Illustrations by Hannah Johnson
Graphic of a joint
In 2004, 77-year-old John Buursema stepped onto the track at Henry Sibley High School in West St. Paul. A one-time track-and-field athlete in his native Netherlands, Buursema had run his last race in 1952 before chasing a successful stateside career as a consulting naval architect to the shipbuilding industry. He’d taken up competitive cycling in the ’90s, but a 2003 accident left him seeking something a bit safer. “Of course, when you’re 77, you don’t go as fast as you thought you would,” he recalls. However, he still felt good running.
Returning to the track reignited Buursema’s passion for sprinting, and he trained for competitive races with running and strength training. But in 2008, swelling in his knee led him to an orthopedist, who told him a knee brace was the only treatment option for someone 81 years old. When the swelling made a second appearance in 2009, Buursema sought a second opinion. “I met Dr. [Eric] Khetia [of Summit Orthopedics] for the first time and he said, ‘If you want to compete, I’ll do my best to help you out.’”
Buursema had been suffering from a severe meniscus tear in his knee, which Khetia was able to correct with arthroscopic surgery, in which a tiny camera inserted into the knee provides a clear view of the injury and allows the surgeon to operate without creating a large opening. After several months of recovery, Buursema says his knee pain has completely disappeared.
Now, at 86, he’s lacing up his racing shoes for 100- and 200-meter dash events across the country. In 2012, he traveled to Lisle, Illinois, to compete in the USA Masters Outdoor Track & Field Championships, winning two silver medals in his age group. He was ranked seventh and fourth in the country for his 100- and 200-meter sprint times that year, rising to third in the nation for his age group in the 2013 winter season in a 60-meter event. Next: the USA Masters Indoor Track & Field Championships in Boston.
Buursema says he competes “to prove to myself that I can do it. There are a lot of people who tell me, ‘Well you’re too old for that.’ I say, ‘Well not really.’ If you are in good shape, you can do it. I am not an exception. There are several of us in the country like this, and if you want to do it, do it. Then you don’t have to count calories.”
Besides the freedom to eat like a teenager, Buursema’s competitive streak is doing his body multiple favors when it comes to maintaining health in his muscles, bones, and joints. “Exercise increases the level of oxygen flowing to your tissues and increases metabolism at the cellular level. It just makes the musculoskeletal system work more efficiently,” explains Dr. Gary Wyard, chief medical officer at Twin Cities Orthopedics. Blood-pumping exercise maintains bone density and also helps mental health by releasing feel-good endorphins in the body.
As Wyard puts it, “Chronological age doesn’t equal biological age. You can’t change your genetic makeup, but you can deal better with what you are dealt with appropriate exercise.”
Another case in point: 64-year-old Lynn Schwartz, a reading and language arts tutor from Burnsville. Over the past three-odd decades, Schwartz has undergone a total of eight knee surgeries to correct various conditions, and she is the recipient of two knee replacements in the past eight years. Khetia performed her most recent knee replacement surgery in 2010.
After recovering, Schwartz took up walking at age 61 when she was challenged to participate in the Weight Watchers Walk-It Challenge. “When I started training, I couldn’t even walk around the block,” she remembers. “But you can’t expect things to change if you don’t change them.”
The sense of accomplishment Schwartz felt in finishing the Walk-It Challenge inspired her to register for another 5K. And then another. Now 30 pounds lighter and counting, she walks in running races monthly in winter and almost every weekend during the summer months, competing against herself for faster times. “It’s about doing a little better each time,” Schwartz says. With more than 40 races already in the books, including her first 10-miler last June, Schwartz’s prize-adorned “wall of fame” is looking better every month.
She’s feeling better, too, with less pain and stiffness and more energy and mental acuity. “Physically, my body is 64, and my mind is in the 20s,” she says. Her next goal? Finishing her second 10-miler in less than three hours.