AGE IS JUST A NUMBER
Fiona Russell on how to keep fit at 50
It’s just a number.” “You’re fitter than most 25 years olds I know.” “50 is the new 40.” “If I still look half as good as you at 50 I’ll be delighted.”
I listened with growing impatience to every cliché and placatory argument, but the truth is I wanted to scream at everyone: “I’m deeply unhappy about being 50 years old. It’s how I feel and nothing you say will help.”
Normally an up-beat and out-going person, on May 15, 2018, aged a full half-century, I just wanted to hide and sob loudly.
Instead, I did what I usually try to do when I’m feeling low: dragged my heavy heart and mind up a hill. I chose Ben Lomond, which I admit is more than a hill, but I needed a few hours to think.
As I ran-hiked a rough trail to the summit at almost 1000m, my annoyance began to dissipate. I easily passed more than a dozen walkers, all younger. I hardly broke sweat as I scrambled the final rocky section of the mountain’s Ptarmigan route, then chose to run the full descent to sea-level. And I could choose to do so because I’m fit and strong enough.
On that day, I chose to swap despondency for determination. I resolved to pick a few 50th year running challenges. I signed up to my longest race, a 50k ultra; I entered my first Alpine running event, the 30k Gran Trail Courmayeur; and I picked out my first trail-based marathon, the Dramathon in the Scottish Highlands. I hoped to convince myself that being 50 was only a number and that I was capable of doing all kinds of events I’d never dared to tackle before.
Hitting the half-century
But I still felt old. At other decade markers, even at 40, little had seemed physically different. I was the same weight as when I was in my teens. I had plenty of energy, and I was still capable of achieving PBs.
But 50 is very different. It’s defining, mentally. Fifty is undeniably middle-aged. In fact, the chances are I’m past the point of my middle age. The next decades, however many I manage to live through, will be tougher because I’m older. I have an older body and mind and both will inevitably suffer reduced health and function.
Physically, too, the years just before and after the 50th birthday are cruel for many women. Just as my daughter left home for university two years previously – and I rejoiced in more freedoms – I was hit by the menopause juggernaut. I’ve suffered all manner of well-documented symptoms, including hot sweats, poor sleep, migraines, lethargy, irregular and heavy periods and forgetfulness.
I also believe the menopause is to blame for the sore and inflexible joints and cramps in my hands, shoulders, feet and calves that were so bad that they tore muscles. When I could no longer run, cycle, swim or hike hills without suffering cramps, I started hormone replacement therapy. The HRT has helped, but there’s no cure for fast depleting hormones. (I know men suffer reduced hormones, too, but the effect isn’t as marked.) On the days I exercised, I did so through a fog of lethargy and with many aches and pains.
And then it happened… I welcomed a sudden shift in my outlook. Aged 50 and a month, I took second place overall in a 12km trail running race. It wasn’t even an age group podium – and it felt all the more amazing for that reason.
A month later, I podiumed again. This time in the Gran Trail Courmayeur and if I hadn’t got lost in the last few kilometres when I ran out of waymarkers, I would have been second. It was an age group result, but overall I was ninth.
During the same trip to the Alps, I ran the first stage of the Tour du Mont Blanc route, which included almost 1600m of ascent over 27km. I ticked off a number of tough running traverses above the French town of Chamonix.
I’ve also embarked on a training programme for a 50k race and run the furthest accumulated total mileage of any training programme in my life. I’ve joined a local hill running club that had long intimidated me and, while my fears of young and speedy whippet types have been realised, I’m still out there doing tough weekly sessions.
I’m good to myself as well. I take more recovery days and find I enjoy a weights-based circuits class far more than I had imagined.
I’m now proud of being 50, rather than being sad or frustrated. I feel more confident in my ability to run harder and longer races. I still don’t believe 50 is just a number, nor that 50 is the new 40. But I do believe I’m doing well for my age and that there’s a lot more to look forward to.
Next time: The over-50s runners defying their age.
Fiona is never happier than when running, walking or cycling in the Scottish mountains