I have found that being an athlete over sixty means feeling a mixture of conflicting emotions: gratitude, exhilaration, disgust, sadness, sometimes even despair.
I wasn’t sure whether to write this post because in public we are always supposed to be upbeat and optimistic. And it is true that I could give lots of encouragement about how exercise helps us physically as we grow older, just as it helps us at any age. It also has beneficial effect on our moods and cognitive abilities.
Yet I feel a perverse desire to throw all the negative stuff out there anyway. Maybe I want sympathy. Maybe I want to reassure others who are going through this process and thinking, “Getting older sucks!” The goal is to be honest about all the negative stuff, to come to an acceptance that it’s OK (because it’s normal, inevitable), and then to remember gratitude. Gratitude is the silver lining we can choose to focus on most of the time.
So here comes my personal list of complaints, humiliations, and injuries I endure as I continue to run twice a week. Feel free to skip this section if you wish to go straight to silver linings!
- My arthritic knee is an injury that limits me and it will never go away. I tore my ACL in 2009, had surgery to repair it in 2010, and surgery to remove all my cartilage in 2011.
- My latest injury was also my first-ever broken bone! I was hit by a car while cycling in December 2019 and fractured the scaphoid bone in my right wrist. I recovered well from surgery in January but will likely never have full strength or flexibility in my wrist again.
- I used to be a good hill runner. Now running uphill makes me aware of how weak my quads have become (despite lots of cycling and some weights). I resolved to do squats to strengthen my legs but that resulted in increased knee pain. I can’t run downhills normally because it would impact my knee too much and plus, my knee doesn’t feel very stable.
- There is another reason why hills are hard for me. Decades ago I had bypass operations on both my left and right iliac arteries (near the groin) because they became blocked. These arteries are the giant ones supplying most of the blood supply to the legs. I learned I have a rare genetic condition called “fibromuscular dysplasia.” Without surgery I wouldn’t have been able to do any running or vigorous cycling after my first blockage at age 33. For the past few years I have been feeling impaired circulation in my left leg, and that means I have some kind of narrowing again. Thankfully, it hasn’t got much worse for several years. However, it limits me when I do intense exercise like fast running for more than a minute, running or cycling uphill, or climbing a lot of stairs. For example, when I do the ~ 500 stairs of the Coquitlam Crunch, I try to go all-out but the muscles in my left leg cramp up before my lungs reach their limit.
- Running just isn’t easy and natural anymore, not even so-called “easy runs.” Maybe it’s because I haven’t yet given myself permission to “jog” or “shuffle.” Most of the time, in my steady runs, I’m running at a pace that I perceive as being fast—but Garmin tells a different story!
- I’m aware that unless I have absolutely perfect footing, either pavement (which I avoid) or a well-groomed trail, I’ve become an awkward runner. Last week I did a run in Mundy Park on a rainy day. There were puddles and muddy spots everywhere. I struggled. That run reminded me that cross-country running is over for me—forever. In the face of obstacles, jumps, or rough ground I would be awkward and afraid. I couldn’t trust my bad knee or my weak legs. I would end up shuffling at a ridiculously slow pace, in true “old lady” style. Cross-country running was my first love, my introduction to running and its camaraderie, so I can’t help but be sad about losing it.
- When I’m mountain biking over rough terrain, I notice how fearful I’ve become. My wrist fracture has made it worse. I know it would be very bad for me if I fell on that wrist again.
I count myself among those who are lifelong runners. No matter our deterioration, no matter how much we slow down, running is a part of us that we won’t give up until we absolutely have to.
I’m always grateful to simply be able to run. After my second knee surgery in 2011 my surgeon told me I could never run again. I’ve proven him wrong.
Yet, I know that any run could be my last run, and that makes gratefulness easy.
I’ve experimented and accepted my limitations. I only run twice a week. The rare times I’ve raced or my knee is sore for whatever reason, I back off and take a week or two off.
I know I’ve been blessed with talent and, even with limited training, I can still run well “for my age.” Genetics plays a big role: my featherweight frame probably has a lot to do with my ability to run on an arthritic knee. The late Canadian runner Ed Whitlock was a wisp of a man who, into his 70s, “floated” at speeds that were the envy of runners decades his junior. He ran under 3 hours for the marathon at age 72!
I’m grateful for the times when running is still perfect. Notice I wrote “perfect,” not “fast”! Yes, there are those rare times when I have the sense of running gracefully, when all parts of my body are in harmony and I feel the rhythm of my legs, my arms, my deep breathing, my blood coursing through every part of my body as I become part of the forest around me, a simple running creature. When the trail is flat and smooth, you can still see sometimes the ghost of the elite runner I once was, with a long confident stride, powerful arms that swing in synchrony, and lungs that are as deep as my willpower demands.
From my coach George Gluppe I learned what a critical component speed training is, even for a 10,000m runner. Doing short sprints (50―250m) with Laurie has shown me how fun it is to run fast. Maybe I’m kidding myself about how fast we’re running, but I know I’m up on my toes and pumping up my running cadence. Sprinting reminds me of being a kid, when the purpose of running was to catch someone or avoid being caught. Running meant moving as fast as possible for short bursts of time. Back then, there was no need for a warmup and, of course, no stiffness afterwards!
In Laurie I have found someone who shares my love of running. I appreciate the energy and enthusiasm she brings to our workouts. We help each other. This could be another lesson about being an older athlete: never compare yourself to the “average” person of your age; seek out positive and energetic friends and training partners who share your passion for running.
Continuing to run as an aging athlete requires a delicate balance of gratefulness, courage, determination, and—surprisingly—a willingness to give up that was unacceptable in youth. You must recognize your limitations.
I have one final note of consolation, though—and it’s a big one! The runner’s high doesn’t go away. So go after it as long and as often as you can.