Somewhere along the line between 1991 and today a weird thing has occurred. I have gotten older.
Yes, I know we all get older, but it is something that has become strikingly apparent to me over the course of the last year. It wasn’t an immediate thing that has made me notice, it has been gradual. Aches and pains that used to go away in 24 hours now lingers for three or four days. A hard run on Monday night that I could shake off by Tuesday I can still feel on Thursday.
The saying goes that aging is in your head, and I can hear some of you reading this thinking the same thing right now, but the hard fact is that saying is just not true. Yes, we don’t have to be old in our minds. My mind is not that of a 51-year-old man, though I am starting to notice some memory loss at times. It is a very different thing to feel young, act young, and to actually be young.
The changes are happening and are evident. Wrinkles are showing in my forehead. My beard is graying. Though my hair is still on my head it is thinning everywhere else (my legs are almost hairless at this point for example). My skin is like sandpaper in places. I wake up to use the bathroom three or four times a night. My eyes refuse to focus unless I have a lot of light. Slow, but sure, signs of a body entering its last phase. And I am not liking it one bit.
My problem, though, is not that I am mad about getting older. It really doesn’t bother me to be in my 50’s. What bothers me is regret. Regret about the 21 years I wasted being unhealthy. When I left the Navy at 27 in 1991 I was reasonably fit. Even though cancer was a year away, I could still run well, had a few aches or pains, but could hold my own in a beach volleyball game if I was called upon. But then, I just gave up. My weight started climbing and by the time I was 30 I had gone from 185 pounds to pushing 260. Part of this was that my thyroid had shut down and we were just discovering this and the cancer that followed but, and I am ashamed to admit this now, I used this as an excuse to turn into a lazy, couch dwelling, potato chip eating slug. I wasn’t happy with where my life was and where I saw it heading, and instead of strapping up my boots and doing something about it I let life happen to me. So when I woke up at 48, 21 years later, the damage was done.
Three years later I can say that I am better than I was, but the hard truth is that I cannot reclaim 21 years of sloth. All I can do is stop the tide from getting deeper. Nearly all research that has been done on aging and athletics has shown that you can expect certain declines with age, regardless of fitness level;
- Aerobic capacity (VO2) will decline
- Maximal heart rate will be reduced
- Volume of blood pumped with each heart beat decreases
- Loss of muscle fibers results in loss of mass and decrease in strength
These are all subjective of course. Someone that has been a runner all their lives will not see the decrease a sedentary person will see. The majority of aging studies have also been conducted on what is defined as a general representation of the population; sedentary, overweight, unmotivated. Athletes, especially those that have not had an “off period” will not be represented in that population. So what this is basically saying is that you can think young all you want, but aging is going to get you at some level.
I know I am in better shape and better health today at 51 than I was at 41, and even 31. I have completed 5 70.3 triathlons, numerous sprint triathlons, a marathon, and a number of half marathons. I could not have done that ten years ago. I don’t eat sugar and limit grains, which has made me healthy on the inside as well. I know all of this, but when I cannot remember a word I want to use, or the names and birthdays of my children and grandchildren, no amount of exercise or diet is going to fix that. No matter how many miles I log on the road running, the aches and pains of psoriatic arthritis are never going to get better, and most likely are going to get worse.
I feel like I am running out of time. I know it’s a bad way to think, and I don’t want to give the impression that I am obsessed with mortality. It’s not the case. But I also have to be aware of it. In a best case scenario with health history and family history, I probably have 20-25 years left. I look at Facebook pictures of people I went to high school with and am shocked at how old some of them look, then I realize I am the same age. I have been luck to have inherited the Italian genes I have, and I think most would be hard pressed to look at me and say “yes, he looks 51”. The thought of being “stuck” at the age of 30 is one thing, because you have so much time to right the ship, but being stuck at 51 is a truly scary thing. We can all read this and say “don’t think that way, you have all the time in the world” but that’s not the truth. Time is fleeting, and seems to move faster the older we get.
I often joke that “when I grow up I want to be a rock star”. The point is I wonder what my 16-year-old self would think of me today. I can imagine me looking in the mirror in 1979, long curly hair, silk shirt, Napoleon Dynamite glasses, seeing me sitting in an office with lots of fancy degrees, working at a job I do not enjoy for a salary well under what I should be getting in order to pay for things I don’t like, need, nor desire. If I knew then what I have come to learn, would I take the same path? Would I have joined the Navy at 17 instead of staying in high school and going to college. Would I have married so young (19)? When did I start to compromise my needs and wants in life to accommodate others, and would I do it again if granted a second chance?
I know, it’s the pondering of an old man and not productive, but I was hit with a dose of mortality last week and it got me thinking about it, so grant me the time to work through some of it in writing. It’s what I do. The bottom line is that I am trying to get “better” and to make the most of the time I do have left. No one knows when we will be called. I say I have 20-25 years but I could be gone tomorrow, or live another 50. We don’t know. All we can do is make the most of what we have in this life with the hopes that we don’t make so many mistakes that we are reincarnated as a dung beetle.
That’s all we can really hope for right?