Reflection #5: Risk and the Aging Body

I’ve written several blog posts about the 2015 Tour de France, a summer sporting event that I love and follow almost obsessively on TV. Usually Le Tour prompts me to ride my own bike more, as I fantasize about being a Tour rider. But that isn’t happening this year. I’ve only been out on my bike once all summer, and don’t feel especially drawn to go out again.

I’ve also written blog posts about what I choose to do or refrain from doing physically, now that I’ve turned 70. Rock hopping in Maine, along the coast where brother and sister-in-law Paul and Jeanne have their home? Yes. The Maine coast is rocky rather than sandy, as is the Pacific Northwest. The rocks are odd-shaped, cast onto the shoreline by wave action and set down in random patterns but jammed close together, with no flat sandy spots in between. The rocks are smaller than what you find on a Jersey seashore jetty, but much larger than pebbles. Some of the rocks are firmly wedged in place, others shift unexpectedly as your foot touches lightly and then moves on. Rock hopping from one point to another on the beach is best done by simply going for it. If you overthink your path, you tend to lose balance.

As I kid I raced along the jetties at Avon-by-the-sea, where we went to swim. There were relatively big spaces between the rocks, and slippery spots where water pooled and algae grew, and not all the rocks had flat tops. I never gave it a second thought, simply trusting in my balance and ability to correct. I don’t remember ever falling.

I’m not as free-wheeling a rock hopper as I was a jetty-racer. Balance gets worse in an aging body, even as I do everything I can in the gym to bolster mine. But I haven’t fallen while rock hopping either.

Biking is another story. I got badly spooked several years ago on a group ride over the Andes Mountains when the rider just in front of me went down on a hill and badly shattered the long bone in her leg. We were not near any sophisticated medical care. The rural clinic where our van driver took her first didn’t even have pain medication, only aspirin. They were able to take an X-ray and confirm the fracture, but not treat her. She had a bumpy ambulance ride to get nearer to civilization, where she was helicoptered to a hospital in Santiago, Chile. As the only Spanish/English speaker in the group I accompanied her as far as the rural clinic, where I sat watching her go into shock.

Just after that a prominent physician and avid biker in Rochester misjudged a curve, went flying into space, and broke his neck. He remains paralyzed from the neck down.

With rock hopping you can lose balance, twist an ankle or scrape your leg, or at worst, get your foot wedged while falling and blow out a knee. But a biking accident can kill you.

As I’ve written on the blog about trying to decide whether or not to keep my bike and push myself to ride, the most helpful comment came from my daughter-in-law’s father, himself an avid biker. He asked whether I feel safe on my bike. I have a taut, stiff-framed bike with narrow tires and clipless pedals. It’s a racing bike, meant to ride long distances at high speeds. I got it right after my husband Jerry died. Jerry was training for a coast-to-coast ride to celebrate his 60th birthday, and had gotten himself a really good bike for the trip. He and I had talked about getting me a much better bike than I was riding at the time, so that when he came home we could still go out together and I’d be able to keep up. When Jerry died, before the trip even started, I went out and bought myself the bike he and I had talked about. I rode it around the big island of Hawaii, including up the steep and long road to the Kilauea volcano. I rode it across the Andes Mountains from Bariloche, Argentina, into the Chilean lake district and around Torres del Paine National Park. I rode it around my then-home-town of Rochester, 30-40-50 miles on a nice sunny day.

The distances aren’t what’s holding me back. I couldn’t go out tomorrow and ride 30 miles, although I could train successfully to do it. Those of you who exercise know that what you do in one sport doesn’t necessarily carry over to another without specific and focused effort. The fact that Seattle is hilly, especially near where I live, isn’t holding me back. What gives me pause is that the bike is now too aggressive a machine for me. I don’t know if that’s physical, or mental, or a combination. But it’s the reality.

I could get an easier bike to manage, but I probably won’t. I’m enjoying doing other things, and if I can’t ride this bike, I’m not sure I want to ride. I think psychology plays a big part in that feeling. Giving away this bike is closing another chapter on my life with Jerry, and there’s too much emotion attached for me to just go out and buy another bike.

All of this obsessing about whether to ride my bike or not is part of a much larger consideration: staying physically active as I age, but doing so in a way that makes sense. I’m a huge proponent of staying active. I happen to enjoy exercise, but beyond that, I connect being active with functionality: being able to walk long distances to explore Seattle, including up hills. Being able to pick up my wiggly grandchildren, or safely supervise them in the pool. Being able to travel in a way that requires me to be awake for 12-15 hours, then navigate a strange airport and find my way to the hotel. Being able to carry my own groceries. Being able to hop on and off busses, or escalators. Being able to move quickly from one terminal to another when my inbound flight lands in A and my outbound is leaving in 41 minutes from C, without having to wait on the beeping cart loaded with people too heavy or too infirm to walk. Being able to accept an invitation from much younger friends to accompany them on a hike. Being able to walk rapidly down 11 flights to the lobby floor and exit the building when the fire alarm went off in error.

Thinking about what my friend Louise might call “conscious movement”, here are some of the things I’m doing/not doing in this age 70 year: walking, jogging, hill climbing, treadmill, recumbent bike in gym, cross-trainer, rowing machine, lake kayaking, hiking along uneven trails and uphill. All yes. Rock hopping on Pacific and Maine coasts, yes. Balancing on big logs washed up on nearby Puget Sound beach, yes. Racing bike, no. Cross country skiing, no – I never learned to fall without twisting my knees, and I don’t expect to do better now. Snowshoeing, yes. Ocean swimming, especially in Panama where the water is warm, yes.

For specific work on balance, I’m doing one thing I used to do with my trainer in Rochester, but haven’t done in some while. I have one foot on the bosu ball and one on the floor. Then I reverse my foot positions, jumping laterally right to left. It’s hard. I think the exercise is not only good for my body, but for my brain. I can feel the mental gears grinding as I complete the unaccustomed movement.

On the whole I’m happy with where I am, even as I reluctantly give up the bike. It’s the right thing to do. And I can still ride Le Tour in my dreams.

4 thoughts on “Reflection #5: Risk and the Aging Body

  1. Wow….your doing that move on the bosu! Nice…now stand on it with both feet and do your bicep curls and lateral raises. add a little more balance work. Don’t forget the opposite arm opposite leg on the bosu!

  2. for J: Will try the curls and raises. Hard enough to balance just standing on it! I do some squats while on ball, with pretty good balance.

  3. Definately try…helps with the balance a ton. Even if you do the moves without weights. 🙂
    Good to hear you are still working out. 😉

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