Packing it In

Packing it In

Packing it In

March 4, 2008, will officially be known as “Black Tuesday” in our house. It’s the day Brett Favre announced his retirement from the Green Bay Packers, closing the books on one of the most celebrated careers in professional sports and plunging millions of Cheeseheads into despair.

We all knew this day was coming, of course. Football is a punishing sport, and Favre had the added pressure of carrying the hopes of Wisconsin (and most of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula) on his 37-year-old shoulders. The Packers’ 2007 resurgence was just a little too perfect, a little too “poetic end-ish,” too much of the appropriate stage for an exit. I wasn’t surprised that Favre retired, and had even predicted it after their overtime loss to the Giants.

Listening to Favre’s press conference following his announcement, I understood how difficult the decision must have been, but also the reason behind it. As much as Favre still loved the game, he’d reached the point where he no longer liked - or even enjoyed - the preparation. And for a professional athlete, preparation is 95% of the process. While I’d wager that few athletes relish the necessary grunt work, I suspect that the actual competition - especially when things go well - makes it all worthwhile. As the years go by and the mileage piles up, though, the balance starts to shift, and eventually the brief time “on stage” just doesn’t compensate for the hours of work away from it. Nobody ever wants to hate his or her job, especially something that starts as a childhood dream and brings so much satisfaction and fulfillment. Better to walk away crying rather than cursing.

I’ve thought about this a lot in recent years as I’ve watched my colleagues approach “master’s status” (to phrase it nicely) and re-evaluate the place that running occupies in their lives. Some continue to train and race with the same zeal as always. Others retire from competition but continue to run for pleasure and fitness. A few turn to different activities and embrace the challenge of “starting over again” at something new. I think runners are lucky in that we can back off from rigorous training but still enjoy intense competition. I doubt that backyard pick-up games in Mississippi are going to give Favre the same thrill as Sundays at Lambeau Field.

I’ve always wondered how world-class athletes handle the transition from leading the pack to following it. I look at people like Joan Samuelson, Bill Rodgers, and Cathy O’Brien, elite runners who still actively compete but are recording times many minutes slower than their PRs, and think, “isn’t that incredibly frustrating?” Apparently not, or I assume they wouldn’t be doing it. Perhaps it’s the excitement of competition in general, or the enjoyment of being in a race environment, that provides the spark. I suspect these runners are also satisfied and content with their past accomplishments, and thus are able to accept whatever the current race brings. But it still must take some kind of mental adjustment to accept the reality of today compared to the reality of yesterday. I’ve certainly known some athletes who couldn’t do that, and thus every race became a competition against their younger selves rather than against their peers. Not surprisingly, these people tend to disappear from the racing scene pretty quickly.

One’s attitude toward competition plays a role as well. A couple of years ago there was an interesting interview with Lynn Jennings on the Runner’s World website. Lynn was asked what had prompted her decision to retire, and whether she was ever tempted to compete again. She responded with an emphatic “No!” to the latter, and said that she had simply reached the point where she felt that she’d accomplished everything she wanted in the sport. For her, competition was a goal, and having achieved all her goals, there was nothing left to prove. For Lynn, the satisfaction came from the ends, not the means. For others, who still toe the line even though their PR days are well behind them, there is still enough enjoyment in the means to balance significantly different ends.

I’m still not sure where I fall on this spectrum. Certainly my days of hard training are behind me, partly by choice and mostly through doctor’s orders. I still enjoy a good race, although I’ve noticed in the past couple of years that I sometimes question my motivation in the minutes before the starting gun sounds. Once I get going, though, the old familiar adrenaline surge kicks in and the competitive juices start to flow. I wonder how I’ll feel when the gap between my finishing times and my PRs really starts to widen. Am I in this for the ends or for the means? Like Favre, will I know when it’s time to pack it in?