Let’s All Die Standing Up

Aili and me both competed yesterday!

My niece Aili had a gymnastics meet yesterday. It was a mock meet where her team was able to perform in front of a real judge wearing their uniforms and using all the rules and procedures of a real meet. I’d been over to the LSU facility to watch her practice, but it was really fun to watch them compete. My college roommate, Cristal, was a gymnast, and so was my second husband. I knew a little bit about gymnastics from watching them. I have great admiration for gymnasts. It takes a LOT of strength, body awareness and courage to compete in that sport. My sister-in-law, Sharon, quipped after the vault competition that if she was doing that, she would just run around the vault because she’d be too scared to do it. Ditto for me. At this point in my life, I don’t know if I’d have the courage to somersault in the air over a horse – no matter how much padding was below me.

The team called the Tiger Tots works out in the same facility as the LSU gymnastics team. In fact, there was one college gymnast in there practicing while we were there yesterday. The room is full of pads, mats, sunken trampolines and large holes filled with foam cubes to break falls. It was hard to walk around. I think the closest anyone came to injury yesterday was when I tried to walk across what I thought was a floor, and it was a foam mat. My ankle twisted because I was expecting a hard surface, and I almost fell. There were about 20 girls ages about 7 – 13 or so that competed. All of them were so muscular and toned that I found myself being really jealous of the great shape they were in. Their little hard bodies made me feel squishy, wrinkly and very, very old in comparison. But, what I really admired was the lack of fear that they had about flying through the air, twisting and turning and falling into the floor. It all looked so effortless, but I know from doing yoga that it was not effortless.

We are born to move. As youngsters, we are fearless until we start to learn that we can get hurt. I remember riding bikes over things that I would never even attempt now. There was nothing we couldn’t jump. I would jump into any kind of water not knowing that there were sharks, snakes, gators or other crawling things underneath the surface. I remember playing baseball with my brothers from dusk until dawn and never running out of energy. Sammy and I would get out in the pasture behind my house and play baseball. I’d pitch. He’d hit. I’d run the ball down wherever it went and then come back to try to get him out. Then, we’d swap. All of my cousins that lived down the street would come over, and we’d play baseball in the pasture almost every weekend. Or, I’d hit golf balls with Daddy. Or, we’d climb trees. I fell out of trees. My sister’s favorite story is about my falling out of a tree in our backyard. I guess I got the wind knocked out of me. My grandmother came over, and Susan asked, “Is she dead, Mawmaw, is she dead?” I guess not. I’m sure it didn’t stop me from climbing trees either. Maybe it was my own homegrown version of gymnastics.

Last night at a party, I talked to my new friend Sadie who is training in a Couch to 5K program. She’s struggling a bit in the third week, and we were talking about how to handle it. She hasn’t been an athlete in a long time. Her body doesn’t really “remember” movement. She’s teaching it a whole new way of being. Our bodies do have memory. It is harder to become an athlete if you wait until you’re older, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t adjust. I didn’t run for 25 years before I started back in my mid-40s. At 48, I ran my first marathon – 26.2 miles. It was VERY difficult to start back running because it hurt. And, I had been active ALL my life, I just hadn’t been running. Every new activity is completely different to the body. It uses different muscles, different skills and different mental capacities. Yes, athletics requires a lot of mental training. For runners, the body and the mind want to tell you to stop. When it starts hurting, my minds starts urging me to stop this crazy stuff. Why are you doing this? Is this really necessary? It’s really too hot to be doing this. You could do this tomorrow. I have to ignore it, and I have to move on. My body is much more capable of finishing a run than my mind is. I can’t imagine what my brain would say if I jumped on the parallel bars and urged my body to fly through the air and turn a flip over the bar in front of me. Ugh …..

We are born to move. Our ancestors moved to live. If we could find a drug that had all the benefits of exercise, everyone would be on it. There is NOTHING better for you than exercise….. PERIOD. And, it doesn’t have to be a sport. It can be walking. It can be gardening. It can be riding horses. It can be dancing the night away. It just needs to be regularly done. They say that our bodies don’t age because of the aging process itself, we age because we stop moving as much. I have exercised all my life. Do I like it? Well, that’s a complicated question. If I had my choice, I’d love to be able to sit around, drink coffee and eat whatever I want and still be able to go out and hike and dance. But, that’s not realistic. If I like to hike and dance, I have to be in shape. How do I get in shape? I exercise…. regularly. I make a game of it by scheduling races and making friends who enjoy it, too. But, it’s all because I want to stay moving. When I die, I want to die standing up. I’d love for it to be standing up on the top of a mountain with a glorious view below me and my dog by my side. I want to feel the warmth of the sunshine on my skin or see the night sky full of stars when I depart this world. I can’t get there if I don’t move … today.

My trainer has already told me to lift weights today. Do I want to do it? No, I don’t want to. I want to sit outside and enjoy this beautiful day. But, if I devote 45 minutes to train, I can presumably live to see many more beautiful days. It’s why I don’t watch TV. If I have to trade off something, I’ll move before I watch TV. Cutting out television gives me time. I urge you to move, even if you’ve never done it in your life. I see so many people old beyond their years because they won’t move. Many of them think it hurts. And, truthfully it does. But, it’s going to hurt a lot worse when their body really starts to shut down. Momma walked a half marathon in 2005. She thanked me later because I had inspired her to do it by asking her to accompany me in the New Orleans half marathon. It was the year Katrina hit. That fall, the New Orleans that we passed through no longer existed. But, we saw it in its glory. She went on vacation with a friend, and her friend could barely walk two blocks to get an ice cream. But, she felt great. She and my Dad hike in the mountains when they are in New Mexico, and they are in their 70s. I want that.

I know Aili is not thinking of the health benefits that come from her gymnastics competition. But, she is gaining body coordination, awareness of her body, confidence, self-esteem and strength. Even if she never competes after the next few years, those things will never disappear. Her body and mind will remember it. She’s also making great friends, and they watch and encourage each other as they fail, learn and succeed. The same thing happens as adults. My running group meant so much to me when I ran my first marathon. Hours upon hours were spent running with the same women every week, listening to their stories, laughing with them and struggling through pain. I was amazed how, at 48, my body adapted – pretty easily – to longer and longer runs every week, culminating in a 26.2 mile run on October 11, 2009. Many of them were running for the first time in their lives. Running FOR their lives, really. What I really learned from that experience is that it’s not the race itself that matters, it’s the commitment to myself and to becoming who I want to be that is the real gift. It’s the journey to becoming who I am that makes all the difference. I am a runner. What athlete is hiding inside of you? Gymnast … dancer … yogi …. gardener … mountain climber … biker … wheelchair racer … swimmer … drummer … walker ???? The list and the possibilities are endless. Go ahead … let’s all die standing up.

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