What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Sweatier
making peace with exercise on the other side of 40
Wherever you go in Eau Claire these lovely autumn days, you see them: exercisers. It seems to be sort of an Eau Claire thing, along with music festivals, awesome cheese, and brew pubs. Eau Clairians are into it. I vaguely recall hearing the EC was one of the fittest towns in Wisconsin, and frankly I’m not surprised. Visitors exclaim over our bike trails, and we are the home of Eau Claire Marathon. I’ve driven by and seen the multitudes assembled for yoga in the park. If Eau Claire is becoming kitschy cool, exercise is definitely part of the new image.
I am not runner – never have been and never will be. That said, I have completed a half marathon and some assorted short races in the futile attempt to hold off the decay of my body. I will agree that exercising makes you feel better. It’s the act of running that I’m not particularly keen on. I envy real runners. You know those gazelles with intact knee cartilage who bound along gracefully and seemingly effortlessly. Maybe you’ve seen them on Putnam Trail. True runners look beyond you to a horizon that only they will eventually arrive at, transported by their winged feet. Those of us who are earthbound, shufflers and walk/joggers, have faces frozen into rictuses of pain and suffering. No one envies us. Occasionally, a sympathetic passerby will honk or wave, but it’s not because we look good. No, they are admiring our grit, the fact that we are “out there, doing it.”
For most of us, it’s no longer about revving up for some new competition or athletic goal, it’s about waging a war against the inevitable physical decline.
The problem is though we are gritty – and by “we” I am referring to the plus-40 crowd – our bodies don’t always cooperate. For most of us, it’s no longer about revving up for some new competition or athletic goal, it’s about waging a war against the inevitable physical decline. The saying is “use it or lose it.” The thing is that the more I “use it,” the more things break down or deteriorate. How many of us know of someone who starts a workout or running program only to be injured just as they are revving up? I started running a couple of months ago in my yearly attempt to build up for the EC marathon in May (Yes, I need a long build up). One day, it hit: the runner’s high. I was going full-out Chariots of Fire, though that may not have been apparent to anyone who saw me. I felt so good that I kept on running. I went an additional mile or two, and felt so celebratory that night that I indulged in a Bohemian Pilsner from the Lazy Monk. (Nothing tastes better than a cold beer after a run. It’s one of the highlights of the whole experience.) The next day, my ankle felt like someone had stabbed me there.
If you can’t run, then bike, right? It’s low-impact, non-weight-bearing. As I’ve mentioned, the Chippewa Valley is blessed with an abundance of beautiful trails. It was a no-brainer. I enlisted the hubby to go for a lengthy bike ride on a particularly lovely Saturday. We descended down Vine Street, paused to check out the artwork at Chalkfest, then began the ascent up State Street Hill. How many times have you seen dismounted bikers, their heads hung low, doing their own walk of shame because they couldn’t make it? I am one of those bikers. I can’t do it, or perhaps I am just not willing to subject myself to that cardiac stress test. About two-thirds of the way up the hill that day, I dismounted. After wiping the sweat from my eyes, I peered up to see how my better half was faring. To my utter astonishment, he was still on the bike, pedaling fiercely, advancing slowly and painfully up. Yes, he did it. Granted, he said he felt light-headed at the top and it was probably poor judgment to do it, but he did it. He conquered that same hill he had defeated every single day as a kid going heading home from Central Junior High (now the school district administration building) more than 30 years before and more than a few pounds lighter. It was completely insane for him even to attempt it, but I must admit to some envy that night as he recounted that story to our children. My hubby’s smile was evocative of the teenager he’d once been, and yes, “he still had it.”
Unfortunately, I don’t. Shamed by my defeat on State Street Hill, when ascending Cameron Street later that same day, my competitive juices stirred. I wouldn’t let him defeat me again. I gritted my teeth and stood up in the pedals and I made it to the top. That night, I developed a swelling at the back of my knee from rupturing something vital in my ascent. Greg LeMond, I am not.
This isn’t meant to be an essay about the negative impact of exercise. I do not support my father’s theory that “If you feel like exercising, you’re better off lying down.” It’s a vignette about holding onto small physical triumphs as we age. I don’t know if my guy will ever make it to the top of State Street Hill on a bike or Rollerblades again. Still, after his achievement, he sat up a little straighter whenever we drove up it. There is triumph to be found in the day-to-day struggles to maintain health and fitness. Yes, I will try, like so many other Eau Clairians, to run/walk a half marathon in the spring. It’s certainly better than that vague feeling of guilt or disappointment I get that first weekend in May if I haven’t done anything all winter.
So if you happen to be driving by, somehow tip your hat or salute those runners, bikers, and walkers who are keeping up the good fight, hoping for one more ascent up their own State Street Hills.