I was 36 in 2012, when I attended my first Hellfire Harlots recruitment session at the suggestion of my wonderful longtime friend (and now amazing derby ref) Zebra Harry. I wasn’t particularly athletic growing up: I got steady Bs in PE and dropped it at the first opportunity two years from the end of high school. I was reasonably good at some winter sports, having had figure skating lessons for 5 years as a kid and being fairly proficient (if not terribly ambitious) at downhill skiing (but we never got to do these in PE). The sort of balance required for these sports served me well when I decided to try derby, and a few months in, I was promoted to intermediate level.
That December, I pulled a muscle (I think) and turned to Dr Google to figure out what I should do about it. I stumbled upon a site that explained that pulled muscles were common in ageing athletes who haven’t warmed up properly. This taught me three things: 1) I needed to warm up properly; 2) I had to admit that 36 was probably ‘ageing’ for an athlete after all; 3) Wait, did someone just call me an athlete?! Sure, I sort of kind of try to keep fit, cycling to work and swimming regularly and doing yoga to alleviate stress in my shoulders, but no one had accused me of being an athlete before.
Three years later, I’m 39, a regular member of the Harlots’ A squad and current vice-captain of our B team. Our play keeps improving as a league, and I try to keep up to our ever-increasing standards, all the while wondering, as the oldest A squad member (seriously, I have two decades on the squad’s youngest member): how much derby career do I have left?
Then, on holiday, I read this book in a day and a half: Older Faster Stronger by fellow Canadian Margaret Webb. Webb writes about her decision in her late 40s to become, by the age of 50, in better shape than she was as a varsity athlete in her 20s. Can it be done? In fact, it has been done, not just by Webb herself (sorry for the spoiler—but read the book for all the amazing details!) but by legions of female runners in their 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and even 90s, running all kinds of distances (some of them 100-mile races!), breaking world records, keeping their bodies and their minds fit. The illnesses we associate with old age are, it turns out, not so much down to old age itself but to inactivity. The trick to preserving both our physical and our mental health is to keep moving our bodies.
Webb explains the science behind it really clearly for this non-scientific artsy-type reader. She focuses on issues like diet, training, cross-training, recovery, mental strength, and community. Although her focus is on running, there’s lots of overlap with derby: the gender gap is narrowing in running; and of course, in our sport, women got there first. But perhaps most significant is the importance of community: the women Webb trains with and the women she travels to interview from whom she gets her inspiration.
I must confess: when I took up derby three years ago, I thought I would probably skate for a few years, and then retire gracefully at 40. Five months away from my 40th birthday, all I can say is perish the thought. “What will we make of this glorious fitness opportunity, this chance to live for several decades after 50 with the wisdom of our years and the energy and strength of 20-year-olds?” Webb asks. What an exciting question to spend the next several decades trying to answer.