For the Birds
Last October, I had hamstring repair surgery on my left leg. It took me a year to decide and another year to fully recover. The year to decide was spent trying in any way possible to avoid the knife – PT, Cortisone injections, experimental Platelet Rich Plasma injections (PRP), multiple surgical consultations, more PT and a final decision that I loved running too much to give it up at 50 years old. The year to recover was six months to running any real distance and then six more months building back to a little less mileage than what I used to be able to do.
And now my right leg bothers me in the same place.
In June, I had a new MRI, and my surgeon told me the right leg didn’t seem ready for a surgical fix. Last week, I visited a doctor who specializes in PRP at the top orthopedic hospital in New York, and he wants me to try that again. My new PT isn’t convinced and thinks adding strengthening work and lowering endurance work for a few months might heal the leg enough. The common thread in all three diagnoses is: your muscles aren’t 35 years old anymore, and they don’t recover as easily. Maybe PRP would rejuvenate them; maybe rest would, but with no one putting forth a certain prescription, I fear the real diagnosis is: you are just getting too old to do as much endurance work as you do.
A couple of weeks ago, Jim and I traveled to California for several days. With COVID, I am still unwilling to use hotel gyms, so over a six-day period, I ran once, hiked once, went to a hotel gym at 4AM once (Jim had a Zoom in Spain) and golfed three times, walking the course. Believe it or not, this was a light activity week for me. At first, I struggled with the lack of a daily endorphin rush, but by week’s end, I was kind of enjoying days where golf was my most vigorous activity. I actually started to feel like playing eighteen holes was somewhat of a workout, since I walked at least four miles and wasn’t good enough not to be swinging a club at least 100 times. I was excited about the gym visit on the last day to take my pulse above 100, but I didn’t feel inactive.
I also know it’s not healthy to work out as much as I do – six days a week with one active rest day mandated by my PT (e.g., I golf or walk). So, as I face the potential need to cut back, I am questioning why it is so hard for me to embrace a little less activity, to be excited about time saved for reading or other pursuits. Why am I tethered to my Apple watch every morning, moving until I hit my calorie goal? I know it’s a psychological issue based in a combination of reasons, but as a logical and rational person, I wonder why I am allowing my emotions to reign. Why do I have to, want to, do an endurance work out six days a week?
One reason is because I feel great afterwards. I am definitely addicted to the endorphins generated by exercise, and I feel a little slow and fuzzy when I don’t get my fix in the morning. The days I don’t exercise, I don’t feel as healthy and alive. Addiction is not a good thing, but since at least some exercise is good for you, it has always felt like a fix that was more beneficial than not. Today, that fix may be causing me to injure myself to a point where I will not be able to do as much as I should be able to do at my age.
Another reason I love exercise is that I love food, and this one is more complicated. Over many years, I have developed food habits that are integrally related to calorie burn. I eat almost the same thing every day through lunchtime – I am nothing if not a creature of habit – and then I eat pretty much what I want for dinner and dessert. And I love dessert. I also love wine and that is caloric too. I have come to believe, whether true or not, that if I exercise, this formula will keep me at my ideal weight, while also allowing me to eat pretty much what I want to. When I deviate from my norms – whether that be in exercise or diet – I get a bit neurotic about my weight. (My family would say more than a bit.) And even with my newfound fondness for fries (a whole blog unto itself), this formula has been working.
On the subject of weight, I actually changed habits recently and stopped weighing myself every day. (Yes, this was a bad and sort of crazy habit instilled in me by my own parents, and anyone I tell about it is dumbfounded that it took me until 51-years-old to stop.) I thought this might help me on the exercise front and the food front, and so far, it has worked food-wise (fries again). I first moved to every two weeks and now to once-per-month, and I weigh myself on days when I have a feeling the number will please me. Clearly, I have more room to grow here, but baby steps are still baby steps. The relatable (and now repeated) fact: exercise is one part of that food formula. I’m loving this new habit, but I am not sure I would be sticking to it if I weren’t working out for calorie burn pretty much every day.
And here’s the big one. I am super proud of my athlete status. I know that’s weird to admit, but I love that I am an endurance-level athlete with an athletic, lean body. I like knowing I am in great shape and that I am known for being in great shape. It’s something I turn to when I lack self-confidence because I am confident in that fact. This is the big one – obviously. I shouldn’t need or want this classification to be what I hang at least part of my “specialness” on, but I know I do, and I am afraid to give it up. I must add that my daughter tells me I am out of fashion – that I should balance endurance with weight-training for even better overall health. Research tells me she is right, but weight-training has never a) satisfied the fix or b) made me sweat. I am considering giving her suggestions greater consideration, as she promises me: she sweats; her formula allows for fries AND ice cream, and she now can bench some ludicrous amount of weight. Her arms are kind of amazing.
So, what do I do? I can probably get used to fewer endorphins – California trip proved that. I know I can adjust food habits, as I am very disciplined when I want to be (though I’m not even sure I would really need to adjust because I’d probably be less hungry if I worked out less). But I’m not sure how I’d manage the loss of elite-exercise and super lean status. Giving that up means I give up a distinction I am proud of earning and maintaining. That’s really the crux. If you have read this blog, you’ve seen my struggle with validation, so losing this self-distinction feels enormous. If you read this blog, you also know I often don’t have answers or solutions to my issues. I don’t this time either. PRP is probably what’s next which, if successful, could extend the status quo, though I do realize that even with a success in PRP, I need to grapple with a change to avoid accelerated physical limitations even if I don’t feel ready for the emotional fallout that will likely ensue.
Getting old really is for the birds, isn’t it?