Winning for TeamEric: The Race Within the Race Within the Race
Where to start?
Those were my first words when I began this blog last year, and so much has transpired that I am again confounded with how to properly convey my experience and emotions on race day. But it seems appropriate to frame my experience with the 2019 National Senior Games presented by Humana (and the months leading up to it) as the race within the race within the race.
The first race was of an event junkie PR guy’s increasingly intense process of gathering assets and setting a plan to generate national media attention.
The last month was a 24/7 obsession, just as it was for the entire NSGA team I am so proud to stand with. Honestly, my only outlet for relief (besides my patient wife’s support in times of stress) was getting out on the street and to the local middle school track to power walk and to send positive energy to my friend Eric Todd in his battle with cancer. The desire to excel with work and on track powered me through the fatigue.
Once that “race” was completed on the first day of the event, now I actually had take a deep breath and run the real race to fulfill those plans as media director in live action. The adrenaline of meeting my team, seeing old friends and witnessing the joy and enthusiasm surrounding the Flame Arrival Ceremony rejuvenated me. Emotions were sky-high and tears came easily and often with each personal reunion and in sharing the joy and inspiration of witnessing City Councilor/pole vaulter Brad Winter ignite the cauldron to an explosion of applause, all the while knowing the next day I was about to have yet another signature moment in my Forrest Gump-like life.
The third race was the personal quest of this “accidental senior athlete” to train and compete in the first-ever sanctioned competition for the sport of power walking. Time for the Moon Walker to shut out the din and roar (and weariness) and step into the zone of a competitor. For real.
The morning of June 15th was other worldly. I hustled over to the office and made sure we were firing on all cylinders, then changed into my uniform- a favorite blue tie-dye T shirt I bought in 2015 imprinted with the logo of the Personal Best wellness initiative that I am so proud to have created. Before I left town I added “Moon Walker” on the back and “TeamEric” on the left sleeve – the closest to my heart and in tribute to 2015 media intern Eric Todd, whose fight is now also my fight.
I wore my most treasured hat – a blue cap embroidered with the “Silver Fox” original mascot of the National Senior Games. It was a surprise gift from Mary Johns, who came to NSGA as a media intern in 2015, then returned after graduating from LSU to help manage operations and run social media in 2017, and then thankfully took a week off from her important work with United Way in southeastern Louisiana this year to come repeat her role. She was a life saver.
Mary and I frequently joked about my love of the Silver Fox during the 30th anniversary campaign in 2017, and she thoughtfully sent me the hat afterwards as a gag gift. It is now a cherished possession and the perfect way to protect my dome and complete my Moon Walker uniform. That hat had to be on the track with me and Eric, and it was special to have Mary on the sidelines as a cheerleader.
Through the morning I was thinking how to elevate my honoree Eric Todd, knowing that I had no realistic shot at a medal. I am still carrying too much weight to beat a lighter fast walker, and there were 26 names on the participant list for my age group. Then it hit me – get everyone to be on TeamEric, then I could be part of the caravan to cross the line feeling victorious. I shuffled the idea out on Facebook as I left the office.
I arrived early at the University of New Mexico track stadium, just to get over any jitters. As I received my racing bib I heard a distinctive voice next to me. It was Elmo Shropshire, dedicated runner and creator of the hit Christmas song “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” I met him and wrote up a feature in 2016 and then kept in touch and relentlessly invited him to come to Nationals. I was delighted when he registered, and even more when he graciously agreed to sing his tune at the Growing Bolder’s Launch Pad to What’s Next program three days later.
Elmo told me he had come out to see me compete, but since my race was still over two hours away he would have to go. But we sat under the shade and chatted about all kinds of things for nearly an hour, and he even helped pin my race bib. It really settled my nerves. Thanks, Elmo!
Stepping onto the track to join my fellow walkers was eerie. How did I get here? All of the guys were in great shape and in good humor. Under the tent near the starting line I gathered them together and asked them to also walk for Eric, and all immediately joined in. I posted this video from right before the gun with my new “team”:
The race itself was one long blur of emotion and exertion. As more men started to distance from me I reminded myself I was not trying to beat them but that knucklehead Del Moon. My goal was to log my best time to build for the future.
It was almost embarrassing how many of my staff members and athlete friends were cheering and pointing cameras at me. I joked later that I purposely dropped back from the leader pack so they could get a good clear shot of me. I was an 18-wheeler being passed by Porsches and Lamborghinis. But like a long-distance hauler, I just kept my steady pace, gave it a little more in the stretch and then delivered at the finish.
Out of breath. Shaky. Overwhelmed that I had actually done it.
Then I saw the clock results. I had beaten my former best 1500 time by four seconds. At altitude! Elation.
Then to reflect that I had just become the first staff member of NSGA to ever actually compete in The Games. That’s a record that will stand. Humbling.
But Eric was topmost on my mind that day. As often happened when training, I “talked” to Eric on each lap during the race, telling him to kick my butt into gear and keep me on pace and under control. After the initial finish line greetings, I needed a personal moment away from the others, gathered myself, looked to the north, and sent a virtual hug to the TeamEric family in Minneapolis. Then back to be congratulated by CEO Marc Riker and other staffers who came out to support me. That meant a lot to me.
We did it. It took a band of brothers to do what I was not physically capable of doing alone on that day, and that was to bring Eric a win. No, it was more than that. It was a medal sweep for TeamEric. What an indescribable, heart-filling, knee-bending moment. THANK YOU, GENTLEMEN!
POST SCRIPT: I thought my race experience was over and I went back into the rip tide of my work. But perhaps my most surprising #RealSeniorMoment came during the Celebration of Athletes a few days later. I was sitting with six of the seven Personal Best athletes who have competed in all of our Games in history: Dottie Gray, Lee Stadem, Ed True, Ann McGowan, George Freeman and New Mexico’s own (and my favorite curmudgeon) Jordan Wolle. Having these super seniors as my friends and sitting with them was special enough, but then it came time that all competitors were asked to stand to recite the Athlete’s Oath.
Time stopped for a beat.
I stood in disbelief and tears streamed as I struggled to recite the words. Accidental or not, I AM AN ATHLETE NOW. Six-and-a-half decades of wandering around this planet, and I had just achieved something I had never, ever dreamed of becoming.
No turning back now. Give me another bottle of water before I dehydrate!