Who doesn’t have negative stereotypes about aging?
No one, especially Boomers, wants to think of ourselves as “old”. We’re middle aged, we’re “senior”, we’re old-er, but old? Never.
Our society just doesn’t have a positive outlook on aging. Media everywhere imprints us with messages to “feel young”, get a lift, an implant, a surgery, take pills, and do anything to avoid the stereotypes of “old”. Since I’m in the aging field as a consultant, here at AgingParents.com I do have a different attitude about aging, but I know I also hold some of those stereotypes in my own mind. I don’t want to feel “old,” whatever that really means.
So I set out to challenge my own perceptions of what older people do. If my age (66) is “old” I want to bust those stereotypes in my own head.
This is not a new thing for me. I rebelled against the stereotypes 4 years ago when, with fear and trembling, I took up the endurance sport of triathlon. I do the short kind only. I keep wondering if I’m too old to keep it up. There is no one my age on my all-womens’ training team, Flower Power Sports. Coach Michelle teaches you how to train smart. She does this while smiling and kicking your behind. You get stronger. This is good. We don’t think of old and strong as going together.
My team friend, Gigi, an amazing 53 year old athlete talked me into going to Wildflower triathlon in central CA. It is in the middle of nowhere. Camping?? I don’t think so. I first objected that “I’m too old to go camping.” But they have these comfy camper vans, all decked out. She had already rented one and that was no longer an excuse.
Then I said I didn’t want to do an Olympic distance event, as she’s doing. Never mind, they also have the short distance one, called a “sprint” (for humor, I expect). Second excuse gone. I’ve done sprint distance events before. This is reportedly the second largest triathlon event in the world, with athletes from everywhere. They do a sprint, Olympic distance and long course event over a weekend. OK, I’m in.
We arrive in rented camper, join Coach Michelle, her son, Nick, 16, and another teammate, Charmaine. So far, so good. But, lookinf around me, everyone seems to be a LOT younger. Aren’t there any women my age here? They always group us by age. Race morning arrives and Michelle and Gigi are support team for the 3 of us doing the mountain bike sprint course.
It starts with a swim. I struggled through but was ok, then hiked up the 1/4 mile to the bike start. The course had been changed from the prior year. We did not know about that. I had gotten moderately knobby tires for my mountain bike, suitable for what was described as a dirt trail with some paved portions. As I got to the first sharp turn, I found loose, rocky, deep dirt, requiring the fattest tires you can get with the heaviest tread available. OMG! I have the wrong tires! Traction on this is going to be impossible. Bang! Down I went, opening a small gash in my arm.
I then began a pattern: get back up, pedal a bit, lose traction, fall, repeat. It was the steepest, most treacherous mountain bike course I’d ever seen and I was trying not to lose my nerve the entire time. My arm was bleeding. About halfway through, there was an aid station, staffed with adorable college student volunteers who were all over at the weekend events. I stopped. ”Will you clean this off for me?” I asked. A pleasant faced young man offered up bottles of water and began to pour them over my arm. “Do you have any gauze?”
He looked in his first aid bag and pulled out a small white wrapped packet. Opening it, he said, “I don’t know what this is.” I said, “It’s a sanitary napkin. It will have to do. Just dry me off with it and put a bandaid over this cut, please.” He obliged and quietly asked, “Are you going to finish?” Maybe he thought I needed to be carried off or something. I said, “Yes, I’m finishing this race! This senior has gotta do this.” I took off. No more falls. The course got less rocky and loose and I made to the transition area where you change in to your run shoes for the last leg. You can’t run in bike shoes. Bags with our run shoes were supposed to be deposited by the bike.
I racked my bike and noticed, to my shock, that the bag with my run shoes and hat was not there! OMG again! It had somehow been misplaced. I desperately asked more of the college kid volunteers to look for my misplaced bag. No luck. Maybe 20 minutes ticked by. This is a race and it was going to be over if I didn’t get moving. How was I going to get the run done? It was only 2 miles and I was sure I could get there somehow, but not in bare feet.
I was so discombobulated from repeated falls, I could barely think. I asked the nearest girl volunteer her shoe size. “I’m, an 8″, she said. Too big. I’m a 6 1/2. I asked one of them to find me a volunteer with a shoe size no bigger than a 7. Promptly, a sweet girl, Natalie returned. “I wear a 7,” she said. “Oh, good,” I said. ”I need to please borrow your shoes.” She thought she could walk around barefoot for awhile and gave up the shoes. I put them on. They fit! By now the sun was hot. ”I need to borrow your hat, too”, I said. She obligingly gave it to me. I thanked her a lot, got her name, told her where I would turn in the shoes and I was off.
I am not sure how I stumbled through that last leg, but I did it. Finally, I ran across the finish line! Michelle, and teammates were all there cheering. This did not fit my images of “old”. I have no stereotypes in my head of arm-gashed seniors running across finish lines in borrowed shoes. Immediately I went to the medic tent, where they cleaned and bandaged my arm. The MD suggested that I get a couple of stitches. I got directions to the nearest emergency room for later. I looked around at the people in the tent with IV’s, ice on their knees, and various other injuries. I actually felt fortunate, as a cut and scrapes will heal and it could have been worse.
Natalie found me later from her neon green hat I still wore. She got a beautiful new pair of shoes from a race sponsor for her generous gesture, and she got her hat and old shoes back too. My shoe bag showed up finally. We watched Nick (3d place in his age group) get his medal. I did not stick around for the other results of the race, as I was exhausted.
We went back to camp, I made a trip the the ER, I got the stitches and I was ok, despite a sore arm. The next day, after the Olympic distance event, race results were available on laptops they provide so you can see how you did. Super Coach Michelle placed second in her age group and Gigi did respectably well also. Out of curiosity, I asked Gigi to look at the prior day’s race to see how many women were in my age group. Over 6000 athletes show up for this event, from kids age 10, to challenged athletes to seasoned elites.
Finishing Triathlon Race
She checked. “Carolyn, you are the only woman in your age group!”. That meant that despite all the craziness of my day, I was first in the 66-69 age group. They give you a medal for that. I haven’t stopped laughing since.
So much for aging stereotypes. I redefined “senior moment” for myself that day. Life experience teaches us how to get past obstacles. We have some advantages over our younger friends. We know about persistence. We trust ourselves to overcome difficulty because years of living have shown us we can do it. Aging is more, not less. If aging feels like this, I’m happy with it. Now where’s that ice pack?