I Got in the Best Shape of My Life at 50…And Then 55 Hit

At forty-nine, I was resigned to being over the hill — an overweight couch potato who avoided exercise and ate pastries with abandon. Walking up a flight of stairs left me winded, but I attributed that to middle age. I was getting old, after all. Then, seven months before my 50th birthday, I got the wake-up call that changed my life: A routine lab test revealed that I had Type 2 diabetes.

As a physical therapist, I knew what havoc this disease could wreak on a body. I’d treated patients with diabetes-induced neuropathy, blindness and, in severe cases, amputations that began with an infected toe and led to bilateral lower-leg prostheses. I was shocked and terrified and suddenly determined to beat this condition back with everything I had.

I downloaded the Couch-to-5k running app on my phone and started. Designed for couch-sitters like me, it started out so gently it was almost laughable. “Run for 60 seconds,” the voice intoned through my ear buds. A minute? Who couldn’t run for a minute? As it turned out, that minute was harder and longer than I imagined. But I kept at it, huffing and puffing. I cheered when I was instructed to “walk for 60 seconds.” Jogging and walking, I survived a half hour workout, but it took all I had. By the second week, I was ready to advance to 90 seconds. That turned into two minutes, then five, and, at the end of three months, I signed up my first 5K race. It was pouring rain, and I wore a heavy windbreaker that felt like a soaked canvas pup tent. I could barely see with raindrops and tears spattering my glasses, but I crossed the finish line, incredulous at what I’d done.

By the time I turned 50 that summer, I had shed over 30 pounds, had completed two more 5K races, had leveled out my blood sugars into normal range and felt like a completely new person. At a birthday celebration on the Russian River, I yelled to my family and friends, “I’m fifteeeeeeee!” and took an ecstatic running leap off the dock into the river, forgetting I was still wearing my glasses. They flew off my face and sunk to the bottom. I didn’t care. It was a blurry, happy party.

A minute? Who couldn’t run for a minute? As it turned out, that minute was harder and longer than I imagined.

My 50th year was one of the best years of my life. I kept running, increasing my distance to 10Ks. I barely recognized the self who ran five miles for pleasure. I completed my first half marathon on the Las Vegas strip at 51 — and kept going. One day, I was listening to the radio when I heard a commercial about Team in Training and how they could prepare you to do a triathlon. I laughed out loud. Now wouldn’t that be something? I’d had a deep phobia of both swimming and bike riding since I was a teenager. That sure would be a way of raising the bar. But I was a 50-something rock star, and I was beginning to believe that I could do anything. I pulled over to the side of the road and signed up on the spot.

I came into triathlon training really having no clue what I was in for. As it turned out, I was in for six days a week of some of the most grueling workouts I’d ever experience. I met Lily, who would come to be my faithful training buddy and one of the best friends of my life. She and most of my teammates were 20 or even 30 years younger than I was, but they were encouraging and supportive and I got used to being the last one to finish any of our bike rides or runs.

I hadn’t ridden a bicycle in over three decades. I borrowed my daughter’s bike and got myself a helmet. At first, I couldn’t balance and was afraid to make turns. Riding in traffic was paralyzing. Soon, my legs were covered in fresh abrasions and scabs from the countless falls. I was only slightly better in the water; I started out only being able to swim a lap or two at the time, and I did a fair amount of flailing around. But soon, Lily and I were doubling and tripling our endurance. We loved the calm peacefulness of swimming in my gym’s outdoor pool at night, with the lights shining up through the turquoise water.

I was excited about graduating from the pool to open water. The Olympic distance triathlon we were training for was going to start with a mile swim in the frigid, choppy San Francisco bay. We learned how to grease up our bodies and squeeze ourselves into our new wetsuits. Splashing into our first lake was a completely different experience. In the dark, bottomless water, a vice-like grip tightened around my chest. I gasped but couldn’t breathe. “Kayak!” I squeaked, and one of the rescue boats paddled close by so I could hang on, panting. It was my first open-water panic attack.

Not being able to touch or see the bottom and not having a pool edge to cling to brought me back to the terror of a near-drowning experience I’d had when I was 15. But I was determined. It took several sessions with a compassionate, patient sports psychologist to get me past my fear. And at 52, I came in third-to-last in the Marin County Triathlon. Lily, who had finished an hour before, put that medal around my neck in an unforgettable, tear-drenched moment.

I thought it was just going to keep going that way. I signed up for the Wildflower Triathlon and completed the mountain bike tri. I thought I was going to badass my way toward 60. Maybe I’d sign up for a half Ironman. Hell, maybe I’d do a full Ironman! I had read somewhere that women’s participation in races dropped off precipitously starting in the 55+ age range. What was that about? I couldn’t imagine. I’d be doing races until my seventies, at least!

But when I was 54, the troubles began. First, a long bout of nasty hip pain after a half marathon that had three orthopedists talking about doing a hip replacement. Then, at my 25th wedding anniversary party, I climbed onto a trampoline for a celebratory jump.

I’ll never regret anything more. I ruptured three of my cervical discs that led to four months of agonizing pain, bed rest and eventual neck surgery. This former triathlete was barely able to walk to the mailbox in front of my house. That period dealt a serious blow to my body, and then various parts started falling like dominoes. I developed Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, often spurred by body trauma, followed in quick succession by a year of plantar fasciitis, more hip pain (on the other side), menopausal frozen shoulder and, most recently, a diagnosis of severe sleep apnea. The badass is feeling more like a sorry-ass these days. I think of the scores of other 55+ women on the sidelines of races, wondering if the same injuries have happened to them.

I walk now, on gentle, level surfaces. I go to Pilates and stretch on my foam roller. I don’t know what’s next for me. Will I rise, Phoenix-style, from the ashes of my own middle age, and eventually manage to do the sprint triathlon that’s still on my bucket list? If I’ve learned anything, it’s that my body is full of surprises. Back in my forties, I thought I was old and done with and it proved me wrong about that. I hope that it lives to surprise me yet again, and that I’ll be up on that over-60 podium, against all the odds.

(Photo courtesy of Susan Ito)

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6 Responses

  1. Kate Maloy

    Terrific article, Susan–and terrific courage on your part! You will indeed rise from those ashes. I used to run 10Ks, too, in my late 40s, but my body told me to quit. You already know that I now walk, fast, for 5 to 7 miles several times a week–at almost 72. Let’s inspire each other. Let’s go for a walk!

  2. Becca Lawton

    Ouch! Those dang trampolines. Health hazards. Thanks for sharing this, Susan!

  3. Sari Friedman

    Hi Susan,
    I was very touched by your story. Your spirit stays strong, that’s the best part. Much love, Sari

  4. Lisa Romeo

    Interesting read, and kind of heart breaking too. Sorry you are dealing with all that. I had a similar experience, but a decade earlier, getting into great shape in early 40s, then falling apart in various ways as I approached 50. It’s so discouraging. I hope you feel better and work your way back little by little.

  5. Jules

    Thank you for this post. A true confirmation that life can deal us a lot but we can still have wonderful surprises after 50

  6. Fran Mason
    Fran Mason

    Congrats on all the great experiences you had! Your openness and enthusiasm will lead you to more great experiences, whether they are physical feats or not. I too surprised myself with athleticism over 40, rocketed up in abilities, and have scaled back gradually since some point in my 50s. I’ve been fortunate not to have an acute injury in the process, and I hope you don’t have any more of those!


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