There are many possible answers to that question. I have an arthritic knee. I have a sore hamstring. I’m only running twice a week, at most. I worry too much. I’m an insomniac. I eat a little bit of junk food and chocolate (which is not junk food) every day.
I’m getting older.
Garmin is lying to me.
But none of these answers fully satisfies me. It makes me think about how complicated each of us is, as an athlete. Because we can’t just isolate the athletic part of ourselves, reduce ourselves to our bodies.
When I was running as a member of the Canadian team, George (my coach) had to submit a one-year training plan every year. Following the accepted scientific theories, it had macro-cycles and micro-cycles, the periodization of training that allows the body to get stronger, achieve new levels of performance, then back off to rest and recharge. Yet both of us knew that I would seldom be able to follow the program we’d written out, because injuries so often interfered with the “optimized” training that I wanted to pursue.
I’m not saying that periodization doesn’t work. It worked spectacularly well for me at the 1988 Olympics. Although I was sick on the day of my final and felt lousy, I still ran a PB because I had “peaked” perfectly and my legs were ready.
However, when I was at my best, I also frequently noticed peaks and slumps in performance that were hard to attribute to physical factors or training regimens.
I’m in one of those slumps now.
I’ve had only one or two remotely decent runs since my 5:58 performance in the Ambleside Mile on June 1st (and that was a good run for me with my tiny amount of running training and no speedwork).
But not only am I running slowly, I’m not enjoying my little runs in Mundy Park as much as I used to. I’m getting discouraged by my inability to run faster. I’m certainly puzzled by it. My knee has been feeling relatively good lately. However, a chronic hamstring tightness on my “good” (left) side became much worse after the Ambleside Mile. Though it doesn’t actually hurt while I’m running, my whole hip/butt area feels oddly tight and fatigued as soon as I try to speed up.
I’ve done a lot of cycling and swimming this summer, and I’m confident I’ve improved at both. My shoulders don’t get tired on the continuous lake swims anymore, and I can feel their power as I slice through the water. I’ve done many big hills on my bike rides, and I’m sure my quads have grown, at least a little!
But running—running is an unforgiving reflection of fitness. The stopwatch doesn’t lie (even though Garmin does). Maybe I only think I’m cycling and swimming well because I don’t quantify my performance in those activities so carefully. Or maybe it’s that starting from a low level in cycling and swimming, I still have room to improve. In running, as a Masters athlete there was nowhere for me to go but down. The descent was gradual until I tore my ACL; many times in the past four years I thought I would have to quit running entirely.
During the past two months, though, what is new is not the fragility I feel when I run (because of my knee) but my lack of enthusiasm. It makes me wonder if I will soon voluntarily quit running. Or maybe I need to forget about my Garmin. What does it matter how slowly I run? Maybe I have to dispose of the last shreds of my athletic ego and allow myself to run (or jog) at whatever pace feels right.
All I know is that something is not right now. Something is not in balance. I’ve lost weight recently; I’m at the same 88 pounds I was during the Seoul Olympics, even though I’m not training hard. I eat well (and some of my friends know how much) but there could be other factors affecting my running.
My insomnia has been worse recently. It’s all tied up with anxiety and mental stimulation, both good and bad. I have a lot of uncertainty about my professional future. I’m still trying to decide where I want to go as a writer. Most of the time, I feel happy about the changes in my personal life and relationships. Yet, there are brief flashes of intense anger, sadness, or confusion. Recovering from a marriage breakup and the death of a close friend doesn’t happen in a set period of time.
Maybe the sleeping pills I’m taking more frequently these days are hurting my running. Maybe the caffeine and sleepless nights are burning me up. It’s a vicious circle.
Like everyone who is getting older (whether that means approaching the big 4–0 or a much higher number), I’m grappling with what that means. Because of my knee injury, in a few short years I had to go from thinking of myself as much younger than my actual age to someone who has serious physical limitations. Not only can I not run fast; some days I can’t even walk properly, and there are hikes that I will never be able to tackle now.
I don’t mean this to be a depressing post. It’s meant to be reflective, and perhaps comforting to other ageing athletes who are having a hard time accepting declining abilities. I’m not giving up on running completely. I know there will still be exhilarating (if slower) runs in the days ahead. My philosophy will always be to push my body toward its limits.
But my workouts have to be in harmony with my body and my spirit. They have to make me happier and stronger rather than destroying me. That’s what ageing gracefully means.