Saturday, December 8, 2012

You Gotta Have Heart

“One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will…”

Ulysses, Tennyson

A British medical journal about the heart—aptly named Heart—reported the results of a couple of studies on endurance runners last week. According to recent research, if you are an older athlete (read: over fifty) exercising for prolonged periods close to your anaerobic threshold could damage the heart muscle. It’s even possible that persisting with such cardiac stress could “speed one’s progress toward the finish line of life” as the journal quaintly phrases it.

Some of my more sedentary friends delight in sending me links to articles like these, trying to prod me into admitting, I suppose, that my athletic pursuits are a waste of time and might even kill me. As it happened when the article was reprinted in The Globe and Mail, it was placed right below another one from the Harvard Medical School reporting that men with excess visceral fat were at higher risk not only for heart disease and Type 2 diabetes, but also for osteoporosis. I resisted sending that link to my beer-bellied friends.

So apparently I have a choice: drop dead while flying toward a personal best in a marathon or be slowly suffocated by a blanket of blubber while sprawled in my Barca Lounger watching Honey Boo Boo.
Reading the Heart article more closely, I note that what it is really saying is that athletically I can’t do at sixty what I used to do at twenty.

When I was twenty I was a two pack a day smoker and couldn’t have run around the block if a grizzly bear was chasing me. Since I started running at thirty-three, I have finished more marathons than I can remember. I have done all seven of my Ironmans since turning fifty. I have also failed more spectacularly at some athletic challenges than I ever could have dreamed of at twenty.

And there lies the data that no study can measure. Where did those dreams come from?
Of course, my muscles, including that big one called the heart, are less flexible, less dense, and less responsive than they were when I started running nearly thirty years ago. I have been losing about one per cent or so of my lean muscle mass per year since I hit thirty. And if the heart were merely a piece of muscle, it would be easy to measure how less capable it grows as it ages. But endurance athletes have learned that there is more to a heart than metrics.

“Throw your heart over those hills,” Ironman legend Lisa Bentley used to say, “And your body will follow.”
This is the type of heart that speaks to athletes. The physiological heart will do what it does; we are nothing without the other type.

I agree with the studies that growing older is probably a good reason to slow down a bit. Luckily for me, I have never been fast, nor have I ever aspired to be. I consider it a gift just to be able to participate and a triumph just to cross the finish line. A further plus: now I have reason to celebrate my five and a half hour Ironman marathons.
Although I have little need for speed, I do have a strong desire to set goals and to work to achieve them. My desire to test the limits of my heart is part of me; it is vital to my physical and mental health. As the Canadian Olympic marvel Clara Hughes writes: "I move, therefore I am."

 My heart pumps life into my dreams of swimming or biking or running long distances. This is the part of me that I hope never tires.

This is the muscle that inspires me to be healthy; to be strong, flexible and resilient; to keep the positive things in sight and the negative things in perspective.

Studies can tell me that my muscle mass has diminished and that my physical strength is less; they can tell me that I will never again run a 10K in under 45 minutes. They can even tell me I should slow down for fear of dying. But if they tell me that the unmeasurable part of my heart is any weaker or less determined, or any less capable of creating and carrying my dreams, I will stop listening.