“I need more practice.” – Don Pellman
Perhaps you saw the NY Times article reporting on the record-setting performances of track and field athlete Don Pellman at the San Diego Senior Olympics last week. Pellman, who turned 100 in August, broke five world age-group records in a span of four-and-a-half hours: shot put, high jump, long jump, discus, and 100m. Those jumping records stand alone on the all-time list for his age group because no 100-year-old had ever before recorded a legal long jump or cleared a legal height in the high jump.
His day of triumph wasn’t without obstacles, however, as Pellman failed in his three attempts to clear a legal height in the pole vault. But after that “catastrophe,” as he termed it, Pellman returned to form in the 100, running 26.99, or nearly three seconds faster than the 29.83 that Japan’s Hidekichi Miyazaki had run in 2010.
As you can see in the video below, Pellman, a gymnast and high jumper in his youth, still moves like an athlete. Using a standing start in the 100, Pellman attacks the race with short, quick steps. His posture and balance are good, and he manages to hold his pace almost to the end of the race, when he finally starts running out of gas.
I have a feeling that most readers of the NY Times story, or similar stories that appeared in other outlets in the U.S. and around the world, will smile indulgently at the 100-year-old man tottering around at a track meet. They’ll find it diverting and perhaps even “inspiring” to consider that he’s out there doing it at all, and they won’t say what they might be thinking, which is “why put old age on display like this?”
Actually, I ask myself the same question.
I think if we’re going to be honest about this, we need to acknowledge first that, when it comes to upper age-group competition, the normal appeal of head-to-head competition has all but disappeared. There aren’t a lot of 100-year-olds competing in track and field, and there’s a pretty good chance that if someone is still able to compete, he or she will be on the podium, assuming of course that he or she can get up on the podium. I’m not trying to be flippant here, I’m merely pointing out that when a centenarian competes in track and field, the nature of the activity changes in several ways, some profound, some amusing.
For example, Pellman’s careful attention to conserving his energy was striking. For the most part, he did no warm-ups. He took only a single attempt in the long jump. His disappointment with the pole vault might have had as much to do with wasting three attempts on a no-height, as the no-height itself. His choice of an upright start in the 100 was a logical adjustment to avoid the extravagant expenditure of energy required to get up and out of blocks.
Another thing that needs to be acknowledged is that, as unlikely as Pellman’s accomplishments are, they are not visually impressive. If a spectator didn’t know that Pellman was 100, that spectator would see someone running slower, jumping lower, and throwing less distance than others in the meet. What’s truly impressive is well concealed by the overall impression of a body that has lost strength and coordination.
I hope that doesn’t sound cruel, but if we are to appreciate Don Pellman, we can’t pretend that what he’s doing is attractive in the same way that watching athletes in their prime is attractive. We only have so many years of peak fitness, and then it’s a long way down, and no one really enjoys watching that.
But what I find so compelling about Don Pellman is how he approached his task. In the NY Times article, he’s described as being stubborn. I would rather use the term focused, and maybe even obsessed. He had specific goals, and he wasn’t out there looking for a participant’s ribbon. I love how pissed he was that he didn’t clear a height in the pole vault. I love how he mutters to himself that he needs more practice. Does that sound like someone who is patting himself on the back for showing up at all?
You might ask, “what’s the point of pole vaulting 3 feet?” But if it comes to that, what’s the point of pole vaulting 20 feet? Once you’ve looked up (or down) and seen a bar to be cleared, the specific height isn’t the point. Getting more speed on the approach is the point. Better technique is the point. Clearing the damn bar is the point.
I love that Pellman trained for the 100 by doing sprints at his assisted living center. Does that sound like someone who was just happy to be there?
No, even though it must be acknowledged that one requirement of being a record-setting centenarian is living to be a centenarian, to me it’s the attitude — the stubborn, obsessive, and utterly single-minded attitude — and not the records, that deserves celebration.