Menopause doesn’t mean an end to your journey as a trail runner; instead, think of it as an emergence into Superwomanhood.
I am on mile 12 of a carefully planned 18-mile midsummer training run on rolling desert trail in Tucson, Arizona, and, as I had predicted would happen only a few hours before, while still in bed, I am starting to break down. The first six miles run in the pre-dawn hour felt great – but as soon as the sun crested the low mountain to my east, it started. It is 82 degrees, the sun is out, and only getting hotter. I remind myself that I have plenty of water and fuel in my pack. I am on a familiar loop only a few miles from home. I tell myself not to allow frustration to set the tone. But the hotter it gets, the more my brain gets addled. Looking at my watch, it occurs to me that only a few years ago, I could run this route much faster. But lately, I find myself short of breath, short of temper, and earlier to slow to a walk, leaving me discouraged. Worse, I have had a few hot flashes in the last hour. Normally chatty, I have become deadly quiet. My very kind and patient husband, running just behind me, is keeping silent lest something he says sets me off. Sweat curdles under the collar of my shirt. I can feel a red chafe line forming underneath my bra line. I might have to poop. The sun is in my eyes. After a mild ascent out of a sandy wash leaves me gasping for air, I run up to the partial shade of a Palo Verde and bend over my knees, feeling whiney and out of shape. “Why, WHY am I so SLOW? What is WRONG with me?” I turn around and look at my husband. “Why don’t YOU feel the heat? Why aren’t YOU slowing down?”
This is the Menopausal Black Hole: a place where thoughts spiral downwards, out of control and dive bombing with every passing minute. It feeds off itself, sucking all the energy I have and stealing my stamina. I feel like a miserable old Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz, sweltering and threatening and reacting and lashing out, ugly and green with envy at my husband who seems to float along the trail, unbothered by the heat or feelings of failure.
If this scenario sounds familiar, you are not alone. I wish I could say that at that moment, the Good Witch Glinda came down from the heavens, waved her magic wand, had me click my red trail shoes three times, and I was home with an iced coffee and my feet up. Unfortunately, that is not the case. It did not get better. I walked a lot. I swore a lot. And I started to wonder what exactly was going on inside my head that was causing me such misery?
Off trail, I am a Data Analyst by trade, and I spot patterns. Based on feedback from previous runs, even from runs years before menopause set in, I have discovered that I have been repeating this experience again and again, and it is getting worse. It seems to me that every self-defeating behavior I possessed in my 30s and 40s is now ten times worse in my 50s. I understand that something has got to give, otherwise I am going to lose my love for running trail. I recognize that I have consistently indulged in self-fulfilling predictions of failure each time I set out for a run, more so now that my body has slowed, things ache more, and I have to work harder for what used to come easily.
Oh, where is Good Witch Glinda when I need her?
Menopause begins in women typically between the ages of 45 and 55 and is in most cases preceded by several years in perimenopause. There is a lot of information available for the menopausal athlete to study regarding the physical changes that occur in the body as estrogen starts to decline, affecting bones, tissue and muscle. Our logical brain understands menopause. It makes sense, even if inside we still feel like that same person who – wasn’t it only yesterday? – was a pre-pubescent twelve-year-old finding joy in climbing trees and running around the neighborhood. As adults, we know that if something hurts or we aren’t getting sleep, we can consult with our doctors and, if necessary, alleviate some of these symptoms with hormone therapy, diet changes, strength training, and sleep aids. But what about what is going on in our minds? What do we do when we are out for a long trail run, and the wicked witch brain starts to take over, no matter how well hydrated, strategically fueled, and supplemented we are?
Part of the problem is cultural. Despite the media available on the subject, including podcasts (such as Feisty Menopause [Hit Play, Not Pause] 1, books (such as Stacy Sims’ Next Level: Your Guide to Kicking Ass, Feeling Great and Crushing Goals Through Menopause and Beyond 2) and articles (see Lindsay Warner’s The Athlete’s Guide to Menopause 3 published in Outside Magazine), menopause is still seen by many as the end of youth – as a time when women should become invisible (or certainly not seen as – heaven forbid – functional sexual humans). Most of us currently going through “the change” are of a generation where our mothers and aunts just didn’t talk about it – still don’t talk about it. To them, menopause is a taboo subject – embarrassing or too personal or something to make a joke about – at their own expense. A few years ago, when I tried to talk to my own mother about what I was experiencing, she raised an eyebrow and said, “I don’t remember.” Many of us crave the wise words of a mentor or elder who can help guide us through the murky waters of aging skin, hair, stomachs, and muscles, and what that does to our self-image, while meantime we are bombarded by messages from advertisers trying to sell us products claiming to help us look and feel younger. We are taught that getting older is bad, that menopause is a signal to disappear from the scene. And on the trails, despite trail and ultra running being a fairly age-diverse sport, there isn’t a large representation of women in the 60+ age group at group trail runs and races. So, where to find a mentor or trail sister with whom to commiserate? Fortunately, there are groups on social media and here on Trail Sisters (see the Masters’ Athletes Group) – and that is a start. But it’s still hard not to feel isolated when our thoughts tend to the negative and our male friends and partners don’t understand what is going on.
Since Good Witch Glinda isn’t a real person (and if she was, she would not have availability on her calendar for years out) we are left with no choice but to be proactive and be our own Glindas. In The Wizard of Oz, all-powerful Glinda didn’t rush in and fix things for Dorothy, she held up a mirror to help Dorothy discover her own powerful good. We all have it – it’s just a matter of finding it and using it. For me, that may mean I need to actively seek out other woman with whom I can share experiences and find out I’m not abnormal. Maybe I can find a way to be a mentor to a younger woman going through perimenopause. Ultimately, our goal should be to find joy in the trails that we love, unburdened by self-doubt and anxiety. Mostly, to be kind and patient with ourselves as we age and slow down. As a bonus, at our stage of life, we have gained wisdom and experience not held by our younger, faster peers. The fact that we are out here on the trails at all is, quite frankly, pretty badass. Let’s face it: all menopause really is is an emergence into Superwomanhood. Why not embrace it? Why not celebrate it? If anything, we have control over how we react to it.
Back on the trail, I pause and take a deep breath. While it’s hot, it’s a beautiful day. I remind myself how fortunate I am to have access to this trail, to run along in my clunky, sweaty, heavy breathing way. I might be slow, but it’s all relative. I am healthy, I can run, and I am in a beautiful desert running on gorgeous single track. After a mile or so, I find that I have worked myself out of the spiral. Like magic, I feel myself releasing tension with every breath. I realize that I possess the power to stop self-defeating thoughts – that I’ve had it all along. We all do – we just need to use the muscle. Inspired, I start thinking of ways to connect with some other superwoman menopausal trail sisters. Maybe we can help each other (and the next generation) to embrace our new superpowers.
“Feisty Menopause” (podcast hosted by Selene Yeager, available on most podcast platforms [A Live Feisty Media Production]) https://www.feistymenopause.com/podcast
Sims, Dr. Stacy, “Next Level: Your Guide to Kicking Ass, Feeling Great, and Crushing Goals Through Menopause and Beyond” (Rodale Books, ISBN-13: 978-0593233153, May 17, 2022)
Warner, Lindsay, “The Athlete’s Guide to Menopause” (Outside Magazine, Dec 08, 2020, available online https://www.outsideonline.com/health/training-performance/menopause-exercise-tips/)