At first I was going to call this post “Getting Old,” but that was too blunt. I couldn’t accept it.
Soon I will have another birthday and it will be #57. I’m sure that for a long time, I would have said, “A 50-year-old is an old person”—now, of course, I know that isn’t true!
Yet people around my age are dying. Prince. David Bowie. Friends my age are getting treatment for cancer.
Friends just a few years older than me are retiring; they have had busy, lucrative professional careers and will now travel, down-size, and have more time for exercise and creative hobbies. In contrast, I extended youth in a sense by making competitive running my main career focus until an ACL tear in 2009 completely ended serious running for me. Instead of retiring, I went back to school as a 49-year-old. Learning, for me, was not just about acquiring new writing, editing, and design skills; it was about learning to interact with other adults in “normal” business environments (The Vancouver Board of Trade, the Running Room store), in ways that being an elite runner or a one-on-one English tutor had not required.
So my ACL tear in 2009 catapulted me from an artificially extended youth smack into a more “normal” middle age.
Now, only seven years later, I’m starting to acknowledge that I, too (if I’m lucky!) will be old. I know this because a few weeks ago I noticed that I have white (not gray) eyebrow hairs. I’m used to my thick, dark eyebrows—I’m not ready for white!
On a more serious note, though, one of the most difficult reminders of old age for me to witness has been my partner Keith’s suffering from hip pain over the past year and a half. He thought it was only a muscular problem or an inflammation of the bursa, but this week he found out he has advanced arthritis and will likely need to get a hip replacement. It has been heartbreaking to see him have to stop hiking and even cycling except on the easiest, flattest routes. However, he has a fighting attitude (more on that below) and we are both confident that he will be back cycling with me!
Facing old age: physical appearance and performance
This part could be summarized as “getting old sucks,” and some of my readers might want to skip it. The brave can read on.
The ultimate human tragedy is dying, and the process of aging is a tragic trajectory towards that point.
(I know not everyone would agree. Many believe in an afterlife: they may believe the ultimate human tragedy is not having such a belief; in the Christian tradition, not believing Jesus Christ is one’s personal saviour. Or, one could make a case that the ultimate human tragedy is living without loving.)
Our bodies display our biological nature whether we want to acknowledge it or not. Whatever we believe about the finality of death and our spiritual life now and hereafter, our bodies are part of the “Circle of Life,” as The Lion King puts it.
That inevitable march of our bodies towards death can be seen as tragic and ugly—certainly from an artistic point of view. Many bodies, in youth, are fit for the adoration of the sculptor, the painter, the photographer. The artist tries to capture the nobility of the human form, with its beautiful lines, muscles, and curves, its power and gracefulness. We watch athletes in their prime with admiration as they display the ultimate capabilities of the human animal: its awesome strength, speed, power, and agility.
But no matter how beautiful and impressive a body is, if it survives to old age it will change drastically. Old bodies: lumpy, misshapen, corpulent or shriveled, wrinkled, hairless in some places and too hairy in others, shuffling, limping, sometimes valiant in their efforts but never able to recapture the effortless beauty of youth. Our youth-worshipping culture encourages us to fight the physical changes of aging with cosmetics, surgery, diet, and exercise, but ultimately it’s a losing battle.
I remember reading a story a long time ago—it might have even been a novel—I think it was by Aldous Huxley. The gist of the story was that humans had figured out how to put the effects of aging on hold for about 50 years, so that everyone looked 30 until they were 80, and then within the space of a few days they suddenly looked and moved liked 80-year-olds. Shortly before that happened, the authorities rounded them up and euthanized them. But in this story, a couple of these people had escaped their “holding pen” before euthanization. They were still quite spry and capable of walking around. They tried to hide and find a way to exist “in the wild,” but they needed help from other people. The “young” ones they appealed to for help were appalled by their appearance.
That’s all I remember of that book, but it’s stuck in my memory for decades, that picture of how old age had become abnormalized.
Old age is both a tragedy and a comedy. The only way to cope with it is to see the comedy in it. You can’t hide from the limitations, the embarrassments, and the heartbreaks of old age, so you can only try to diminish its power by laughing at it. You share that laughter with others who are old enough to understand (no one else cares).
We fight against the inevitable with laughter, but we also fight with a positive attitude. Our hopes for ourselves and what we can accomplish become smaller, but we always have to stretch what is possible. That is why athletic pursuits are so empowering for older people, as long as we don’t judge ourselves in comparison to our youthful exploits.
A big part of a positive attitude is being thankful for everything you can do. I’m thankful every day for my good health. I still have times when I feel 100% (as long as I have coffee!). I can be swimming or running and feel graceful, powerful, and fast. Of course I’m nowhere near as speedy as I used to be, and a video would immediately show me I’m delusional about being graceful, but it doesn’t matter if I feel good. On the best days, everything is functioning harmoniously and my lungs feel pure and deep.
On the other hand, sometimes things go wrong in my athletic endeavors to remind me of how decrepit I’ve become. That happened this week.
What could I possibly know about fat thighs? And why the singular “thigh”?
It happened this way. Monday was a holiday. Usually I love getting out on my bike early on holidays, because there are few cars on the roads. But it was drizzling, and I decided I’d go and do the Coquitlam Crunch. It’s not my favourite workout, but I hadn’t done it for a year and I had a sudden yearning to be high up there, looking out over Coquitlam on a day when the stairs and trail wouldn’t be busy.
My plan was to run up and walk down (to save my knee, which hurts badly going downhill). Twice, if possible. All went according to plan. As I expected, the stairs up were very tough.
The circulation in my left leg isn’t perfect (I had a bypass done 25 years ago), so I felt cramping and pain in that leg on the stairs, but the leg recovered gradually as I continued to run up slowly after completing the 437 steps. I did an easy walk down, then told myself I would push even harder on the second run up. I expected to be faster since I was now well warmed up.
However, my leg still hadn’t recovered from its cramping, and the muscles were even worse the second time up—but once again, they recovered. This time, I pushed right to my limit on the last 500m of the climb, and I was pleased to be almost a minute faster! Going back down, I cheated a bit and mixed walking with a little jogging on the flatter sections.
It had stopped raining. Feeling ambitious, I refueled with a second breakfast and rode up to Sasamat Lake. I was surprised that my legs felt only a little fatigued, and were able to handle the hill climb without any problem.
The next morning, I woke up with extremely sore muscles around my hip joints. That always happens after I do the Crunch, so I wasn’t worried.
I decided that after the previous day’s intense activity, I would just do an easy gym workout. I was due for some good stretching time after my easy cardio and upper body weights. I noticed that a chronic tightness in my left inner thigh muscle (which had been noticeable for several months, but only when I did certain stretches) was much worse than it had ever been. I did various stretches in an attempt to loosen it up, and that seemed to help a little, but I got a few worrisome twinges of pain.
A couple of hours after going to the gym, I noticed that sitting down was painful. I examined my leg and was horrified to see a huge swelling on the inside of my upper thigh. I had never had a fat thigh before!—and this one hurt!
I sat with a frozen gel pack on my leg for a while, but that didn’t help. Late in the afternoon I decided to see if I could ride my bike. The weather was supposed to be good the following day, and I wanted to be able to go out for a long ride.
As I suspected, sitting on my bicycle seat was pretty uncomfortable. I did a short ride to Rocky Point, standing up to minimize the pain as I went over the bumps on the bike path. It was warm and very humid; it looked and felt as though it was going to pour. As usually happens when I can’t ride or run, I loved being outside and wanted to be able to ride more than anything.
However, I resigned myself to the possibility that I would be swimming the next day. And, being a hypochondriac (could this be a hematoma?), I would try to make an appointment with my GP.
On Wednesday morning, though, my “lump” was significantly less painful (though it was starting to turn blue). The sunshine was so welcome after days of clouds and rain—I didn’t want to resist it! I decided I would try a ride to the lake to “test” my muscle. I could stand up on all the steep hills to avoid pressure against my upper thigh.
As it turned out, I had a wonderful ride. I was all the more grateful to be outside on that sunny day because I had feared it wouldn’t be possible. From the north beach, I rode into the trail and went to The Rock. I sat in the sun, took a few photos, and listened to the gentle lapping of the waves against the shore and the rocks, feeling very peaceful.
Later that day, my GP confirmed that I just had microtears in my muscle—nothing serious; I just needed RICE.
I felt about 80 years old as I walked around with sore hip muscles, a sore inner thigh, and an extremely tender left quadricep—but I didn’t care. I’ll always try to push the envelope.