“You have the pituitary gland of a 25 year old.”
I recently had the chance to stuff myself into an MRI as part of a control group in a research project for a full set of brain scans. The radiologist showed me 240 beautiful images of my brain and spine, pointing out a complete absence of degeneration and a remarkably youthful pituitary gland.
My first instinct was to show off — hey baby, did you notice my vivacious hormone regulator? My second was actually a kind of fear. Dammit, this body is going to have to last me a long time.
I’ve been lucky in the genetics lottery. I’m surrounded by people my age dealing with cancer, chrohn’s, digestive things that mimic heart attacks, gout (isn’t that a victorian, brandy-slurping old man disease??), auto-immune diseases, breakdowns and degenerations of bones and discs and connective tissue. My own father died at the age of 50 of unexplained kidney failure.
In comparison, I’m super-robustly healthy, partly because of genes and partly because of more than two decades of movement, not smoking, drinking moderately and eating reasonably well. A steady diet of running, cycling, gym antics, but also taking the stairs whenever I could, using my bike and my feet to get places. My ex once told me that one of the things that was a relief after we broke up was she didn’t have to walk everywhere anymore.
But even given all of that, my body is aging. Two weeks after I turned 50, I was diagnosed with a minor skin cancer on my nose that needed surgery. I have to have a double root canal and get two new crowns this weekend. My hip aches when I’m driving and sometimes when I should be asleep. One hour of crossfit with a 25 year old left me with shoulder pain that caused me to yelp every time I turned over in my sleep for 2 weeks. I weep randomly, surge hot and lie awake from peri-menopausal hormones. Things ache and crumble and whine that didn’t used to ache and crumble and whine.
Many of my peers are just a little bit broken, aged around the edges and through their bones and cells. Frequently, I have to check my impulse to run up the stairs when I realize the person I’m with can’t do that. And for me, the running that used to be effortless is now a constant negotiation to find the will to push into that forcefield of gravity that feels like I’m dragging a little sledge filled with rocks behind me. I ease it with iron supplements, B vitamins, melatonin to sleep better, more intense time on a treadmill. But I will never ever see the times I saw in my 30s on a race course, never find that ease in moving fast.
Sometimes, at night, as I tango with my insomnia, the times for those personal bests float back to me — 3:26, 1:35, 20:52 — like the names of lovers I once danced with in a foreign land. For years, my steady, workaday running pace was 5 minute kilometers. I ran a whole marathon at a faster pace than that. Now, I churn out kilometers that look more like 5:19, 5:25 and every step is work.
Some of my friends have seized their fitness in middle age like a viking battle. Someone I used to train with is now a world master’s duathlon champion. My friend P took up ski racing again at 53, and is back on the hill this very week, despite a concussion last year. Some people find new propulsion at 50. It’s just not there for me, not in my body. And that’s hard for me to accept.
Being fit at 50 for me is about making peace with the fact that I’m never going to dance with those personal bests again. When I hold out times as the measure of my fitness, when I look at the scale or notice that my muscle just doesn’t sculpt the way it did, I end up wallowing in hollow disappointment, not grateful to be able to complete a half marathon, to ride far, but resentful, fearful about what feels like loss.
Barring the unexpected, it looks like my brain and hormone factory are going to carry me to the ripe old lady stage that so many of my french canadian female ancestors reached. I want to reach that stage still able to walk up mountains, ride my bike, trot 5 km comfortably. I want to be able to bend over without making an “oof” sound. I want to be a lithe old lady still able to zip past slow moving walkers on the street. I want to feel the joy of riding a bike in a bathing suit eating twizzlers on a Caribbean island for a long time.
Like so many other adjustments of middle age, I fight this one hard. I still find myself saying things like “sure, running a 90 km ultra marathon in South Africa sounds fun!” This is a hard fought, every-time-I-move peacemaking practice. Take those stairs because you still want to be able to climb them in 30 years. Enjoy that slower run and remember how lucky you are that your knees work. It’s being okay with not being the first woman done the 15km run on the Triadventure course, and being grateful for finishing it when I didn’t think I could, appreciating the companion I had along the way.
It’s getting out the door even when I don’t want to, not because I have that race to train for but because I have that future old lady to protect.
It’s realizing that meditation practice is as important a part of fitness as sweating. It’s learning to appreciate every step as gratitude for the fitness I have now, every step for what it is in the present moment, and every step for what it promises for a mobile, active life, as long as that ends up being.
This is “part 2” of Cate’s reflections on the evolution of her fitness; part one was What are you going to do with that strength?. Cate works as a consultant and teacher in the space of strategic, sustainable system change in academic healthcare in Toronto, and co-leads a learning and development project for orphaned and vulnerable youth in Uganda. She also blogs at fieldpoppy.wordpress.com.