For a month or so I was hardly on my bike at all because almost every day was cold and rainy.
January has been better. A couple of weeks ago I finally got back to one of my most regular rides, the trip from my apartment building in downtown Port Moody up to Sasamat Lake. It’s only 8 or 9K, but there’s a lot of elevation gain.
That day, for the first time out of the hundreds of times doing this ride, I felt as though I could barely make it up the final hill before the entrance to the park. I knew I was using lower gears than usual at all stages of the climb. And I had no excuse. I hadn’t done a killer workout the day before or a run earlier in the morning.
No, I have to face it: despite my twice-weekly runs, despite going up the Coquitlam Crunch stairs (487 of them) as fast as I can a couple of times a week, despite my mountain bike jaunts—my legs are getting weaker.
This should not be a surprise. Time is marching on.
I’ve written several posts in this blog about being a middle-aged athlete and continuing to push myself. I remember how it was when I was in my early forties. Sure, I was significantly slower than I had been at my best, but only people at an elite level would see that small difference and understand that it was significant.
Now that I’m 61, anyone can see the difference. A couple of weeks ago I was running on a slightly downhill trail and concentrating on my footing. A man seeing me approach asked with real concern in his voice, “Are you all right? You look like you’re in pain!”
Actually, I had been enjoying my run—but I had probably been favouring my arthritic knee—and he saw me as a cripple in pain; he probably thought I was crazy for even trying to run!
Now I’m experiencing first-hand another truth that the age-grading tables predict. Performance doesn’t deteriorate at a linear rate. Once you get past 60, declining performance is the only thing that’s accelerating!
I am now negotiating the transition from being middle-aged to being—what—a senior?
It’s no longer simply knowing that my PBs are all behind me and I will inevitably run a little slower with each passing year. No, now it’s not only about getting slower: it’s about my body’s unpredictability, and the many ways it is beginning to betray me.
In the past year, it has struck me that there is no longer such a thing as “an easy run”—all running is hard. On my right side, I have an arthritic knee that has seen two surgeries (roughly ten years ago); first for ACL repair and second for cartilage removal. Contrary to my surgeon’s predictions, I’ve been able to continue running, but I never know when my knee’s going to act up with stabbing pains, and its slight instability contributes to my uneven gait. On my left side, I know my femoral artery is getting narrower again (I had bypass surgery almost 30 years ago) because all my leg muscles cramp up and get weak during heavy exertion.
Because of these problems, I’ve reached a point where I’ve questioned whether I want to run. For someone who has run, and loved running, for forty-five years, this thought is sacrilegious.
Sure, there have been many periods in the past forty-five years when I didn’t run—for weeks, months, or even years at a time. It was always because of injuries, surgeries, or pregnancy. And I was always chomping at the bit to start running again.
Those were the days when my body was a finely-tuned, practiced running machine, almost ideal for its function (though the chassis always had weaknesses in the knees, heels, and Achilles tendons). There were a few years in the ’80s when I could stand on the starting line of a Canadian 10K race and know that no other woman could beat me. Or, more often, I’d be on the starting line of one of the huge American races, at times racing against the biggest stars of those years: Grete Waitz, Ingrid Kristensen, Liz McColgan, Wendy Sly, Lynn Jennings, Anne Audain, Rosa Mota. I’d be bursting with nervous energy, my muscles springy and well-rested. I knew my limitations, I knew I couldn’t beat those superstars (though I beat several of them once, when they had bad off-days), but I could trust my body. I knew what I had to do: run at the perfect pace and have the mental toughness to drive myself to the limit.
Now, no amount of mental toughness can alter the reality of my body’s betrayals. Instead, the toughness I gained through running competition can be put to another use. I’ll grapple with questions that all aging athletes face:
Who am I if I am no longer an athlete?
How will I contribute now? My public face is that of an ex-Olympian. How can I continue to inspire people though my pitiful physical efforts are best kept private now?
And finally: How do old people get high? How can we “senior” athletes find joy in life without the continued infusion of brain chemicals from the “runner’s high”?
Of course aging, with its limitations, injuries, diseases, and pain, must be faced by everyone who lives long enough—it’s not merely a concern to athletes. However, to us (athletes) its effects may be starker and harder to accept because at one time we reached such a high physical peak, with all its attendant joys and triumphs. We are used to paying attention to our bodies, and we are supremely aware of their decline; moreover, we can measure that decline in our performance precisely.
My way of coping with this is not focused, mainly, on physical interventions such as surgery, stretching, physiotherapy, better nutrition, or any kind of “magic” anti-aging potion. These are all limited in their usefulness. Instead, I turn to my other lifelong passion, reading. From books I gain perspective, sometimes comfort, sometimes inspiration, sometimes just affirmation that what I’m experiencing is common to all of us. In my next post I’ll write about how recent reading or conversations with people have stimulated my thoughts and helped me find possible answers to the questions I wrote above.