How did it
happen?? Doggone if I know!
I still think of
myself as being a lot younger, just like a lot of other Boomers in denial.
It's disconcerting to find yourself at the top of the ultra birthday list
(meaning you're the oldest list member that day) but it sure beats the
That was the funniest of the birthday wishes I got this year. Thanks,
But guess what?
I discovered a great way to mitigate the trauma of turning sixty: ever since Jim hit that milestone
last August, I've
thought of myself as being "almost sixty." I hardly even blinked an
eyelash when the Big Day finally arrived!
Here's how I psyched myself out. Feel free to use it when you're approaching
a dreaded birthday. (Note that most of the introduction to this entry is
intended as tongue-in-cheek!)
PRETTY GOOD, CONSIDERING . . .
Since last summer, if I was proud of a physical effort I made I'd tell
myself, "That was pretty good, considering I'm almost 60!"
Last October, after my frustrating 7:09 finish at the New River Trail 50K a few minutes
over the cut-off, I eventually realized,
"That was pretty good, considering I'm almost 60!"
battling a hamstring injury the next two months, I was happy enough with a time
at the Sunmart 50K that was over an hour slower:
"That was pretty good, considering I'm almost 60!"
I exceeded my goal at ATY at the end of the year,
running and walking 82 miles in 24 hours, I patted myself figuratively on
the back and said,
"That was pretty good, considering I'm almost 60!"
ATY 24-hour race, 12-31-08
That one really WAS good; it put me in the top third of the race
overall and improved on the previous F59 age record.
I used similar reasoning when I came up a bit short of my goals in a
training run or other physical activity. I'd rationalize to myself, "Well,
I'm almost 60. What can you expect? I'm definitely not 35 any more!"
Worse, I kept looking at the results for the F60-69 age group in
each race I ran, determining how I would have placed if only I
was a few months, weeks, or days older. I did that most recently
summary of the MS50 race, held
just three weeks before my birthday. It's tough being at the
very top of a ten-year age group, competing with women almost a
Although I wasn't looking forward to turning 60 with the
enthusiasm I had toward turning 40 (because I was much faster
then), it was almost a relief when I did.
The downside is that now when I don't place as well as I want in
my age group, I can't use that old crutch of being "almost 60"
-- now I'm at the young end of that age group and better put up
or shut up! There are some very fast women in this age group
that I probably will never be able to outrun. But once I figure
out what races I want to race and not just run, it
will be fun trying.
See, the competitive juices are still flowing a little bit.
HOW OLD AM I REALLY?
"What a drag it is getting old!"
- from the album "Mother's
Little Helper" by the Rolling Stones
In recent months I've been acutely aware of each thread on the
internet ultra list that touches on the topic of aging runners
-- why the number of women over 50 drops significantly at
the longer distances (particularly 100-milers), how difficult it
is for both men and women to maintain speed in their senior
years, whether more races can extend their cut-off times to
accommodate aging runners who are slowing down, and so on.
I often contribute my two cents to these discussions since they
are so relevant to me and I can share some of my perspective.
I'm not sure if I'm a good role model or not, but hopefully both
age peers and younger runners can either be inspired that I'm
still out there challenging myself -- or use my example as a
There are plenty of clichés about being "as old as you feel" and
"60 is the new 40." I've discussed in previous entries how
difficult it is for Jim and me to grasp the concept of our own
aging process because our chronological age simply doesn't jive with
our mental perception of how old we are.
I remember how OLD someone of 60 used to seem to me when I was
in my 20s and 30s. I suppose it's only natural as we age that
the number we consider "old" gradually gets higher! Have you
noticed that, too? Most days Jim and I don't feel this old
(and sometimes we feel even older!) but I still have some little
remnant of memory that tells me 60 is pretty old.
For the most part I'm proud to be 60. Even though I'm
finding out the hard way that I can't do as much physically as I
used to be able to do . . .
. . . I'm still in pretty good
shape considering I'm 60.
One of the photos Jim took of me on my 60th
birthday . . .
I went in to our GP for my annual physical a few days after my
birthday. The visit was pretty short since I had no complaints
he could help me with.
I have specialists for orthopedic, gynecological, dental,
vision, chiropractic, and other specific issues but
I gave him a medical (and running) update since I'd seen him
two years ago. We did talk about the various types of injections
of synthetic lubricants to supplement what little cartilage I
have in my knees since I haven't talked to an orthopedist about
that for over a year. Some newer techniques are being developed
but are still in experimental stages.
Dr. Ivey was very pleased with my apparent health, prior to
getting the lab results from blood and urine tests, and said to
keep doing what I've been doing to keep other health problems
besides the arthritis at bay. He didn't recommend any further
tests at this time since I've had a bone density test and
colonoscopy in recent years.
On the date of my visit my weight
was 142 pounds (5'9" height), heart rate only 48
beats/minute (resting pulse is still
usually in the 30s), temperature 97.7°F.
(typical for me), and blood pressure 88/58 (lower than
So much for "white coat anxiety!" You can tell I had no
qualms about that visit.
Dogwood blooms along the Wolf Creek
evidence of how easily I'm distracted on
training runs. (4-28-09)
A few days later the lab results confirmed that everything is OK
chemically. I was curious about my cholesterol level after the
total went just over 200 two years ago. Right after that I
brought it down to 160 in three months (lots of oatmeal
helped!). The total is 172 now, which is acceptable. Although my
LDL level is a little higher than it should be, my coronary risk
factor is below average. I still have to watch what I eat, not
only to avoid gaining weight but to keep the HDL-LDL ratio
I am pleased that my liver and kidney profiles are normal.
Sometimes I worry about taking too much Ibuprofen for my
arthritis aches and pains. Dr. Ivey didn't try to get me to
switch to acetaminophen this time. He recommended that two years
ago, to reduce the chance of kidney damage from NSAIDs, but it
didn't relieve the pain and I resumed the regular use of
Despite the increased risk of breast cancer and
goodness-knows-what-else, I continue to take a low-dose hormone
for unacceptable symptoms of menopause that make my life
miserable if I stop taking them. My OBG monitors that situation. Other
than that, I don't need any other prescription meds.
In recent years I've had fun taking some of those risk
assessment questionnaires on the internet that evaluate your
genetics and lifestyle, then estimate how "old" you are or how
long you'll live. Yeah, I know they're just "guesstimates," but
they're provocative feedback about how well you're doing in
comparison to others as you get older.
ADAPTING TO REALITY, PHASE 1
"You know you're getting older when
your 50K times
are becoming slower than your
50-mile PR." - Sue
I'm one of many women who has seen a significant decline in my
running speed and desire to race during my 50s. There are many
reasons this happens, from physiological changes to
political/social issues such as lack of female role models when
we were younger.
I blame the physiology of aging for most of my reduction in
speed. In addition, both men and women tend to get injured more
easily as they get older and it takes longer to heal. It also
takes longer to recover from hard training run and races. Those
are simply facts of life.
I've always been prone to running injuries and the
gotten worse as I've aged. I'm not nearly as
sturdy physically as Jim. Too many falls and occasionally
running too many miles in one run or over the period of several
days have taken their toll the past thirty years. I tend to take
risks, ignore early warning signs, and too often cross the fine line between training and
The injury that has had the most profound impact on my running the past
eight years was rupturing my peroneus brevis and longus
in my left ankle during the Western States 100 in 2001. This
diagram of the peroneal tendons and other structures of the
ankle is from the E-orthopod link above:
Even after surgery
virtually no stability on that side and cannot stand up on those
toes like I can the other foot.
That one incident had more
of a negative effect on my running during my 50s than anything else, even
arthritis and menopause. I have to go more slowly on rocky, rooty, or uneven terrain so I don't twist my ankles or fall,
causing further damage to my ankles or other body parts.
You can see in the photo below that Jim took of me on 3-31-09 how my left
ankle turns outward,
even on a smooth running surface. Imagine what it does on a rutted or rocky-rooty
trail! I get comments about it all the time in races. It's a
wonder I can run at all.
I usually wear lightweight, flexible, but sturdy
supports on both feet when I run on rougher surfaces. That, and being
more careful, has prevented any further ankle strains or sprains since 2001.
All the physical injuries/challenges have also lead to a consequent lack
of internal motivation to have to work so much harder to reap
the rewards that came more easily in my 30s and 40s. The last
time I trained for a fast race, last fall for the
New River Trail 50K, I got
injured after pushing too hard during the race -- and
still missed the cut-off at the end by nine minutes.
I don't regret the attempt to come in under seven hours but it makes me
even more cautious about doing speed work in the future. Too often it has led
to overuse injuries.
For all these reasons it became increasingly more difficult to
beat the cut-offs in mountainous 100-milers and I racked up DNF
after DNF in my 50s. I finally came to the conclusion a few years
ago that I needed to refocus on other, more realistic goals. I soon had trouble
going fast enough to finish 100Ks and 50-milers, either. By then
I was more interested in journey and adventure running anyway,
so I didn't feel too much of a loss.
ADAPTING TO REALITY, PHASE 2
I was already adapting to my circumstances by my late 50s. Then along came my
discouraging knee diagnosis and further running modifications became
Before I was diagnosed with minimal knee cartilage in September,
2007, I hoped to "make a splash" in my new age group. My goal
was to find several ultras where I could be the first female
over 60 to finish, or set a new F60+ age group record. I vowed to
train smart, regain some of the speed I've lost in the last
decade, and have as much fun with races as I did when I first
turned 40 and entered the world of masters competition.
Getting that diagnosis was psychologically like a pin popping a
balloon. I was figuratively deflated. The prospect of eventually
needing knee replacements meant making both short-term and
long-term modifications to the activity that brings me the most
pleasure and health benefits: running.
I went -- and continue to go -- through some of the classic symptoms
of grieving a loss, the loss of the dreams I had about competing
successfully in races in my 60s and 70s, doing another journey run
or two, climbing
lots of 14ers, seeking running and hiking adventures around the world.
Finishing the Appalachian Trail: one of my
Top Ten Lifetime Achievements! (9-24-05)
Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Reflection and mild depression.
Seeking realistic solutions and alternatives. Acceptance and
Those are the basic stages of grief and loss.
I've been in the next-to-last phase for a while now:
seeking alternative goals that may not be as exciting as the
ones I used to have, but ones that will motivate me enough to
keep running and walking as long as I possibly can so I can
remain healthy both physically and mentally.
I'm now mostly choosing flatter and shorter ultras like 50Ks
with generous cut-offs that give me a fighting chance to finish,
and fixed-time races on relatively flat courses where I set a
mileage goal and try to reach it in the time limit. I've found a
measure of success in these events (it's been a long time since
I've finished in the upper third of a race!) and a totally
different kind of challenge that is fun to train for.
Sometimes I regress to earlier stages,
however, like when I signed up for the mountainous Bighorn and Tahoe Rim
Trail 50Ks this summer (sounds like denial, eh?) or worry
about the day when I won't be able to do any distance running or
walking any more (definitely depressing).
I haven't reached the final stage of acceptance yet.
One realistic alternative: Sunmart 50K. Too
bad this was the last time for the race. (12-6-09)
When I actually DO have knee replacements and face the
likelihood that I can no longer run at all I'm sure I'll go
through these various stages again during my recovery from
surgery, probably more intensely. At
least I'm still able to run some at this point.
I've had to make some significant modifications, however. My
goals have changed to reflect my current reality. I haven't
chosen any races this year in which to shine as a newly-minted
60-year-old. The only one I planned to enter where I thought I
could finesse a new age record has been cancelled. But I'm doing my
best to remain mostly
optimistic. It's more important to me now to preserve as much
cartilage as possible for as long as possible rather than trying
to satisfy my ego by racing and training too much.
I'm not willing to give up ultra running and walking yet,
though. (Back to denial?)
Over the past 18-20 months I've reduced the number of miles I
run and have increased the number of miles I walk. I run
and walk more on smoother, flatter terrain than I used to. I can
go uphill all day long. It's coming back DOWN that hurts
sometimes, especially on steep grades. I try to avoid uneven
footing and lots of roots or rocks. Torque-ing around on uneven
terrain stresses my knees and increases my chance of falling and
either further damaging my knees or sustaining some other injury.
Smooth crushed-rock trail surfaces are best
for me now. Wolf Creek Greenway, Roanoke, VA. (4-6-09)
Fortunately, I'm finding increasing pleasure in ultra
walking. Part of me feels lazy that I don't run as much or
as fast as I used to. The other part loves to "smell the roses"
at the slower pace. It certainly has less impact on my knees.
This transition phase affects Jim, too.
When we met ten years we were close to the same pace in training
and racing. Although we've both slowed down, I've slowed at a
much faster rate than Jim. We aren't able to run much together
any more unless I'm doing a hard workout and he's doing an easy
When we do train together he doesn't fully understand my
shifting priorities either. I love to take photographs of
beautiful scenes, the changing seasons, pretty flowers (like
those dogwoods farther up), and other things that catch my eye.
Jim's not as tolerant of all those quick stops to take pictures
as Cody is! I can't blame him. He's still focusing on training
to compete. I'm more focused right now on running and walking
for fitness and enjoyment. I just don't have the drive to push
hard this spring.
Although I've lost a lot of speed , I haven't lost my endurance.
I still put in as much or more time on the trails -- I just
don't get as far now. And for the time being, I'm OK with that. If I find a suitable 24-hour race to run this
year (since my goal race is on hiatus), I'll get back in
competition mode and train harder. This is but one of many phases in
my 30-year running "career."
SURE BEATS THE ALTERNATIVE
Here's a provocative perspective on the subject of aging
from our favorite cartoonist:
"Pickles" cartoon by Brian Crane, 4-17-09
Obviously, getting older beats the alternative!
I don't mean to sound whiny about my physical state. I know I'm
in a lot better shape than most women my age, even with my
arthritis problems. And I can thank my lucky stars that I don't
have an insidious, terminal illness like ALS or Alzheimer's
(yet -- my mother had Alzheimer's when she died).
We have two running acquaintances in the Roanoke area who are in
different stages of ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease.
lateral sclerosis is a progressive, fatal
neuro-degenerative disease that results in lack of control and
atrophy of the voluntary muscles throughout the body. Cognitive
function generally remains intact but victims quickly become
wheel-chair bound and bed-ridden, unable to move or care for
themselves. Life expectancy is usually only three to five years
after the patient begins having symptoms. There is no cure yet
and it often takes a while for the condition to be properly
Not good. Personally, I'd rather have a cancer diagnosis than
One of our local running club friends, Dan Wright, was diagnosed with ALS
three years ago. He was quite active with the Star City
(Roanoke, VA) Striders and has received considerable support
from his running friends. He currently requires nursing home
care. There have been several road races held in Dan's honor to
raise funds for ALS research, and a section of the greenway in
Roanoke named for him.
We found out about our other friend, Dick Kelley, soon after
getting back to Roanoke in March. There have been two
comprehensive and well-written features about him in The
Roanoke Times newspaper, on
March 22 and
before and after the triathlon he
had been training for.
I've talked with Dick numerous times over the past five years at
the YMCA when he'd come in to swim and do weight work after a
bike ride or run. He retired several years ago as Assistant
Superintendent for Business for the Roanoke public school system
and trained in the morning, like Jim and me. He was pretty
reserved and introverted, all business, but he always inquired
about my training and racing and encouraged me to run on some of
his favorite trails in the area. Dick was as fit as any ultra
runner or cyclist I've ever known.
Photo of Dick Kelley (in front) from the
Jim and I were shocked, to say the least, when we read the
article about Dick's rapid deterioration from ALS while we were
gone last winter for four months. He looked fine when I last saw
him in November, although he had been experiencing some unusual
aches in his wrists, legs, and back for a couple of years. He
never complained to me about them. For a
while he just chalked it up to being 63 years old. Doctors were
unable to make a diagnosis until December, when Dick began to
fall while skiing (he's an accomplished telemark skier, too).
In January he was diagnosed with stunning news: he has
ALS. By March he could only walk with difficulty using a cane;
now in early May he mostly uses his wheelchair. He cannot
walk or run for exercise any more, obviously. He has no control
over his right arm, so he cannot ride his bike or drive. A
friend drives him to doctor appointments, the Y, and lunch with
friends while his wife is at work. She assists him with eating, dressing, bathing,
and other basic tasks.
Four short months and this active, fit athlete is becoming
totally dependent on other people because he cannot control his
muscles! This is just shocking to Jim and me, mostly because we
know him and what he was able to do before this disease took
control of his future.
I'm glad I read the newspaper article before seeing Dick at the fitness
center the first time in late March. It wasn't as difficult as I
expected it to be. This formerly-reserved man has become quite
loquacious now, full of smiles and animated conversation with
anyone and everyone he sees. His personality has totally
Dick has two primary goals to
complete before he becomes further incapacitated: 1) to
raise public awareness about a disease most people know
little about and 2) to compete one more time, even in a limited
capacity, in the local Smith Mountain Lake triathlon on May 2
with his granddaughter, Tricia, who decided to do her first
triathlon in his honor.
Dick gave a short, encouraging speech to the participants in the
triathlon at the beginning of the race. Although he wasn't able to swim, ride,
or run with Tricia at the end of each leg of the race like he wanted, he did ride his wheelchair the last
hundred yards or so with her at the end of the run.
The crowd at the finish line was reportedly torn between tears
Dick enjoyed running the trails at
Explore Park. This is one of the few flat sections. (4-8-08)
It is my sincere hope that I will have the upbeat, positive
attitude (and gallows humor) that Dick displays if I'm ever
diagnosed with a terminal illness. He is trying to make the most of
every day because he knows his time with his family and friends is
very limited. This formerly reticent man can't NOT communicate with people
now. He loves to tell stories about the sometimes-humorous experiences
he's had adjusting to the disease. For example, he jokes that he no longer has to worry about prostate
cancer and he often wears a New York Yankees jersey with the name "Gehrig" on the
Would I be able to do that? I hope so.
Tricia has created a
web page for her grandfather on the ALS website to help him raise
funds for ALS research. You can read more about his situation
and see family photos. Dick e-mails or Twitters a long list of
friends and acquaintances and is learning to use
voice-recognition software for the time when he's unable to type
any more. In every way, he's trying to eke out as much LIFE as
he can in his final years and months. What an inspiration!
CONSIDERING . . .
Circumstances like Dick's sure do put things in perspective for
I'm concerned because I may not be able to RUN after getting
knee replacements?? I need to get a grip and be thankful I can
do as much as I can do now and, hopefully, in the future. I'd
sure rather deal with a more limited range of activities than a
fatal disease or loss of mental acuity (some might say I
lost any mental acuity I had, a long time ago!).
Tricia says her grandfather's philosophy is to live each day as
if it is his first. I wonder if she meant "last." That's more my
philosophy, when I'm not focusing on the past (what I used to be
able to do) and the future (what I still hope to do). I
constantly have to remind myself to live more in the present, to
make each day count in case it IS my last.
And how's this for living in the future?
My long-range running goals may be modified, but I still have
the life goal of reaching 100.
I think I'm making pretty good
progress, considering I'm already 60% there . . .
I can't resist closing with my favorite Woody Allen quote:
"I don't want to achieve immortality
through my work . . .
I want to achieve it through not
Next entry: scratching the itch to hit the road again
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil,
and Cody the Ultra Lab
© 2009 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil