First Things First

Save Enough Gas for the Downhill Slide

Lora Felger

I recently caught the last two laps of a women’s 10,000-meter track and field race on TV. A woman from the Netherlands had managed to come from last to first in the final lap. As the runners headed into the home stretch, it was an all-out sprint for the finish line. Suddenly, the Dutch athlete simply collapsed and fell to the ground. Her body had maxed out; it just wasn’t going any further.

I don’t know much about track and field, but I do know that runners train on saving enough gas for that final “kick” in the race to the end. Knowing and metering how much gas you have left is essential to make it to the finish line.

Last weekend, I had my own “out of gas” moment while trying to summit one of our beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains here in North Carolina. My dog Harvey and I had loaded up a daypack with enough water, energy snacks and even emergency matches (in case I got lost) and set out to climb to the top of Stone Mountain, elevation 2,305 feet above sea level. My brain, who still thinks she’s 35 years old, rolled her eyes at that elevation. Ha! I’ve hiked up to 13,300 feet in Colorado. The air is so thick down here it is almost chewable; this should be a cake walk. And that, my dear readers, was my first mistake.

About halfway up, I quickly came to realize how heavy water for one human and one 95-pound Labrador Retriever can be in a daypack. As younger and more fit hikers passed me by, I smiled and quipped “Tortoise and the Hare” analogies. I must have left an impression as after a while, hikers coming back down started calling Harvey by name, saying someone up at the top had told them about us.

“Look at that, Harv, we’re inspiring others,” I said to him as I loaded up the pack and headed up once again. Finally, I emerged at what anyone who has walked up to a summit would call “slick rock” or treeless rock outcroppings that indicate you are getting close to the top. Harvey and I scrambled to the far side and quickly realized that we were out of gas. I was feeling lightheaded; my legs were rubbery. And Harvey? Harvey had simply flopped over on his side and refused to go one step further.

Looking up, I estimated that we only had about 400 more meters to go. To summit Mount Geissler in Colorado (13,381 ft.), we had pushed through those last few meters on rubbery legs about 10 steps at a time. Working as a team, we cheered each other forward, stopping to rest about every 10 steps, pushing our bodies through the low oxygen, rubbery legs and mental screams of “stop walking already!”  The euphoria achieved at making it to the top was a high that’s hard to explain, but I suspect that hyperventilation from low oxygen levels contributed to the joy.

This time, I was 10 years older, alone without human teammates, and my dog was already telling me that he couldn’t go on any further. My 55-year-old body needed to be much more responsible for getting my dog and myself back down the trail safely. So, we turned around and started back down.

Ironically, the downhill descent can be harder on the body than the uphill climb. Trips hazards and vertigo are worse. Falling downward gives fuel to gravity that falling upward doesn’t have. I was smart enough to know that I needed enough gas left in my tank to manage those hazards.

Later, while enjoying a beautiful cold, locally brewed pilsner in town, I became more philosophical about the whole event. This really was a victory for my older and wiser self. I respected the limits of my older body and anticipated the gas I still needed in my tank for that much harder descent. What a metaphor for our later years in life!

As we start 2024, is your aging body housing a brain that still thinks like it’s 35? Don’t give up on those dreams, just prepare a little better. Stone Mountain and I have a date for later this year, and I will be better trained. The older we get, we appreciate and understand the need to keep enough gas in our tank for life’s descents. They can be doozies.

Lora Felger is a community outreach/Medicare adviser with FirstCarolinaCare. She’s the mother of two terrific boys, a world explorer- and a major Iowa State Cyclones fan. She also has a naughty, yet lovable Yellow Labrador Retriever named Harvey. Like this article? Let us know by responding to Thanks for reading!