Recently I wrote about viewing my body as a gift to my mate. That is only one of many possible metaphorical constructs; it’s meaningful to me, but perhaps not quite at the same level as something a bit more practical. My body is a vehicle. It is the way my consciousness gets from place to place. Everything about the way I experience the world happens through my body. I can choose whether to put my focus on driving a high-end luxury vehicle, a commuter car, or an old beater.
I didn’t learn to drive until I was 29. My first driving lesson put me off the idea. Other teenagers seemed to see driving as this form of freedom. They couldn’t wait to learn to drive so they could go anywhere they wanted. Not me. I’ll take the bus, thanks. When I finally submitted to peer pressure and took driving lessons, I failed my driving test twice. (Once for running a red light and once for driving on the wrong side of the road). I did finally pass, but after a couple of years I sold my car and went back to my bicycle. Driving sucks! It’s partly because I feel this way that I stay fairly fit, because I’ll walk 3-5 miles without thinking twice about it. My body is a vehicle in the most literal sense.
People seem to identify with their cars. If we get into a fender bender, we say, “He hit me!” rather than “His car hit my car!” A person who drives a truck or motorcycle may have very strong feelings about how that compares to driving a sedan. A lot of people have a dream car, in the same way that they might have a dream house or dream wedding. Notice how the car gets decorated after a wedding, with ‘JUST MARRIED’ on the windows, as though the car had gotten married too. We put stickers on the rear windshield, showing how many kids or pets are in the family. Some use bumper stickers to express their politics or personal philosophy. A car is often an extension of the home; we eat meals in it, do homework in it, take naps in it, fight in it, dance in it, put on makeup in it, etc. We may be more aware of the metrics of our car (mileage, age, price, gas in tank) than we are alert to the metrics of our actual bodies (blood pressure, fasting glucose, percent body fat, etc). We may feel more immediate concern about damage to our cars (door dings, cracked windshields, torn upholstery) than we do about that other kind of body damage (diabetes, heart disease, etc).
This weekend, I went backpacking. It made me reminisce about my first trip, when I was bone-tired after only two miles, and convinced at three that we must have passed our camp, which waited at the six-mile mark. The next day, we drove home, and by the time we pulled up to our driveway, I could barely walk. I mean, barely. I was shuffling a couple inches at a time because my legs were all locked up. That twelve-mile hike hit me almost as hard as my marathon a couple of years later. I’m older now, and I hadn’t really worked out all year, but a longer hike with significantly more elevation gain seemed fairly easy. My base fitness level is higher. I have more upper body and core strength, my posture is better, my legs are stronger, I’m leaner, I weigh less, and I have better cardio endurance. That means I’ve grown more blood vessels and expanded my lung capacity, among other things. I traded in my old jalopy for a four-wheel-drive sport model. It likes to go off-road and get muddy.
Backpacking has a lot in common with foot races. The longer the distance, the older the age range is skewed. In a 5k or on a one-mile loop, you’ll see a lot of families with strollers. As the distance and technical difficulty of the trail increase, the heads get grayer and the kids get left at home. This weekend, I did not see a single child, and perhaps no one younger than college-aged. We did see plenty of retirees, though. In my experience, I can often pass people half my age, while being passed by people twice my age! Two factors are leisure time and spare income. If you take a gander at the outrageous calves of these hiking seniors, though, it’s obvious that decades of experience give them the advantage. They are lean, mean, hiking machines. I can choose to be a little depressed that a 60-year-old is passing my 40-year-old self on a steep hill, or to be cheered that I’ll be fitter in 20 years than I am today. It’s a bit like parking next to an older person with a fancy luxury car; we assume they saved for it and they’re probably earning more at that stage of their career. Persistence pays off.
My fitness journey has taught me that the state of my physical vehicle has much to do with my mindset and my emotions. I have a comfier ride at 40 than I did at 20. Life is easier as a fit person. My body can also carry me to much more interesting places. The ability to climb to a lake at 5500 feet that can’t be accessed by automobile is a nice feature. I have some mileage on me: about 3500 miles by bicycle, a few thousand running, about 100 hiking, and who knows how many miles walking. Hopefully I’ll put on many more miles over the next 30-40 years. Leaving my body to sit on the couch is exactly like parking a classic car in a garage and padlocking the doors. This vehicle demands to be taken out and driven through the countryside.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.