By Bernice Bragg
One small celebration at a time.
On Friday, April 27, 2018, just a few weeks ago, I once again walked into the stadium at The University of Pennsylvania’s famous Franklin Field. I couldn’t believe it. A huge smile of joy and appreciation spread across my face as I followed my 3 relay teammates to the area where relay teams were lined up in several rows. How did I get here, as the first leg of a 4 x 100 meter relay team once again, 25 years after the last time I was at Penn Relays? I was first leg back then too, with my college team. And that outdoor season of track and field was the last time that I sprinted on an outdoor track… until now.
It would be a great story if I had some kind of post-college life-long dream to be a track athlete again in my 40s. I could tell you all about how I set goals and worked hard to achieve them. However, being able to participate as a Masters track & field athlete now happened sort of by chance. There were some goals along the way, and I did work hard, but I think, at least in the beginning, I was just trying to survive being a mom.
Seven years ago this month, I was the proud owner of a two-year-old and a 4-month-old, and 50 pounds heavier than I am now. I found myself in the absolute worst shape of my life, after spending the previous four years pregnant, then nursing, then pregnant and then nursing again. During those four years in my late 30s, I was unable to work out to the degree that I really would have wanted to. There are women who maintain their athleticism throughout their pregnancies, but it just didn’t happen that way for me. I could not turn up the intensity of my workouts postpartum because I found that I couldn’t maintain my milk supply if I worked too hard, and nursing was really important to me. So, after weaning my second son one year after he was born, it was simply marvelous to feel that my body was finally mine again! I approached exercise with a level of gleeful appreciation I’d never experienced before, because I was coming from a level of deconditioning I’d never experienced before. As an athlete through college, then a fitness instructor for many years after college, a one-time competitor in an all-natural bodybuilding competition, and having a Masters degree in Exercise Physiology (working in Cardiac Rehabilitation), it was very strange for me to be so heavy and utterly out of shape. It was extremely unpleasant, but such an important lesson for me. It taught me that I never wanted to feel that way again, and that memory sticks with me as a strong motivator.
However, I am even more motivated and inspired by a quotation I once saw: “Exercise is not a punishment, but a celebration of what your body can do.” I have no idea who made that up, but I LOVE it, and it has been my workout theme for the past several years. I am driven SO much more by the sheer joy of being able to move my body and to watch my body respond to my efforts than by the knowledge of what I wish to avoid by staying fit, although that knowledge is really important as well. I love being strong and fit and firm and flexible. I love the feeling of having power and agility and endurance. I also love knowing that there is room for improvement. Working toward those areas of improvement is another fun source of motivation that keeps me going.
So, in those stressful early maternity days, I found comfort and relief from my pregnancy-induced high blood pressure, postpartum anxiety and sleep-deprivation by moving my body in any way I could, whether it was just pushing my babies around the neighborhood in the stroller for hours and hours (I used to say that it was my “sanity”), to following a very gentle Pilates workout on DVD. I had forgotten all about that DVD until just now, but it truly helped me to put myself back together after my two C-sections. Then, when I was finally done with nursing, I spent a year doing hot yoga to help manage my stress and anxiety, along with the incredibly challenging “Insanity” DVDs which I just loved because those workouts reminded me of the sprint drills we used to do in my college track years. The aptly named “Insanity” workouts completely wrung me out and got me feeling a lot more like an athlete again. The most important aspect of my fitness efforts at this time in my life, however, was the mantra I kept and repeated to myself. The mantra that got me out of bed in the dark at the crack of dawn to work out, which was my ONLY option before the kids started preschool. The mantra that got me through some very tough workouts. The mantra that I always gave myself at the beginning of every yoga class when the instructor would ask us to silently set an intention or dedication for today’s practice. I would always remind myself of the joy of the moment. Just the joy and gratitude of being here, in this body, at this time, and the simple joy of just being able to breathe and to move my body. I always reminded myself to enjoy it as a celebration of what my body can do.
And that is the wave I was riding when I met the man who would take my fitness to the next level. I started training regularly with Jody Gray at KettleCross, which provides high-intensity interval training with resistance using a combination of kettlebells, TRX Suspension and TRX Rip Trainers. It’s the most efficient and effective strength training I’ve ever done. This month is my 5-year anniversary of training there. I’ve had amazing improvements in my strength and stamina, and I just keep improving. This has all happened just one workout at a time, with no big-time goals. I just walk in every day and feel the joy of the moment and the joy of my body working really hard.
If it weren’t for my strength training foundation at KettleCross, I never would have been able to even think of sprinting again as a Masters athlete. Last year, at the age of 45, I suddenly found myself ready. I was stronger than I’d ever been before, and once I found out that Masters sprinting was an option for me, I felt that inner excitement stir up and I just knew that I had to at least try it. I competed in the indoor track and field season this past winter, and the Penn Relays two weeks ago was the first meet of the 2018 outdoor season. The sprinter that I first discovered in myself in 2nd grade when I beat all the boys at field day was back! I had thought that after college, I’d never see her again. Just a handful of months ago, I didn’t even know there was any such thing as Masters Track and Field. Now, I’m loving every minute of it — the strength workouts, the track workouts, the meets, and all the amazing friends I’ve made and the athletes I’ve met and watched in awe. There are women 10-20 years my senior who are way faster than I am, and I just love them for showing me what’s possible. And the highest age group at the Indoor National Championship meet was 90-102! Those men and women are my heroes!
It’s funny. As I’m writing this, it is Mother’s Day weekend. If I had been asked to write about myself 7 years ago today, I would have had a baby in one hand (probably nursing), a toddler toddling around (probably drawing on the walls with a crayon), and it probably would have been a really mushy story about being a mommy (love and stress and fatigue and more love). I was all hormonal and sleep-deprived and anxious and emotional at that time, and while nursing, I would sit there and stare at my baby and write these lovely poems related to the fierce and overwhelming love of motherhood.
But now, I’m writing about the one part of my life that has nothing to do with being a mom. It’s just about me. It sounds like a cliché, but the best gift I can give my children and my husband is a healthy mom and wife. So happy Mother’s Day to me! (LOL) It was something that started out for me as a way to find balance for myself and manage stress as a new mom. I realized that if I wanted to survive physically, mentally and emotionally, I would have to take care of myself FIRST. And now, it has developed and morphed into something that I can’t imagine living without. My physical and mental health would be completely derailed if I didn’t work out regularly and vigorously. And the happiness I feel when I’m sprinting, and training to improve my sprinting, is the icing on the cake.
So on that chilly, overcast day in Philadelphia last month, when I finally lined up for my heat among the dozens of heats of relay teams, I had the biggest smile on my face. I was proud of myself, and so indescribably grateful just to be a participant in the 124th annual Penn Relays. I thought of my college teammates who stood on this same track with me 25 years earlier, and who are also moms now too. I thought of my dad – who had passed away 20 years ago – who, when I was a kid, would pick me up from track practice every day, and who would sit in the stands for hours at my Saturday track meets just to watch me run for a few seconds – who would come out to support me at many of my college meets, and whom I felt with me in spirit at Franklin Field that day. When it was time for me to step up to the line in lane 3 with the baton in my hand, along with pride, gratitude and nostalgia, I also felt quite nervous. It was just the usual pre-race adrenaline surge, which I always counter with deep, controlled breaths. In the silence and perfect stillness of the suspense between the starting official’s command of “Set!” and the sound of the gun, I repeat my favorite mantra to myself along with my calming breaths. Like a prayer sent out into the universe with each exhale, without attachment to any outcome, and with one last smile, I think, “I’m so happy to be here. Thank you for this moment.” It’s the joy of the moment, and it’s just another celebration of what my body can do.
Bernice has a Bachelor of Science degree in Kinesiology from the University of Maryland, and a Master of Science degree in Exercise Physiology from the University of Delaware. She has worked at Christiana Care Health System as an Exercise Physiologist in Cardiac Rehabilitation & Secondary Prevention for the past 22 years. Her previous professional experience also includes Pulmonary Rehabilitation, fitness center supervision, as well as personal and group fitness instruction. Bernice’s favorite hobbies include working out, competing in track & field, and learning about optimizing health and longevity. She is the wife of a wonderful guy and the mom of two fantastic boys.