I'm sorry, did I say your bad back? It's actually mine that's the problem. Every time I hear myself jabbering on about why I'm walking with a hunch, or why I haven't run for a couple of days -- it's some kind of muscle pull, or maybe a disc out of alignment, nothing serious, but it's hard to stand up straight, though sitting isn't bad -- I realize what a bore I've become. Who wants to listen to this?
Every aging athlete I know is grappling with a rebellious body, and we're all shocked, shocked by this unwelcome development. This is just one of the troubles with getting old, especially when you think of yourself as athletic and vital: your ailments take you by surprise. What's perfectly logical to any observer, that your 50-year-old body might object, finally, to 35 years of long daily runs, feels like a violation of the natural order when it strikes you. How can this be happening to me, you ask yourself sotto voce (because to acknowledge it out loud smacks of Boomer solipsism and cluelessness)? The answer -- because we're all going to die, and it's got to start somewhere -- is just too hard to take.
We all handle our physical decline differently.
Some of us take extraordinary measures to expedite the healing. Take Anne, my longtime running partner, who two years ago had knee surgery on a torn meniscus. She was recovering nicely, getting physical therapy and running gently on an anti-gravity treadmill, until I cajoled her into returning to the roads too quickly, at which point her knee resumed its swelling and pain. (Sorry, Anne.) She's back to yoga, though the overuse injuries in her shoulders from too much chaturanga dandasana can make that tough, too.
Others pivot quickly to different exercises and activities when their regular routine is no longer physically possible. My friend Monica started biking more, and took up CrossFit when her body rebelled against the daily pounding of running. This seems to work well for her, but her husband, in a burst of fitness-related enthusiasm, recently tried to lift more weight than he could handle, and inflamed the rotator cuff in his shoulder. I learned this while chatting with a mutual friend who admitted he'd just spent the morning lying flat on his back. He'd intended to go for a long bike ride, but tweaked a muscle in his back while bending over to put air in the tires. The tires needed a boost because of the 40-mile ride he'd completed a few days earlier with another acquaintance who had just taken up biking. This guy's doctor told him he was through with running, his back too damaged from all the miles.
And still others refuse to acknowledge their inevitable athletic collapse. My friend David is 57 and an avid cyclist. A few years ago, he and a younger friend competed in the Race Across America, a cross-country biking -- as in bicycle -- contest that starts in Oceanside, California and ends, with any luck, in Annapolis, Maryland. Over eight and half days and nights, and with the help of an increasingly deranged support crew, these two rode as a tag team, logging about 355 miles every 24 hours, stopping only for fuel and naps. The younger half of the team finished with the words "never again," while David is noodling over entering the Race Around Slovenia as a lone rider.
The only problem: he's got arthritis in his right knee. David shrugs it off. He says he just needs to get the gel from rooster combs inserted into the afflicted cavity. The red, comb-like spikes that sprout out of rooster heads contain hyaluronic acid, a lubricating agent that's also found in human joints. As we age, the lubricant thins, and our knees hurt. Roosters to the rescue! Or, if need be, the genetically modified version of same. Like Botox, these injections are supposed to work only for a matter of months, until nature comes raging back. David has had two of the three shots already and swears he feels better. "It's probably just the placebo effect, though," he said with a chuckle.
Reality can be hard to take. In How We Die, the late Sherwin Nuland tried to help us come to terms with our impending demise by spelling out in clinical detail what happens when our bodies stop working. "What we call a terminal stroke, or a myocardial infarction, or sepsis is simply a choice made by physicochemical factors we do not yet comprehend, the purpose of which is to bring down the curtain on a performance already much closer to its conclusion than may have been realized," Nuland wrote. He put it in everyday language, too: "Everything rusts and crusts until life is finally extinguished." Rooster combs or not, it's all going to give way eventually.
Few of us are interested in accepting our natural limits, especially when the end game is eternity in a box. My husband, Bob, is unusual in his stoicism. He has endured so many age-and-pounding-related sports injuries over the years that he's finally adopted a Zen-like approach to his body. His right knee, damaged years ago playing high school football, stiffens and swells after running, in spite of the surgery he had to scrape out the gunk around his meniscus. So he does a vigorous lifting and plyometric workout three times a week, which is fine except for the creeping pain in his right wrist, which makes push-ups excruciating. Recently he whacked his shin against the side of my desk, and his lower leg swelled, making even walking painful -- and exacerbating the soreness in his left foot, which he hurt somehow for no apparent reason. More and more, I hear him in the distance muttering "Lord, take me now."
As for me, my back is feeling better, and I've returned to the roads. Now I run with any able-bodied person I can find, as I did this morning, when I spotted my friend Mary Beth cruising down the sidewalk. "I can only go for a little bit, because I'm going to a trainer for my neck," she said, turning her entire upper body towards me, robotically, as she spoke. "When you wake up, does your whole body ache all over?" We're all boring now.