March 1, 2011

Lifestyle & Leisure: Pole-Vaulting at Age 81?

By Jerry Alan Donley, Lifestyles and Leisure Committee Member

Why would a sane 81 year old person pole vault? I am, by normally accepted medical standards, a sane person, but I do compete in masters pole vault competitions in the 80–84 age group.

In my early forties I was primarily a civil trial lawyer, carrying a significant case file load. One day I realized that trial practice was hard work; it took lots of energy and endurance. I was running out of each. I became aware that in my community there were few trial lawyers over 50, and determined I must do what was necessary to obtain the physical condition required by my case load. To add fuel to the fire my clothier told me I was beginning to get the “middle-age spread.”

Two of my boys and two neighborhood friends were interested in pole vaulting. I tried to help them. We built a pit in my backyard. I began running, a block at a time, and put up a climbing rope in a tree, also in the backyard. I found a book of exercises used by the Canadian Air Force as a model of exercises to do. As I helped my boys and their friends I resumed my vaulting career. As my wife said “You resumed your second childhood.”

About that  time  a  group  had formed a national masters track-and-field organization. It was spreading internationally. I located a meet in Vancouver, Canada, where I had my first competition, and the following week a competition in Portland, Oregon. That was in 1974. I was hooked and have been competing ever since.

As I worked on speed, strength, balance, and flexibility in my regular workout program I realized I had more energy and endurance for activities at work, at home with my family, at church, and in the community. In other words, putting out energy produced more energy. With my energy and endurance I could outlast the older—and younger–lawyers in my area.

Pole-vaulting has allowed my wife and me a wonderful life style to enjoy our leisure time. The master’s track and field program is now worldwide. Competing in the masters program has allowed us leisure time in New Zealand, Australia, Italy, South Africa, Japan, Spain, Germany, Great Britain, and Finland. We have traveled to all parts of the United States, from New England to San Diego, Miami to Seattle, and the mainland to Hawaii.

As my wife also competes, in multi-events in each meet, we are usually on the track most of the time during the competition period. We try to allow time for side trips. While in Spain, San Sebastian, we took a three day trip to Paris. In Paris I got more of a workout walking, making train schedules, and seeing the sights than I had competing in the track-and-field meet. I had an understanding with my first wife, who died in 2001, that after competition I got at least 20 minutes to celebrate or to be grumpy and unhappy. After that time frame, we saw the sights—museums, art galleries, and gardens. This rule still works quite well.

If a person cannot sprint, vaulting is quite difficult. So, most of my workouts are anaerobic in style. I do lots of repeat short sprints, from slow to fast. I try to do sprint workouts at least two days a week. Strength is also critical to the vault. I do weight work outs at least once a week, in times of bad weather, two to three times a week. During workouts I try to develop agility and quickness in addition to speed and strength.

For the aging athlete flexibility of the muscles is important. I usually do stretching at home while watching TV. My wife and I are able to make free use of the downtown YMCA for workouts. Our dues at the YMCA are paid for by the Silver Sneakers AARP program. My son bought the house where I built my pole vault pit. I retained an easement for my life across his back yard for my runway.

I wish I could say that as a result of all my exercise I never have any sore or pulled muscles and that I am the picture of good health. Not quite true. My hearing is okay—with hearing aids. My eyesight will be okay—as soon as I get rid of my cataracts. My heart is okay—as long as the pacemaker works. A double hernia operation in November took care of that problem. In other words as long as my batteries, wires, and artificial parts work, I may last forever.

Whatever happens in the future, my life has been filled with joy and excitement. We have friends all over the world. I have been able to continue my relationship with the bar staying an active member, and am able to see clients, and do legal work. I do not have any intention of stopping competing or practicing law. It has been a great life! I think I have a few more good vaults to make and clients to help, and I plan to give both a good try!