Life is but a series of cycles, symbiotically played out over the course of time. We are born and we die only once, but we experience many different stages throughout our lives. Our childhood, youth, and phases of adulthood can feel like different lifetimes. Weathered by the climbs and descents of life’s peaks and valleys, we grow wiser and more resilient with each hill we summit.
Special attention is often given to one particular hill in life: the hill of getting older. Being over the hill is often associated with being over the age of forty, although that’s just another stereotype. I’ve mused about this topic before, but now that 2020 has arrived, it’s taken on a new significance: this year I turn forty years old.
I recently registered for a bike race, and was shocked to see myself in the Women’s 40-49 year old age bracket, as race age is determined by the last day of the race year, December 31. I’m still in my last year of my thirties, but a new decade has begun, even though my birthday isn’t until October 10. Until then, I’m in the trite position of contemplating my senescence and mortality, like every other person on the cusp of adulthood and middle-age (cue dismissive eye-roll). It must be a rite of passage to ponder your aging body as you approach what society, and some medical research, to be fair, has deemed the top of the hill.
Forty is the notorious hallmark for the gateway to middle-age. As I cling to being thirty-nine years old for ten more months, I question my own hullabaloo about turning the big four-o, as I can see the signs of its arrival already etched into the lines on my face. As a woman, I am also immensely aware of closing the window on the reproductive stage of my life. I feel like I’m sitting near the cusp of my physical peak, getting ready to go down. Clearly, it’s giving me some unpleasant feelings about getting older, especially in regards to athleticism.
This is not a rant about a woman getting older, however. That’s a story as old as time, and my intention is not to be a spoiled brat complaining that she’s getting older; yawn. I am genuinely curious about the psychology of aging. I am particularly interested in how athletes feel about physical aging, since so much of our identity is tied to our bodies. Many professional athletes have described having a hard time letting go of their prowess, of course.
I know I am lucky for every day I get to grow older; it beats the alternative, as they say. It’s an absolute treasure to have lived so long. I’m extremely grateful for the years I’ve been blessed with so far. All of the experiences, relationships, and knowledge I’ve gleaned made me who I am today. I’ve lived most of my life feeling like an eighteen year-old, physically speaking, but my looming birthday carries a weight I cannot ignore, and not simply for the societal emphasis it gets. As a lifelong athlete, I’ve built my life upon daily exercise, based upon a pure love of movement, and getting older presents the possibility of slowing down.
I am not afraid of getting older in and of itself, as I firmly believe people get more interesting as they age. There is something so inspiring about a ninety year old woman sharing stories from The Depression, or a one hundred year old sharing heroic stories from Pearl Harbor. Our elders are our guides in society, and deserve recognition for all of the wisdom they have cultivated in their storied lives. Everyone has a story to tell. I hope I’m fortunate enough to live so long to tell my tales, to be an esteemed sage.
I am especially inspired by our elders who continually break age barriers and expectations, running marathons in their eighties, mountain bike racing in their seventies, and swimming laps into their hundreds. I am equally inspired by my elders writing books, helping charities, and being amazing grandparents – there are plenty of activities besides sports that enrich someone. These are the idols I aspire to be like as time goes on; the ones who prove the old adage (ahem), Age is just a number.
What am I so afraid of then?
My greatest fear is not being able to feel the gravity of the hill – or feeling the gravity of the hill, depending upon how you look at it.
First, there’s the gravity of flowing downhill, and then there’s the gravity of climbing the hill of life, a cliche metaphor for aging. The former stokes a lust for life, while the latter challenges it. Though we all know we’ll age and die someday, it’s not until the footprints of age emerge on our lifepaths do we heed its gravity. I am starting to feel the gravity of the hill of aging; I can’t deny I’m entering a new stage of life. Though I may still feel young physically, knowing what lies ahead is humbling.
What worries me most is losing the gravity of the hill – the good hill, that is; the fun hill, the sweet flow of moving downhill. That scares me, and keeps me up at night as I watch the sands of my hourglass trickle near the half-way mark. I think any athlete feels this way when they evaluate their own mortality.
When we’re young, we don’t have to think much about aging, although we often do anyway. The gravity of age hasn’t hit us yet, and we are free to live with freedom and abandon, recovering quickly from injuries and setbacks. We progress in our given sports, getting good, and grow proud of our finesse. As we approach older age, and big birthdays that usher in new decades of our older lives, it’s only natural to reflect upon our health, lifestyle, and goals for the future. When you’ve spent your life centered around sports and physical pursuits, the prospect of losing your acumen in those realms is not only humbling, but disconcerting.
I’ve never really struggled with insomnia, but lately I’ve had a few restless nights, caught in the tunnel of aging anxiety. Ron and I only have so many more bikerides together, I fret. Only so many more snowboarding trips, so many more adventures in the mountains… I start panicking about running out of time. I visualize the number of rides left in our lives counting down, shrinking by the day. I think about aging loved ones and family, and all the memories I still long to create with them.
When you think you’re running out of time, any second spent idly is a second wasted, even if it’s the middle of the night. There’s an urgency to seize the day, enjoy it as much as you can, and fill your heart with as many memories as possible. I don’t take life’s blessings for granted, but even when you appreciate every day, time still goes by too fast. My husband Ron and I do a pretty decent job seizing the day, going riding and snowboarding as much as we can, and I still feel like there’s not enough time.
I remember being in my mid-thirties and consciously thinking to myself, I’m at my physical peak; I’m the best physical shape I’ll ever be. Appreciate this time. I did appreciate it, and still do. Gratitude doesn’t slow down the hands of time, though. Inevitably, time catches up with you. I appreciate all of the experiences that got me where I am today, the wisdom I have, the peace of mind (except about aging, obviously), but it still doesn’t make aging any gentler.
Aging isn’t easy no matter who you are, but is it emotionally harder on athletes?
Athlete or not, we all need our bodies to live a good life. We are nothing without our health. We all want to live independently, to move comfortably by our own volition. Whether reading a book, knitting a sweater, or running a race, we enjoy the world through our bodies, manifesting our dreams.
As athletes age, though, we face not only physical decline, but losing part of our identity; at least that’s how it feels to me. The threat of losing my ability to be outside doing what I love seems insurmountable. Feeling the gravity of moving downhill is exhilarating, breathing life into our veins. We cherish the feeling of a good day on the mountain or on the water; we chase the rush of flowing through a gnarly section with grace. The inherent challenges of the sports we do provide us not only with a sense of accomplishment, but happiness. Stoke and flow are popular buzzwords for good reason. Meaning of life stuff, as I often remark.
The deep-seated joy we get from doing our sports is like therapy – clarifying our minds, sharpening our skills, and leaving us with a contented sense of calm. The emotional benefits of exercising outdoors are grounding and powerful, but the fun part is what hooks most of us into a sport.
For most athletes I know, physical activity is simply part of who they are; it is more than just a hobby or sport, but part of their existence. They live and breathe their passions through physical movements, honing their craft over years of muscle-memory building experience. They are their sports. They’re often also happy, contented people. One of the main reasons I am so active, aside from feeling like I’m driven by a motor at times, is how amazing, even euphoric, it makes me feel. I’ve always been active, and I love how I feel during and after being physical. There’s also a spiritual aspect to it, as if being in a holy Land.
I love the intensity, rhythm, and focus of mountain biking; it’s my main love. The Santa Cruz Mountains are a dream for riding. I enjoy the feeling of freedom I get from trail running – powerful and independent, relying on my own two feet, no gear or interface between me and the Earth, except my shoes. I feel like I can seriously do anything when I’m in a solid running stride. Rock climbing, yoga, snowboarding, a little surfing and paddling have also been big interests over the years. I’m happy if I can just go for a walk through the forest, though. Being outside in nature is where I belong.
Living in Santa Cruz, California, there are plenty of active people living in our community; most notably, surfers and mountain-bikers, which makes sense given the waves and terrain. Weekend parking lots are full of trucks with bike and surf racks. West Cliff Drive teems with runners, walkers, bicycles, and sightseers from all walks of life. It’s a beautiful sight to see so many people out enjoying the incredible natural habitats we are lucky to live among. There are many towns like Santa Cruz across the world, full of active, outdoorsy people taking advantage of the gorgeous areas they live in. Whether it’s a mountain town, beach town, or valley town, if there’s a strong contingent of athletes living there, you’ll notice pretty quickly. It definitely keeps you inspired, and occasionally, accountable.
Perhaps just as important as the physicality of sports is the camaraderie and community we develop within those realms. It’s deeper than the stereotypical image associated with our sport; more than the clothes and brand names, more than pop-culture references from movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High or Vertical Limit. We experience bonding adventures, overcoming challenges only other athletes within our sport would understand. We share knowledge, gear advice, and time together doing what we love. There’s a lot of unspoken understanding and communication. If we don’t share our sport with someone directly on the trail or on the water, we most likely share our love for it online through social media or websites dedicated to our passions. I read the Comments section of many forums, and I usually learn something new from them. In this day and age, we are tied in many ways to the sports we love, and develop a sense of belonging from that relationship.
Our sports also become part of our identity, something we can label ourselves as with pride. When athletes are asked to describe themselves, we are quick to identify ourselves as mountain bikers, runners, soccer players. While ego can get involved with sports, and it’s okay to be competitive and proud, most fellow athletes I know are in it for the true love of it.
How can we maintain our connections to the sports we love as we get older? Aside from the established efforts of a healthy diet, exercise, and low stress, one piece of advice emphatically stands out lately:
Keep on moving.
That’s it. Just keep moving, as long as you’re able. I’ve heard this from more elders than I can remember, and succinct as it may be, it rings true.
I thought of this recently when I was snowboarding at Kirkwood, one of my favorite places on the planet. It was a super cold day, maybe 12℉ with wind chill at the top. I’m used to wintry weather, but I was feeling especially tired. I thought about the warm hotel room waiting for me, the hot tub, the comfortable bed to curl up in. It sounded so wonderful, and though lifts were turning for another hour or so, I considered stopping early. I took a short break and got some hot coffee, which always helps improve the situation.
Looking out on the windy, icy expanse outside, I got a gut-punch feeling to go back, like a push. Get out there. The memory of how fun it is to glide down a snowy mountain face is like nothing else, and powerful enough to motivate. It’s the same thing that happens every time it’s a uniquely cold Winter day. I went back out and got a few more runs, getting one of the best of the day.
Returning to the hotel room later that evening, and basking in the heavenly embrace of a perfectly heated hot tub, I appreciated it down to my chilly bones. Though not the coldest or hardest day I’ve had by any means, I reflected on how moments like these shape us into more resilient beings. Every time we are uncomfortable, cold, nervous, whining (especially whining), and otherwise reluctant, it is easier to just stay home and give up. It’s easier to find one of the many valid excuses not to subject yourself to freezing winds and blowing snow, and stay cuddled up in the hotel room nice and warm.
Every time we get outside, despite our complaints and minor discomforts, we persevere as more confident, and disciplined, athletes. We also streamline our habits and get the best gear possible to stay as comfortable as possible; we evolve, ideally, to become more efficient at withstanding any kind of weather. Think back to when you were a kid and first went skiing; you likely complained that it was cold, wet, and uncomfortable. If you kept at it, though, you soon got over those inconveniences and accepted them as part of the fun; you probably also found what clothing worked best to keep you warm.
As we get older, it may seem easier to just stay home and skip the discomfort, which is why that sage advice becomes more important: keep on moving. Especially when it’s cold, especially when it seems tempting to just stay in, keep on moving. Keep going outside. It’s always easier to stay comfortable, but we grow stronger when we make ourselves just a little bit uncomfortable, and then push through it. I’ve learned this lesson before in more challenging situations, but as I reflect on aging, it carries a lot more weight.
There’s another piece of advice I live by, that came to me years ago when I was being hard on myself and comparing myself to other athletes:
It’s not what; it’s that.
It’s not what you’re doing, it’s that you’re doing it at all.
It’s not what trail you’re riding; it’s that you’re riding.
It’s not about what boulder problem level you’re sessioning at the climbing gym, it’s that you’re climbing at all, that you came into the gym in the first place. You could have stayed home, but no, you chose to challenge yourself and move. You kept moving. You showed up to the trail, gear and all. It’s about honoring our efforts to show up and participate, which is often the hardest part.
It doesn’t really matter what level you’re at; it just matters that you’re doing something you love. While it’s wonderful to be talented at something, we can always find someone better than us, or someone we think we’re better than. It’s hard not to compare yourself to others, especially as an athlete. The mantra that, not what keeps things somewhat in perspective for me. Moreover, keep on moving.
May I be so blessed to live long into elderhood, for life is so unpredictable. Life is more than just peaks and valleys, stages and phases; it’s a vibrant, emanating force that drives us all to feel the gravity of the hill, to love deeply, to live courageously, to examine our short little lives for all they’re worth.
I don’t know if aging is any harder for athletes to cope with, but I do know life is sacred, and warrants our full attention. More importantly, it calls for reverence – for those who have lived before us, and for all of the experiences we have had in our own lives. The collective experience of humanity bonds us all, from zygote to ashes. Someday when I die, these words will evaporate into the universe. Until then, everyday is an opportunity to appreciate life, and that includes the gravity of a sweet downhill.
When I’m eighty years old, I don’t expect to be charging down the same trails I ride now, but if I can ride my bike even just a little bit, I think it would bring a smile to my face. When I’m ninety, I may not be snowboarding like I do now, but if I can get on a pair of skis and hit the hill, I’m going to do it. When I’m one hundred, I may not be running up and down hills through the forest, but if I can stroll through the Old-Growth Redwood Loop at Henry Cowell, I know that’d satisfy my soul.
When I’m old, I may not be winning mountain bike races anymore, but if I’m riding a bike at all, I’ll be stoked. If I can’t ride? Then by all means, put me on two wheels somehow and tow me around so I can feel the wind in my face. The gravity of the hill is what I need.