The Unconventional View

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By Gary Cattarin

Elvis has been in my head the last few days. Not that Elvis, but the other one, the important one, the Costello one, mostly as a result of the cool box set given by Dearest Spouse this Christmas. Specifically in the last few days it’s been The Angels Wanna’ Wear My Red Shoes, and as of Thursday, they’ve got ‘em. The bright red Puma Ignites, which served so well in the recent holiday season (nothing says Christmas better than cruising the city in that red winter running top, white gloves, Santa cap, and…yes, those bright red shoes) have been retired, relegated to that great shoe bin in the sky, where if the angels want ‘em, they can have ‘em, and yes, they can wear ‘em.

Angels can do that; they don’t get injured, but I do. So along with all the other things OCD that occupy my days, my mileage tracking spreadsheet, accounting for every workout for the last eleven years, automatically tracks the mileage on each pair of shoes. Five hundred miles and they’re out. It’s all about avoiding injury, staying healthy, staying alive, and it gets tougher every year. Worn shoes are just one of the risks in the twisted path we weave between the hazards of daily training when the body is of the age where many have given up on it.

It’s been a solid month since Yours Truly last checked in. I don’t burn your time when there isn’t excitement on the marquee. Certainly there have been plenty of odd topics, like this quasi-winter’s absurd weather (brought to you courtesy of the Climate Deniers of America), fun running events locally (often involving donuts, pizza, beer, guacamole, or a combination thereof) and in the running world in general (nothing beats a gang of running nerds gathered to watch the Olympic Trials marathon on a big screen – I love my people!), but primarily it’s been a Month of Sundays, a time to back off and work to get a bit healthier for the coming racing season. My version of backing off is, of course, a bit different from that of the general public.

A few days ago I received an invitation to from a writer seeking to pen a profile of a fifty-plus area athlete who’d met with reasonable competitive success. Admitting to resembling the profile, I sat down with Jan and her husband Peter. Jan, an athlete herself who has profiled athletes of far greater caliber than I (and with a book on childhood obesity to her name to boot cited by none other than Michelle Obama), combined with Peter, an exercise physiologist who’s seen the gamut of human activity levels from athlete to slug, to bring an interesting slant to our discussion. We chatted at length about the realities of staying active and fit while aging, and of the public’s perception of normal compared to that of an athlete.

All of this begs the question: What is normal? What is healthy? What should one’s goals realistically be when barreling headlong toward the mid-fifties (not there yet, but as Meg Ryan said of forty in When Harry Met Sally, “It’s out there!”)? You can listen to the conventional view, but I highly recommend against it. Then again, are my own expectations realistic?

The conventional view is a pathetic commercial pitching overpriced low-dose aspirin (you can buy the cheap generic ones and split them for about a tenth of the cost) where a fiftyish man jogs by and is then seen writhing on the ground having a heart attack. Pleasant. And what a message! Exercise will kill you, take a pill.

The conventional view is that during the recent snowstorm in Washington DC, a spokesman for the Prince George’s County Maryland Fire/EMS Department urged people over fifty and those with heart conditions to get someone else to do their snow shoveling. You’ve got a heart condition? That’s good advice. But you’re merely over fifty? Are you kidding? Pick up a shovel! But Peter (remember Peter, the exercise physiologist?) quickly inserted into the conversation the reality that ninety percent of the public does nothing to better their state of health. He sees the public, he would know. And if you haven’t picked up that shovel before, well, perhaps it might just kill you to do so when a blizzard has landed on your front lawn. But you’ve got to start somewhere, right?

The conventional view is this year’s edition of the Corporate Wellness Program, brought to you by Mighty Employer and Big Health Insurance Company, in a well-meaning but vain attempt to goad people into starting somewhere. I’ve opined on the absurdity of these programs before. Sure, I recognize the need, but the methods are ineffective and just plain silly. How silly? Well, I’m glad you asked, because this year’s redesigned program is worthy of a few pot shots, and in anticipation of taking those shots, I took a few screen shots. So let’s have some fun at the expense of naïve web copywriters, then get back to the topic at hand. Let’s get started!

Oh, I can’t wait. The excitement is killing me. Or perhaps it’s just lack of exercise? Or perhaps it’s the pages upon pages upon pages of blather that I must click through (the stress will kill me soon enough, or at least the carpal tunnel), and periodically I’m challenged with toughies like this one:

I’ve left out the fine print, but each of these is described in detail, and trust me, they’re not terribly challenging. My favorite is the last one, “Inconvenient path”, which suggests finding the longest possible route from your car, to the bathroom, and so on. Longest possible route? Gee, I hope my employer will support this, because I’d suggest getting to my office via the Appalachian Trail. Oh, but wait…the fine print…the challenge is for a mere five days. *sigh*

On we go on our journey. I started this column talking about injury prevention, so it was great to see the program try to educate me on the topic. And you know what? I go this one wrong!

Silly me. In my book, none of these are injuries. An injury means you broke something, tore something, well, you injured it. And not only are these not injuries, three out of four aren’t even common. I sure hope, other than in that pathetic aspirin commercial, heart attacks aren’t that common Just imagine, “In last weekend’s marathon, five thousand ran, six hundred went down with heart attacks!” So I picked dehydration, and guess what? Wrong! It’s all of the above! This makes the fact that this next panel popped up immediately afterward even more special:

Yes, that’s right folks, right after warning you that heart attacks are a dime a dozen, they want to start you off doing high-intensity intervals. Now, that sounds like a great idea.

The insanity continued at length, including gems like this one:

…to which I was oh-so-tempted to just say no, and it’s worth noting that on many of these questions, they’d immediately ask you on the next page, “So, did you improve your diet?” as if those six months had magically passed in the tragically long time it took their web server to deliver the next pearl of wisdom. And finally, I’ll leave you with this one:

…which is sort of like saying, “Do you think you’ll get healthier if you keep smoking meth?” If you didn’t choose option two, let’s face it, you should return your Adult Card and just give up now.

All fun aside, these kinds of programs think they are dead serious and shine a frightful bright light into the conventional view of health, exercise, and general fitness. And it’s not pretty. So who am I to complain that my knees get sore, I feel achy and stiff, I’m not as strong on things like squats as I was years ago, and so on. Sure, I complain, and then I go out and run to the next town and back.

Who I am is someone who doesn’t accept the conventional view. And while I don’t think that others need go to the extremes that I and some of my convoluted friends do, I’d suggest that most of them shouldn’t be accepting the conventional view either.

Inspired after the interview, thinking about aging and staying fit, I extended my planned fourteen miler to twenty-one, and while I faded a bit late in the run (not unexpected having eaten a grand total of two bagels all day, I brought no supplies intending to train the body to compensate), I still managed a better pace than any of my long runs leading up to last fall’s Mohawk Hudson romp. Apparently I’m not dead yet, no matter what the conventional view would like me to believe.

So while I can’t really expect aged joints to stop feeling aged, and I can’t expect to burn tar off the roads like a thirty-something, there’s really no reason not to hold on to expectations of continued competitiveness, at least for the time being. I’ll keep rotating my shoes, keep reminding myself to pop in a few squats and stretches between gym outings, and keep doing whatever I can to keep moving, like spending the last day in a fit of renewed vigor planning racing for the coming season.

That’s not the conventional approach by any means. C’mon along for the ride. We’ve got donuts.

This originally appeared on Gary’s blog, The Second Lap. Follow it closely to keep up with Gary’s musings. It’s worth it!

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