Staying Fit at 70: Changes I Made to Reduce Pain

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I blame my orthopedic surgeon who told me, 30 years after my skydiving accident and with barely any cartilage left, that I shouldn’t run anymore. (On a sunny day, with a view of Mt Rainier, the jump was breathtaking – until the landing.) I broke my ankle into so many pieces he told me he didn’t put it together only the fragments he could recognize.

I’m not alone. Some of my peers don’t run anymore either, because we all have to protect our knees.

Running two marathons in the years since skydiving probably didn’t help my ankle, but I couldn’t resist running the Big Sur Marathon (personal best: 3 hours and 56 minutes ), with its inviting marketing pitch, “Run along the Edge of the Western World. At the top of what has been dubbed “Achilles Hill”, a challenging but exhilarating 2-mile uphill stretch, runners were greeted by a pianist who serenaded us.

Cycling in the Gorges du Verdon, France (Photo credit: Barry Evans)

After my discussion with the orthopedist, I thought, Now what? Walking was a start, but not enough. I’ve been a cyclist all my life and together with my husband Barry have cycled 14 times around Europe, but Eureka, the “Victorian seaport” on the northern California coast where my Barry and I live part-time , has too many red lights to gain a lasting advantage while cycling. Rollerblading? I loved it in my 40s, but the sidewalks in Eureka are too rough. And although I am an active hiker and hiker, none of these sports are doable every day.

What was left? Swim. Because I’ve never been a good swimmer, I hired a coach. Once a week, Josie coached me in the front crawl, taught me how to rotate my hips for efficiency and speed, and I developed a routine, swimming three times a week in the community pool. The problem was that I had to travel seven miles each way to get to the next town, and I always found the American custom of conduct exercise counterintuitive. One day, on my ‘ride’, which took me along Humboldt Bay, I thought, ‘Why don’t I swim there?’ Skip the car ride, traffic, gas and pool fees, and stroll a block and a half to the bay? »

I bought a “shorty”, a thin neoprene wetsuit up to the thighs, as well as a long-sleeved polypropylene shirt, gloves, booties, a bright multi-coloured cap and a tide schedule, because the temperature of the water can fluctuate up to 8 degrees Fahrenheit depending on whether the tide is in or out of the bay. I usually swam at low tide, about half an hour either side of low and high tide when the current was slowest.

Hiking in the Sierras, California.
Hiking in the California Sierras (Photo credit: Barry Evans)

Humboldt Bay is a bustling place, with fishing, crabbing and oyster boats, kayaks, oars and a historic tour boat called the Madaket. Even with my rainbow cap, I could be hard to spot, so I usually swam along the shore.

There are many benefits associated with swimming in cold water, and I found it much more satisfying than doing the front crawl in a chlorinated pool while staring at the scratches. I reveled in the fresh bay air, open skies, seals, herons, occasional sea lions, and all the room I wanted. Plus, soaking in our mini hot tub afterwards created a delightful contrast after the cold water left my skin feeling goosebumps and my body tingling.

I would probably still be swimming in the bay were it not for the fact that on an overcast day 8 years ago, looking out over the bay from the Eureka boardwalk, I could hardly believe my eyes. In the mist, I saw a figure that seemed to be walking on water. He looked mythical, out of biblical times. Could all those Sunday School stories be true after all?

But the man was not Jesus. He was standing on a boat doing something I later learned was stand-up paddleboarding, or SUP, an ancient sport with Polynesian origins. It looked magical.

I signed up for a private session at a local sporting goods store. But I learn nervously, and my humorless, almost stern teacher did nothing to ease my anxieties. After two sessions, I decided that stand up paddleboarding was not for me.

About a year later, however, our neighbors bought some paddle boards at Costco, and one calm, sunny Saturday, Abigail asked me out on a date. She suggested we go barefoot (“you get information from your feet that way”) and showed me how to hold my paddle. Soon we were off, gliding effortlessly around the bay, chatting and catching up. An hour later, I docked successfully, overcoming my fear of falling overboard upon disembarking. I could barely wait to get back on the water.

Shortly after, I ordered an inflatable paddle board. It only takes me 3 minutes to transport my board from our apartment to the dock. No need for a car or (worse!) a man. Now I paddle the bay twice a week. If the tide is right, I might visit a quagmire, where the narrow, wandering passages remind me of the little lanes I cycled on in England. In the spring, I see nesting egrets clustered high in the cypress trees and schools of sandpipers resting on the mudflats at low tide. Sometimes I weave in and out of pilings, like slaloming skiers, or playfully see if I can squeeze through the opening of a channel marker without touching. I never tire of the quays, anchorages, piers, marinas, faded fishing boats and disused pulp mill in the bay.

Start of the 200 mile Coast-to-Coast trail through northern England.
Coast to coast footpath in England (Photo credit: Barry Evans)

As interesting as the bay is, I don’t just paddle locally. Every time Barry and I go on a road trip in our RV, we pack his rolled up inflatable kayak and my SUP. We’ve paddled lakes, rivers, swamps, harbors and bays all over Northern California, Oregon and even overseas. I keep an obsessive count: 10 bodies of water in California, 8 in Oregon, 3 in Mexico, and on the beautiful canals of Riga in Latvia.

One Saturday, Abigail, her partner Mike, Barry and I paddled out to Big Lagoon, about 45 minutes north of Eureka. We were away from the main swimming area and I was hot so I took my clothes off and paddled naked. Soon Abigail joined me, and Barry, not to be outdone, stripped down and paddled out in his kayak. Mike was the only one dressed!

Although stand-up paddleboarding is more like sliding meditation than exercise, it works your core, triceps, and obliques. The required balance is especially beneficial for someone in their 70s. Also, if I happen to fall, which only happened twice, it’s easy to get back on a SUP, unlike a kayak.

For over 50 years I considered myself a land mammal, a lover of running, hiking, backpacking, skating and biking. Although I will always be loyal to land sports, over the past 10 years I have discovered my amphibian self.

For more inspirational tips from Louisa, check out her most recent stories:

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