I ran the Boston Marathon 18 years ago. Last Monday, as news of the freezing wet head-wind-y icestorm marathon filtered in, the only reaction I had was “there is nothing on this earth that could have got me to the start line on a morning like that.” And then a moment of honesty — “I’m not sure there’s anything on earth that could get me to the start line of a marathon on any morning.”
But look at this 35 year old person in the middle of this photo — that was mile 18, and I had a damaged knee, and I look so CHEERFUL.
When I read back over the blog I wrote about running that marathon, I can’t find myself in it. All I remember clearly is that when we finally crossed the finish line and someone handed me a banana, I had to move my jaw with my fingers to get my mouth to chew. I requalified for Boston in that race — but that was the last time I ran further than 21 km. After that, I wasn’t a marathoner anymore.
With the publication of Tracy and Sam’s book (yay!!!), there has been a lot of attention to the original premise of this blog: their goal of being fitter than ever before at mid-life. Obviously, this is a goal I am 100% behind. At the same time, when I look at that photo of 35 year old me, it’s pretty clear that I was at my “fittest” in my mid-30s, not at mid-life. So how many fitness “lives” do we get? And how do we keep developing new, meaningful goals if they aren’t about being your fittest, or your fastest, or your strongest?
I’ve written several times in this blog about grappling with the physical changes of being middle aged. In the past three years, despite working out at least four times a week, I’ve gained nearly 10 lbs and a couple of clothing sizes, and my standard running speed has slowed down to a pace that would have been laughable to that 35 year old. Just before I ran that Boston marathon, I ran a half marathon in one hour and 35 minutes — that’s 4.5 minute kilometres, for more than 21 kilometers — that is a whole, completely different person than the one who struggles to run 5 km at 5.75 minute kilometre pace now. So how do I make sense of being a person who could run like that in my 30s, and now I’m a plodder? How do I feel good about my fitness when I have this shining example of my own past self as a comparison?
Fitness is a complex thing: it’s physical conditioning and discipline and strength and all of those things — but it’s also all of the stories of who we are balled into one place. I have completely different narratives of who I have been in my body different times. And understanding them helps me figure out how to orient myself to fitness in my aging self.
#1: Dreamy bookworm. My first narrative — to my early 20s or so — was brainy kid, the adolescent who obnoxiously curled myself around copies of Sartre when I was forced to go to a pep rally for my high school football team. I rode my bike and went for walks to moodily be alone, to explore the world — not because it had anything to do with “fitness.” (When I was 10, I literally tried to ride my bike and read at the same time). Sports were a thing other types of people did. I looked “trim” but I couldn’t imagine sweating on purpose. I rolled my own cigarettes and smoked ostentatiously while drinking pints of guinness and talking about poetry.
#2: Sedentary corporate serf: Then I graduated, got a job, and spent my 20s drowning in a high pressure communications agency. My moody distaste for exercise combined with working all the time led to a 35 lb weight gain and a lot of grumpiness. I would buy a pack of cigarettes on my way to work in the morning and smoke all day at my desk. I was miserable, and I could see the horizon — I had two colleagues who smoked and lived on coffee and whisky, and they turned 40 and suddenly looked old. In a burst of clarity, I declared that I was not going to turn 30 as a smoker.
#3: Exploratory mover: Two months before I turned 30, I quit my job and started my own business, and set about the project of trying to get healthy in every aspect of my life. I went to the gym because that was what non-smokers did, and discovered that moving felt good, that I could inhabit my body in a way I never had imagined. Forty pounds melted off, and I felt buoyant and strong for the first time in my life. I did all the fitness things — aquafit, aerobics, pilates — but settled in and realized I could run with a lot of joy.
#4: Focused runner: This is the me in the photo. A runner. Not just a person who runs sometimes, but A Runner! I actively trained, and cross-trained, and hung out with runners, and felt like a two hour run was the best possible way I could spend my time. I was the kind of person who got up at 5 am to make sure I got a run in before a long meeting, ran 10k at the end of a long day without thinking twice. I got whip fast without drama, and felt a kind of power and control in my body that I never had imagined. I didn’t race a lot, but when I did I consistently placed in the top 10%. I ran a 5 k in 20 minutes and 30 seconds. I was a person that my pose-y intellectual 16 year old self would have mocked, that my chunky, smokey 26 year old self would have found flabbergasting.
#5: Injured ju jube eater: But then — I didn’t pay enough attention to my whole self, and I injured the cartilage in my knee training for Boston but ran it anyway, and when I tried to train for the race that was supposed to follow it, I couldn’t. My fifth fitness life was grumpy, weepy withdrawal from my runner self, trying to find a new way to put the mental health balance into my life that long runs had given me, new ways to divert myself. (This is when I discovered message boards and online communities). Somewhere in there I started my phd (a good thing), and got divorced (all that grumpiness and wallowing didn’t do an already shaky relationship any good). Through all of these changes, I tried to keep running a little bit, and always assumed I was just in temporary recovery from injury, that I would be a marathoner again.
#6: Utilitarian jogger: I never ran another marathon. But despite my chronically injured knee, Lives 3 and 4 prevented me from completely rejecting Fit Cate during #5. I didn’t start smoking again (though I flirted with it, briefly), and recognized that I needed fitness to stay emotionally balanced. In this phase, exercise was utilitarian. I ran short distances two or three times a week, but I wasn’t “a runner.” I finished my PhD and started to travel more, and realized that the steady stream of activity had set me up to sustain strength through my 40s. Then I had two partners in succession who were very outdoorsy, and I became an explorer again.
#7: Action Figure: My utility fitness set me up to suddenly find a huge array of new feats of strength — like hike up Scottish mountains and climb Kilimanjaro and trek gorillas in the Ugandan rainforest. Somewhere in there I had a lightbulb moment that I wanted a road bike (I don’t even know why, and it took me a year to put cleats on it), and then I became a cyclist. The outdoorsy partners melted away but my vagabond self took deep root, and I was exploring Myanmar by myself, riding bikes across Germany, Vietnam, Laos, Sri Lanka, Latvia, Estonia, hiking through northern woods solo. Running in every country I could, just to feel the place. The strength of decades of fitness and the emotional resilience of age fused and I felt capable of anything. I wasn’t my fastest or even my fittest, but I felt completely competent and confident in my body.
#8: Aging Adventurer? And then there is now. And I don’t know how to define it. I still feel like Cate #7, and the yearning to keep exploring the world, to ride my bike alone across new countries, to find new treks — this is my most powerful drive. But my body is suddenly uncooperative. I’m working out more than I ever have — I’m on #95 for 2018, and I do ridiculous things like a two hour spinning class — but I’m slower, sluggish and tired, all the time.
I have written a few times about how fitness in my 50s is as much about preserving mobility as I age as anything else — but my desire to move my body with intensity, hike hard up St. Lucia’s Gros Piton, ride my bike across Bhutan — these haven’t waned. So I have the same confidence I had through life #8 — but there is an undertone of worry. Sam’s experience with her knee is a cautionary tale — am I one mis-step away from reawakening the dragon of angry cartilage in my knee? Am I going to push my aging heart so hard in one of those intense spinning classes that it explodes? Will I push my arthritic toe just one poke too far in yoga and limp for a month?
Monday’s icy Boston marathon was a big question mark for me, a reminder that my own Boston experience was largely about not listening to my body, which led to a complete halt in moving my body the way I wanted to. I wrote a little while ago about the need to listen to your body when it whispers. I look at the thumb I sprained in my weirdo movement class on Monday and realize my body isn’t even whispering — it’s shouting. Slow down, pay attention. I can still be an adventurer, I can run, I can ride — but with a little more caution, a little more care, a lot more yoga, a little less spontaneity, a lot more sleep. That’s what fit in my mid-50s means. Paying attention. Maybe my next fitness life is more about presence and observance than it is about thrust.
Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who lives and works in Toronto, when she isn’t scampering across the world.