How we get better when we trust our bodies
The breezes had stopped, and the early morning Sunday sun was already blazing away as I pointed myself downhill.
On loose rocks.
And started to run.
Look, I can’t speak for anyone else but I really hate to fall. Not only that, I am about as athletic as your average drunk donkey, and with fewer feet. That being said, I had hiking poles.
Just in case. I have on more than one occasion seen coyotes out here when I start really, really early. Their thick, bushy coats are shot with silver and a smattering of black and white. Their glowing eyes gaze at me as they pant, then turn and head into the low brush at a ground-eating trot. Gorgeous. Don’t mess with them, they are hunting breakfast.
Not that hiking poles will do much, but they’re better than harsh language.
Poles flying like a ditzy Dutchman, I came hurtling down the last half mile of my four-mile hike, picking up speed. Rocks flew in all directions, I skidded once or twice.
But I didn’t fall.
Lemme back up here. Late last year I was in Ethiopia visiting Lalibela. My guide, Kenaw, a donkey (hence the reference) and I went to the top of Abune Yosef Mountain at 10,334 feet. There is a lot of very sharp volcanic rock, and you have to hike those sections. The rest of the time I rode, which isn’t just fun, it’s also income for a local and a way to replicate the traditional pilgrimage.
The month prior, on an extended trip to Mongolia, I’d righteously smashed my right knee several times. I was wearing a brace. On the way down, we had to hike slowly and carefully through the steep, sharp volcanic rock again. I was doing just fine until my left knee, which should also have been wearing a brace, effectively flipped me the bird. I did a header into the very sharp rocks.
Gravity works. Rocks… well.
Suffice it to say that with two damaged knees, walking hurt. I went on to ride for two solid weeks in the Bale Mountains, but the damage was done.
But not just to my knees.
My body confidence took a body blow.
This kind of thing has happened in the past when a horse took off at the dead run, then threw me. The resulting broken back made returning to riding….ah…. challenging. I take interesting vacations. That was Kazakhstan. Not impossible, but it was a journey to return to the point where the soft hands for which I am known on horses had returned, along with the ease I have in riding a very fast horse.
The quarantine made rebuilding some of that strength, which would normally happen at the gym, impossible for four months.
In this article I addressed the beginning of a return to fitness after months of sitting way too much:
In late June, I left my new (almost) home in Eugene and my new trainer to wrap things up in Denver. Not wanting to lose the progress I had made, I bundled the work I was doing into some new adventures. They are my last here in Colorado as a resident. I am enjoying seeing my state through the eyes of an almost-tourist, now that my days of hanging between Eugene and Oregon are almost over.
My beloved Red Rocks was still shut off. Not, however, a series of quite lovely hikes barely two miles from my house. I’d never used those trails. Time to find out about them.
I’ve continued to do the exercises Ryan, my Eugene-based trainer had given me. He added another, this time to build my osteoporitic hips and constant hip pain from sitting.
This one is a right hairy bitch. To wit:
Stand up straight. Now lift one leg behind you, balancing on your other leg, bending both knees. Using your pelvis as your fulcrum or pivot point, in one smooth movement, reach down with the opposite hand (to the lifted leg) to touch the ball of the opposite foot on the inside. As you lean over to touch your foot, your opposite leg moves out behind to balance you. So not only are you balancing, you are pivoting on your pelvis as you reach across and down.
You come back up, leg still in the air, and do it again.
Without falling over. Oh, and do it twelve times per side, three sets per leg.
This is a superb way to not only find out just how clumsy you are (as if I didn’t already know) but here’s the deal. It is one hell of a hip strengthener. That’s what I asked Ryan for. That’s what I got. I am mildly osteoporitic in both hips. That means hard work, lots of hiking and running, and more calcium citrate (although not with magnesium at the same time, please see this).
Armed with my five-dollar Lowe’s wood dowel, I’ve been doing that balancing exercise. Badly, but I did them.
First time I tried it I could barely touch my foot without toppling over. As one leg is weaker than the other, my hips shrieked in protest (usually an unpleasant but excellent sign that this is precisely what I need to be doing).
I did them as I could. Which wasn’t much. But I kept after it. It was a superb lesson in just how unstable my knees and ankles are, which is good feedback. Because that points me in a new direction for work. It never stops, damnit.
I’ve kept at it, not always steadily, but I didn’t quit.Then one day, after a two-day break, I did all twelve, without stopping, without falling over (yes, I still use the dowel, I’m not there yet), three sets of twelve. Yes it hurt. But I did it. It was vastly easier.
When I was hiking Spencer Butte, just south of Eugene, one of the key training measurements of that hike was how I went up and down the final some 200 or so rock and concrete steps to the summit. I was hiking at the same time I’d started working with Ryan.
This piece is key, because this is how I started really challenging my discomfort with heading downhill on unsteady ground. Especially on the down part, I took baby steps with my poles. It was late spring, there was rain and the steps were wet. I would take each step slowly, and get both feet on a step before taking another.
Tentative. But we start where we are.
I already hike very, very fast because I want the aerobic workout. But not on the steps. Coming down, those took work.
Within a week, I was coming down the steps with my poles tucked under my arms, and landing one step at a time without pausing. This wasn’t about racing anyone or myself down hill. I just wanted the feel of being able to take those steps at a reasonable pace but without using my poles, and without worrying about a fall. Again, if you do some of the sports I do, the injuries are often pretty nasty.
It was about balance and body confidence. I refuse to let a fear of falling keep me from hiking.
Fast forward to these last two weeks in Denver.
This is what much of the trail looks like with lots of loose rock and scree:
This is precisely the kind of stuff I fall on. Which is precisely why I hike it. If I hike it, I learn balance. The more I hike it, the less it scares me, and the more I trust my balance and my body. If I skid, and I do, instead of tensing up I learn to correct. Your body is very good at this when you allow it to do the work, but it has to be strong enough to do that work.
I am 67. Any time you sustain an ugly injury, it’s not just your body which has to heal. The neural pathways in your body and brain do, too. If I get scared when heading down these trails, even walking carefully, I guarantee you I will fall. Guaranteed.
Because I’m not trusting my natural ability. My body knows how to move on rock and scree. I only fall when I’m fearful. My inner story tells me I’m gonna fall. So a big part of what I am doing is rewriting the script.
Spencer Butte was two miles (up and down) of sweet, wide path with those stairs only at the top. In essence, a perfect easy hike to begin the retraining process.
I spent weeks on trails that are shouldered in on all sides by this kind of scenery (you can see why I’m moving there and YES I love the rain):
In Denver, I was back on rocky, steep trails which involved this kind of scenery:
After about five days I had doubled my Denver hike to four plus miles, at speed. After all, when you push at altitude you are pushing your lungs. Your VO2 is your single best indicator of overall cardiovascular health. Good VO2 is one of the absolute best ways to prevent lifestyle diseases.
This is my VO2 score:
As you and I age, we steadily lose lung capacity after we peak in our mid-twenties. Like sarcopenia, or age-related muscle loss, we lose our ability to breathe efficiently. Your VO2 ensures that your brain, muscles and organs are receiving the oxygen and all the nutrients your blood can deliver, which affects the healing process, recovery after injury as well as your ability to fight off sickness.
Regular cardio fights that loss of lung capacity beautifully. It doesn’t stop it, but it sure as hell slows it way, way, WAY down. Here’s how to test yours for free (this is from the above site):
Just to make sure I add a little science to my non-scientific experiment here, the New York Times recently published this:
It’s not just weight training, I might point out, but all the work you and I do. The balance work and the cardio, all of it. We engage our whole selves to rewrite whatever story the brain might be barking at us about how we can’t go down those steps ‘cuz remember last time….
My Medium buddies like Lisa Wathen and some of my older athlete buds like Joseph Geary who put up with my work are very familiar with what happens as we age, as society lays limitations on us and our visions of what we can or can’t do.
If you buy the drivel that just because you’re past fifty you just slow down, I would recommend you not read my shit. I suspect that it might annoy you because I focus on the science that proves otherwise. I would prefer, rather, that you take the naysayers to task and rewrite your story.
There are no limitations but for what my head (the story) and my work ethic and the very real accumulation of injuries might place on me. Even those injuries have often led me to new training routines which not only made me more limber but much stronger.
Now. The acid test.
The trails wind around these hills, with small pockets of greenery and plenty of surprise twists which you have to mind for all the mountain bikers. Anything after 7:30 on the weekend and it’s Grand Central Station (which is one reason of many I am moving). That said, what a terrific time to find out how far I’ve come.
The last half mile of my hike has the city of Denver silhouetted by the rising sun. You can see who’s coming the trail (don mask, get out of the way). Today it was clear. I launched, bent my knees in a skier’s crouch (I’m not one) and took off.
There’s something about the combination of gravity, gorgeous scenery and the clean air borne of limited traffic that really propels a person to effort. I was flying. I watched where to put my feet, which takes barely a split second. Heading downhill at speed is a quickly-changing calculation of potentially loose rocks or unstable surfaces, then if they are anyway, you just keep moving.
What a great analogy for life in general, and aging in particular.
I flew around the corners, carbon fiber poles lashing the air as I launched over this or that lump. Didn’t waver, slow down or bother to correct. Then when I hit the bottom I launched upward on the trail to the parking lot, a short hill to push the lungs a touch more.
I reached the lot just as one of the morning regulars waved at me and headed out on Alameda Avenue. We grinned.
See you tomorrow, we mouthed at each other.
At least until July 24th, when my house closes, and I close the door on a nearly 50-year chapter of my life.
When I get back to Eugene, Spencer Butte, as beautiful as it is, will already be too easy. Time to hit the harder, longer, higher trails. My hips are almost ready, and the body confidence is almost there.
I am deeply fortunate to have a number of Medium commenters share their stories with me, about the battles with injuries and comebacks, their push to regain strength, their decisions to take their aging process in hand. None of us, if I understand my compatriots correctly, sees this as anti-aging.
We do see it as creating options.
I injure worse and more often than most because I choose to put my body in harm’s way. But two things: not only am I far better guaranteed to be able to leap out of the way in case we find one of these bad boys in a bad mood:
And second, when the travel industry eventually opens back up I will be in fine fettle to take off up yet another very challenging mountain.
Age doesn’t determine that. Work does.