TheBigOutside Blog

Michael Lanza, creator of TheBigOutside.com and Northwest Editor of Backpacker Magazine, writes about hiking, backpacking, climbing, backcountry skiing, paddling and other self-powered outdoor adventures

In Car Years, I’m 269

In the 1990s, I owned a Geo Prizm for several years, running the odometer up over 197,000 miles. I eventually gave it away to a social-service agency because I didn’t think it would survive a cross-country move. (By then, the car was worth less than the tax deduction for donating it.) Otherwise, I’d have kept on driving it. I grew attached to that vehicle because, though it was falling apart, it refused to die.

Lately, my body reminds me of that Geo Prizm.

Like a lot of active people my age—let’s just say roughly halfway between five and 100—I’ve grown accustomed to having at least one low-level, chronic injury. They’re the kind that don’t prevent me from doing the outdoor activities I enjoy, but that vary from uncomfortable to occasionally sharply painful. Lately, I’m nursing three, and I do mean “nursing” in the sense that my physical maladies have thrived for quite some time.

I started physical therapy this week for a combination of ills in my right elbow—tendinosis and tendonitis, according to my physical therapist. (I prefer the simpler and more-elegant term “beer-drinker’s elbow,” which I think concisely defines the problem as one of those repetitive-motion injuries that defies easy remedy.) It has bothered me for a few years, not enough to stop me from working out, skate-skiing, or climbing, but giving me an almost constant painful reminder of its existence.

As explained to me, it’s not uncommon for active people of a certain age (see above) to suffer this type of chronic injury, which causes inflammation at a level that’s actually too low to instigate normal healing processes. Instead of healing, soft-tissue fibers (muscle, tendons, ligaments, and fascia) repeatedly tear and break down when you exercise, without the usual healing and rebuilding that should follow. The pain may never get awful, but also doesn’t go away.

To treat my elbow, a friend and sports-medicine doc prescribed a type of physical therapy called the ASTYM System. He’s confident it will finally resolve my problem where other measures—ice, stretching and other physical therapies, and long-term avoidance of activities that might aggravate it—have failed. Basically, a physical therapist runs hand-held, smooth-sided instruments repeatedly over the tissue, applying some pressure, to cause inflammation. The objective is to stimulate the body to break down the scarred tissue and allow new tissue to form. The treatment is uncomfortable and left my arm achy and slightly bruised, but that’s the point. After several twice-a-week visits to my P.T., I’m told, I’ll start seeing positive results. I’m optimistic and eager to see my elbow return to normal—whatever that is at my age (see above).

My middle-child injury—older than the elbow issue, younger than the problem I’ll describe below—concerns a high, deep, left hamstring pull that’s hounded me, at a low level, for several years. Running, long hikes, and carrying a heavy pack aggravate it; using a foam roller alleviates the symptoms. Every time I think I might be past this, it comes back like a bad relationship you just can’t terminate. Some weeks I spend more time with a foam roller than I do with my wife, and it’s not a good substitute.

The oldest of my bodily dysfunctions, dating back to around the time I saw Flock of Seagulls live (though I don’t really think there’s any connection between these events), is chronic lower-back pain. I’ve always managed it quite well through regular exercise and stretching. But it has bothered me more than usual this summer—possibly due to taking several backpacking trips with my young kids, carrying a 60-pound pack, sleeping numerous nights on the ground, and being outdoors so much, where it’s not as easy to stretch and do yoga as at home.

So my wife, who’s in medicine, made me an appointment to see a colleague of hers who’s a D.O. (doctor of osteopathic medicine) and does back “adjustments.” She thinks it will help me. I’m willing to try it, though I’m slightly uncomfortable with the implication that I’m maladjusted.

Over the past several years, I’ve also muddled through shoulder impingements (both sides), nagging iliotibial (I.T.) band inflammation that lasted months, and probably other chronic injuries now forgotten. I’ve also been an equal-opportunity accident-waiting-to-happen for acute injuries, too: innumerable ankle sprains; several copious bleeders, including a nasty forehead gash from bashing my noggin against an overhanging ledge in the Grand Canyon; and one broken foot sustained while getting off a peak in the Tetons. (Thinking it was “just” a bad sprain, I walked five miles on it, nearly passing out from the pain in the last couple hours of that self-imposed torture.)

Another time, I landed in the E.R. after a road bike crash that cracked my helmet, bent my bike frame, and gave me a week of shoulder pain so severe I’d involuntarily cry out from the slightest movement of the joint. When the E.R. doc examined me, he assured me it wasn’t badly hurt and said, “You’re young, you’ll heal fast.” Then he looked at my chart and corrected himself. “Actually, you’re past 40,” he deadpanned. “You won’t heal fast at all.”

Staying active in middle age isn’t just hard. It’s sometimes insulting.

But I don’t complain about my various ailments. I’ve known plenty of people who’ve faced much more serious health issues, some life-threatening, some not that serious but more debilitating and discouraging than my problems, like hip issues in people that are too young to want to think about a hip replacement.

So I’ve grown used to living with wounds from recreational wars—often more than one wound at any given time. I’ve learned to take a long view on them and appreciate the need for rest. If someone asks how one particular injury is coming along, I’ll as often as not respond, quite honestly, “Well, it’s not the thing that hurts the most.”

I’ve probably long outlived my old Geo Prizm. Unfortunately, I can’t replace my own worn parts as easily as I did that car’s parts. I have to rehabilitate them. By my calculations, in car years, I’m about 269. And I’m planning on getting a couple more good car centuries in me before I’m towed to the junkyard.

27 Comments»

  David T Connolly wrote @

Halfway between 0 and 100 works better for me. And I tell myself I’ll know when the time comes to hang up my hiking boots. But I’m sure I’ll hike well past that point. Please walk around. Thanks.

  Missy Correlle wrote @

I got a good laugh out of this article since it really hit home. Things hurt now I never really knew existed, but, as bad as it can get, I really feel sorry for my co-workers who are within 2 – 4 years of being the same age who have never done physical activity of any kind and are in more pain than I and who injure themselves simply walking to their car at night. Keep on hiking, trekking, climbing, cycling, paddling b/c the lack of such activity is even worse than the beer elbows!! LOL

  thebigoutside wrote @

Thanks, David and Missy. I completely agree with both of you.–ML

  Rick Hackett wrote @

I’m about 198 in car years, with similar chronic issues. Please update with your ASTYM experience in a few months. Very interested to see how it goes. Good luck!

  thebigoutside wrote @

Thanks Rick. Given the interest, I’ll update when I’ve been through several PT sessions. So far, after 3 sessions, I’m seeing some progress in the right direction.

  Langley wrote @

At 66, I am quite familiar with the aches and pains of keeping up an active life. Just in case you hadn’t figured it out yet, things only get worse. I sold my whitewater canoes a couple of years ago and stopped running when I lost the meniscus in my knees. I do more alpine turns than telemarking becauseI I don’t have the strength in my legs anymore. I don’t recover as quickly nor do I have as much endurance, but \I have been pushing myself so long, I can easily put myself in a postion where there is no longer any reserve left to dig deeper for. Nevertheless, I cna still find lots of things to do and keep myself active and relatively healthy. You get used to the cronic pains and the limitations and I still keep up with weekend warriors 10 to 15 years yonger than me. It is certainly better than watching daytime television.

  Mike Haggard wrote @

I enjoyed your article, and I trust you are on the mend. I am a 52-year-old retired Army guy who remains active, and I get outdoors as much as I can. After a ruptured disc at C6 and a herniated disc at L5–I feel your pain. Most days I am fine, but pain and discomfort are frequent companions, and tend to rise with the activity level, particularly under a rucksack. While I cannot carry a heavy load, nor move as fast, or as far, I will not surrender.

  thebigoutside wrote @

Langley and Mike, you guys are inspirations. BTW, just had my fourth ASTYM physical therapy appointment, and I’m still seeing good progress toward healing, though I don’t expect it to be fast.

  Aaron wrote @

Great article! I feel your pain, so to speak. Small price to pay for making the most out of our lives and enjoying nature’s beauty and challenges.

-Aaron

  thebigoutside wrote @

10-4 there, Aaron

  Jo Ann wrote @

Hey Mike, you still have lots of years left, you young thing. I’m 73. My body complains a lot and doesn’t do many of the things it used to, but that doesn’t keep me out of the wilderness. In the past three years I’ve climbed Kilimanjaro, mushed dogs in the Yukon, rafted arctic rivers, backpacked in the mountains, snowshoed (easier than skiing) and done a multi-day horse trek. You just have to keep dreaming, planning and doing. When you have to give up one activity, there is always an alternative.

  thebigoutside wrote @

hey Jo Ann, you’re my parents’ age, and they bike and snowshoe frequently. They’re planning to join my family and me ski touring/snowshoeing in Yellowstone in Jan. (I’ll write about it here.) Thanks for the words of inspiration. Keep at it.

  Pete wrote @

Glad to read this, it’s a subject that doesn’t get enough coverage. I’m 46 and have been hiking/running/skiing/kayaking since I was a kid. I haven’t actually slowed down yet, but I know my body is trying to tell me to through low back pain, severely sprained ankles (which I had to do PT for), plantar fasciitis, and sore knees. The back pain actually seems to get better the more I do…the problem is my office job where I sit for most of the day (like right now).

  thebigoutside wrote @

Hey Pete, I was having the same back trouble when I left my last desk job 17 years ago. Stand up and stretch frequently, and investing in a good chair is worth the money, if you haven’t already. I also stretch and do yoga daily still.

  Bill Stansbury wrote @

Remember what Teddy Roosevelt said:” It is better to wear out than rust out.”

  J C Chlarson wrote @

At 52, I just went on my first two-day river canoe trip since my heart attack and subsequent stents of July 2009. I called my cardiologist to get his approval. I was told to take fresh nitro with me and have fun. I did both. Every day is a bonus I might not have had, so I am not putting myself up on blocks any time soon.

  J C Chlarson wrote @

P.S. I just finished three months of physical therapy for a shoulder impingement (rotator cuff), and I have a hematoma on my left calf the doctor and I are monitoring. Putt-putt-putt…

  Kathy wrote @

Thanks for the great article. I don’t know what I am in car years, but I just applied for social security. I own an RV, but this summer went back to tent camping and kayaking. Yeah, the aches and pains are there some of the time, but 20 years ago, when I stopped hiking on the advice of my orthopedic surgeon, I was miserable and depressed. Eventually, thinking I had nothing much to lose, I returned to hiking and backpacking. It worked! I still have my original knees two decades later. Keep trying. Don’t give up.

  Ann Guarino wrote @

Loved your entire article! Of course that’s an admission that I’m “of an age”, too. Yes, every physical insult takes longer to heal now. The reality is that age will slow us down, slowly. We may have to ratchet things down, gradually, in order to keep ourselves in the game for the long run. Not be reckless. But I’m thrilled and grateful that at 53 I’m still running, hiking, backpacking, and loving life more than ever. I’m not doing everything I could do at 20, but I’m loving it more. That’s not a bad tradeoff! My husband is a cancer survivor who can’t do any of this, but he’s alive and happy. How can I possibly complain??

  David McMahon wrote @

At 56 I am happy to see all the other readers my age and better. I am recently retired and my goal is to stay as fit as I can as long as I can. There aren’t a lot of us at the gym, but I have been steady for years. When at my cabin I take a 3 mile mile hike into a gorge and back out. I’ll carry 10-20 lbs of rice to increase the exercise. My family has a history of heart disease and my father is the first of our relatives to hit eighty. I know he did not bike 30 miles in his fifties, so I hope I am ahead of the game. My pains are knees, hip, and shoulder but I have never tried PT. After reading your article and these replies I will give it a try. To our 60 and 70+ friends, I want to be like you when I grow up. Please keep these articles coming. Your readership is aging (gracefully, I hope). Thanks

  pc wrote @

Loved the article, what a hoot! The humor is great, the aches and pains, not so much, I imagine. All the subsequent posts added, are assurance that we are all headed in the right direction…outside. I guess we have earned these constant reminders that ya have to pay to play. Am so thankful for every long run, dayhike, backpacking trip (the movement, views, and companionship), and whitewater rafting trip I take. Keep making plans….it makes it happen, huh?

  Gary wrote @

Michael, my misery says thanks for the company! A PT got me through debilitating hip injury and off equally debilitating pain meds couple of years ago. Daily stretching keeps the hip and other parts working. I’m now 55. There was a REALLY old geezer who passed me on AT in Nantahalla Forest, NC, many years ago, and he’s the old geezer I hope to grow up to be someday.

  thebigoutside wrote @

Thanks to all for sharing great personal stories. You’re all motivated and motivating, as are many people I’ve had the good fortune to meet over the years working as an outdoor writer. That includes people in their 70s, men and women, who were hiking Half Dome, backpacking the AT, and trail running as far and fast as I was. Anyone past 40 knows first-hand the struggles of aging, but especially active people. But I’ve always been amazed at what people can do with the right attitude well into retirement years. Father Time: Bring it on!

  Wayne wrote @

As I read through your list of ailments I thought you were describing me!
Inspirational article. I get we need to accept increasing limitations as we age. but what comes through even stronger – in your article, and the comments – is something I firmly believe: as long as spend more time looking forward than dwelling on what was, life will continue to be the wondrous adventure it is…

  Debbie wrote @

My chiropractor keeps me going. I get realigned every 6 weeks and it’s much better and lasts longer than a massage. I had the ASTYM technique used on my plantar facia a few years ago and it really helped. Most hikes end with some pain, but it has never outweighed the fun of the hike! Keep moving !!

  Linda Lou wrote @

I loved your humor. I too, now 63 keep on keeping on. I have recently climbed Pikes Peak, and biked down! Last year I climbed Mt. Whitney. I went sky diving last year but broke my ankle. I have been very active the last ten years, with a goal of biking in all 50 states. So far I have 34. Aches and pains, all over. Monday I had Menuscus surgery. Shoulders ache, lower back pain….so what….I will go kicking and screaming into the grave. My daughter says she will put “Been there, done that” on my tombstone.

  Outdoor Blogger (@OutdoorBlogger) wrote @

I’m afraid I share the somewhat dubios relationship with the maladies ending in both osis & nitis. Right shoulder this year, left hand last year, next year I wait with baited breath to see what rears its ugly head. Naproxin prescribed by my GP is on the shelf but I haven’t been very good about taking it. My body says take it, my mind says, no thanks. I’ll let the two battle it out while I lay on the beach this week. While I’ve find limited relief in my chiropractor, I’ve just started to dabble in acupuncture and so far, its been amazing. And I hate needles! Great post and best of luck.


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