Thursday, December 31, 2009
But...they are only on loan to us for this lifetime, as it were. The expiry date isn't marked on our packaging, but it's there nonetheless. For all of us. Every. Single. Person.
I was recently in conversation with a women who had spent a lot of time with her mother in the last months before her mother's death. At one point, about a week before she died, her mother said, "I can feel it. I can feel that I'm starting to leave my body." For the last three days of her life, her mother no longer wanted to be covered by sheets and blankets. Her body was hot. As her organs shut down, the heat of her body was rising to the surface, warming her.
It reminded me, the woman told me, how temporary our bodies ultimately are.
Temporary, fleeting, finite--while we cannot become so attached to our bodies that we can't psychologically sustain the setbacks of injuries or illness; it is also all the more reason to remember every day how precious it is. How lucky we are to have bodies that will run through the blinding snow (as I did this morning), or swim across a lake, or ski down a mountain, or stand in tree pose.
How lucky are we?
May all of you cross the threshold into 2010 with vitality, enthusiasm and an open heart!
Friday, December 18, 2009
As you might have guessed, training and competing in mushing is a winter sport. Last year Jodi was so busy with her dogs and racing, she decided that she simply did not have time for Christmas. She sent out an email to family and friends that she'd decided to celebrate Christmas in April, when she'd have the time and energy to enjoy it, which she did. And why not? There's not much going on in April, so what a nice moment to suddenly get together for a nice meal and maybe exchange a few presents.
Is Jodi obsessed? Has she lost balance in her life? Not unless you think Christmas is more important than doing something you love. Obsession is in the eye of the beholder. Maybe to prioritize Christmas is obsessive. I don't know the answer. We should all choose what's balanced for us. And we know we've made the right choices when we're happy.
On that note--happy holidays to everyone, whatever you celebrate and whenever you celebrate!
Thursday, December 10, 2009
When we set precedents in the world as strong women (by asking for raises and climbing mountains), we help not only ourselves, but we help all the women who come next, all the girls who aren't women yet. We smooth the path, pave the way, lay the groundwork etc...How cool is that? In case you thought what you did wasn't important. Think again.
Monday, November 30, 2009
A lesser known fact about of Kathrine is that in November 2009, she was interviewed by...me. So, okay, there are reasons why that's fact isn't quite as widely known as her Boston debut. Still, now women (and men, of course!) who are reading this blog, and eventually Run Like a Girl, get to benefit again, from some extra inside insights from one of the goddesses of women's running.
Even if it is only 2 days post Black Friday, I'm not going to give the store away before the book comes out, but here's a bite out of the great conversation we had and the startling instant effect she had on me.
We talked some feminism, no surprise given her resume. From the beginning, Kathrine dedicated herself to getting women into sports and sports into women, so she faced a lot of opposition. "What's up with you women and running?" was not an uncommon question she was asked. Now, some women (many in fact) who consider themselves feminists would walk away from a question that feels so hostile. Or, they might meet it with hostility. Or condescension. I know I might have been (still be) very tempted to fight that fire with fire. In fact, we might consider it our responsibility as a feminist to react in that way. Or, we could sit down and talk to those men. Explain what's up with women and running. After all, what's the goal? A battle, or to share the gift of running (or any other sport) with as many women as possible; which is only going to happen when men are on board, too. It was Kathrine's gift early on to see that alternative and use it to all of our advantages. She's not the first or last person to know this, but she is a great living example of it in action.
Feminism needs to be inclusive of men. It also needs to be inclusive of the broadest range of women. So you want to run, you don't also have to climb trees or be a tomboy (not that either of those things are bad). We know this, all this about having the biggest tent possible and all, and yet...we (or at least I) judge women too often to be "not feminist enough because..." How about this one: Because they are wearing a skirt while running, and how can they be taking it seriously, and why do they need to look girly? That's one of mine, or at least it was until about a week ago. Skirts were fluffy. Running ought not to be. I thought. And yet, as Kathrine pointed out to me, how does running make us feel?--answer: strong, capable, powerful, and yes, sexy. Okay. And how do short skirts make us feel? Do you see where I'm going? They don't have to be mutually exclusive.
As we were heading out to the porch of the hotel where we met in St. Petersberg, at the expo for the Women's Running Magazine Half-Marathon, Kathrine and I stopped by the Running Skirts booth, as they were breaking it down and packing up. Kathrine was picking something up from the two women who ran the company (and also run like the wind). I pretended to be open to the whole notion, smiling politely. They discovered I didn't own a running skirt, and could barely be encouraged to try one on. Well, it fit okay, I thought, raising an internal eyebrow. I tried to give it back. "No, take it," they said (I had that "I'm with someone cool" credibility, and maybe because I'd told them about the book and the message I want to get out to women). I promised, a bit half-heartedly to wear it the next day in the race.
I did. Wow. A strange thing happened. I felt kind of cute, in a fast way (I mean speed, not the other fast that's negatively, and unfairly, associated with women). I felt fleet and sleek, like I had a secret power, hidden retro-rockets under my skirt. Oh right, I felt like a strong woman. This is not an advertisement--but I have to finish the story by saying that the skirt worked its magic. I didn't do the time I wanted. Note to self, our goals should not set us back psychologically when we don't meet them. Every day brings its own challenges. But, I did do well, at least in my own book (9th out of 3276 women). Of course, it wasn't the skirt, not really. But it was the skirt. It was that I had opened myself up to something new--believe me, my friends are still in a bit of shock about the whole skirt thing. I turned my back on my own resistance. I owned my own strength just a little bit more. I credit Kathrine with that; being around her energy, her conviction, and her expansiveness. The ownership she takes of being a woman and an athlete. By the way, she wore a cheetah print running skirt for the race. Pow! Shazam!
Thursday, November 12, 2009
I recently had cause to think about this question after interviewing a woman who described her intense commitment to training as "self-serving." Katie does ironman races, and has done the Marathon des Sables (6 days of endurance running with the Sahara desert thrown in). Her first ironman was a "rebound relationship" (my words) after a bad break-up, so in a sense it was, as she puts it, "all about" her. But does that make it selfish?
Two months before Katie graduated from high school, her mother died of cancer. Her mother had been ill for some years already, overshadowing most of Katie's teen years (as if those years aren't difficult enough for most of us). She remembers on one occasion, driving with her parents to look at a burial plot for her mother. That doesn't leave a lot of room for being "adolescent." For years after her mother's death, Katie charged ahead carrying out the plan her mother had laid out for her before she died. She rushed off to summer semester at Penn State only months after her mother died. When she would come home at holidays, she envied her younger sister and brother their free spirited playing in the yard. She had missed out on that. For Katie, her commitment to sports is a source of joy, it is play, it is a way to get back what she feels she lost in her adolescence. Is that selfish? No. You probably also thought that the question was easier to answer this time around. Now I have all the facts about Katie, so in her case it's not selfish. Oh? You have all the facts about other people to judge them? More understanding, less judging, as Katie said to me.
For her, sports is about putting herself in positions where she is learning new things about herself, her skills, and what she's capable of. That's not selfish, whatever your history and background. In fact, I'd go further still. It's a pretty good way to live, in fact. Not the only way, but one way.
Heidi is a social worker in the criminal justice system. In other words, her job is all about giving, a lot, all the time, every day. We talked about selfishness. As she says, taking care of herself is non-negotiable. She no good to anyone, if she hasn't been good to herself. How could she even begin to help others be happy and whole, if she isn't. For her, getting out for her run or exercise of some kind is like sleep, without it she's useless to other people. "You need to know yourself and your own needs," she says. "That's not selfish, it's self-awareness."
So what is selfishness? In one of those coincidences, which seem a shade too coincidental to be so, I was reviewing a manuscript this week (one of the hats I wear is freelance editor) for a book that I would describe as "why, what, how"--why are we here? and now that we're here, what's the best way to live? and how do we know? One of the chapters I read was titled, "On Selfishness." As the author pointed out, we have turned "selfish" into a derogatory word, as if to take care of ourselves, even to put ourselves first, is a bad thing. But if you really think about it, that can't be right. The airlines have always had it right. Put on your own oxygen mask first. As the authors say (her name, by the way, is Catherine Collautt, you haven't heard of her...yet), when we are empty, we have nothing to give. When we are full ourselves, we will find that we have a deep well of love, energy, and time to give to others, those close to us, and even strangers. That's Heidi's point. Pursuing things for our "self" is not selfish, unless in doing so we hurt someone else (i.e. I want to blow my cigarette smoke in your face).
What fills you up? It might be sports, or books, or movies, or naps, or cooking, or gardening, or, or, or...Filled up. Fulfilled. Only then are we in a position to give, to help others be fulfilled; and what better "why" is there for being here?
Thursday, November 5, 2009
"You ate two whole pieces of pizza?" That's what Rebecca Rusch's college running coach once said to her. And then proceeded to tell all the women on "his" running team that they were fat and slow (need I say that was obviously not so). Robin is a 5'8, 116 lbs speedster. She's basically a beautiful string bean with muscles. Twenty years ago her college running coach also thought she was fat (for the record she was the same size). Half the time she tells me she thinks she's fat. What are these coaches smoking? We can look at other women and shake our heads and think (or indeed say), that's just crazy, you look great. And yet we let these negative messages infect our self-images.
I thought of Rebecca's college coach the other night when I was wolfing down pizza, feeling like I couldn't get enough to re-stoke after putting in a 50 mile running week. I froze for a moment during my dinner. Hmmm? I was feeling great. But, maybe...I...was...deluded? Clunk.
Hands up all women athletes who have a relationship with food that has had its ups and downs. Rebecca quit the running team and went through a "bit of an eating disorder" period, as she puts it. To this day, this hyper-fit woman will get her new race kit and wonder, "does my race kit make me look fat?" Okay, granted, lycra bike shorts are not always the most flattering fashion, but still. She is a woman who ought never to think that way.
In fact, all of us should just stop, just stop this delusional thinking right now, whether we are in the best shape of our lives or in a temporary trough. We need to get out of our own way and let ourselves be happy. Fit is the new thin! Fit is the new black. Fit is the point.
Monday, November 2, 2009
In his book, Ratey covers a range of topics, showing in each case how exercise can improve cognitive abilities and mental health issues, in other words how it can improve learning and ameliorate conditions as diverse as depression, anxiety disorders, ADHD, menopause, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and, yes, aging in general. He shows how exercise literally helps the brain grow (how great is that?--and here's the cool word to go with it: neurogenesis).
As he writes, "The neurons in the brain connect to one another through 'leaves' on treelike branches, and exercise causes those branches to grow and bloom with new buds, thus enhancing brain function at a fundamental level." And later he writes this of the spark that exercise ignites in us, "It lights a fire on every level of your brain, from stoking up the neurons' metabolic furnaces to forging the very structures that transmit information from one synapse to the next."
Wow. That deserves a moment's pause to consider the implications.
Ratey, of course, goes into much more detail about the biological and chemical effects of exercise, which I won't get into here. I need to run a bit more before my brain grows enough new "leaves" to retain all the acronyms (vascular endothelial growth factor = VEGF, for example; though it inspired me to start using my own Run Like a Girl= RLG acronym more), suffice to say that the sports we pursue are good for us in more ways than we knew, though likely we knew instinctively that this was so.
When we RLG, we're simultaneously tapping into and replenishing our reserves of strength, courage, flexibility and, yes, joy; not just physical, but mental and emotional. We've always felt it. Not that we need science to validate how we feel, but it's nice. I, for one, find it grounding that science is finally catching up. I also think it opens a world full of possibilities--imagine if people were prescribed a little bit of exercise, instead of a pill that half-cures and comes with a host of side-effects? It's already happening. It's already working, and in some cases better than the pill ever could (not that meds don't have an important function). When we begin to see the power of our own ability to change, what other things will we turn to next? We are not stuck (wherever we think we're stuck). We never have been. We just need to start moving.
Monday, October 26, 2009
What a dismal way to live life. Really. All that energy spent on avoiding disappointment saps us. For what? It doesn't even work as an approach. We're just as disappointed when we get the news. Sometimes even more so, because we've built such an elaborate structure to hide our hope from ourselves that we forgot it was there, so the hammer drops all the harder.
Anticipating the worst is not at all the same as thing as practicing non-attachment to an outcome. (Oh yes, this post is the reverberation of a meditation retreat day I went to on Saturday...could you tell?) How can we know the difference? Well, my guess is that all of us have experienced it first hand in our pursuit of sports. Yet somehow we forget it when we move into the rest of our lives.
You train for a race. Hard. You follow your coach's instructions to the letter. You listen to your body. You eat healthy and sleep lots. And so on. You set a goal for the race. I'll repeat that. You set a goal for the race. That's right. You don't do a race anticipating the worst. You don't start out saying, "if I even finish..." No. You say, "I'm going to finish in this time," or "I'm going to finish strong," or even just "I'm going to finish." Because you know that if you spend all your energy trash-talking yourself before a race (aka anticipating the worst), you'll trash-talk your race right into the garbage can. Achieving your goal requires you to be present, and, even more importantly, it requires that you believe in yourself in advance.
What a concept.
And then there's this--sometimes you don't hit your goal time, or you don't finish strong, or you don't even finish at all (I've had all those things happen to me, more than once!). Does the world end? Do you feel worse because you dared to set a goal you didn't meet, instead of having no goal at all? Do people think less of you? No. No. And no. Because we understand that the race is just one day. It doesn't define who we are forever. It barely defines us for that day. Everybody has bad days, and they are just that. One day among many. And the reason we can see it that way?---we are not attached to the outcome. We understand that we are not the outcome.
I'm not saying I wasn't disappointed by the races that didn't turn out as I'd hoped. Of course I was. The first couple of times I thought the race result was me, that who I was from then on was going to be a woman who had failed at X. I wasn't. I thought everyone else would now define me by my race result. They didn't. I learned.
In connection with the book I've spoken with several people who were at one time or another Olympic hopefuls, but when the day came for their qualifying race, the stars did not align. Their lives zoomed off on other trajectories. Who knows what their lives would have been like if they'd made the Olympic team. Better? Unlikely. Just different.
There are so many ways we can be happy. A race is a day. Our outlook is our life. How much more interesting is it to live life at full throttle, instead of squeezed tight into a pre-disappointed state?
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Today I interviewed Rebecca Rusch, a world champion adventure racer, world champion mountain biker, superb endurance athlete, and, most important, incredibly warm person. Rebecca does not come by her athleticism naturally. In fact, no one else in her family is the least athletic and quite a few of them weigh in a little (maybe a lot) higher on the scale than is healthy. As a teen, she worried about getting fat; as many of us did (okay, still do sometimes), though perhaps she saw more potent evidence of the possibility in her own family's less-than-lean example. In high school a friend suggested they join the cross country running team. "You'll never get fat, and you'll get a free sweat suit." Well, both those things sounded like a good idea to Rebecca, so she joined. (An aside--I joined the rowing team at McGill in my first year for the jacket. The sad coda was that I couldn't afford the jacket when it came time to buy one. I didn't try out for the team the next year. They didn't miss my mediocre talent.) For Rebecca, the cross country team worked out better than rowing did for me. She never looked back.
Zooming past lots of great stories that I'll get to in the book, for now let's just say that Rebecca proves herself to be a champion in a series of sports (is that a serial champion?--sort of like a serial monogamist?). First she devoured rock climbing, still her first love, owning a rock gym and guiding. Then she was on the US Women's white water rafting team. Then she got into adventure racing. And four years ago she picked up mountain biking. She is, in short, gifted, not only in sports, but in being open to opportunity, and in her willingness to start again, to re-invent herself, to re-identify herself. That's a rare trait. We like to hang onto our identities. We become attached to who we are. "I'm a (fill in the blank)." "I'm the kind of person who (fill in the blank)."
When we are attached to our identity, we begin to measure ourselves in the same way. Every challenge is one we've seen before in some form or another. We have expectations of ourselves. Do you always do 5k's or marathons? Do you always do century rides? Or moguls? Have you always gotten jobs as a lawyer in a law firm? Are all the men you date tall? There's nothing wrong with same-ness, but sometimes it's good to change things up. As Rebecca says, "It's healthy to take away the measuring stick." That's how mountain biking felt to her when she started. People who knew her were surprised. She was a terrible biker. She used to pitch her bike into the bushes she was so frustrated by that section in adventure races. It still surprises her when she wins a race.
Yet, how great is it when we do something that surprises us; when we find ourselves asking, "how did that happen?" It's joyful to be a beginner, to start again, to not be the expert, to not be really good at...whatever it is.
Joy-full. Take away the measuring stick every once in a while.
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
I'm going to be interviewing her in late November, down in Florida at the Women's Running Magazine's first Half-Marathon. So I'll save any stories about K.V. Switzer for then.
But I had to share this one factoid in advance: Did you know that the women's marathon was not an official Olympic event until 1984? And if you knew that, did you also know that to get the event sanctioned for the Olympics required medical certification that marathons were not harmful to women, that women were indeed strong enough to do the distance?
Curious. Sometimes when I look at the state of the world, still run largely by men, I wonder if we ought to ask for medical-psychological certification that power is not harmful to men, that men are indeed capable of creating a peaceful world.
Friday, October 16, 2009
Eventually another one of the teachers, Mrs. B, called Katy and her equally athletically talented best friend into her office for a chat. Mrs. B suggested that "little Katy" and her best buddy "find some new friends," and stop hanging around the athletic girls, where they didn't fit in. Gee, thanks Mrs. B.
Fast forward. Katy is going to run her first marathon. Her high school best friend sends her a t-shirt that says "Eat my dust, Mrs. B." And Katy wears it to bed the night before the race and wakes up inspired and ready to run 26.2 miles. Fast forward another year or so and Katy, who feels strongly about the empowerment possibilities of sports for women, starts a company that sells cool stuff for women runners. One of the very first customers she has is...no, you didn't quite guess it...Mrs. B's daughter. A note from Mrs. B follows soon after, with congratulations on Katy's venture.
For Katy, it was better than any apology might have been.
It's funny how the world and time can fold back around on itself in new and improved ways, isn't it? (Now if my high school English teacher would just send me a note about how me liked my novel...but that's another story.)
Monday, October 12, 2009
To be fearless, what a trick. We are born fearless and then little by little it gets squeezed out of us. Yes, I'm coming back to Girls on the Run for a second time. It's such a great organization I couldn't help myself. They recently ran an essay contest, asking the pre-teen girls participating in their program to write about what it meant to them to be fearless. Here's a small sampling of what some of the girls wrote. And a reminder that we faced many of the same fears as children, that we face as adults. Or perhaps I should say, we don't grow out of as many of our fears as we think. So what a boon if we can learn to be fearless early on.
"To me fearless is doing something others might not think is cool. Like standing up to the popular kid in school, or making friends with the new girl."
"[T]o stand up for myself and ignore gossip about people."
"No, I haven't slaughtered a dragon, captured a murderer, or even perfected a backflip...I opened up and shared my thoughts, without being afraid of being teased."
"I shouldn't be held back from standing out."
"Being true to who you are, is the best way to become fearless."
I couldn't have said it better.
Monday, October 5, 2009
No, running didn't solve everything. Molly didn't climb right out of that girl box, pumped up on endorphins from a run, and never look back. We all know, it's just not that easy. First she had her own battle with alcoholism (strangely complemented by obsessive ironman training, I guess one obsession wasn't enough, an over-achiever is an over-achiever, even if it is about addictions to alcohol and sports. I wouldn't have thought it was possible, but Molly tells me you can do 100 mile bike rides with the "shakes" from too much drinking the night before).
Anyhow, I'm digressing. While Molly's story of coming back from the precipice she ended up on is amazing, I'm saving that one for the book (oh, and also the theory we came up with about running and women's sexuality). For now I wanted to share a smaller story, that I think will resonate for many.
Molly was walking home from a meeting recently, dressed up in skirt, when coming towards her on the sidewalk was a group of men in business suits. Without waiting to see what they might do, she pulled out and went around them. Some time later that same day, as she was heading out on her run, she ran into the same group of biz-suited men. Except this time she ran right through the middle of them. Why? What had changed? As strong and independent as Molly is, there are still times when she feels like a bit of an object under the eyes of men. When she's in her skirt, in her conventional woman disguise. But once she's laced up her shoes, there's no oxygen left for that feeling. Whatever those men may be thinking (and who knows what it is); she no longer "feels" them looking at her as an object. She's free.
Yes, we all want to carry that feeling of being free to be exactly who we are into every corner of our lives. The unfortunate truth is that it can be hard. Witness Molly--who has dedicated her life to helping girls understand how the strength they feel from running allows us, enables us, to expand so much more in the rest of our lives. Even she, like all of us, struggles at times. If it were not a challenge, we might forget. We might forget what we're running for, what we've gained and all that's possible.
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
It got me thinking.
Is part of our pure nature that we are also healthy and strong? I wonder. In any event, there's certainly something to be said for the power of how we identify ourselves. If we say, "I am a healthy athlete," there's a better chance that's what we'll be.
At 24 years old, Carrie weighed 50 lbs more than she does today. She had just moved to Austin, TX. She knew hardly anyone. She ate and drank way too much, by her account, and had recently had her heart broken. She was feeling blue about life, and her life had barely begun. She desperately needed a physical and emotional change in her life. She set a goal for herself to do a marathon by the age of 30. So she screwed up her courage and signed up for a beginning running group. She'd never run before. She worried she'd be the biggest person in the group (she wasn't); she worried she'd be the slowest (she wasn't); and she worried that she'd stand out or embarrass herself in some other way (she didn't). In short, she didn't identify herself as a runner yet. She identified herself as an overweight, out of shape person, albeit one who was going to try her hand at running. Four years later (and two years before her 30th), she crossed her first marathon finish line. It wasn't until that moment that the transformation was complete--she finally identified herself as an athlete, she flicked the self-identification switch in her head to the positive setting for good (okay, I'm sure it's still challenging, it always is). And what a difference that made. Seven years on she's done fifteen marathons, a slew of triathlons and an Ironman (I'm trying not to feel lazy as I write this). She's giving back to the sports she loves, too. Volunteering at races. Raising money for charity through races. And coaching others to accomplish their own extraordinary athletic goals.
Rebecca used to negatively identify herself as a bit of a helpless woman in some situations. That is, until she started running. It changed not only her view of herself as an athlete, but her view of what she was capable of in so many other things. Here's an example I like (especially since I've never yet had the gumption to do this particular thing): Driving to the mall in Houston, TX, where she lives (I know, this is a TX day), she drove over a ladder that was in the middle of the freeway (go figure, but she says the oddest things turn up on the freeway in TX), and arrived at the parking lot with two flat tires. She started to have a panic attack, looking for the "man" who would help her. Not even the security guard was willing. So she took a deep breath and said to herself, "If I can run a marathon, I can totally change these tires." Out came the car manual and lo and behold, she changed the tires. Easy as pie. "I knew then I was capable of many things."
Oh, and by the way, Rebecca has also lost over 60 lbs since she started running in 2002. She's still not small, by Vogue standards, but she can kick those size 4's butts on a run.
It's a whole new world when we shift our focus from identifying with all the negative things we've done or suffered, to identifying with the positive. I'm not saying it's easy. How could it be? If it were, we'd all be zooming around our lives bubbling with positive energy (and the high fructose corn syrup industry would die out, since we wouldn't need to artificially sweeten our lives to get a buzz out of it--I know, I know, I can't help myself sometimes. I admit it. I'm a Michael Pollan devotee). But it's possible; and possible is better than easy. It makes something worth striving for.
One more word from Kadam Morten's talk last night. As he pointed out, one of the most important things as we're making the transition to identifying with our pure nature is to be skillful about how we set our goals. If, for example, we say, "I'm never going to gossip again;" or "I'm going to run a 2:30 marathon my first time out." Well, then we've probably set ourselves up for failure, because we've set an exaggerated goal. Then, because we've failed, we get to re-identify with our bad nature. "See, I knew I was a failure. I couldn't even keep from gossiping for the whole rest of my life;" or "I only ran a 3:45, what a loser I am." Instead, set realistic goals. Turn up the heat slowly. Think of putting all those negative identifications into a pot of cold water and slowly boiling them to death--they're like frogs, they won't jump out of the water, if you bring it to a boil slowly enough. (Okay, that was a bit of a metaphor jumble sale just now.)
We are by nature pure. We are by nature strong and healthy. Let's not let our minds get in the way of our nature.
Friday, September 25, 2009
I had a great conversation/interview with a women who is hoping to make a ski film by and for women. No more "duh" mentality Warren Miller films, with extreme (and extremely expensive) ski locations, with the occasional (male, of course) skier sitting around in a stone-out haze waiting to ski. We got to talking about how and why women take up the various sports they do and we realized that in our own lives, and in the lives of so many women we knew, they had taken up different things all through their lives, often for a boyfriend or husband, both when they got together or as solace after breaking up. But there were lots of other reasons, too, for which women had taken up a sport. And ultimately, the women stick with sports because they love them--they are pursuing their passion.
The interesting thing that she and I had noticed about our own lives, and the lives of our other women friends, was that men seem much, much, much (I could go on) less likely to take up something new after, say, the age of 25. Certainly, it's pretty rare to hear about a man who took something up for a girlfriend (this was pointed out to me early on by a women I interviewed). It's equally rare to hear about a man being "taught" how to do something new by his girlfriend. Because here's the hard part about pursuing new activities as you get older--you have to be willing to be a beginner again and again and again.
So, here's my question--are women more willing to be beginners than men? And if so, why is that? Or, as one woman has suggested to me, is it that men take up many more new things when they are younger (and, in their turn, perhaps women are more tentative and take up fewer new things in their youth), so that there is less that is truly new for men to try as they get older? Is that why women take up their boyfriend's activities and not vice versa--because they just have more activities to be taken up?
I'm more inclined to the first of these possibilities (women's openness to beginning again), than to the latter, but really, I just don't know. I'm asking. What have others experienced and observed?
Let me know!
Thursday, September 24, 2009
Except that, for some women, it's also the way they give back. Virginia is a sixth-degree black belt. In her younger years (though she's still young at thirty-five, of course!), she competed extensively in sparring matches. Over time though her focus has shifted to teaching, to passing along her knowledge to others; something she finds very fulfilling. As she says, "nothing in the world can replace the sense of accomplishment that comes from teaching others that they are capable of protecting themselves, no matter how small, young, old, or shy they are."
Mary Beth feels the same way. She's a CPA who worked for years for Arthur Andersen and then McAfee. She started playing soccer when she was two and a half (kicking the ball around at her older brother's games) and she never looked back--basketball, volleyball, soccer, marathons and fitness & figure competitions (which involve some combination of body building, dance, gymnastics, obstacle courses and other demanding physical feats). While working as an accountant, she got her personal training certification, and one year at a continuing education conference in the field her financial brain hooked into her personal training brain and she got the idea to start a fitness community, ALaVie, (primarily, but not exclusively, for women), which offered outdoor boot camps and a network of health and wellness professionals.
Mary Beth hasn't made her millions (yet), and she still has a full-time other job, but she is pursuing her passion. As she points out, many women aren't as lucky as she is, to be able to join a soccer team to get their workouts in. They need some source of team spirit and motivation to get them and keep them in shape. Mary Beth provides that essential "team" ingredient. As she says, "the biggest thing I didn't expect when I started the business was the relationships people build through the programs." She doesn't know it, but she's sort of a sports yenta (matchmaker) for friendships.
Not only is Mary Beth giving back with her business, she goes further still. On a recent Saturday morning she was wondering why she'd committed to do a fundraising boot camp for the Bay Area Women's Sports Initiative (BAWSI--great acronym if you say it out loud as if it were a word--a word that men like to use to describe women with opinions). BAWSI takes college athletes in the Bay Area and has them work in challenged neighbourhoods, creating sports options for girls. They even have a program they've developed for the girls' mothers, who were sitting on the sidelines often times and were thrilled to have their own reasons to move around. When Mary Beth got to the fundraiser she was running, she remembered why she'd given up her Saturday. "There was so much passion, and what we're doing makes a difference in people's lives, which wouldn't happen if I were just pursuing money."
Next week I'm interviewing Molly Barker, the founder of Girls on the Run International, another fabulous organization giving opportunities for girls to flourish, using running as its basic tool. I recently became a Girls on the Run Solemate--which means the half-marathon I'm doing on October 3 is to raise money for the organization. So I'll feel a little less selfish about abandoning my parents during their visit to do the race--plus the t-shirt is pretty darn cute.
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
In the late 70's, when Central Park was less of the jewel it is today (at least safety-wise), she was attacked by a man brandishing a knife, as she was running to work (there's something ironic about the man's choice of victim). She was so incensed at having her run interrupted, not to mention that she didn't want to be late for work, that she turned on the man and yelled, "You better leave me alone!" He did. It sounds like Jo's running shoes had some kind of Dorothy's-red-shoes magic in them.
Actually, come to think of it, our running shoes do have magic in them--the power to transform a bad day into a good day; frustration into speed; chocolate cake into muscle; and self-doubt into self-confidence. I can't guarantee the power to ward off attackers as Jo did, but for the rest...I know.
Monday, September 21, 2009
Katrine has been with her now-husband for five years. In fact, it was he who got her into serious running and doing triathlons (when they were married, their three-layer wedding cake was triathlon-themed: the miniature bride and groom ascended through the layers in the various sports to cross the finish line on the top of the cake). Now they are both equally dedicated athletes. In the beginning, Katrine was very competitive with her mate. Because he was faster than she was, Katrine had trouble seeing her own accomplishments as worthy. To compensate for his gender handicap (kind of like a golf handicap, but harder to change), Katrine would instead drive herself to train at least as much as him, if not more. When she was laid up after knee surgery, it would drive her crazy when he headed off for a run or bike or swim. She knew it was selfish, but it made her feel worse to see him training when she couldn't. After a few years of living in the swirl of her own self-generated competitiveness, she realized that she needed to "beat that beast" out of her mind. She needed to be comfortable with, no more than that, happy and proud of her own accomplishments, and stop comparing herself to her speedier mate's. It took a couple of years, but Katrine's attitude has evolved to a better balance. I'm impressed. I know what that kind of intra-relationship competitiveness can feel like. We women sometimes have to reach deep inside ourselves to find our strength in the face of our male partner's seeming superiority (after all, they do have a natural physical advantage---never mind the socio-economic advantages). I wish I could say that it only took five years to beat that beast in my case. Sigh.
One thing that struck me when I was speaking with Katrine was when she said, "he's faster than me, obviously." Why does it have to be obvious? Yes, as a statistical generalization, men are faster than women. Within any relationship though, there's no guarantee that will be the case. Except...except for the niggling fact that it seems to be a rare man who will partner up with a woman stronger and faster than he is. Mary Beth, the other woman I interviewed this morning, has experienced the short end of that stick. She's a successful, super-athletic (and yes, beautiful) woman in her mid-thirties. She's had a series of relationships go south in the face of her athleticism. In high school, she allowed her relationship to side track her from participating in Track & Field, to compensate for her boyfriend's insecurity with her strength, and to avoid his less-than-supportive retaliatory behaviour when she did take part in sports. Then in college Mary Beth decided against playing basketball to try to maintain the balance in a long distance relationship she was involved in. To no avail. As she's gotten older, Mary Beth has made the conscious decision to be the best she can in the sports and fitness activities she's passionate about, and which give her so much joy (more to come on Mary Beth in another post). She decided to stop holding herself back in an effort to please men intimidated by her vigour. I'm sad and disappointed to report that the result is that Mary Beth is still single, despite her desire for a life partner. She recently got out of a dying relationship, largely because he couldn't deal with her being as strong and fast as he was.
No, not all men are threatened by women who are more talented athletes than they are. Men who aren't athletes themselves, for example, are often quite content to support their athletic partner. But it's a rare and precious man who can be in a relationship with a woman who participates in the same sport he does, and is "better" at it than he is. Men don't like to be beaten by women. They feel emasculated (I'm not a man, yet even when I hear that word it has an uncomfortable onomatopoeic ring to it). Not that women aren't complicit, too, in the power-balance-dance around sports. A lot of women don't want to beat men. We become enablers, by purposely holding ourselves back to bolster a male ego.
I wish I had a solution. I know what I don't think the solution is--not being true to our nature. Slowing down. Playing weak. Pretending fragility. It turns out that pleasing men is a conundrum with a lot more complexity than Cosmo lets on. In the meantime, be yourself.
Friday, September 18, 2009
And Kim's experience is hardly unusual. Raise your hands if you've been taken out by your (often well-meaning) boyfriend/partner/husband/significant other and ended up in a situation that was above your head, where the motto was "do as I do, dress as I do, use the gear I do; oh, and also, watch me kick your butt." No wonder so many women abandon sports. They have no idea that what seemed to be outside their capacity is only temporarily so. They don't stick around long enough to find out.
Kim did--stick around that is. She's an extraordinary skier now (not to mention kayaker, mountain biker, climber etc...). Amazingly, she stuck with the boyfriend too (now her husband and father of their son, but definitely no longer her ski instructor), and together they recognized that there was a niche that needed to be filled; that is, sports clothing and gear specifically designed for women. Until the last five years or so, most companies have taken the approach of (here comes my new retail term, in a context) "shrinking & pinking," in other words, taking men's clothing and gear and just making it in smaller sizes and, yes, offering it in pink. [Full disclosure: I have nothing against pink. It's just a really really bad colour for me.]
Kim and Mike decided to open a women-only store. Everyone told them they were crazy (people seem to love to tell other people that their dreams are crazy--why is that?--are they threatened perchance?). People said that women didn't want their own place to shop (if such a store existed in NYC, I guess I'd shop there only 95% of the time, that's true). People said it was folly to split the market. Sigh. Whatever. As Kim says, "If you have a really great idea, run with it. Take advice and constructive criticism from experts, but never let them quash your dream." I'm taking that advice to heart as I send out my book proposal.
Outdoor Divas slogan?--Women are not small men.
Final thought--those English Lit degrees are a great preparation for life, contrary to popular belief. Maybe reading all those books keeps the world nice and open.
Thursday, September 17, 2009
A few weeks before she went to Sweden she was in Sports Authority picking up some last minute hockey equipment when this happened: A girl, maybe 8 years old, picked up a pair of pink hockey gloves. With a big smile she showed them to her mother, "Look, Mom, I could wear pink and play hockey." The excitement and hope in the young girl's voice was palpable. Her mother said, "Girls do not play hockey. Any girl who plays hockey is masculine and not feminine, and would not wear pink." KP picked up the pink hockey mouth guard she had been looking for, walked over to the mother and daughter and said, "Excuse me, but I wonder if you think that I am feminine or masculine?" She was wearing a skirt (newsflash--you can play hockey and wear skirts, though apparently some people can't imagine it). The mother said "feminine I guess." KP thanked her, looked at the small girl, and told her about how she was picking up a pink mouth guard in preparation to go skate professionally in Sweden. Then she said, "Girls can play any sport they want to and maintain femininity...it's all in how you are raised." Oh mama. I'd like to have seen how conversation went at the dinner table that night in the young girl's family.
So what's feminine? I'd hate to define it, and why do we need to? Be your own person. Travel lightly in the world. Contribute. Share. Be a source of positive energy. And wear whatever colour, for whatever sport--it won't change your gender!
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
Thursday, September 3, 2009
It's funny how that happens. You read a book and the issues in the book seem to strike right to the core of your own life. We read our own lives into the best books. In this case, I realized that I was being as small as Gene was about Phineas in the book. Gene jounced the tree branch, causing Phineas to fall, because he was sure that Phineas was deliberately trying to undermine his studying, and to show him up. As we know, Phineas' mind didn't work that way, nor did his heart (and of course my partner wasn't trying to do anything nefarious to me either). Gene had created the mean rivalry in his own mind, because it seemed inconceivable that someone else couldn't feel as small as Gene did. How I felt on my mountain bike was up to me. I created every second of that ride in my own mind. I could find it fun and challenging to try to get up the steep, sandy hill between the looming rocks, or I could find it discouraging and frustrating, and feel small, and want to blame it all on someone else. As soon as I remembered Gene, I remembered it was my mind and my ride.
It's hard to stay in our own moments, but it makes all the difference.
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
Flash forward to college. Becky started thinking that maybe she'd like to do a triathlon. The catch--it meant she needed to really learn how to swim, not just paddle around, as she'd done as a child. She took a beginning swimming lesson and she fell in love. For Becky, swimming is something more than it is for most of the rest of us. Since birth she has had an eye condition called "strabismus." Her eyes work independently of one another. When she was born, one of her eyes was turned all the way in. For years she underwent different types of therapies to help her eyes understand how to work together. A patch over her good eye, for example, was used to force her bad eye to face forward and work properly. Still, she often sees double, she's been wearing bifocals since the age of 20, her depth perception is way off, and she has headaches more days than she doesn't. Swimming, it turns out, is the only time (except sleeping) when Becky can rest her eyes. "It's a total release."
Not one to do things halfway it seems, Becky zoomed past the usual swimming goals and into long distance swimming. Her first "real" long-distance open water swim was off St. Croix--5 miles in the open ocean. Swimmers are ferried out on boats to Buck Island (the first place to be designated an underwater national monument by JFK). When the conch shell blows, the swimmers head out across the ocean and back to St. Croix. The first time Becky did it she had a good case of butterflies as she started to swim. After about 500 yards the ocean floor drops away. Becky was awestruck by the sparkling starfish, hanging above the bottomless dark blue sea. "It looked like constellations." I was envious when she described this world upside down, the sky in the sea. Her next thought was, "I'm good. I can do this." She did. And she's since done the race a couple more times, including one year when she was stung by a Man of War early on (I won't even get into the excruiating pain she described and the systemic reaction she had the next day). Did it stop her? Of course not. Her most recent swim was a 10-miler in northern Vermont near the Canadian border--brrrr.
Becky has a special bracelet in the traditional St. Croix design. It's called the Cruzan knot. On days Becky has something challenging to do, she wears it. It reminds her that she can get through it, whatever "it" is. "I can swim 5 miles in the ocean," she thinks, "I can do this." In these economic times, running a small business, as she does, she needs that reminder more often than usual. Her Cruzan knot bracelet reminds her to be brave about new things. Even if something makes her very very nervous, and is way outside her comfort zone, she knows that the worst that can happen is that she doesn't succeed (whatever that means); at least she'll know she tried. And that's something she hopes she's passing on to her son..oh, and we can take inspiration from her, too! We all have our challenges. We all need our own Cruzan knot reminders.
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
Justine was the first woman I interviewed. She took up running at the age of 50, as a way to de-tox and shift her focus away from the fact that four weeks before her 50th bday her husband of 20 years had up and left her with about as much warning as if she'd been a one-night stand picked up in a bar the night before. Running gave her something to focus on and stopped her feeling sorry for herself. It was, as Justine put it, "An intervention in that feeling of waking up alone."
But then, as running does, it took on a life of its own.
A young nephew of Justine's told her about running the NY marathon and Justine thought, I can run an hour on a treadmill, I can run a marathon. She was right, though it took a bit of time to execute--a stress fracture kept her out of the first marathon she trained for and a fractured tibia kept her out of the second. She'd bought a book on marathon training and was following it religiously. The only problem was that it was a regimen for a 17 year old--run 2 miles day 1, and run 17 miles day 2, and so on...No wonder she was injured.
At work and at home, among colleagues and friends, everyone said, "It's too late." An insightful orthopedist told her, "You'll figure out how to do it." And she did, running her first marathon at 55 years old. She's still going strong.
"I never thought of it as 'sports'. In high school I would wonder if the gym teachers would notice if I told them for the third straight week that I had cramps again, so I could lie down instead of participate."
Justine has never run with a partner. She runs alone and it's "a singular thing," just for her. In her work life, in the film business, she's very social. Running ensures she carves out some quiet time.
More important though is that it reminds her of what she's capable of. "I can do this, and if I can do this, there are a lot of other things I can do," she often thinks on a tough run. Too, runs change every day, some are good, some are mediocre, some are awful. How a run starts may not be how it ends. "It's like life," she points out. Sports reinforces and reminds us that life is constantly moving in different directions, often all at the same time, and we can accept and adapt to the constant change without feeling defeated.
And Justine reminds me that it's never too late, no matter what people say. How lucky is that?
More anon on the other amazing 63 year old I spoke with...
Thursday, August 13, 2009
That's a pretty extraordinary difference. McDougall doesn't speculate as to why, nor apparently does anyone else, at least not anyone he quotes. So I have a wide open field in which to speculate. Some possibilities--women have a higher "quitting" threshold; women don't start races (or other things) that they can't finish; women approach daunting challenges with more humility (think the tortoise and the hare); women are tougher (have higher pain thresholds etc...); women are proportionately less crazy, so there are fewer of them to show up at the starting line and those who do are certifiable, whereas some of the men are only part of the way to certifiable?
I don't even know which one of those speculative answers I think is the right one, but it's fun wondering and whatever the reason--women finish.
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
I was trail running (if you're thinking I've been doing too much of that lately, the answer is that I have been doing a lot--I don't know what too much would be, but I'll let you know if I get there) and we were following a map of the trails in the area. We got an intersection that we "knew," because we'd cross-country skied on the same trail all winter. So of course we were certain about where we were on the map. But then things went wonky. Where had the trail gone? If the vista was here, then the trail should be there. Except "there" was only a bunch of scrub bushes and we tried to run through them, but it was pretty clear there was no trail there, much less anything as wide as a fire road, which was what the map showed. We berated the map. Thank goodness we were so much smarter and could find our way without the map.
Oh. That's the vista? But that' s not where it is in the winter. Turns out, it doesn't matter where things are in the winter when we're xc skiing, map points are different for the summer folk. Just because we had a pre-conceived notion of where things were, didn't mean we were right. Suddenly the map was back in our good books and everything seemed clear again. As soon as we got out of our way, things got much easier.
I don't think I need to tie this in a bow for you to see where I'm heading from a "what did I learn from this?" perspective, so I'll leave it at that.
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
On Saturday I did a three and a half hour run (I'm calling it my personal, non-sanctioned marathon) on the Pacific Crest trail from Donner Pass to Squaw Valley. About two miles into the run I was at 8900 feet and the views opened up in every direction--mountains, lakes, cliffs, spires, bright green scrub bushes and tall fragrant pines, the occasional bright red flower, and the sky, stretching out beyond my eye, meeting the horizon at infinity. The sun shone its brightest and the cool mountain air tasted delicious. I had one of those moments when I felt the divine in the world and the divine in myself; the expansiveness of possibility seemed real and endless. And I thought about all the things I needed to get on--no more procrastinating.
Then I thought about an email story I got earlier this week for my book, from a woman in Santa Barbara, CA, who introduced herself in her first line to me as a "Christian." Well, I'm not one for religion, so it was with one eyebrow raised that I read her story about god coming to her while she was on a treadmill and basically telling her she was good enough to do a marathon and, while she was at it, she ought to do it for a good cause and raise money for canncer with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Team in Training. As I was feeling all "divined" and such on my trail run, I realized that my knee-jerk reaction to this woman's treadmill vision was pretty unfair. After all, if the same story had been told, but the location had been, say, a mountain top, and the "divine" was nature, and not her god, then I wouldn't have batted an eyelash. It wasn't as if she'd said that her god had told her to invade a country or start a war. No, her god had suggested she was a better athlete than she imagined (and she's a speedster, clocking in at 3:13 for a marathon), and that she could put her athleticism to a good purpose. Great. Cancer research can hope for more visitations on treadmills.
Who am I to define what's divine for each one of us? What's important is that we find it in ourselves, and that it opens up new windows on our capacity.
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
They are both athletes, but they have had to change their definitions of the athletics they pursue, taking joy out of getting out on the tennis court or on the bike, rather than "winning." Both told me how important the athletics they pursued were to helping them understand how to break down challenges into achievable bite size pieces--something critical to fighting a serious disease, which risks overwhelming the psyche if it can't be parsed. If you think about it though, really all of life is like that. If we let it, it can seem insurmountable. Or we can break it down.
As these two women reminded me, athletics is a place that teaches us how to take things one day at a time. I might be training for a marathon (or a triathlon, or ski race, or some other goal), but what matters today is getting out there today. Tomorrow will come soon enough on its own.
Monday, August 3, 2009
A week along, I remember why. Running yesterday on a trail I'd xc skied in the winter, down into the Euer Valley, it was like an old familiar friend, but new. What last I saw as a winter wonderland, sparkling snow trees and and an undulating desert of white, was now green and gold, the mountain tops purple-grey, the smell of pine and the sweet-sharp scent of something else I can't yet identify, though I've plunged my nose into any number of the scrubby bushes along the way. I half expected a cowboy to appear and tip his hat to me graciously before continuing on his way.
A great run, a gorgeous ride, these things aren't going to make the real live challenges we face of sorting out how CA fits into our East Coast life, but breathing in the beautiful world through all my pores as I'm borne along by my own two strong legs somehow makes it seem more manageable. I can only take one step at a time, whether it's running or living.
Monday, July 27, 2009
It’s 6:30 a.m. I’m alone, running through the woods. The sun begins to filter through the trees. Over my own breathing and the crunch of twigs under my feet, I hear something new. It sounds halfway between a pigeon lowing and a dog growling. The trail curves in to the edge of a pond and that’s when I see them—a mother river otter and her two babies. She is facing me, backing away toward the water’s edge, lowing and growling at me. I stop. Still as I can be, I watch. The mother keeps her eyes on me as she herds her babies into the pond. She holds one in her mouth by the scruff of its neck. The other baby cleaves to her side as the three swim away. I am released from my stillness and start running again, but now I’m suffused with the special tingle of a close encounter with nature. I feel the fullness of my own breath, my strong heart beating. Joy.
I'm headed out to California today for August, somewhere new I've never been in the summer. Will there be trails to run? I sure hope so.
Friday, July 24, 2009
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
For girls in particular Mary thinks sports are one of the, if not the, most important ways in which we can be empowered. Through sports we can learn that to run like a girl, we need, too, to run like a boy--to seize opportunity, to challenge ourselves, to test ourselves, to jump in with both feet, to believe in our ability--all the things that boys have taken almost for granted for so long, but that have traditionally come harder to we of the weaker sex (as if...). But what we bring to running like a boy is our possibly more natural ability (and yes, generalizations are only that) to take things step by step, to build slowly to an end goal, not necessarily start with a marathon, but start with a mile. Achieve and set a higher ambition. Achieve that next level and set another higher ambition. That's running like a girl.
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
And how do we find where our life is? Through "trials and revelations" Campbell might say. In daily-life speak that means by setting and meeting challenges in our lives, through which we test and expand the limits of our own capacity. One of the great self-testing grounds is sports. Sure, how you do in, say, a marathon, does not ultimately matter. But what does matter is how you approach the challenge, and that you do it at all. It's how you discipline yourself, how you keep going when the going is rough (or tiring, or just plain boring), and how you deal with the inevitable "failures"along the way. It's the putting yourself out there. It's taking the risk that you might not achieve what you set out to do. All of these things, that we come to know so intimately from sports, help us to know ourselves, to find our life, to bring life to the world.
Energy is infectious--so make sure you're spreading good energy around, not bad. Be vital, and vitalize others.
Monday, July 20, 2009
Sarah recently got back from many months of traveling around the world. It was a trip she took a lot of risks for, leaving a great job and a long-term relationship to take the time she needed to find her own path. As she says, she needed to pull up the stakes and throw away the safety net for the trip to work. It was sports that taught her take those kind of risks. In sports we not only take risks with our bodies, we take emotional risks. What if we don't meet our goal in a race? What if we lose? How will we deal with the failure? How do we deal with success?
One of the fascinating things that Sarah learned along the way on her trip was the difference between sports in a woman's life here in North America versus the role of sports in some of the countries she traveled in. Here we thinks of sports as related to our confidence and wellness. Though it can be a cornerstone in a woman's sense of self, without sports there are still plenty of opportunities to explore our own potential. In Africa and South Asia, for example, it cuts closer to the bone. Sports is lifeblood for the girls and women involved in it--whether it was the Ethiopian runners, the South African soccer players, or the Nepalese trekkers that Sarah met. The sports these women were involved with was often the only time they owned their own bodies.
Sarah's observation reminds me of a great Susan B. Anthony quote. In 1896, that famous suffragist said, "Bicycling has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world." SBA was a woman who knew about taking risks. Thanks to her willingness to risk and do jail time, we women have the right to vote. It's a toss up which is more fun, casting a vote or going for a bike ride.
Friday, July 17, 2009
Just this week, I spoke with Michelle Theall, Editor-in-Chief of Women's Adventure magazine. She started off by saying, "I can't say what sports means to me, it is me." This from a woman whose mother told her that if she played sports her ovaries might fall out. She didn't have what you might call an encouraged beginning in sports. And if that wasn't enough of a challenge, in her early 30's, Michelle was diagnosed with MS. So she knows what's she's talking about when she says, "sports is a good base for anything that might hit you from left field."
Everything we are, everything we learn is granted to us on a use or lose it basis--sports teaches us to use it.