We Are the Canaries in This Coal Mine

My father did not ride bikes as an adult. He quit playing soccer in his early 30s. He didn’t jog or lift weights. He just worked. He had aches and pains, as many of us do when we get a little older, but they were relatively minor. He lived to 80, despite Parkinson’s disease and some heart trouble.

I, by contrast, have never stopped thrashing myself physically in all the myriad ways I can think of, bikes (and crashes), running, soccer, climbing, skiing, plus two straight-ahead fitness workouts per week over the last decade. I’ve injured toes, ankles, Achilles, calves, knees, IT bands, lower back, both shoulders, both hands, ribs, and an elbow.

There is a certain kind of privilege embodied in these injuries. Where my father felt he had to work to deliver our family to some sort of middle-class stability, I’ve been able to shift my gaze toward more rewarding pursuits, like periodic trips to the ER and an intimate familiarity with the various implements of physical therapy.

I guess I know a few 80-year-olds who ride bikes, but they are not a demographic. They’re the bit of the bell curve on the right that vanishes into the X-axis. That makes me, and my generation, and, I suspect, a lot of you, the canaries in this particular coal mine. Will we really be better for all our physical striving? Or will we wash up on the shore of our twilight years unable to walk and/or button a shirt?

Does the canary live or die in this version of the story?

Maybe you’re like me, you feel there really is no other choice. Sitting still isn’t an option. Letting go of the things you love feels irrational, bordering on suicidal. You’ve finished your Kool-Aid and circled back through the line for another cup. Who’s in charge of this particular cult anyway?

The flipside of all this raging against the dying of the light is the insipid and persistent conversational thread that encompasses all the aches, pains and self-doubt they inspire. How many times a week do I give a rundown of my current maladies to my huffing puffing companions?

As usual, I suspect I’m doing it wrong, complaining all the time about the ways my body is letting me down, about the damage I’ve accrued. I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve lost something that some combination of rest, rehab, nutrition and training will get me back. But maybe, just maybe, this is as good as it gets. Maybe I’m living in a bonus round I didn’t know existed.

Because no one did.

It’s worth noting that many of the canaries who lead the way down dark, narrow passages beneath the ground lived to sing their songs in sunlight once more. They lead the way to rich seams of undiscovered energy.

Here’s what I can tell you. The last time I had a physical the doctor marveled at the amount of bodily trauma in my chart, and listening to her reading down the list gave me pause. But then she said my heart rate was unparalleled in my age bracket, my blood pressure perfect, my charts immaculate. She literally said, “Try not to hurt yourself, but whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.”

My dentist told me, just last week, that years of exercise had made my teeth harder, and they were, despite being a bit crooked and under-flossed, just about perfect.

We who have stuck to this thing we do for decade after decade also know that it is the most potent anti-depressant on the market. It is sunlight. It keeps us alive.

So I guess I’ll press onward in the darkness, knowing you’re with me. This is the privilege my father bequeathed to me, and we’ll see what it’s worth. An extra year above ground? A happier, more fulfilled existence? A few good laughs?

All priceless.

Join the conversation
  1. PK says

    I understand that the typical result of so much cardio expercise is a major heart attack. Sometimes you can be brought back to a enjoyable quality of life, sometimes you become only a memory for those who loved you. The end of this ride is not something I look forward to (most days) but it’s something I do my best to accept. If we must suffer a catostrophic break down during the bicycle ride that is life, I would rather finish up with a quick ride on the cardiac sag wagon than walk my bike ten miles to a malignant finish.

  2. khal spencer says

    When I herniated a disk in my lower back in my early fifties, my MD marveled that I was walking around a couple days later, albeit with a walking staff and a permanent grimace. He said most people who had trashed a disk would be on their backs but my mountain biking made my back muscles pretty strong and that saved my ass. Likewise with the low blood pressure, rest pulse, and overall fitness.

    I turn 70 in a few months. Health is only one reason why I ride. The main reason is I still love it or as that joke went, “I ride my bike to ride my bike”. Besides, as far as the Grim Reaper, the way I look at it, I’m just as likely to be hit by a car while on my bike or motorcycle as to die of ancientness.

  3. alanm9 says

    I WILL break Robert Marchand’s hour record. The only question is which one?

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