My new power walking “career” continued in October with a visit to the Huntsman World Senior Games, a huge event in St. George, Utah that draws domestic and international athletes and serves as that state’s qualifying event for the National Senior Games. Once again, I had an other-worldly experience that left me speechless – and anyone who knows this road-worn PR guy will tell you that this a rare occurrence!
This trip actually began in New Mexico, where I took my wife Jackie to the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta for the first time in 30 years. Back in the late ‘80s I got involved with producing balloon competition events, including four years as development director for the US National Hot Air Balloon Championships held in Baton Rouge. I visited the Fiesta three times back then (talk about fun business trips!) and brought Jackie once. It made no sense to bring her to The Games in June while I was grinding out 16-hour days, so I made good on the promise to bring her back to enjoy ourselves and the wonderful offerings of the Land of Enchantment. To make it an even more special, my 2019 Games photo director Brit Huckabay and his wife joined us for some exceptionally good times that week.
Fellow athletes, you got a taste of the colorful balloons in the sky while you were competing this year, and you simply must come back to take in this uplifting (pardon the pun) October event. I always feel like a six-year-old kid standing on the massive launch field watching waves of these gentle giants inflate and ascend, filling the sky with wonder. I was so happy to see that my competition in Utah fit right into the calendar, and I was able to catch up with four pilots who had actually flown in my events back in the day – Mark Sullivan, Tarp Head, David Bristol and Dr. Bill Bussey, the latter holding several records and national championships and who I had the thrill to ride with on practice competition runs way back when. Once I rode with him and the late Sid Cutter, one of the founders of the Fiesta. I didn’t realize at the time just how lucky I was to share the basket with these two legends.
The hospitality was as amazing as our balloon play. We were the guest of the son and daughter in law of Larry Johnson, who at 99 was the oldest New Mexico athlete in The Games in June. Larry was a 2014 Personal Best feature athlete (read his story “Full Cycle” here) and we have become good friends. I always make time to meet him for a meal at games or when I have traveled to ABQ since then. The stay at Phil and Janelle Johnson’s rancho felt more like a spa vacation, and they could not have been more gracious.
I’m tellin’ you, the Fiesta is one of those iconic events that one simply must experience at least once. We left town refreshed and rejuvenated, staying over at the Grand Canyon to take in one of the only sights that could trump seeing 500 balloons in the air. Then, on to St. George enjoying the majesty of the American West all along the way.
Race Day: The 1500-meter power walking competition in my age group was almost as large and equally as talented as what I encountered at Nationals. Once again, my goal was to simply try to beat my best time, but instead it was a wakeup call – I finished just over a full minute behind my mark, and I knew I was not as well prepared. Since June I have had quite a bit of leisure travel and one doesn’t keep as close to daily diet and exercise goals while visiting exciting places and old friends. Also, in Florida summers you have to get out early before the steam bath soaks you. I admit it, a few days I wussed out. Before I knew it, I had put 11 pounds back on my frame and our vacation prevented me from getting things back under control in the weeks leading up to Huntsman. I have rededicated my efforts since returning and have already taken seven of those nasty pounds back off using my sensible eating and exercise model. But on this day, my aching shins told me I had been a bad boy and I was gonna pay for it. My consolation was to “sprint” in the last 50 meters to win my first photo finish at the line.
It was great to see other power walking folks I know, including Mike Devaney, multisport athlete and 2013Athlete of the Month who has competed in almost every one of our state Senior Games, and Sharon Huczek of Michigan, another Personal Best athlete (read “Rallying Through Life’s Kill Shots” here) who is a fierce racquetballer and attacks the track with the same intensity. I also enjoyed seeing Slowpoke Divas superblogger Bonnie Parrish-Kell and Kathy Meares, who will be our November Athlete of the Month for her perseverance to overcome four knee replacements to take on power walking as the sport she can continue to enjoy. I made some new friends, too. My circle is widening.
And, of course, the Moon Walker always paces with the spirit of Eric Todd, the 2015 intern who I dedicated my efforts to and who unfortunately lost his cancer battle last month (as related in my previous blog entry). With his passing I thought I would be overwhelmed with sadness when I came to the track, but the opposite happened. I felt calm and uplifted with the thought that I would never forget his inspiration and that I would always bring him with me to compete. He is now my spiritual companion in sport and that brings warm thoughts and feelings and an extra kick in the pants to perform well.
Now for the other-worldly experience. The evening after my race there was a free concert for the athletes featuring a Billy Joel tribute band, and it turned out to be a fantastic performance. Jackie and I arrived early so we could pick just the perfect seats with a clear view and balanced sound. We had some time to wait, and I fell into contemplation about my sad performance and felt that I let Eric down. But the warm feeling quickly returned, and I resolved to get back on track. At that moment, I noticed the door on an entrance on the other side of the arena was wide open and the setting sun started shining through the gap. I guess the outer lobby walls were windowed. For about a minute, a blazing ray of sunlight came beaming into the hall. I realized that I was the only person in that ray of light. Jackie was right next to me but was not in it. I will always cherish this moment as Eric’s embrace.
I don’t expect everyone to believe my interpretation, but as I’ve said before these kind of strange incidents have happened throughout my life and I give thanks for these precious experiences.
Looking forward, I have a few weeks to get back in shape to compete in the Florida Senior Games being held this December and next in Greater Fort Lauderdale as a tune up to the National Senior Games coming there in 2021. Who knows what the Moon Walker will have to share after that race?