Exercise: Knowing When to Say When

“I said to myself, ‘You can do this.’ The hill replied, ‘Oh no you can’t.’”

By Dave Riley

I CAN’T PINPOINT THE DATE, but I believe it was sometime in my early forties, or thirty-five or forty years ago, that I took up jogging. My daughter, a student at the time who has since enjoyed a successful career as a physical therapist, was an avid runner. Avid but not bat-eyed crazy, if you can understand the distinction. How avid? Not too many years later she would complete several marathons. My son ran as well. When he was about thirty, he trained very hard for months to run the L.A. Marathon.   He completed all 26.2 miles, although Mrs. R., who was there at the finish line, said he professed he would never, ever do that again. But both son and daughter remain in excellent physical condition.

Sometime in the early ‘nineties, my daughter challenged me to run the Presidio Ten in San Francisco. It’s a beautiful ten-mile course starting inside the Presidio of San Francisco, going down to Crissy Field, up to the Golden Gate Bridge, across to Marin County, then making a u-turn and coming back to the Presidio.

“No way!” I said.

“Way!” she replied.

By a few nanoseconds, I achieved a glacially slow average of ten minutes per mile.

By a few nanoseconds, I bettered a glacially slow average of ten minutes per mile.

She won out. I took to training, and eventually we did the ten-mile distance together. My goal was extremely modest: to finish in an average time of less than ten minutes per mile. I succeeded, if only by a few nanoseconds. Two years later I ran it again.

Without going into my detailed clinical history, over the next fifteen years or so I was beset by two significant medical events that ended up sapping my strength. The first limited my running to five-Ks and the like, and the second made me morph from a jogger into a walker and eventually a daily swimmer.

LAST THURSDAY, mainly to get a change of pace from swimming, I tried a walk of not quite three miles. That’s not quite the piece of cake that it may sound like. We live in a community with some severe hills — really severe. I got up the first one just fine, went another mile-plus, then approached the second one.

I said to myself, “You can do this.”

The hill replied, “Oh no you can’t.”

I was almost to the top when I stopped, wrapped my arms around a thick cement light pole, and felt my legs turn to jelly. Slowly I slid down the pole to the ground and flattened out most ungraciously, where I lay for a minute or more.

“Do you need help?” a lady asked.

I felt like replying, “No, I belong to an occult religion, and every day at noon we get in this silly position on a sidewalk to say our midday prayers.” But instead I replied, “I think I do.”

Then a man came along, and between them they got me sitting up. A lady in a car stopped and said she would call 9-1-1.

“No!” I screamed. That would just bring a fire engine, sirens blazing, and an ambulance. Too late. She had already called.

There are more than 17,000 seniors in our community, so you can easily understand why several times almost every day, we hear the wailing of emergency vehicles racing to our enclave. The local joke is that if you’re a stranger to the area and can’t find our gate, just follow the sirens.

Soon the EMTs arrived and gave me a bunch of tests, which came back quite normal.  But then the lead guy said he wanted me to go to the ER. “Their equipment is much better than ours,” he said. “You really should let a doctor check you out.”

After a bit of dickering back and forth, I said “What if I insist that I just go home?” Home, by the way, was about four-hundred yards away.

“We can’t stop you,” he said, “but we’re the professionals and we think you should see a doctor.”

Meanwhile Mrs. R. had arrived, and knowing how long a quick visit to the ER can last, I asked her to go home and bring back my Kindle and a PB&J.

SO OFF WE WENT TO THE ER. I felt fine, but of course I was flat on my back so I really didn’t know just how well, or how poorly, I was. The ER staff gave me an EKG and other tests, and the doctor poked me repeatedly and asked an interminable number of questions, all of which enabled the doctor to pronounce me fit to leave. Two hours and $265 in co-pays later ($65 for the ER, $200 for the ambulance), and after a nurse complimented me on my “great tan,” I went home, promising I would give up hills, return to my swimming regimen and make an appointment with my regular physician.

There’s a lesson in here for seniors of a certain temperament. They, or more accurately we, are the ones who refuse to accept the reality of certain changes in our physical condition. We think we can run the same distances, climb the same hills, and do it in the same time that we used to. There are people in our community in their eighties who successfully complete marathons and triathalons. God love ‘em, but I’m not one of them.

As for the rest of us, accepting our physical limitations as we age is not the same as quitting. Rather, it can be the better part of wisdom.

Dave Riley

About Dave Riley

Growing Old Isn’t For Sissies is about aging. It’s stories of how some older people achieve remarkable successes, how some people make the lives of others better, and how all seniors have hurdles to face — maladies, loss of loved ones and more.