All my life, I’ve been naturally strong. People hand me the pickle jar to open. I’ll carry heavy things like air conditioners up 3 flights of stairs. Friends call me when they move. I’m no gym rat, I literally have not stepped foot in a gym in at least 20 years. I do NOTHING for this, but my back, shoulders, and arms have always been very strong and pretty cut for never doing anything other then working hard on my house and doing household chores. So much so, I’ve been a bit self conscious of my upper body. While I really like the natural strength I have, I don’t feel especially feminine. It’s always been a bit of an internal conundrum.
This is not the body of a cyclist, which is the sport I most greatly identify with. Not only do I have a broad back, but I’m a bit busty. I stuff myself into cycling jerseys. And I hate the club cut, so I stuff away. While I have used my natural upper body strength to my advantage handling the bike in sketchy conditions, it hasn’t escaped my notice that other women just look sleeker doing it. I just accept this. I like being strong but will never be built as compactly as most of the women I ride with. My body is largely a result of my genes, and both my parents, especially my father, was extremely strong and muscular.
Then at some point this past fall, I was changing in the bathroom and noticed something was different. My biceps had shrunk. My triceps also looked diminished. My shoulders still looked strong but a touch smaller. At first I was happy–finally I was looking a bit more feminine and less like I could join the practice team for the Pats! But then I realized what was happening.
I’m getting older.
This was a cruel twist of biology and time at work. I was losing muscle mass as a result of my age, which at the time of this writing is 47. This was sarcopenia. I’m very physically active, but mostly on the bike. I’m almost to that magical age of menopause, and a probable factor is some hormone fluctuation.
I can’t fight biology or time, but I can put some work in against the loss of more muscle. I have decided to be earnest in incorporating weights into my weekly workouts. I need to preserve what I still have, and maybe carve myself some new guns. It turns out, I value strength over whatever hangups I had about my muscles.
I’m hesitant to write about this at all, but dare I say, I’m finally having the cyclocross season I’ve always wanted.
I have long had the modest goal to finish in the top 50% of the race. And this year–it’s actually happening. Not every race, but 4 of the last 7 races this year I’m in the top half. If I don’t get a flat tire, or other calamity, I’m making it.
This feels so good, it was an achievable goal I set for myself but never quite managed to pull off more than once a season. It always bugged me because I knew I could do more, but I always found it so hard to train and prepare for the season the right way. By no means do I have everything figured out, but there are reasons I’m doing that much better this year.
1.) I’m following a training schedule. It’s general and not ridiculously specific–but I’m doing intervals on Wednesdays and threshold when I’m supposed to and resting on days I should rest. I generally try to stress my body into an uncomfortable feeling on hard days and genuinely take it easy when I’m supposed to.
2.) I’m able to ride during the day, outside. Last year I was still working in Springfield in an office for 9-10 hours a day, without an outlet for exercise. Training was isolated to the trainer at night and weekends, and occasional afternoons until the light was gone (which wasn’t long). Now I work from home and while I still commute to the Boston suburbs once or twice a week, I’m able to ride 45-60 mins at least 3 days during the week plus whatever I do on the weekends. As an additional benefit, I find I’m much more alert during my work days because of the mid-day exercise, and I no longer have back and neck pain from sitting for long stretches.
3. I’m eating a little better. I still have my treats, but I’m eating more veggies and less sugar in general. I’ve lost a couple of pounds and overall feel better.
4.) I’m recovering better. I find I can endure more discomfort and recover faster from hard efforts. The intervals help with that. But some of the big rides I did last summer seem to be paying off now too.
5.) I am serious about racing, and not serious about the results. This is probably the best development–I seem to have found a healthy mental balance between my enthusiasm, my nerves, and my internal competitor. When I race, I am focused and I’m constantly thinking about what i need to do to pass the women in front of me, and expand gaps between me and the women behind me. But the fun is still there–I joke with the hecklers and while I have had results that are an improvement over years past, I know I’m still not winning races here. I still don’t expect to move up a category. My perspective is intact. I’m still having a lot of fun.
6.) I’m in one place. This is a simple one–but something I haven’t had for a long time. No longer am I packing a bag every other weekend to visit my significant other. Now that we are under the same roof, there is no more back and forth and that has helped me focus on things I want to…..like cyclocross.
The most meaningful thing about this incremental improvement in my performance is that it is happening as I settle into what can be easily described as “My late forties.” I love this is happening at this time in my life. I love that I can improve my athletic performance at anything after age 40. I love that I can do this sport and my age doesn’t prevent my participation. I hope I can continue to do it for many years to come.
I registered for a small grassroots race this weekend in Vermont, and then next weekend is the Verge/Cycle-Smart Northampton International Cyclocross race weekend–the hometown race. If I can, I’d like to continue to do better than average among my peers for the Northampton races. The trick now is to keep up with the diet and workouts, and not get sick or injured.
Let’s hope I didn’t jinx myself by talking about it!
Tonight I was talking to my girlfriend and she said to me “I’m tired of you not doing better in your races.”
Now before you say anything nasty, understand this: I was not in the least bit offended. I quickly agreed with her. “Yeah,” I said. “I’m tired of not doing better too.”
We talked a bit about being an older athlete, and what that means. Adjusting your expectations. Squeezing in training. Training smart vs. training hard. I asked her for some help. She asked what she could do. I really didn’t know what she could do. We both admitted that we needed to believe that even as we age, we can still ‘get better’ at whatever it is we are trying to do out there. It may be in vain but here we are, still trying to get better in our 40’s or 50’s. So I have to ask myself, what does “better” mean?
It may seem like an easy question but I’m not sure that the answer is easy to articulate. Better doesn’t always mean faster, or a higher placing, or a lower crossresults point average. I have had races where I placed in the lower 1/3 or even 1/4 where I felt completely thrilled with the effort I put out. I’m thinking specifically of KMC Providence last year, when I finished 86 out of 114 racers. No one would look at that and say, “wow Karen, way to kill it out there!” No one would say that. But I did kill it out there! I had a blast. I put it all out there. That was my version of “better.”
And then there are the races from a couple of years ago, when I had more saddle time and my performance was, in fact, getting “better.” I was placing higher, I was feeling like I still had some room to improve. It was an upward trajectory I was feeling, and that continuous improvement made me feel like I was, in fact, “getting better.”
Lately, and I mean the second half of cyclocross season in 2014 and in my first race of 2015, I have felt pretty off. There’s always a problem that snarls my ability to have a good race. Bouts of sports-induced asthma by the second lap. Crashing and cracking a rib, or gashing my leg, or getting a shitty start, or suffering from heat exhaustion, or getting my handlebar caught on the course tape. (Geez, I read this list and I sound like a menace out there! I swear the only trouble I cause is my own).
My point is, I know when I’m doing better. I feel happy with the effort I put out. I feel satisfied and fulfilled with how hard the course was and what I did out there on that course. If I put a little pressure on a competitor, or if I pass a competitor or two (or ten), that’s a lot better. Bottom line is I need some “better” moments out there. Just like intervals, if I can string enough better moments together, I can pull off a downright good race.
Last Sunday I got to ride. After a leg stretching 18 miles in a balmy 40 degrees. I returned to my girlfriend’s place. As I was cleaning my bike up out front, an elderly woman approached. I greeted her and she said she was looking for her lost dog. After some prompting, I got a description of her little mostly white dog, Cookie, and offered to spin around the neighborhood looking for the little guy.
I rode around through the immediate neighborhood, and then hers. I stopped another older woman on her walk and asked if she had seen a little lost dog named Cookie. She asked where, and told her what road the woman lived on. The woman exclaimed, “My daughter lives there!” She agreed to talk to her daughter and I pedaled on, calling “Coooooookie! Cooooooookie!” I weaved down side streets and cruised slowly, scanning for little lost Cookie.
I turned back down the woman’s street and notice the walker I had stopped standing in the middle of the street, talking to a man and waved me toward her. I rode over and entered the discussion.
The man was the son of Cookie’s owner. I told him “I’m looking for a lost dog for a woman, it’s small and white and named Cookie.” He replied, “The woman is my mother, and that dog has been dead for years. I’m more concerned about where my mother is.”
Oh. Well I could still help. I knew where his mom was. He explained she gets a bit confused and occasionally wonders off her walking route. All was well that ended well. Mother was found, and I returned home shortly after.
This story didn’t turn out how I thought it would, but it felt good to help out in a small way. It’s sad that we age at all, and the results of aging for everyone varies, but no one choses how time will diminish us. That might sound strong–I don’t mean it to–but it captures my fear of aging. I want to remain as strong and sharp as I can for as long as possible. The march of time is without escape. Riding keeps me young–I feel like a kid when I’m on my bike. I’m counting on that to help me as I travel through the last half of my life.