Decline

My coworker Bob called them chapter breaks—those steps in our fitness level that we periodically tumble down, never to return. I noticed this first in my thirties. I lined up a string of successes, personal records in a couple of races—a 10K and a ten-mile—a respectable marathon time, twenty-third overall in a thirty-three-story stair climb race. When my knee started hurting, I saw it as a hiccup.

Years later, after physical therapy, after surgery, after infants, I started running again. Muscle memory—I quickly regained my fitness, but never my speed. I lost a full minute per mile off my pace. I spent the next ten years chasing those old PRs, constantly injured from pushing too hard.

~~ Chapter breaks ~~

I could write about them all, maybe four obvious ones over the years, but I’ve done that before. This one is different. In the past, these steps down followed an obvious break in exercise—usually an injury, but sometimes just changing priorities. This time, I’m watching it happen even as I exercise daily.

Four years ago, Eli joined a mountain bike team for teenagers. During his first season, several coaches suggested I serve as one of the coaches the following year. After a few weeks of consideration, I decided to give it a try. My primary concern was injury. Not the sore-knee-overuse type of injury, but broken bones and torn whatever. As a guy in his late fifties, I lack the elasticity I enjoyed during my twenties through forties. Mountain biking is a rough sport. If you stay on your bike, the worst you should expect is modest lacerations from plunging through a thorn bush hanging across the trail, or if you’re unlucky, a bear-trap bite on your shin.* My personal safety plan when I signed up to coach was “stay on the effing bike!”

My safety plan worked well. For those first two seasons, I only crashed hard twice, well hard enough to result in some moderate injuries. Disruptive, yes, but no broken bones, no torn ligaments or tendons.

This year is ridiculous. With my flagging fitness, every time I ride now, I push myself to breathlessness. When I get tired, I get sloppy. I can’t count how many times I’ve fallen this year while riding simple obstacles. Yesterday, I got hung up in a stretch of rocks. I tried to get my foot down, but I was too slow. I floppy over onto my side. One of the other coaches just finished a lecture about the prevalence of rattlesnakes where we rode. I count myself lucky that I didn’t land on one. Even more surprising, I didn’t land on a rock.

Last week I fell flat on my back and landed on my tailbone. Again, thankfully, no rocks. A few days before that I fell off a low bridge and flew head first into the deep grass lining the trail. Eli’s concerned. “Dad, you gotta stop falling. You’re going to get hurt.” He’s right. Any of these crashes could be season enders, life changers. A sharp rock where my elbow or hip hits the ground will seriously mess me up. Older riders like me heal poorly. A smashed elbow might never be the same.

Later today, I’m riding with Eli and Sophie. Sophie is a novice. My plan is to stay with her while Eli zips ahead. I’ll ride a relaxed pace and just enjoy myself. On Friday after work, the temperature hung at ninety-four degrees. I had a frustrating day and needed to blow out some negative energy. I drove to a shaded section of the park and ran for forty minutes. Because of the heat, I couldn’t push myself, I avoided raising my pulse very high. I jogged a relaxed pace—a really slow pace—and I loved every second of it. Running for the sake of running, not trying to race the clock.

I’ve decided that this is my last year of coaching. Quietly, I’ve been looking forward to this year. I turn sixty in October. I’ve secretly been applauding myself for continuing to mountain bike three times a week at this advancing age. But I’m learning—in my stubbornly deliberate manner—that trying to exercise at someone else’s pace is causing me stress, risking injury. I’m always out of breath and worried that I’m not moving fast enough for everyone else. I’m done fighting this chapter break, this decline. At an age where many of my peers are retiring from their jobs, I’m trying to lead a group of teenagers ripping through the woods on their mountain bikes. It’s no wonder I can’t keep up.

While I’m no where near ready to retire from the workforce, I’ve put in my notice. It’s time to retire from coaching.

* Bear-trap: When a rider puts inadvertent downward pressure on a pedal at the top of its arc, the pedals may spin backwards at a high velocity, make a full circle and slam into the rider’s shin.

32 thoughts on “Decline

  1. With age comes wisdom. We’ll, maybe. I can introduce you to some nice rail trails. Not as exciting, but you might live long enough to see your grandkids.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m not really betting on grandchildren, but point taken. I keep meaning to ride the one that starts by Three Hogs BBQ but I always forget. Katie told me that you rode that one that cuts down from Pittsburgh. How was that?

      Like

  2. Glad to hear you’re dialing back but realize that is a very hard decision. I’ve toggled between different activities when I’ve got an injury and setback and can relate some; I would have asked or suggested yoga but I’m sure you’ve gone there and it likely doesn’t satisfy the cardio-slash-outdoor thrill at all. I’m digging on forms of exercise though that have mental and emotional benefits; I’m guessing mountain biking offers that for you too, possibly jogging. That’s where I really connect with exercise, and as a former drinker of course it helps supply the dopamine and other adrenaline rushes I crave. Cool to get Sophie into it too, I love that. My daughter Lily and I are going to train for some PCT section hiking trips in the future hopefully. Here’s to staying on the proverbial bike, my man…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I went through a two year yoga phase during that time I wasn’t running. I was pretty into it. Now I just see it as a hard tortuous thing to do. Yes, running remains my first exercise love although I think I need to reclassify it as jogging now. Through hiking is appealing to me. None of my family members seem very interested though.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. “to lead a group of teenagers ripping through the woods on their mountain bikes.” I’ve said it many times now but I’m so impressed by all that you do. It’s maybe not comforting, but I think continuing to be (very) active even while taking it a little bit slower is still a world away from where many (if not most?) people are, at any age.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, ‘ripping through the woods’ might be a bit of an exaggeration. Eli’s group, who I don’t ride with, really fly. My group does something a bit faster than a mosey. I think I’ve gotten to the point where mosey is my speed. Intellectually, I can say, wow, it’s amazing that I’m still mountain biking, but it’s still a bitter pill to pull back.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This post makes me wonder if joy just doesn’t cut it for everyone. It seems that pride seems to gets minced up in the chain if you do or don’t keep pushing yourself.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think I’d put myself on the cusp of joy and pride. I have a long history of beating myself up over decline. I think it’s finally occurred to me that it’s beyond my control and I should just enjoy what I’m doing. I felt that way on my ride with my kids today… until I crashed.

      Like

      • It’s a tough thing. Your post prompted me to think about my older clients and what might make them happy. It’s so variable. But one common theme: a refusal to give in prematurely or perhaps I could say accepting decline as part of the challenge. I will no doubt continue to think about this, especially as I am already on the ride myself.
        “Keep on keeping on” Jeff
        (quoting a paint brand slogan here, possibly devised by the Octogenarian Advertising Agency of Australia).
        Cheers
        DD

        Liked by 1 person

      • I do Home and Community Care, mainly looking after elderly in their home. And it struck me how appropriate it was that I forgot the s on the word keep in that slogan. But I like the erroneous version anyway.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. One of my best riding buddies is about 64. He dials it back on any jumps/drops/air time, but will ride anything tech, and only started riding in his mid fifties. Riding with him is a good reminder that fast isn’t always better (though he’ll school me in that department too) but that pacing is key to longevity. If you haven’t seen the Patagonia video on North Shore Betty (73! and still riding some of North Vancouver’s original gnar), give it a watch (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9iuSVnfisI); definitely makes me think that with age comes caution, but not necessarily limitation. And maybe don’t need to be coaching teenagers…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Going out with my kids today was fun and relaxing (they are both teenagers, but my daughter set the pace and she’s a newbie). Unfortunately I fell today too. I don’t know what my problem is. I’m crashing almost every time I ride lately. Does your 64 yo friend stay on his bike? Every time I fall and don’t get hurt, I feel like I dodged a bullet (although that tailbone thing is still bugging me). I really need to figure out how to not crash. The stuff I’m messing up on is all easily ridable.

      Liked by 1 person

    • So I watched the video. Your trails are simply gorgeous. I love to ride some of those. But do they ALL have elevated skinnies? That might be a dealbreaker for me. Betty’s laundry list of injuries – I broke this and that and these, etc is something I’d like to avoid. I know it’s part of the sport, but at this point I’m pretty risk adverse. Yes, I’m ready to be done with coaching and ride trails I want to ride at my own pace. I really enjoyed one of the trails we rode today that was over my head last time I was there.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sometimes I just have seasons where I’m crashy.. And then next season it’s better. No rhyme or reason for it, but extremely frustrating.
        And the trails in North Vancouver claim to be the origins of mountain biking, and kind characteristic of that area (riders in the UK refer to all trail woodwork as “north shores”). There isn’t as much woodwork in Whistler or Squamish or Pemberton. They’re kind of deal breakers for me too, as I’ve had a couple bad crashes falling off skinnies.
        My 64 yo friend is pretty good at staying on his bike. Though he had a wicked crash on a nothing section a few years ago and nearly died. Still waiting for 8 teeth to be replaced from that one, so he’s riding more carefully and with a full face helmet these days. A lot of ppl I know are riding more with full faces..

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow, Jeff! Cheering for you so hard. Before I knew I was a writer, I put everything I had into running, and I recognize your passion and drive. How beautiful this practice is: “every time I ride now, I push myself to breathlessness,” and yet, even more so, your decision (and a great gift to Sophie, no doubt, to hang back and enjoy. I don’t have the brain space right now to explain all the other levels that I think this is so awesome, so I will just tell you: hard clapping emoji.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “every time I ride now, I push myself to breathlessness,” There are two ways to read this. First where breathlessness is the goal. For years as a runner and spin instructor, turning every workout into a memorable *event* is what I strived for. I look at breathlessness now as a negative. I simply can’t sustain that anymore. It’s my clue that I’m pushing too far. Shameless book promotion: My book “Bad Ass…” is a collection of essays from when I was truly running obsessed. The writing is worse than what I’m capable of now, and I’ve been accused of putting forth a snobby runner attitude, but I think there is some interesting stuff in there for someone who sees running as something more than a way to get fit.

      Like

      • It’s interesting, I didn’t catch any of that angle through my lens, possibly because you’ve made it so clear, since I’ve been reading you, that you are interested in something more than the “event” of the run. Funny, how I read in this your acknowledgment of some transcendent potential after the breath is gone, and somehow what came through in your post is a reminder of how certain (new) limits can magnify this. Probably I put some of my own stuff in there, as any reader will. But anyway, I great post!

        Like

  7. Wow, I can’t believe it’s been four years! It feels like just yesterday you were debating on coaching or not. Time flies! I like the idea of chapter breaks. I feel like I am on one too. I chased my times, I chased my weekly mileage until I was just so unhappy. I ran through so many injuries. These days I spend my time doing what you did on Friday. I go slow and if I feel like walking, I walk. I don’t feel the need to put the kind of pressure I was putting on myself before. I’m excited to start another chapter, but it’s not going to look like a previous chapter in my book. Good luck to you in your next fitness chapter as well, whatever that may be. I don’t blame you though – I would be afraid of injury too!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I looked at the post I wrote. It was after the first season so it’s more like three years. Not as ancient history as I thought. My biggest problem with my plan is I need to find someone to ride with. Sophie will only be around a few more weeks. I’d ask at the bike shop if there were any other geezers, but they’d laugh at me.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. You’re much braver than I am for even trying it! I can get injured walking on a flat surface 🤦🏼‍♀️
    I don’t like when my body won’t do what I want it to do, so I understand the frustration of the decline. It usually takes me a while to accept it.

    If you’re not enjoying the activity, it’s definitely time to do something different!

    I’m impressed with all the comments here. Everyone is so athletic. A mountain hike, on a trail😉, is about as strenuous as I get.

    Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s