If you don’t use it you may lose it

Association of Former WMO Staff, Bulletin 5, November 2006

If you don’t use it you may lose it

By Naginder Sehmi

In April 2004, aged 67, I was fitter than I had ever been, having run my first half-marathons and looking forward to many more. My total UN health insurance reimbursement for 2003 was zero.  Then disaster struck.

If you are over 65, don’t play football with children. They love to be goalkeepers and make you kick penalty shots.  For a quarter of an hour this is fine: it pro­cures an exhilarating feel-good feel-young sensation.  But I indulged for over two hours, and next morning my knees were swollen like melons.  Twice during the week my left knee gave way, and each time I collapsed in excruciating pain. Was I mad at myself!  Would this be the end of my running?  Would I lose contact with those running mates I saw in almost weekly competitions?  No more silent nods or handshakes at the starting line?  As solace I went on my bike to encourage others at the next few races.

After looking at my x-rays, the sports doctor, a knee specialist, said that nothing could be done to treat my worn kneecap cartilage and damaged and inflamed cross ligaments that hold the kneecap.  There was a touch of arthritis here and there.  He said that even with this handicap, some people continued to run, but avoided descents and stuck to even surfaces.  In other words, cross-country runs were out, as was running on packed snow as I had done in March, subsequently suffering badly. “But”, he added, “do not stop moving!”

“If you don’t use it you may lose it”.  This expression is usually applied to sexual prowess, but actually it is true for the whole body and mind.  After retirement a person should have the time to develop a single physical-mental (spiritual) entity.  I recall this from the instructive seminar on health and retirement organized by AFICS a couple of years ago when we were told not to accept the common belief that the reason for memory loss with age is the inability of the brain to replace dying neurons.  Dead neurons will be replaced, but only when they are needed.  Following retirement, use of the brain is often abruptly (and unwittingly) lowered to such a degree that the existing neurons are enough to meet the reduced need.  Hence less memory.  In the same way, lowered physical activity means less need for food intake, leading to shrinkage of the stomach, the digestive system and metabolism in general.

. . . he has come a long way . . .

Like many another, I enjoy blowing my own trumpet.  Remember the 2005 Geneva road marathon?  Here, I thought, I would be able to show off to lots of people I knew, rather than be an anonymous participant as in Lausanne and other distant venues.  The prospect overcame my initial hesitation, and I enrolled.

Sunday 8 May was a beautiful cool morning, and at 8.15 thousands of runners lurched across the electronically “bugged” starting line in front of the United Nations. Many cheering enthusiasts lined the route that took us to Cornavin, crossed the Rhone and the Arve to Carouge, back down the Route des Jeunes, along the lake to WTO and through the park to the finishing line on Quai Wilson.

When I used to tell people about my exploits, they expected to hear about gold, silver and bronze medals.  When I told them I was 580th it elicited a cynical smile.  This time I announced the result differently.  In the Geneva semi-marathon I was first among 96 (970 were ahead of me).  Clocking two hours six minutes and forty-nine seconds (about six minutes slower than on previous occasions), my average speed was 6 minutes per kilometre.  I suffered no cramp, but could not avoid groaning knees when “slaloming” through the Jardin anglais and the Perle du Lac.  You can imagine how happy I was to be ranked 14th of the 21 who finished in the ’over 65 years old‘ category.

Once across the finish line, my reaction was “never again!”.  But optimism is quickly reborn.  Looking at the results on Internet, I noted that the “gold” medalist in our group was born six years before me, in 1931.  He had finished 25 minutes (5 km) ahead of me and was probably taking a shower at home when I crossed the line.  One born in 1929 came 9th!  Four others who finished ahead of me were four or five years older than me.  That stimulated my adrenaline: I have still several years to improve.  Why not?

My knees seem to be improving after having completed semi-marathons in Lausanne (2005), Geneva (2006), my eleventh Escalade, and four cross-country Tours du Canton races in May/June. Hopefully, my knees will no longer be an excuse for a disappointing performance.

I ran my first Escalade in 1995 when I was 58; my time was 42 minutes 24 seconds for the 7.25 km (10.26 km/hr).  In 2003 I cut the time to 36 minutes 45 seconds.  At that rate of improvement, I might have equalled the all-time record by 2011 had I not kicked that football about in 2004.

In actual fact, for most participants the Escalade is not regarded as a competition.  Each runs against him- or herself; there are no referees or umpires.  In the near-freezing air, it warms our hearts to be cheered by the crowds on either side.  In 2003, as well as my family reaching out to touch me, I heard others, mostly Swiss friends, shouting “Allez Sehmi. Allez Sehmi!”.  My friend Allen was standing at the Cathedral bend, telling me my time and urging me on.  Why wasn’t he running?  He had been training with us every Thursday.

At the end of the race my daughter and her friend, having both just completed their first ever Escalade, rushed to hug me and tell me that I had beaten my own record by more than a minute.  On that news, the self-imposed torture of running three times up and down the narrow cobbled streets of old Geneva was instantly forgotten and replaced by pure joy, many times multiplied when joined by a dozen other runner-friends to compare notes as we walked towards the stands to hand over our electronic sensor in return for a souvenir, a bottle of “power drink”, and a fresh bun that tasted heavenly.

It is said that one cannot trust statistics.  But they can still be interesting.  Since 1995, in addition to training, I have been in 102 timed races varying from four to twenty-one kilometres, a total of 940 km in 5329 minutes, an average speed of 5.67 min/km or 10.58 km/h.  The winner is normally one-third my age and runs about twice as fast.

The major expenditure in this sport is on good running shoes (a pair can cost over CHF250), especially for persons of our age.  You can practice anywhere, any time in snow, thunder, lightning or rain—a weather forecast doesn’t need to cost you a penny.


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