After that, and with just six weeks left to train for the 2014 CrossFit Open, I started a training program written for aspiring Master’s Competitors. This meant training five days a week for three hours a day and active rest work on the two days I was not at the gym. I placed 5th in my region and 46th out of 522 in the world. While I was happy with my improvements in the overall ranking, the big takeaway was how much I enjoyed training hard, every day, with a goal in mind. And that is what I have done, every day since.

Why CrossFit?

January 8, 2015

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One Monday morning, in the late summer of 2011, I found myself in a former auto body shop that had been repurposed as a gym. There were no rows of elliptical machines, treadmills, or Stairmasters, just a raw space filled with raw-looking gym equipment: some pull-up racks, stacks of weights lining the wall, rubber bands and jump ropes, and pairs of gymnastic rings and ropes hanging from the ceiling. No one was training at the hour when I arrived, but within seconds of walking in the door I was greeted with a booming “Hello there.” A dead ringer for Andre Agassi gave me a warm smile and extended his hand. “I am David Paradiso. You must be Sandy Hill.”

I’d been living in Venice Beach, California, for about a year and half and had become convinced I would never find a gym like the one in New York City where I’d trained for many physically demanding adventures. Then my neighbor, the stand-up comedian Eddie Ifft, recommended Paradiso CrossFit. I’d never heard of CrossFit, but Eddie was in great shape, and nothing else had seemed close to what I wanted.

Paradiso looked much like the place run by a former gymnastics coach from Romania named Radu Teodorescu, with whom I’d trained for a decade in New York. He’d been called “the toughest trainer in town,” and used only old-school apparatus in his gym, like the Olympic barbells, kettlebells, and pig-iron pull-up bars I saw before me now.

Then I spied these words written large across an otherwise empty wall in David’s gym:

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For all the resonance (and genius) I recognized in those 100 words, it had been more than a few years since I had even tried to emulate such a practice myself. I once enjoyed a reputation for being super-strong and unusually fit. While in my 30s and 40s, I could (and did) do 20 push-ups when I arrived at each high camp on Mt. Everest (18,000’, 20,000’, 24,000’, and 26,000’ above sea level). And I used to do one-armed pull-ups while hanging from the frame moldings in my pre-war New York apartment. But an eight-year marriage to a man who wanted to live between a ranch in the middle of nowhere and a Caribbean island, a divorce from him which ravaged my personal savings, a move across the country to an unfamiliar city, and months of sitting at my computer while editing a book had softened me. I was no longer the athlete I’d once been—and wanted to be once more.

Have you ever lost certain skills or conditioning over time? Did you accept it as the inevitable effect of age or changing circumstances, or did you resolve to fight to get it back? Share your stories in the comments; I’ll share the second half of my story in the next post.

Boom.

January 1, 2015

New Year’s resolutions have, for me, always taken a positive spin. I cannot remember a single midnight on December 31 when I promised myself to stop or do less of anything. Rather, I typically resolve to fill the coming year with more of something I truly enjoy. I figure that, as my days become packed with whatever that something is, less interesting and less desirable pursuits will simply get crowded out of existence.

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Last year at this time, I was at home in California, and trained at the gym on both New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. That I chose to work out while others were preparing for parties measured my commitment to a daily practice of the athletic skills I had, in 59 years, never learned, like gymnastics, weightlifting, running, and swimming. I train hard because I like it, and because I am serious about discovering the degree of excellence I can achieve.

This year, I am resolving to make my experience communal by writing about it here for myself and for others. This will be as much about discipline as my training schedule. To fuel my writing, I’ll need to pay closer attention to my workouts and how and why my body responds the way it does. That attention, too, will have to be brought to bear on my feelings. I don’t want to just write a report. But examining and sharing my feelings will be as hard—and require as much practice—as learning to handstand walk.

And then, I know that observation affects outcome. In writing about my training, I will find weaknesses—and strengths—that I can bear down on, and I hope I’ll find that more mindfulness equals refined techniques and a stronger inner game. To perform at your best, you have to think and think until you stop thinking, and that’s where I want to be.

I hope you will be patient when I stumble. It is an inevitable part of learning at any age (and there may be more of it as I turn 60 this year). And when I do, I hope that you and my other readers will help me as my coaches do by catching my falls, and patiently explaining how I can do it even better tomorrow. This isn’t a how-to, or a training guide, but I hope it will be entertaining and maybe even inspirational and thought-provoking. I believe that I will do better with your support and empathy, and I hope that you will be here to cheer me on for the next 18 months.

Happy New Year.

Boom.

 

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