Bruised, Battered but Unbeaten
A hunter, angler and gatherer's struggle to stay fit after fifty
This past week I walked around Lake Natoma, near my home, for the first time in more than a year. It’s a hike of more than 11 miles, and I wasn’t certain I’d be able to make it. But I did.
What’s more, I wasn’t crippled the day after. Or the day after that. At my age, it isn’t the next day that gets you. Even soreness comes on slower when you get older.
Ever since a series of injuries, compounded with life events, ended my running career years ago, I’ve struggled to live with what I have become. Slow. No longer an athlete. Normal. I’ve never had the courage to write those words before, but there it is.
For the first decades of my life, I defined myself at least in part as a distance runner. And I was good. I had a decent college career at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and I just got better and better after college, eventually running some legitimately fast times, from the mile to the marathon.
It is one of hunting’s cruel ironies that it takes so many years to draw a sheep tag that many people grow too old to actually do the hunt.
Then, ever so slowly, things started to fall apart. I ran a marathon very close to the qualifying standard for U.S. Olympic Trials when I was 27. But I didn’t make it. Afterwards, I had to stare at myself in the mirror and realize that no matter how hard I trained, I simply lacked the physical talent to make the team. Sure, I might have made the Trials, but never the actual Olympic team.
So I stopped making running my life and moved on, as many of you who were good athletes have also done — and a decision those of you who are great athletes must face someday. It was hard, and I took it poorly. I drank too much, was mean to people I loved. But even then I was still a fast runner, and eventually that was good enough.
Then, later, my Achilles tendons started acting up. So did my iliotibial band. Bad. I did what I could to mitigate it, and I still ran some good times. I was in my 30s then, and I’d reached a state of self awareness where I realized that what I really, truly loved was the wind in my hair, a smooth stride, easy breathing and a long run. My favorite thing in the world by then wasn’t the race, it was a jaunty 10-mile run, as fast as felt comfortable. Some days it would be almost ninety minutes. Some days it would be well under an hour.
But inexorably that fell away. too. And, finally, after a torn Achilles in 2009, it was over. I haven’t run consistently since. Outwardly, I’m fine. Whatever. It is what it is.
It isn’t fine. Every single day of my life I think about what it would be like to have the wind in my hair again, to feel that smooth stride and be able to attack those hills, then glide down them. I think (hope) this is what I will feel in my final moments, right as it all goes dark, and I cease to be me.
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Why such angst? So many of my peers have accepted age, grown fleshy and soft, bowed their heads to their own realities, most of which are real and valid. I feel that weight, too, every day. Time is the enemy. There is never enough. Still, I have to keep fighting, as best I can.
I’ve tried to start running several times in recent years. Failures all. Most recently was 2021 — I’d spent 2020 creating a baseline of fitness to even start running — but last June, I was running, slowly, down a hill and felt a twang in my knee. Turned out to be a torn meniscus, but I didn’t learn that until recently. I ran on until I couldn’t, then slipped, once again, into my dark place.
Another setback. Years ago, I would have sighed, stopped running — again — and moved on with my life. Not this time.
I am almost 52 years old. Time is running out for me to have any hope of serious fitness. And before you 60-somethings and olders start sniping at me, yes, I know you can be reasonably fit into your old age. But all the science shows that what you do in your 50s sets a tone for your final decades the same way what you do in your teens and 20s does for your prime years. So yeah, I’m acting like my life depends on it.
Because, in a way, it does.
I want to be able to hunt a sheep someday, if I am ever lucky enough to draw a tag. It is one of hunting’s cruel ironies that it takes so many years to draw a sheep tag that many people grow too old to actually do the hunt, which, if you are not familiar, always takes place in the mountains, and usually above 10,000 feet.
More realistically, I want to be like my friends Jim, Alex and Jeff — the Chicken Chasers — or Ed Arnett. All are serious Western bird hunters, and all are older than I am. These guys can walk all day, for days on end.
It’s this real fitness that grounds me.
Slogging two miles in a rainstorm, through a muddy marsh in full waders carrying decoys, a tule seat and a shotgun. Walking logging roads in the Sierra Nevada all day in search of porcini or morels. Getting out of the truck at 10,000 feet, hiking up to 13,000 feet and then starting to hunt. Wandering the Great Plains for a full week chasing partridges, pheasants, quail and grouse. Schlepping a dead elk five miles back to the truck, trip after trip. Being able to fight a swordfish 900 feet down, or a 1,000 pound marlin at the surface. Hauling nets for salmon on a gillnetter day after day.
These are my races now, the moments where physical fitness matters most.
I still ache for the wind in what hair I have left, for that easy gait and lungs of iron. I ache for it, and am willing to ache to get it.
So I walk. As much as I can. And I try to find time for the exercises my physical therapist wants me to do. I ride hard on a stationary bike, and rowed on a machine until I tore my knee. I’m trying, as best I can.
I know I will never be the man I was, and I’m at peace with that. But maybe, just maybe, I’ll be able to step out my door someday and run around Lake Natoma. And I won’t care how long it takes me.
I have to hope.
I know many of you reading this must face similar demons. What have you done, or are doing, to keep them at bay? What works for you to stay strong in middle age, or beyond?