Trials and Tribulations of Middle-Aged Running

An unwanted inheritance and the hazards of training for middle age
An illustration of man with a knee brace running down a path along a lake.
Illustration by Darren Gygi

Parents are the genetic blueprints for their children and, physically, at least, I’m a carbon copy of my family’s patriarch. While my dad is a charming chap with a handsome mug, he’s also built like a keg on legs. Forget about the wry sense of humor and steel-toed work ethic he passed on to me. The true and everlasting inheritance I received from my dad is a stout torso propped up by scrawny chicken legs. What can I say? We’re not the Kennedys.

Recently, I got a good look at my future physique when I was at my parent’s house and encountered my dad standing in the upstairs hallway in nothing but his underwear. I got a sweeping preview of the body shape that was on my physical horizon, festooned with a cumulus cloud of white chest hair hovering above the stomach. I know this because my dad told me as much.

As soon as he spotted me, Dad launched into an imaginary hula hoop routine and said, “Take it all in, son, because this is what you’re gonna look like. And you’re welcome.”

I adore my dad’s hilarious spirit. But I didn’t exactly want to inherit the stomach. I was 43 years old and all the signs were already pointing in that direction as evidenced by my ever-growing love handles. Right then and there, I made a vow to exercise more.

The next day I went to a local Minneapolis running store to get some jogging shoes. A lithe employee assisted me.

“What are you training for?” he asked eagerly as he sat on a stool and leaned toward my feet. “Marathon? 10K? Tough Mudder?”

The employee was in his early 20s, and when you’re that age exercising is all about youthful vigor and setting your mark in the world. But I wasn’t looking to set a personal record. I was just trying to not look like Danny DeVito.

“I’m training for my 40s,” I quipped. But wasn’t kidding.

Then the employee said he wanted to watch me walk. Apparently, this is a thing: Running-store employees now scrutinize how their customers walk or run so they can determine the appropriate shoe to fit their stepping patterns. I got up and walked around the store and what the employee observed was the equivalent of a water buffalo lurching forward as it plowed a field. That’s how I moved. Like a beast of labor.

I bought my new running shoes and started exercising around Lake Harriet. In that idyllic setting—the historic trolley, the billowing, cotton candy clouds, the gently weathered band shell—I joined a scattering of other middle-aged duffers grinding it out on the path. During the first weeks, I was a wheezy hot mess of sweat and slobber and was routinely lapped by a herd of hairless human gazelles, groups of young men that sprinted barefoot and shirtless around multiple lakes. After a few months, my cardio got tuned up and, eventually, I could clip off three miles several times a week.

But then I got hurt. Because that’s what happens when you exercise and you’re middle aged. You get hurt just trying to stay in shape. I was jogging so much that I developed a severe case of plantar fasciitis, which is a strain to the ligament that connects your heel bone to your toes. It caused searing pain in my left heel and was worst in the morning, causing me to stiffly lumber like Frankenstein’s monster for the first hour of every day.

My injury was so severe that I was ordered to stop jogging. Then I began months of physical therapy. I wore a walking boot for the entire winter. Worse still was the Strassburg Sock that I was told to wear to bed. The Strassburg is a knee-high sock that works as a nighttime splint, stretching the foot with a Velcro strap that runs from knee to toes. (The Strassburg Sock is also extremely effective as a romantic buzz kill.)

Winter ended, spring arrived, and the injury healed. I was finally cleared to resume jogging. But after just a few miles, the pain returned. In a last ditch effort, I endured a horrific cortisone injection into the bottom of my foot that caused me to muffle an ugly, gagging cry in front of the stunned doctor. In that moment of tears and harsh truth, I realized wholeheartedly that I would never jog again.

I still needed to exercise, though, because regardless of the physique you’ve inherited, it’s always beneficial to get some cardio. Fortunately, in addition to his keg-on-legs stature, Dad has also given me his sense of humility, which, in the end, was the greatest inheritance of them all. So, with my tear-stained face and Frankenstein foot, I left the doctor’s office and did the best thing I could.

I went and bought a bike.