Growing old graciously — more or less

Left to right: Megan, June, Eden and Will Ellsworth after completing the 3P. (Photo provided —Jack Drury)

I’m a competitive guy. It’s something I’ve disguised much of my adult life, but it comes bubbling to the surface every now and then like it did a week ago at the Saranac Lake 3P (Pole/Pedal/Paddle).

No, I didn’t compete. I’m too old, and more importantly, too smart for that.

Back in the day it didn’t matter whether it was high school football, wrestling, bowling, Monopoly, Parcheesi, Euchre or dominos, I played to win. My raison d’etre: what’s the sense of playing if you don’t play to win? If you aren’t playing to win, aren’t you playing to lose?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a sore loser. I can lose, and do so often, and with grace. I just don’t like it. When I compete, I give it all the energy I can, and I’ll do everything within the rules to win. I subscribe to Grantland Rice’s quote: “It’s not that you won or lost but how you played the game.”

Years ago, when visiting an old college buddy, we went outdoors to toss a frisbee. We played catch for about five minutes before we came up with a game where one of us would be a goalie and the other tried to throw the frisbee past him. We kept score. An hour later when we went back indoors, I announced I’d won 10 to 8. My wife said, “You went out to play catch with a frisbee. How do you win at frisbee?” It seemed fruitless to try to explain our impromptu rules and how we turned it into a competition. Only someone with the competition gene would understand.

Phyliss Drury, Eden and June Ellsworth cheer Megan on as she competes in the 3P. (Photo provided —Jack Drury)

Over time, as I fell in love with the outdoors, I found the wilderness was a place I didn’t need to be competitive and I could enjoy it for its intrinsic value. I climbed mountains, but not to see who could get to the top first. I paddled rivers, but not to see who could get down them first. I skied, but not to see who could get down the mountain the fastest. I did those things only for my own enjoyment.

Some recreate outdoors to get in shape, others want to check mountains off the bucket list, still others love the social aspect of it. Me, I like all those things, but ultimately, they are just by products. I’m outdoors to breathe the fresh air, take in the beauty, and soak up the natural world.

The older I get, the better I am at stopping and smelling the roses, but not everyone thinks like me. I gave a presentation to a group of paddlers a while back and told them I prefer to do a canoe carry twice with lighter loads rather than once with a heavy load. I explained that it allowed me to see and experience the environment more thoroughly. I nearly got booed out of the venue.

I knew my competitive spirit had all but died when I took a badminton class my junior year of college and in a tournament was eliminated in the first round. What was wrong with me? How could I let that kid beat me three straight games? What happened to my competitive spirit? I think I finally realized that my life priorities had changed. My desire to be outdoors and explore wildlands became more important than winning badminton games. (Then again, maybe it’s just a good excuse for losing.)

I graduated from college, moved to Saranac Lake, and let my competitive spirit lie dormant. (And was especially grateful when asked to play rugby.) Sure, I competed in the occasional canoe race, especially when my boys came of age. I played pick-up basketball during my North Country Community College years. I wasn’t very good, but it was fun — as long as I gave it my best shot. Yup, even pick-up basketball I had to give 100%.

But I’ve left competition behind … almost. I’m a work in progress. I mentioned my competitive nature to my stepson Ben last night. He laughed and said, “I noticed. You just finished playing checkers with 6-year-old Hazel and wouldn’t let her win.” Guilty as charged (but maybe next time I’ll challenge her to arm wrestling).

At the Saranac Lake 3P my competitive spirit was manifested by becoming a cheerleader. Phyliss, the granddaughters, and I hollered encouragement to their parents Will and Megan. We waved our signs, drove from Pisgah to Dewey, to the river, and back to Pisgah, cheering the entire way.

But something else also manifested. While the competitive spirit can be suppressed it can’t be eliminated — at least not in my case because after watching Will and Megan, I found myself wishing I was 30 years younger and back in my competitive prime.

But since I’m not, maybe next year I’ll train hard and enter the 3P, in the over 70 class.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $4.75/week.

Subscribe Today