Aging is weird.
Your thirties reveal that–like some cruel plot twist early in the second act–your body has just been out to betray you all along. It’s slowly been switching it’s allegiance from your side to the one of some unknowable, unrepentant force of evil. And no matter how hard you try to coax and convince it, it’s just not coming back.
Things that you used to enjoy–like sleeping in, eating, showering, and pick-up games of any sport–now become reflections on your fragility.
I can’t sleep-in past 8 a.m. now without my back feeling like it’s going to dislodge a vertebrae. Eating becomes a tally of how many pounds a meal will add to my waistline and how many miles are required to run/bike them off. Showering hits a whole new level of creepiness now as you horrifically gaze in the mirror at this saggier, hairier, alternate-reality version of your 20 year-old-self staring back at you.
And well, you just hurt after any and all prolonged periods of activity.
You hurt a lot.
Ryan Tries A Tri
About a year ago, I found myself smack in the middle of one of the rarest gifts that a young parent could ever hope to experience: a weekend all to myself. My wife had taken the kids to visit some family out of town, and I guess the uniqueness of the situation must’ve went straight to my head. Because the undeniably hair-brained scheme that I hatched coming out of that time spent alone wasn’t something I normally would’ve chosen to do on my own:
I decided I was going to swim across a lake.
In 12 weeks, I'm gonna swim across this lake. What have I gotten myself into?? Well, needing a bit of a kick in the pants to lose a few pounds and round myself back into shape, I decided to sign up as my work's representative in the triathlon for KC Corporate Challenge. It's a sprint triathlon (500m swim/10mi bike/5k run) so I'm not THAT insane. But this is a big deal to me. So I thought I'd document my training over the next 12 weeks here. Hopefully by Father's Day, I'll be ready!
Now, let me back up a few steps and attempt to explain myself. Before the fateful weekend I just described, I had already been seriously mulling over representing my employer in the Kansas City Corporate Challenge Triathlon. (Corporate Challenge, if you’re unaware, is basically the workplace version of collegiate intramural sports.) And also, by “triathlon” I’m of course not talking about the full-on, insane version of the event, I’m talking about a “sprint” version. For this particular race the distances were: 500m swim, 10 mile bike ride, and 5K run. Comparatively, not all that bad.
And so, given a chill, reflective weekend and a chance to drive out to the park where the triathlon was going to be held, I started to feel this swelling sense of destiny: this was something I just had to do. I had been feeling more and more like I needed the swift kick of a firm commitment to get my post-new-dad fitness back on track and this seemed to fit the bill. So, all that coupled with the fact that the race itself was being held on Father’s Day had me believing that my involvement was nearly inevitable.
As I’ve discussed in the previous post, I had already been cycling at a decent level for several years, so 10 miles was definitely achievable. I also knew I could hobble my way to the finish line of a 5K without too much long term knee damage. But that 500 meter swim? Hoo boy. That was going to be tough. I had 12 weeks until the race to learn how to swim and swim well enough to not drown in the middle of a lake. So thus, my challenge was laid out before me.
Though the idea of swimming across a lake was daunting, it also sounded pretty fun. Before the idea of competing in a triathlon was presented to me, I had already been thinking that maybe swimming would be a decently viable fitness avenue for me to start exploring. It’s a great cardiovascular workout and uses nearly every major muscle group while also staying very low impact. It helped that our gym at the time also had a nicely maintained lap pool. So I had that extra wind in my sails before I even started training.
So to get started, I first planned out an extensive training regimen in a spreadsheet. I enlisted the help of a friend who regularly competes in triathlons to teach me how to actually swim. And I started documenting my journey on Instagram for accountability. I thought I was getting off to a pretty great start.
And then, as they say, life happened.
Shortly after my revelation by the lakeside, my wife and I decided to sell our house. This decision required many late nights painting rooms, many weekends landscaping patios, and plenty of garage sales and Craigslist meetups attempting to sell off rooms full of junk we didn’t need. Unfortunately, it also meant many less nights at the gym–and more importantly, in the pool–than my training regimen required.
And so I guess when they implore you to not let your first swim in the lake for a triathlon take place on race day, they probably have a good reason. Because even with these setbacks, I still followed through on my promise 12 weeks prior: I attempted to swim across that lake on Father’s Day 2017…
And I made it roughly a quarter of the way.
An issue I had encountered in my training during a few of my longer swims hit me again on race day right around the 100m mark: foot cramps. Basically, the whole underside of my foot locked up on me. It’s just kind of an annoying thing to have happen when you’re in the middle of a lap pool. It’s a whole different thing in the middle of a large, virtually bottomless body of water. Once it hit, and the panic set in, I knew I was done for.
So, with my tail between my legs, I doggy-paddled my way back to shore. Thankfully, the race officials allowed me to finish the cycling and running portions of the race, keeping my pride mostly intact. All-in-all, it was a fun day and I was happy to have the lofty goal I did to keep me motivated those previous 12 weeks.
But the whole experience exposed me to another new shifting paradigm taking place in this grown up reality of mine: that of my mind being willing and open to trying new avenues in hopes of achieving some modicum of physical fitness, and my body flatly and resoundingly telling me “No.”
Still, for all the frustrations and disappointment with your body that occur in the middle third of life, there is an obvious richness to this stage of aging that I’ve been purposely skirting until this post. For all the fresh wrinkles, new aches, and extra pounds, there’s this airy plateau of transcendence that can only be reached once you crest that first hill of your thirties. A plateau that gives you a clearer view of your life and how little of it you actually have left.
I’ve made it this far and my body is still intact. I still have the majority of my hair (though it’s the minority I’ve lost that bothers me) and some bounce left in my step. What do I have to worry about?
It’s not rosy but I think having a firm grasp on your finality is a good thing. It makes you try harder, push deeper, and commit more fully. You are much less likely to half-ass your way through life when you have an achy back or creaky knee continually reminding you that your body is trending in a downward direction.
In last week’s post, I noted an MIT study that claimed our “fluid intelligence” peaked at age 20. If you actually clicked the link and read on from the first few paragraphs, you’d realize that I wasn’t entirely being truthful with what I had reported back. Oops.
Yes, some of our cognitive abilities peak when we’re younger, but many more are still ascending upwards through our thirties and even into our fifties and sixties. Facial recognition and visual short term memory both peak in your early thirties, says the MIT study. Our vocabulary and the mental skills needed to evaluate other’s emotional states peak in our forties and fifties. So that’s certainly something to look forward to!
And really, it makes sense, doesn’t it? My mind doesn’t feel all that old. In fact, it’s still on point. Our thirties are the years to take advantage of our superior mental acuity.
Middle age is the unique period of your life when you will actually know more than both your kids and your parents. If there was a bell curve on peak intelligence, your thirties would undeniably be right around the crest. You’re probably not going to be more “with it” mentally than you are in your thirties.
This is a gift, my friends, and we would do well to take advantage.
Now, I know there will be folks several years my senior that will no doubt scoff at a 36-year-old complaining about feeling old. I get it. I know I have plenty of aging, aches, and probably pounds left ahead of me.
But I think that if you polled a few individuals down the road a ways, and asked them to recall what age range they first started to feel the full force of aging, I’m pretty certain the consensus would be:
Your thirties are definitely when you start to feel old.
Next, we’ll dive into just what a grown up soul might look like. It’s kind of like an old soul, but cooler.
A Mixtape Guide To Growing Up: