Being a middle-aged athlete is a bittersweet experience. I reject the option of “acting my age” and working out at a “sensible” intensity–no, I choose to challenge my limitations. This means I have to accept a see-saw of emotions. I alternate between the despair and futility of trying to do what is now difficult or impossible, and the elation of the days when I experience the joy of a good workout.
For I still have workouts—running, cycling, swimming—when I feel the lightness, power, and speed of youth. I know my subjective feeling is an illusion compared to the actual superiority of my youthful self, but it doesn’t matter. The pleasure of good workout is heightened by the very awareness that these powers are fleeting—that this moment may never be eclipsed—that this may be the last time climbing this particular mountain. I appreciate more, I criticize less, I am thankful for what I have rather than striving for more.
The good times are more exceptional than they were when I was young, when I flogged my body to the limit and accepted it as natural that I had to push myself as an athlete this way and accept the pain and exhaustion. I took it for granted that my body could handle this punishment, that it would respond by getting stronger. I could be confident that after two days of rest, I would feel invincible and be able to win races.
Now the good times are flashes of light against the darkness of injury, discouragement, and occasional dread of what is to come. My body’s integrity is no longer something I can be certain about. My arthritic knee, after two surgeries (to repair a torn ACL and remove torn cartilage), is my main limitation, but I have circulatory problems too, and the possible future effects of these are still mysterious.
What do I mean by “my body’s integrity”? It’s the basic confidence that everything is working, that all the parts and systems are functioning together as they should. It’s something that a youthful athlete takes for granted, because it’s always there even though factors such as fatigue and specific training stages will cause variations in performance. The young athlete only experiences the loss of this physical integrity when a serious injury prevents him from running. I remember the frustration and incredulity I felt when I was superbly fit, yet couldn’t run because one tiny part of my body (my heel or Achilles tendon) hurt too much.
Now the times when I feel this sense of my body’s integrity are less frequent, and they can never happen anymore while I’m running because my knee is too damaged. My surgeon told me over three years ago that I had to stop running completely; therefore, I’m thankful for the small amount of running that my knee is able to handle. During good periods, I can run 5K or so twice a week on a soft surface like grass or trails.
But my knee flares up sometimes, even from this limited running. This knee injury catapulted me from youth to late middle age in a very short time. It forces me to recognize my own frailty, and foreshadows what my old age could be.
About a week ago, a few hours after flying from Vancouver to Toronto, I went for an evening jog in Waterloo Park near my brother’s house. I welcomed the chance to exercise because my 7:00 a.m. flight had prevented me from doing my usual morning workout. It was a warm sunny evening. I started jogging on some lumpy grass fields, following my brother’s instructions to head for the nearby petting zoo where I would find smooth gravel paths.
I could barely move faster than walking pace on the uneven surface with its long grass and hidden bumps. I felt like a cripple. Even when I reached the paths, my knee didn’t feel good; maybe flying had caused extra swelling in the joint.
I continued jogging anyway, and tried to enjoy my run. I was surrounded by happy kids and families out playing in the newly-arrived summer heat. I ducked my head to breathe as I went through swarms of tiny flies. However, my gimpy knee prevented me from pushing myself, from running freely. My body’s integrity was not there that evening, though I ran over five kilometres. I had to walk back to my brother’s house, not daring to pound on the paved streets.
My knee is not my only “weak link”—it’s just the most obvious and irrevocable one.
My second weak link is a rare genetic condition known as fibromuscular dysplasia.* This disease can cause narrowing of various arteries in the body. In my case, the arteries affected were the iliac/femoral arteries, the large ones that supply blood to the legs. I developed narrowing and eventually complete blockage of these arteries around my groin area on both sides when I was in my 30s. Obviously, it was impossible to run when the only blood reaching my legs was coming through tiny peripheral blood vessels. I had a bypass done on my left iliac artery when I was 33. It was successful, but my right artery narrowed more gradually and my running was progressively impaired during my 30s. Finally, the right artery became completely blocked and I had a second bypass done just before I turned 39.
In the past year or two I’ve experienced slight symptoms similar to what I felt in my early thirties: when I exercise at a very high intensity for several minutes, the muscles in my left leg begin to cramp and hurt. I can seldom push myself hard enough in running to feel this symptom, but I notice it when I’m cycling up long steep hills. My left quad muscles aren’t getting enough blood (and therefore oxygen) to function efficiently. When the cramping gets bad, I have to ride easy for a few minutes to allow the muscles to recover. So far, my symptoms are very slight, but I fear the possible implications. Am I developing another narrowed area above or below the bypass? Will it get worse slowly or rapidly? Will I have to wait until I have a complete blockage before the medical system will give me a bypass, like last time? Will I become more and more limited in how hard I can run or ride?
Today was a good day for me athletically. It was a pool workout day. Ironically, swimming used to be my most hated form of cross training, but now it is the activity that best allows me to feel like the powerful aerobic monster I used to be. I’ve been swimming well for the past year, partly because not being able to run has forced me to swim more, and partly because the pool I swim at is warmer than it used to be, so I’m no longer suffering from the misery of being on the edge of hypothermia.
When I swim I’m not aware of my gimpy knee. My legs are merely a fluttering balance system. I relish cutting into the water, feeling the strength in my shoulders, arms, and back. I can push myself to the limit, until I’m gasping. I sprint like I used to do in running. There is the 200m swim, where I imagine I’m running an 800m (the approximate equivalent), and picture where I’d be on the track at each stage of the distance to help myself mentally. There is the 50m sprint (like a track 200m), where I go all-out, digging into the water with a faster cadence.
I love how naturally breathing comes to me in swimming. My lungs feel huge. I breathe every four strokes, most of the time, but when I’m pushing hard I automatically switch to alternating between two stroke/four stroke breathing.
When I’m swimming, another irony I think about is that my mother has been suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) for a long time. She is now in what they bluntly call the “end stage” of the disease. I was in Toronto visiting her last week. I want to respect her privacy and keep the emotions surrounding that visit to a minimum here. However, her suffering makes me more aware of and grateful for the health I have.
My mother could probably not even imagine how good I feel when I’m breathing hard while running or swimming. She was a smoker for over 30 years. Even though she quit 25 years ago, she has had to live with all the limitations of COPD. She has been on oxygen full time for the past couple of years, and now she is too weak to leave the apartment she shares with my father.
I in turn can’t imagine what it feels like to have only a tiny percentage of normal lung function left. When I was visiting, my mother told me about her last bout in the hospital. She was hooked up to a breathing machine overnight, and said it was an awful experience—the machine was so noisy it was impossible to sleep. She said she wouldn’t want to be kept alive if it had to be with that machine.
We all have our limitations and our obstacles, whether mental or physical, whether old or young. As I get older, I have learned the most important thing is to be thankful for my overall good health. But the second thing is to keep embracing new challenges; to keep pushing myself yet not judge the results too severely.
*More about fibromuscular dysplasia and triathletes
Fibromuscular dysplasia is rare, but I’ve heard from a few other athletes (triathletes and cyclists) who have experienced it. Canadian Olympic triathlete and runner Carol Montgomery had a bypass operation done on her left iliac artery less than a year before competing in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. (She didn’t finish the triathlon because of a bike crash—but competed again in the 2004 Olympics in Barcelona, finishing in 35th place. Carol is also ranked 4th Canadian all-time in the 10,000m. She qualified to “double” in the 10,000m and the triathlon in Sydney, but couldn’t compete in the run because of injuries sustained in the bike crash.)
Around the time I had my first bypass operation, I got emails from a few other cyclists and triathletes who also had fibromuscular dysplasia. I heard some conjecture that cycling can cause or aggravate the condition because of the physical pressure and irritation of a bicycle seat rubbing against the athlete’s thigh in the groin area—especially in thin athletes. I do know that in the two years before I started feeling symptoms, I had heel injuries that prevented me from running, and I was doing a lot of cycling. The indoor stationary bikes, in particular, were definitely uncomfortable. Since that time I’ve switched to training only on reclining stationary bikes, which don’t exert the same pressure.