Live your life with arms wide open
Today is where your book begins
The rest is still unwritten–
Natasha Bedingfield “Unwritten”
Athletes seem to feel they have a shelf-life, that the glory days of yore will never be reproduced, that since fast times are long gone there is nothing left to achieve. Nothing could be more untrue. There is so much more to sports than the numbers on the time-clock. Those who cannot overcome their anguish over slowing down miss important opportunities. Take Murray Sarubin, a 76 year-old retired dentist from Baltimore who now resides on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
I met Murray over 20 years ago. I was a young whipper-snapper new to Baltimore, my best athletic days still to come. Murray was in his 50’s, no longer a sub-3 hour marathoner, but still an avid triathlete with dreams of qualifying for the Hawaii Ironman looming large. His adage was that due to a lack of speed he would have to outlive his cronies to get a coveted slot. A somewhat morbid outlook, yet, somehow that is exactly what happened.
Murray’s enthusiasm and dedication to running and triathlon has never waned. Once his running career hit a lull, he started doing triathlons as way to “compete in athletics without focusing on my decline in running speed.” It was a perfect antidote. The new sports of swimming and biking were a different challenge where he was seeing rapid improvements. As the years passed, his bike and swim speed also inevitably slowed, but, so too did the speed of the others in his age group, allowing him to reach the podium in many races.
In 1996, Murray took me under his wing and helped me train for the 100th Boston Marathon. We did long runs together, weaving our way from Mt. Washington to the Inner Harbor and back. That left ample time for chit-chat, and I learned a lot about the history of Baltimore (none of which I remember), local gossip (also forgotten), and mostly, what passion and dedication in sport truly looks like. Oh, I also had to listen to a lot of terrible jokes. I still do. But, that is part of Murray’s charm. He is affable, inspirational, and sometimes funny.
Murray did Ironman Florida, his first, in 2000 at age 59. He did five more Ironman races through the 2000’s, trying to qualify for Kona, and realized the utter difficulty of this pursuit. Murray entered the lottery several times over the years, but it was always someone else in the area who got the slot. Undeterred, in October, 2016, Murray, the sole participant in the 75-79 age group at Ironman Maryland, finished the race and earned his ticket to the Big Island. Dreams do come true, even if it takes decades to get there.
Inspirational. Often you have no idea the impact you impart on others because most times the heartfelt words of friends only emerge at a funeral. Murray’s Hawaii Ironman journey opened the floodgates of well-wishers who came forward to share their own stories of how Murray touched their lives: “Good luck Murray you amaze me and help me realize life is what you make it.” “I couldn’t have met a nicer person to keep me moving forward during a dark spot in my race” “You were an inspiration to get me going with triathlons.” “You have inspired me in many ways since I first met you!”
In a sport that is touted as a selfish endeavor, Murray manages to find ways to use his decades of experience to help others further their own athletic careers and overcome their own athletic fears, a decidedly unselfish undertaking.
But, what keeps an athlete pursuing a singular goal for so many years? Passion. Dedication. Mental strength. A supportive spouse. Mostly, though, it comes down to joy. Murray loves endurance sports, the people he’s met, the competition, the ability to test himself on a regular basis, figuring out how to live your best life even when your body is slowing down.
Murray told me, “My primary motivator was like that of someone who wants to climb Mt. Everest; I enjoy challenging myself to reach the pinnacle, focused on a single goal, while competing against the best athletes in my age group. I have never wavered from that motivation in my athletic career.”
When Murray qualified for Kona, he called me and asked me to coach him. I could not have been more flattered, the mentee becoming the mentor. We knew at the outset that making the intermediate time cut-offs would be difficult, that crossing the finish line by midnight was in no way a given. We had to get him fast enough on the bike to allow for a 7 hour marathon. Remember, Murray is 76 and this was his first trip to the big dance. A wrench in the preparation occurred in May when Murray broke his tibial plateau in an accident, an injury that necessitated 8 weeks of non-weight bearing. Somehow, we got through the training, getting Murray as fit and ready as possible, without the ravages of over-training or other injuries.
The day in Kona was a tough one. It was hot. It was windy. Truly, there are few environments that are less hospitable for racing. Murray’s bike time was 45 minutes slower than we had hoped due to the conditions. This left less time for the run than we knew he needed. Murray missed the time cut-off at the 19 mile checkpoint.
“Being pulled off the course at 19 miles into the run was the most frustrating, painful event that has happened to me in my athletic career. I was only thinking of finishing the event, even though I knew it would take me longer than the 17-hour time limit. It never occurred to me that I would be stopped from reaching that goal. Once I had some time to think about what happened, I was able to put it in place. In all actuality, the years-long journey to get to Kona, finally qualifying for World Championships after so many attempts, and participating in triathlon’s premiere event, outweighed the disappointment of not being able to receive a finisher’s medal. It is still the crown jewel of my athletic achievements and a memory I will cherish always. I tested myself to my limits, came up a little short, but knew I would finish no matter what. Unfortunately, the “what” I didn’t count on was being pulled! My passion for the sport is not diminished. I learned more about myself when in situations facing adversity.”
Furthermore, Murray expressed that Kona was a fantastic experience. He explained “I have a tremendous amount of admiration for the 6 men in my age group [13 started] who did finish under 17 hours, knowing what dedication it takes to achieve that at any age, let alone this age.”
The support of those around him made the race possible, “As they say, it takes a village, and I was strengthened by the unwavering love and support of my family, friends, and coach,” said Murray.
It is natural for athletes to rue the aging process and how it affects their athleticperformance. I asked Murray how he was able to mentally deal with the inescapable slow-down. He said, “When I really started to slow down in my late 60’s/early 70’s, I recognized it as a natural evolution of the human body, and was just happy that I could train and race and feel good about what I could do. I tried to push my limits, but had no unrealistic expectations about what I could do, and no regrets or looking back at what I could no longer do.” His pragmatic approach is a lesson we should all incorporate into our aging bodies and minds.
I probed Murray on what advice he would give to his 30-year old self. His response? “The advice I would give would actually be similar to the path I followed. Live a healthy lifestyle, find ways to challenge yourself, open yourself to different types of people and experiences, have fun, and don’t take anything too seriously.” Now, those are words to live by.
Joanna Zeiger, MS, PhD, raced as a professional triathlete from 1998-2010. She placed fourth in the triathlon at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and won the 2008 IRONMAN 70.3 World Championships. She is a seven-time Olympic trials qualifier in three sports — marathon, triathlon and swimming. Joanna still pursues her passion for sports as a top Masters runner. Through her company, Race Ready Coaching, Joanna trains endurance athletes to reach their personal best and instills in them the importance of having fun even when they are training hard. When she is not coaching or training for running events, Joanna works as a consultant in the field of biostatistics. Joanna’s book The Champion Mindset: An Athlete’s Guide to Mental Toughness will be published in February 2017 by St. Martin’s Press.