What Are We Running From So Hard Already? How to Ride Your Inner Dragon
Back in early August (which seems ever so far away now that we are expecting snow soon here in Denver), Medium writer Paul Flannery wrote a piece on what he called “Extreme Athleticism:”
Extreme Athleticism Is the New Midlife Crisis
People in middle age are flocking in record numbers to intense workouts and challenging races. What are they chasing?
This is the top quote, which I rather liked:
…extreme fitness is less about being young again and more about building yourself up for the years ahead. In other words, getting better at getting older.
Medium recently did a piece on the young, and included in that were articles from the other end of the spectrum. That, at least by virtue of my accumulation of years, is closer to where I sit.
So, as I am by now “older,” perhaps I’m in a position to speak to some of this. Dunno. Have a few thoughts. For What It’s Worth, anyway.
There have been a number of Medium pieces discussing the relative horrors of turning thirty. One writer (to my great amusement, okay, I admit it) referred to approaching thirty as her “advancing age.”
It’s not my intention to make fun of this.
Well, okay, a little.
People really do have these terrors as they embrace the reality of encroaching time. I remember turning fifty, then sixty as being somewhat of a shock. Now I’m mildly amused when a review of the date on my passport reminds me that yeah, I really am almost 66.
Well shit. Really?
Yep. Here we are. Deal with it already.
In his excellent article Flannery primarily discusses those in their forties or thereabouts. People who had taken up endurance running or triathalons or the like. Anyone who follows sports (and Flannery does as he covers the NBA) is likely aware of the demographic shifts. In addition, women have turned out to be better than men in a number of endurance categories.
Including it seems, as we age. Outside Online regularly produces pieces about the so-called aging athlete, how women of all ages are showing up in increasing numbers in endurance sports.
Really, all we have to do is look to tennis to see what’s changing about aging. In other sports, such as football, we’re seeing more and more elite athletes last longer. The forty-something quarterback is no longer an anomaly.
But this isn’t about elite athletes. This is about us, and why so many of us who are reaching our middle years feel the need for speed. To beat the crap out of our bodies in pursuit of what, exactly? Or perhaps more directly, what are we running from?
What are we/they trying to prove? And to whom? Does anyone really care except for us? What are we in such denial about?
I don’t suppose in any way that this is all of us. Or am I saying don’t do it. I am simply posing a question here.
For a good part of my middle years from thirty to sixty I felt the need to prove myself to (the world? Somebody?) that I had a right to have been born. Hardly alone in this. Troubled parents have a way of cascading their fecal matter on their kids, so that we end up questioning our right to exist. I’ve chronicled my body image struggles elsewhere, but suffice it to say that particular freight train didn’t slow down until I got close to sixty.
That’s a lot of wasted time being consumed by meaningless issues. Not that good things didn’t happen. They did. But I studied the intimate architecture of too many toilet bowls when I might otherwise have been exploring Alberta by horse. Such are our paths.
I’ve had my share of years being driven by internal monsters.
Flannery talks about a “dark place,” which is what some folks experience at mid-life. He himself deals with depression. As I dealt with decades of eating disorders I can relate. Your dark place isn’t a fleeting time. It is you. Or at least it has taken up bandwidth in your emotional geography. For many of us that dark place didn’t just show up at mid-life. It’s been there all along.
Let’s be clear. Something very important lives and breathes in our dark places. Stay with me here.
For Flannery and others, and I would include myself here, finding expression later in life (or at any point) through sports can feel like one way to keep the dragons at bay. Smaug stays sleeping in the castle under his gold as long as we are fully engaged. So we believe.
Challenging sports can do that. You plan, you train like a banshee, you compete. Rinse, wash, repeat. This seems like a perfectly good outlet. Seems like it’s healthy.
Not if we damage our bodies in the process.
Many of us do. Please see this article.
Kindly, that’s not all of us. Some of us love this stuff. That’s an excellent motivation. I train because that allows me to do what I love. That’s an excellent motivation. I just don’t train to injury or damage. Therein lies the difference. Again, I’m just posing a question here.
Ultimately if we cast our physical selves into the intense immolation of extreme sports we can potentially do as much damage to ourselves as with other addictions. It’s just another way to express the all-too-common and very unfortunate dissatisfaction with our bodies, our lives, our aging process. Our fear of our internal demons, whatever they may be.
But face Smaug we must. Because even though he may be snoozing under his gold he is running us ragged. Getting good at bodybuilding or endurance running or Tough Mudders gives us a (false) sense of control over our destinies.
We still have to dance with the demons which are fueling our fear in the first place.
What fears? Our infatuation with and fears about our bodies and appearance are among the worst. Our intrinsic value. For others, the desperate need to demonstrate to themselves that they’re just as strong as they were at twenty. Thus, this terrible fear of aging.
For my dime, the latter has more to do with how our society worships per-adolescence. That any of us would throw our bodies so wholeheartedly into extremity just to prove a point says a lot about they way we’ve been manipulated.
That’s one nasty and non-negotiable demon, that one, and it’s intractable. We age. Period. We die. Period.
As someone who trains hard and long, I get it. Truly do. But sports are neither a panacea for life’s ills, nor are they a replacement for the genuinely hard work to come to peace with ourselves.
In effect, sports are just another false god when taken to extremes.
Sports can do a great deal to help us with our inner dragons, at least superficially. They can also break the body down, can cause severe injuries and lasting problems later in life. That’s not “getting better at getting older.” To my mind, that’s just abusing ourselves.
It’s one thing to push our boundaries to see what we can do, but doing so with respect and regard for our physical forms and the inherent limitations. Those vary based on who we are, our age, disabilities, whatever they may be. I love erasing my boundaries. It’s a leitmotif of my lifestyle. But not at the cost of my last thirty or so years.
If you break yourself down by neglect or you break yourself down through extreme sports, you still end up broken down.
While hiking Macchu Picchu in 2014, I was with a small group which included a man and his daughter. I had just turned 61. He was newly 50.
Each time we set out, he sped ahead, keeping an eye on his watch. At night he regaled us with this tales of endurance and speed. Frankly, nobody cared. He seemed terrified of having turned fifty.
What struck me was that he saw nothing along the way. While the rest of us discussed the ruins and the views, he bragged about his times. The impression I came away with was his terror. Like so many other hikers on that trail, he hurried with his head down, missing the orchids, missing the llamas, missing the views (as above).
Like so many of us in life. We’re so afraid of the passage of time we’re missing out on precisely what we fear we might miss.
My personal great love is adventure travel. I am regularly challenged by those around me about my motives. They believe I’m trying to prove something. Denying my age. They worry about me. These are not my issues; they are my friends’ issues.
My motives are simple. While there are risks, and yes I’ve come home in a wheelchair twice, the kind of travel I do allows me to learn to see. Breathe. Slow down. For me to be able to do what I love, I must train, train hard, but train smart. Big difference.
It’s not about LOOKIT ME I’M BETTER THAN YOU HERE ARE MY INSTAGRAM PICS. I don’t even have an Instagram account and am no longer on Facebook. I don’t suffer from some great need to demonstrate my prowess to the rest of the world. This is just what I love.
Travel forces me to consider. Think. Pause. While I most certainly do fast-paced things like skydiving or bungee jumping, a good bit of what I do involves quiet time and observation. Talking with village elders. Studying animals or trees or vistas. Riding a horse quietly for many, many hours. Massaging remarkable animals. Sitting silently under a spreading acacia tree with Masai warriors and watching the brilliant African sun go down.
Being right here, right now. Sitting with Smaug.
Sometimes in the wee hours- I tend to wake up near 4 am- I invite my personal Smaug to engage in civil discourse. In the quiet of my tent, cradled by dense down and the baby-like pleasure of my body heat, he and I can negotiate the terms of his engagement. After all, he’s a permanent tenant. Like everyone’s inner demons, he serves a very useful purpose. It’s been my lifelong job to discover what that is.
We didn’t used to get along. We do now. In fact we laugh a lot. That has made all the difference.
I no longer medicate my monster. This is a key piece. When viewed through the false fog of anti-depressants, he took on massive dimensions, nightmarish qualities. For years I couldn’t see his value. It wasn’t until I dumped my meds that my Smaug came swimming into clear view. At that point, not only could I see his value, but we’ve also become allies. He’s my greatest teacher.
He’s beautiful. Strong and proud and huge and multicolored. Damn, what a beast. And he’s all mine.
By all measures my Smaug has given me my best stories, much of my most uproarious laughter, and my most valuable life lessons.
Without my inner Smaug I am nothing. Without the questions he poses to my inner world, to my confidence, to my sense of self, I have no journey.
Without my inner Smaug, I never would have ridden Valentino, a five-year-old, spirited black Arabian stallion who screamed a challenge at me when I mounted him. As it was, mere moments after the above photo, we were tearing at top speed towards the setting sun, his long mane slashing my face, my heart pounding. It was unimaginable. Priceless. The realization of a fifty-year old dream.
When I was ten, I read Walter Farley’s The Black Stallion. Now I have ridden The Black. Un-f*cking believable.
Too many people never realize their dreams. That just breaks my heart.
We need our inner demons. They are the very heart and soul of personal growth.
I’ve learned to ride my dragon. There are scenes in the terrific movie Avatar which speak directly to my heart. I know what it is to soar. To get there took plenty of fails, falls, falters and f*ckups.
That’s precisely why he exists for all of us.
What does it look like to ride your dragon? That depends on you. What you fear. For me,
I fear the cold. So I go to high mountains. I fear heights. So I learned to skydive. I’m terrified of drowning. So I learned to scuba dive. I kayak. I make myself go underwater, in the cold and the rapids.
I fear rejection. So I am in a relationship where that can most certainly happen at any time (and did spectacularly, painfully, but still I persist).
This is how I ride my dragon.
That doesn’t mean this will work for anyone else. It’s just how my Smaug has invited me to climb aboard.
Flannery, although he may not put it the same way, is doing the same thing. Here’s how he puts it:
Achieving a healthier balance is what training is all about and no matter how far I go, I’ve finally accepted that I can’t outrun my depression, and I can’t live passively with them. So, I’m making it my training partner. It keeps me motivated to avoid the lows and grounded when I get too high. It will be with me for the rest of my life. All I can do is keep moving. (bold added)
Flannery is riding his dragon. He’s right. “It”- whatever “it” may be for you or me or Flannery or anyone else- is our training partner. Our best and dearest lifelong friend. Our dragons teach us the courage to live our best and fullest lives. Not run from them.
For my part, it’s one hell of a ride.