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Why muscle memory, patience, faith and a rollicking sense of humor are your four besties

The steps lifted away into the distance from where I stood in the beautiful Colorado air, a light breeze ruffling an errant curl across my nose. The stones ground a bit under my feet.

Shit, I thought.

Been a while.

No time like the present.

I set off up the rough path. Altitude just over six thousand feet. Total number of steps to the top: about 350. You start puffing pretty heavily in no time. Steeper the incline, the tougher the puff.


I made three laps. My legs hurt. I wasn’t out of breath, but I was out of the habit. Barely 1050 steps. Chump change, but I was hammered. My heart rate was higher than it used to be. Feedback.

You’ve got work to do, sister.

I’m not without humor. But I am without youth. The question is, can I get back what I had? The strength? Endurance?

Can you?

Can you, if you were ever in shape, or even if you never exercised at all, find your way to fitness? Not necessarily fitness model shape, but able to do stuff that you used to, including bending over without needing assistance to get back up?

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Yes. Unequivocally. But it depends.

Rewind to early summer 2018, this would have been child’s play. At our local park Red Rocks, where I train for Big Adventures, there are hundreds of stairs. Like many others here in Colorado I love to walk, jog and run them, rain or shine, snow or fog. I was 65 at the time. Been doing this for years.

I love stairs, stairs love me back. I am an endurance person. Not a competitor (oh please). I train to go the distance, slow and steady, strong and purposeful. This isn’t a contest or a brag fest or a humble brag. It’s what I love and what I do. I just happen to be older than many who do this kind of thing.

Summer of 2018 I was pounding the stairs three days a week, up to 3600 at a time. Big mountains can take a lot out of you, and they can be pretty unforgiving if you don’t respect the conditions. Endurance, strength, patience.

That November I summitted Mt. Kenya, which was genuinely challenging. I got a couple of labral tears out that experience. Tears to both hamstrings. By the time I got home in December that year, my pegs were pretty unhappy.

As can happen sometimes, I over-trained. I get motivated and push too hard. The climb itself was superb, but the three day hike out was what did it. These injuries are pretty common among athletes. Mostly it’s just chronic soreness. Annoying, not debilitating.

My PT explained, gently, that this kind of injury often doesn’t quite ever resolve. Ever, particularly if you’re older, and if you’re not willing to undergo invasive procedures. You work around them, you let things heal, you don’t over-train, you find other ways to exercise. I’ve been doing this long enough not to argue with my PT, who knows I’m a jock. I do what he says.

So I switched to other kinds of workouts. Jogged gently for under three miles couple times a week. Body building, doing the extra PT he’d advised on my weights. Endless body-weight exercises at home on a mat. Nothing epic. Just respectful. I was inviting my body to recover. In the meantime, without the heavy duty workouts, my body padded a bit. Not much, but enough so that the new workout shorts pulled more than usual. No biggie. This too shall pass.

I spent four months on adventure travel last year. During that time I injured both my feet on a very difficult riding and hiking trip in Canada. There were other, minor problems that affected mobility. There were at times long periods in recent travel where I wrote instead of ran or rode or climbed or kayaked. I was away from my beloved stairs a very long time.

Then I got back from Africa on March 11th to where we are now, on lock down. No gym, bikes in storage. Lots of sitting. Geez….Now I have to find ways to work out that don’t involve what I traditionally had access to. I’ve had my two weeks of the occasional handful of chocolate almonds. Done. Back to cherries and pineapple and apples.

Time to train, train safely, respect distances, and get back in top shape. I’m in training for my eighties and nineties, not just the next Big Adventure.

As are we all, for that matter.

With lockdown being a reality, being in top shape is a different kind of challenge. It might be harder to do but it’s doable. At any age and for any of us. Finding something that you and I like to do, that we will do, especially given the additional restrictions, well. I think we’re up to it.

So after I moved the chocolate-almonds-supply-for-a-family-of-twelve to the garage, out of sight and out of mind, it was time to do the hard stuff.

The hard stuff that I happen to love the most.

Bottom line, I hadn’t see those stairs until last week. Most of Red Rocks’ regular stairs are blocked off for repairs. Not this part. My body had a lot to say about how long it’s been. And hey, by the way girl, you’ve put on ten pounds. Or is it twelve? Hahahahahahaha.

Been back three times as of today.

I just got in from my third visit. This time I did eight laps straight. That would be 2800 stair steps, at altitude. In about 28 minutes. Improvement.

I could have done more. But didn’t. If there is anything that being an elder athlete teaches you is to respect the body. It will heal, it will give me back the strength I want, but not if I abuse it. And if I call in the besties.

My four besties, and yours, are at work here. Here’s what I mean:

  1. Muscle memory. One of the great and abiding gifts of the human body is that even if you and I skip out decades of exercising, if we once did work out, or run, or whatever, those cells are like your great Uncle Rip van Winkle. All ya gotta do is wake the guy up. Not only does strength come back, but in many cases you can get better. I’m not making this up. Muscle does not, cannot turn to fat. Complete myth. Muscle can shrink, fat lands on top of that muscle. But those bad boys are still there. Rip can most definitely get ripped again. I would be careful of hoping to return to the body of your twenties. But excellent functional fitness is available across the board. In any case, if you’ve been away for a long time, or have never exercised, please do yourself the kindness of hiring a professional. These days a great deal of that is online. If you are willing to start at home with something that you can most likely do at any fitness level, try this. I am a huge fan of yoga as a way to start for anyone, and flexibility is hugely important at all ages. Body weight exercises, if you don’t have weights at home are superb alternatives. Please see this for ideas.
  2. Patience. In no way do I expect to hit those stairs and run 3600 first time out after nearly a year away. Not only is that a fool’s errand, it’s a really good way to injure myself. People do this all the time and end up in the ER, not a good place to be right now, with overuse injuries. While Rip will wake up, give the man time. If it’s been years, even months, a polite invitation works one hell of a lot better than a bullwhip. I see guys at the gym in their later years trying hard to compete with the young muscle heads standing next to them. Please. Now that we’re at home, not only can you and I just concentrate on what we can do, but we can also take our time rebuilding. Your body is one very eloquent instrument. Here’s what I mean: on my second visit, I did five laps. By the time I got to the top I knew that it was my last lap that day. In the interest of self-preservation, listen to your body. When it starts a sentence with YO, STUPID!!! Often follow by a resounding OW!, it’s time to stop.
  3. Have a little faith in yourself. Your body is a simply remarkable instrument. Most of our farming predecessors were hearty, healthy and active until they fell over dead. Every country I visit where you meet the entire farming family, the elders are still out working the soil until the day they become fertilizer themselves. No reason you and I can’t do the same. We’re made to work and we’re made to last. This isn’t an article about proper diet (Cheetos are not a major food group)- that’s another discussion. Suffice it to say, exercise gets you fit, not necessarily slim. When you and I can let go of that Holy Grail, we can be unstoppable. How we eat is 85% of what we look like to say nothing of how we feel, our energy levels and the ability to stave off lifestyle-related illness. But again, that’s another article. Having faith that you can indeed slow down age-related muscle loss (sarcopenia) and lung capacity is half the battle. When you start to see and feel the results, that’s the rest of it. Steady, patient work pays off.
  4. Humor. The older I get, the bigger this muscle gets. I am so fortunate to still be upright after all I’ve done to myself that I am still startled to wake up in the morning. Sometimes my first thought is Holy shit, I’m still here? That’s precisely the same thing my lower back says to me when I lower myself out of bed. If you develop the ability to look at your body- at any age, any size, any time of life- with a wicked-ass sense of humor, well. That will do more to get you through the worst life can do to you AND the worst you can do to yourself even if you are trying to get the Darwin Award. Humor is permission. It’s survival. It’s joy. And it allows me to have a fine laugh at a few extra pounds that have stubbornly stuck around for about a year now. Frankly, I don’t care. Being fit enough to do what I want to be able to do, being fit enough to better stave off the kinds of invisible monsters we now deal with, are far more important that being thin. If anything, being far too thin leaves us far too weak. Loving yourself enough to work on your body with respect, patience and humor is part of getting through the very worst of things together. You and your body that is, as well as everyone else in your immediate circle.

And one last note:

I am not much of a fan of the extreme exhortations that are circulating around Medium right now that strike me as rather desperate attempts to give people reasons to avoid what they’re feeling. While it’s understandable, I’m not sure it’s particularly useful, or particularly kind.

It strikes me that kindness, first and foremost to ourselves right now, is paramount.

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For my part, it’s time to get back to the kind of regular exercise that feeds my soul. This is about self-care, not self-flagellation. Exercise is part of life for me, and essential to my work. In many ways, that work is aging well, even if all other kinds of work are, at least for now, set aside.

As I said, I’m in training for my eighties and beyond. I’m not going to get there by giving up.

Where you are is where you are. When you are ready, you’ll rekindle, or begin your program. Not a moment too soon, not a moment too late. That’s patience. Faith is knowing that when you start, you’ll begin to see results. In the meantime, being able to have a belly laugh at your belly will pretty much see you through anything. Besides, the laughing Buddha has a beaut.

This is self-care. Self-love. You can indeed get functionally fit. Old Uncle Rip is waiting. Just remember to bring a VERY large mug of coffee. You’ll both need it.

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