I tried not to do the math. I knew if I added up the weight on the bar my brain would tell me I couldn’t do it and I’d fail. I ducked under the barbell and positioned it on my shoulders. It was heavy. I closed my eyes, stood tall, and pretended to have confidence. I pretended that the bar pushing hard against my skin wasn’t intimidating the hell out of me.
I took a deep breath and held it. “Chest up!” My coach barked, and I obeyed. I lowered my body down to the bottom of the squat. This was it. I visualized standing up with the bar, lifting it and my body back to full height, full extension.
“You’ve got this!”
I’ve got this.
My quads lit up and my knees caved and quavered. Doubt crept in – who am I kidding? Doubt never left – and I pushed and I struggled and it was hard, so hard, but a heartbeat later, I was done. The barbell was back on the rack. I did it. My coach clapped me on the back and I felt strong.
I grew up living the life of an only child because my siblings were adults by the time I was born. My mom and I lived in a rented farmhouse far from any neighbors, so I often asked mom to play with me. She’d occasionally give a halfhearted effort, but her back ached, she was tired, and she couldn’t move well. She told me her body was too old for play. She was 36 when I was born.
I was just a month shy of my 35th birthday when old happened to me. I was sitting on the floor playing with my brand new son when the ringing phone called me to the kitchen. I rolled onto my side and tried to get up, but I couldn’t. My legs wouldn’t cooperate. My knees wobbled and buckled and refused to support my weight. The phone continued to beckon and I started to sweat. What was wrong with me? The ringing eventually stopped and I flopped back onto the floor, broken and defeated. I had reached that “magical” age right on time: I was old. By 35 I’d be too old to play with my son.
I looked over at his round little face and knew I couldn’t go down without a fight.
The next day I downloaded the Couch to 5K app to my phone. It promised to take an unfit, sedentary non-runner like myself and lead her gently and slowly into the world of running via run/walk intervals. I was skeptical. Sweating was gross and I didn’t even own tennis shoes. But I was going to try.
I put on some sweats and my comfiest shoes. My iPhone gave me my marching orders: 30 seconds of running, 90 seconds of walking, repeat, repeat, repeat. I trotted up and down the sidewalks in front of my house, panting and heaving the whole way. My knees hurt. I was sweating. My chest felt heavy. But I kept going. I didn’t exactly feel good when I was done, but I didn’t feel defeated. I did it again a few days later, and again and again. I ran my first 5K race that November. I didn’t shatter any speed records – I was one of the last finishers – but I started to feel like maybe I could push old away for a few more years.
The 5K turned into another and then another, then a half marathon. I started lifting heavy weights and continually amazed myself with how much I could do and how well I could move. But there was always a new distance to reach, a new time to beat, a new weight to lift. Eventually the miles I logged turned into marathons and beyond. I spent six hours running in circles on a track while relentless the summer sun beat down on me. I got stung by a bee halfway through a 31 mile race and ran the final 17 miles with a swollen eyelid. I started a streak of running every day, rain or shine or snow or sickness. Not a day goes by that I don’t hit the track or the gym or the trail, or sometimes all three. Not a day goes by where I’m not chasing a new personal best, or trying to lift a heavier weight, or looking over my shoulder and wondering whether old is going to catch up to me and bring it all crashing down.
I’m 39 now and I don’t feel like I’m at the end of my game. In fact, I feel like I’m just getting started. I easily keep up with my son at the park and on the playground. I don’t tire until he’s worn out. I feel compelled to try new things: rock climbing? I’m down for that. A day hike? I’m in. Ice skating, rucking, obstacle racing, paddle boarding, yes, yes, yes, yes. Bring it on, all of it. I can’t say no, but not because I’m indestructible. Quite the opposite: it’s because I’m afraid. I’m afraid that if I stop to catch my breath, old will catch up with me.
And then what happens? What if I’m not strong enough to outrun it this time?