The middle-aged athlete: bliss on a precipice

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View from “the Bear Loop”

In middle age, those of us who still love to run—if we’re blessed with good health and body parts that are holding together—know that we’re not too old to experience physical bliss.

I thought of calling it “physical perfection” but then what athlete over 40 or 50 can measure up to an athlete in their prime? What I really mean by perfection or bliss is simply experiencing one’s body as being in a state of complete contentment and harmony.

In the past month, I’ve achieved this state many times while running. Such a sense of wholeness has been rare for me since I tore my right ACL in 2009. It’s been difficult, and at times impossible, for me to experience my body as being “whole” the way it used to be. After all, I’ve had two knee surgeries; my ACL is repaired but my cartilage is all gone; I’ll never be able to fully straighten my leg again.

Yet I’ve been immensely grateful that I can still run a little, despite my surgeon’s warning six years ago that I could no longer run. Usually my knee can handle  two 6K runs a week, but often there is some discomfort, sometimes pain; and always the awareness of being somewhat crippled. (See my posts “My knee is an Alien,” and “Why do people tell me I’m limping?”)

Lately I’ve been able to run a little more than usual. This is ironic, since December’s heavy snowfall has prevented me from running in Mundy Park; I’ve had to resort to running on the well-salted sidewalks and quiet residential streets of Port Moody. Pavement has always hurt my knee more than soft trails, but, inexplicably, I’ve been able to do a few 8K pavement runs without any ill effects. I’ve also done some runs on the dikes of Port Coquitlam, where the snow and ice have melted away.

I’ve been surprised how easy it is to run on flat pavement (or gravel dikes), compared to Mundy Park’s hilly terrain. Maybe that has allowed me to get into a steady rhythm (and a decent pace!) where my body feels like the efficient, made-for-running machine it used to be. I’m light; I have a long stride; when I push the pace a little I can rejoice in my harder breathing, thankful for the strong heart and lungs that powered me through so many races.

Sun Run 10K?

After I did an 8.5K run a couple of weeks ago I realized suddenly that—if I wanted to—I could run the Sun Run 10K! Running 1.5K further would be easy.

I swore to myself several years ago that I would never again compete at a distance longer than 5K—or, possibly, 8K cross country. Pavement is too damaging to my knee. The rare 5K races I do are always followed by a period of pain and recovery for my knee.

The problem with doing the Sun Run is that I likely wouldn’t have the self-control to just participate, to do the run at an easy pace as an affirmation of being able to run, to soak up the atmosphere of celebration and camaraderie as tens of thousands of runners and walkers pour through Stanley Park and the streets of Vancouver. No, my innate competitiveness and pride would compel me to run hard and my knee might suffer severely. So—the Sun Run should remain a fantasy for me. Still, I found myself excited that the thought that I could do it!

The heart of this story

On Monday I drove to the start of what Keith and I call the “Bear Loop,” an 8K loop around some berry fields in Port Coquitlam. Half of the route is a gravel dike that runs along the slough and the Pitt River.

 

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Another runner on the frosty dike

I arrived just after sunrise. The day was mostly cloudy, and the newly-risen sun was hidden, but its light made some beautiful gold and reddish colours in the sky.

It was cool, just a little above zero; and still—perfect for running. But this was a morning when I wasn’t physically or mentally “normal.” I had slept only a little the night before. This run would be a solace for me, the best part of what I expected to be a hard day.

The day before, I had learned how quickly life can change. Keith had had a heart attack—seven weeks after his hip replacement surgery.

Sunday

I was almost finished my Sunday shift at the Running Room when Keith texted me from Lions Gate Hospital to say they were taking him to St. Paul’s Hospital for some tests. In fact, he had dropped in to the store a couple of hours earlier, complaining of heartburn. I had felt twinges of fear, then. Yet I hadn’t ordered Keith to go to the hospital, or made the (sensible) decision to take him there myself—my co-worker could have handled the customers for a while. Such is the power of denial. Luckily, Keith had made a smart decision and driven himself to the hospital immediately after seeing me.

I phoned him from the store. We had a brief talk, during which he reassured me that he was fine though “they suspect I had a heart attack this morning” and he would be taken to St. Paul’s any minute.

By the time I got to Lions Gate Keith was already gone, and the Emergency nurse didn’t know if he would be staying at St. Paul’s that night or returning to Lions Gate. I had to go home and wait.

***

It was while I was eating dinner in my apartment that what had happened became real to me. Exactly 24 hours earlier, Keith had been with me in my apartment. We had been enjoying one of our leisurely Saturday-evening dinners together; candlelight, red wine, fresh bread, and the delicious aroma of beef stew. Keith had done an easy workout on an Arc trainer when we were at the rec centre earlier that day, and he was walking very well for someone who had got a new hip less than two months before.

How could everything have changed so suddenly?

The words for what I was feeling came to me: deep loneliness. Not the ordinary loneliness that I sometimes feel when I’m eating dinner in my apartment. I was so anxious, so bewildered, and who could I talk to about it?

For seven years, Keith has been the person I can talk to about anything. He is the person I can call in the middle of the night, no matter what the reason. I remembered the terrible year when George’s health was deteriorating. I would hear the thumping of his cane as he stumbled around the house in the middle of the night. I knew he was in pain and couldn’t sleep, and I couldn’t help him. In my own despair and sleeplessness, I would phone Keith for comfort.

Now, I tried to phone Keith, and I sent texts, but there was no response. He had already warned me that his phone was low on power.

Finally, at 7:45, I got a text from him! “I am fine. I had 99% blockage in one artery, but they put in a stent and now I’m fine.”

Typical Keith! 99% blockage but he still says, “I’m fine.”

We had a short conversation, then sent each other many texts at bedtime. Ironically, he was the one who reassured me after all.

It was only the next day, when I visited him at St. Paul’s, that he told me about his ambulance trip from Lions Gate to St. Paul’s. He recalled lying in the ambulance and seeing that they were going over the Lions Gate Bridge at high speed. “How come there’s no traffic on the bridge?” he asked one of the ambulance attendants.

“They’ve opened up the middle lane just for you,” the attendant replied.

Keith realized later that they knew every minute counted. If the 99% blockage had turned into 100%, he wouldn’t have made it.

It was also only the next day that he told me about the out-of-control bleeding from his femoral artery that occurred during his surgery. He had to spend the night with a big, painful clamp on his inner thigh to make sure the artery didn’t start to bleed again. Now he has a huge bruise covering most of his upper leg.

But Keith is tough and his prognosis is good.

***

Monday’s run

In spite of my physical and emotional exhaustion, Monday’s run was a good one. Maybe even a blissful one. The reality is that the fastest kilometre of that run would have felt like an easy jog to me thirty years ago. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that I felt that sensation of rhythmic perfection. And all committed runners know the high that comes afterwards; the chemical bath that permeates the brain and smooths the way to coping with all anxieties and problems.

As with the rest of my “long” runs this month, my knee felt only slightly uncomfortable after—and not for long. I like the way my leg muscles feel after running, too—the pleasant fatigue and sensation of being well-stretched. Despite my age, I can still feel sometimes that my body is perfectly tuned, that my legs still are supple, quick, and strong. If it’s an illusion I’ll take it.

What is “fine”?

Along with my thankfulness about still being healthy and able to run comes the worry, sometimes, about how dependent I am on feeling physically good. As an aging athlete, it’s hard to think about the inevitability of the body’s decline. There will be a time when I have to stop running completely. Since my knee surgeries, I’ve known that time could come any day.

Keith and I have talked about my addiction to exercise and the sorrow I feel about the pain and limitations I see older people (my parents, especially) experiencing. Keith believes that as older people’s worlds shrink, their expectations change, and they can be content to do less. I agree with him to some extent, but I also think people are often forced to stop what they love to do long before they’re ready; there is a lot of rebellion and despair before acceptance comes.

For now, I cherish my body’s bliss and “wholeness” on the good days.

Keith’s spirit is strong, and he will try to become “whole” again—or as close as he can.

So what is “fine”? Bliss, wholeness, or simply being alive?

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About nancytinarirunswrites

I used to be known as a competitive runner, but now I have a new life as a professional writer and editor. I'm even more obsessive about reading, writing, and editing than I was about running. Running has had a huge influence on my life, though, and runner's high does fuel creativity. Maybe that's why this blog evolved into being 95% about running, but through blogging I'm also learning about writing and online communication. I'm fascinated by how the Internet has changed work, learning, and relationships. I love to connect in new and random ways!
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