She was standing at the 32nd kilometer of the marathon course and was watching the slightly tired runners who were running the last 10 kilometers, toward the marathon finish line. Some of the runners recognized her and greeted her. Her appearance did not change. She was exactly as they remembered her. She raised her arms and waved back.
This white-haired lady on the route of the Ljubljana marathon was Helena Žigon, and she was 87.5-years-old. She was the only woman who had participated in all 19 Ljubljana half-marathons. On this, the 20th in a row, she participated only as an observer. It was a first for her.
Her daughter, standing next to her, knew her mother had a hard time simply standing and watching. It was quite possible that, without saying a word, she would suddenly step into the road and run. Helena turned to her daughter and said, "You know, I could run these 10 kilometers, too." And she repeated this phrase two more times.
Helena ran her whole life. Even as a little girl, she constantly ran, but then usually only to arrive faster wherever she had to go. She attended her first race quite casually in 1954, a short track and field competition, dressed in a skirt and blouse. But, surprisingly, she won. She gained even more motivation for running and participated in all the events which were organized in Slovenia—at that time, Yugoslavia—and which she was able to attend. Running offered her much that she longed for in life, but which she hadn’t received. Her life was pocked by darkness, but she didn’t give up.
She was running even after all her peers had stopped. When she was asked a question that seemed almost too rude to ask, she smilingly replied, "I will continue running until I'm too old." For her, running was a life constant, a point of reference, a way of thinking, meditation, learning about herself and the world. It was her path to acceptance and forgiveness, the way of life, or life itself. Running was her therapy and salvation.
About a year later, after standing and watching Ljubljana’s marathon day, Helena decided to celebrate her 86th birthday by participating in the 1st Istrian half marathon.
A few days before the start of the littoral run, after 66 years of love and 60 years of marriage, her husband, Stane, had died. And this tragic event happened just days after she had fallen and broke two ribs. Though she could barely walk, she arrived at the start, ran, and finished, without stopping once.
I tell of this exceptional woman and her amazing life in a biography, first published in October 2014 in Slovenia (and published October 2017 in English, as The Long Running Life of Helena Zigon). It became an instant success among runners, and even attracted non-runners, people who regarded running as something very distant from their personality, but who started thinking about running after reading about Helena.
What appealed to readers was Helen’s courage, her ability to keep on running, even as she approached age 90. Why is she still continuing to run, not planning to stop, I wondered, when most people her age have problems even walking short distances? She is still able to run a half marathon? How is it possible that she still wanted to run 10 kilometers at the age of 87, and that she was indeed able to do so?
The almost simple answer to this difficult question is this: The way she lived her life, allowed Helena to do this, and that includes regular exercise.
It is inevitable that we get older, but the key is in not just how old we are, but in how we age. Compare aging with a clock. When it stops working, we have options: We can throw it away or we can pay the watchmaker to fix it. But sometimes we can make a small miracle, if we only give it a tap, rap or a whack. For the same reason, let's not stop taking care of our bodies, let’s tweak them, to restore vitality. Only then can we become what we want to become. Because what we do has a direct impact on what we are.
“VO2 max” is the maximum oxygen consumption of which we are capable in certain activities, and it is the largest independent bio-indicator of our health. The consumption of oxygen and the consequent production of energy is what life is.
By the age of 60, our survival is not influenced so much by how much, if at all, we train. Until that age, we can end up dying due to other accidents, illnesses, misfortunes. But after 60, between the trained and untrained person, the difference starts growing rapidly. At that point, how fit we are becomes really important. We could say that, for a young person, physical exercise is undoubtedly important, but not crucial, but for the older person, it is a serious commandment: If it is not already too late, of course.
Our body is like a band with many musicians and many instruments in it. Without a good leader, they play many different melodies. Running is like having a conductor who helps the musicians to tune in and play a melody together. The more often the conductor conducts, the better the instruments are tuned. Regular running makes the cooperation of our whole body stronger.
At a first glance, the difference between a person who is regularly engaged in some physical activity and one who is not can seem negligible. But this first sight can be false. In fact, the difference between these two people can be overwhelming. A 70-year-old trained person can be, according to their physical properties, very similar to a 40-year-old person without training.
The loss of the functional capability of the body (muscle strength, kidney function, etc.), after we reach the age of 30 for the trained person is about 0.5 percent, and for the untrained, it is 2 percent. This difference may seem quite small, but at the first glance only. Consider where the accumulation of this percentage can lead in a few years.
The same untrained person’s body, in his forties, will appear 20 years older, or like he’s already 60. A person who exercises regularly will appear as if he is only five years older than what he actually is, which means that, in his forties, he will be more like a 35-year-old.
Since we are aging all the time, our cells, including our neurons, are deteriorating constantly. But fortunately we have exercise, which helps the creation of the brain protein BDNF, a protein that stimulates the growth of neurons and protects them.
Philosopher William James wrote, "We live lives inferior to our selves." If we consider the possibility that we could be in just a little better shape than what we are now, it means that we agree with him.
To describe what we can experience in our sporting activities, among recreationists it’s common to hear: “I won over myself.” But this is really not the case. Surpassing oneself can better be described as self-discovery. This is precisely the point: When we work harder and do more than we are accustomed to, it is really impossible to do more than we are capable. What may happen is that we may discover that we are capable of doing much more than we thought.
In doing so, we can ask ourselves, what is brave, to be satisfied with what we think we can do, or try to discover, again and again, what we can really achieve?
Helen's running is, from our cultural standards point of view, extreme. But from the natural point of view, it is not. Her abilities come from her life orientation. At this point I wonder, are we free enough to choose a similar one? This is always a question of how far ahead we want to see. Typically, it’s just a few years. More, well, we would rather not forecast... And we have a good reason for this safely truncated view.
In his book, The Roadmap to 100: The Breakthrough Science of Living a Long and Healthy Life, author and influential gerontologist, Dr. Walter Bortz, deals with the impact of physical activity on the degradation and conservation of body functions in old age. In one of his anecdotes, he compares humans with an automobile. The good shape of the car is affected by four factors: How the car is made, how it is maintained, on what roads it drives and how old it is.
Let’s examine these factors in detail. First, time is passing and we can’t influence that. We also claim to suffer from too much stress. We exaggerate the importance of our genes, or as Bortz says, “our design.” But our design doesn’t influence us as much as we think, as revealed by research on identical twins. A study by D. E. Antell on identical twins demonstrated that change of environmental influences, such as exposure to stress, sun exposure and smoking, have a stronger role. If genes were crucial, twins would get sick and die of the same disease at approximately at the same time, regardless of whether they lived in the same circumstances and under the same conditions. But they don’t. If they live in different places, they suffer different illnesses. The influence of genes is, therefore, smaller than we think. That means we can influence how we maintain ourselves and on what roads we choose to drive.
Walter Bortz says we can live 100 years. Bortz is 82 years old and, with his wife, they have run 43 consecutive Boston marathons. By his example and his science, he is reminding us about opportunities that active aging is offering us, and he warns not to ignore them.
Medical science considers old age as a disease, he says, something that has to be treated. But very often it is only necessary to wind the clock. The more, the better, but still it is better to be late than not to come at all. It is never too late to start, but it is always too early to quit. Let’s make ourselves do what we can, and as soon as possible. Nobody else will do it but us.
In his lecture entitled "The Plasticity of Human Aging," Bortz spoke about the right to free speech and association, but that freedom comes with responsibility. If we are irresponsible, those rights are quite questionable. And what is responsibility? It is knowledge. Responsibility comes from good answers. But good answers demand proper knowledge. Adults without knowledge can behave irresponsibly, meaning that it will be most likely that someone else will have to take care of us.
So therefore let’s ask ourselves, who will take care of us when we are old, and how good will he or she be doing it? The best answer is that we can take care of ourselves, and the most efficient way to do that is to take care of our health. The medical system will, in one way or another, care for us when we are sick. But it is our own responsibility to try to prevent disease.
We can negotiate with age. Age is not our destiny, it is our choice. But this choice is based on our knowledge, on the opportunities we have, and on our strong will.
Just as Walter Bortz and his wife, and our Helena, decided to continue running as long as their legs will allow them. But Helena’s treated her legs and body so well that her runs are very pleasant, and it is likely that she will be able to do it for quite some time to come. I know that Bortz would be thrilled about her because, by a careful and disciplined maintenance of her engine and choices of good roads, she is confirming his discoveries. She is dealing with her age with a lot of responsibility, and therefore has long enjoyed its fruits. Those ten kilometers she was considering running, well, certainly, she could run them. Most probably, she already has since writing this.
My husband Urban wrote on the back of my book, The Long Running Life of Helena Zigon, “When I grow up, I'll be Helena.” Let us be responsible for our own health and regularly wind our body clocks, so that there will be many more of us like her around to enjoy a better, and longer life.