Discovering your athletic ability after 40 isn’t impossible—but it can certainly seem that way. And you better believe I never saw myself becoming a total workout badass.
In fact, here’s a sampling of words I didn’t believe I would ever be associated with: Training. Half-ironman finisher. Endurance. Athlete. See, my childhood sports were as intense as reading Nancy Drew books (I’d have medaled) and making Mod Podge flowers and macramé purses in the basement with Mom and my sister. When well-meaning trainers or life coaches ask you to think back on movement you loved doing as a child (“and how much fun you had running around!”), my mind flickers to crying at the bottom of a hill on family bike rides and the classic picked-last-in-gym-class humiliation. (People who wonder why Americans hate exercise never had to take the President’s Physical Fitness test. Or never had my gym teachers.)
So now, my almost-daily stint in Spandex not only surprises me, but also everyone who knew me before I hit 40. Sure, I’d dabbled in exercise in an effort to be more comfortable in and take weight off the sturdy 5’7” frame that towered over my mostly 5’2” girly high school classmates. I followed along in modern dance, tap, step aerobics, kickboxing, Pilates, and whatever else promised you’d “tone up and trim down!”
I’d haul my butt to class so I could either eat more or weigh less. Maybe both, if I got lucky. In fairness, other stuff mixed itself in—long bike rides with one boyfriend, trying my hand at jogging with friends from work at another point. But it was just a hobby, and I never felt I was getting any more fit, and I certainly wouldn’t have chosen a good sweat over a museum visit or brunch.
Athletic Ability Discovery: The Beginning
That was until my best friend from childhood asked me to do a sprint-distance triathlon with her for her 40th birthday (I’d just passed that gate). If she thought I could do it, well … maybe I could. Especially since it was a Danskin Tri Series race where no competitor would come in last. The race’s spokesperson, former pro triathlete Sally Edwards, took that spot and ran in behind the almost-final athlete.
So I did what I always do when I don’t know how to do something. I outsource. I found a group that was training women for that race. And like the door rising to display what you just won on Let’s Make a Deal, a whole world opened up in front of me.
All of a sudden, I had a reason to work out. As in, “OMG, if I don’t train today, I’m not gonna make it to the finish line.” There was no room for “Do I want to work out?” dithering here. And the impetus wasn’t some vague, mushy “to lose weight and get fit” bit. If I could pull this race off, I was going to be a triathlete at the end of this. And yeah, the last half of that word is “athlete.” Kinda gave me chills.
I had a progressive training plan. It started small and got us up to race-day lengths and efforts. And wait—why had everyone been hiding this from me for so many years?—the more I ran, the better I got at it. The more I swam and biked, the same. Not great, but yes, better.
Until then, I’d just been punching the class card. I thought you were athletic or you weren’t. I had no idea you could train yourself to be stronger. Run longer. All of a sudden, I could measure how I was doing (can’t do that in a dance class). And I saw that where there were once, say, 25-minute runs, there were now 30-minute ones, and then 40, and then 50. Where there were once just some sweaty clothes and a post-aerobics shower, there was now real, live evidence of success via the workout log I kept.
Workouts became about what I was teaching my body to do—like build endurance, speed, and strength—not fighting what it was (a little doughy). It helped that I learned to train by heart rate. So all I needed to think about was what heart rate I needed to be at and for how long for my cells to learn what they needed to that day—support a longer effort on one day, maybe, or a faster pace another. No worrying about getting passed. I was doing exactly what my body required, no matter what ground speed my GPS recorded. and ironically, the side effect of not focusing on speed was seemingly magically getting faster.
And behind the scenes, this workout thing was becoming a lifestyle. Friends weren’t people you met for drinks after your workout. They’re the ones you met for your workout—and texted all evening the night before about whether it’s going to be a shorts or capris day tomorrow and hey, how did that presentation go.
I discovered that training isn’t just about managing swimming, biking, and running. It’s about managing your mind, your meals, and your energy. It’s about the power and joy of committing to something and, day-by-day, being proud you’re making it happen, even if today’s swim didn’t go like you wished it would have.
And after all that, you get to spend a day with like-minded crazy people. You get a medal and bragging rights and most of the time, you amaze yourself. But what’s even better is the feeling of being proud of what your body can do, not what size it is. And I’m not going to let that pride go.
So more than 10 years after that initial triathlon, I keep training. Sometimes to get the same rush, I need a bigger hit (although not everyone does), which has led to a bunch of races like “half-ironman” triathalons, long-distance running relays, and a swim around Manhattan.
I used to have a colleague who would buttonhole me after a race and ask, “Did you win?” I might have been pretty darn far away from the podium, but I learned things about my body and mind. I proved I could stick to a plan. I forged new friendships. So did I win? Yeah, I did.
A version of this article was originally published in January 2018.