Monday, July 27, 2009

Be here now

There's something about sports that insists we "be here now." And that goes double for outdoor sports, with all that Mother Nature has to offer in the way of challenges and gifts. Here's from a trail run I did in Vermont:

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

What's cooking?

I thought this story was a nice follow-along from Michelle Theall's mother's worries...Robin (not her real name, and for future reference, unless a woman I interview is at least a quasi-public figure, I let them enjoy their privacy), a former private client broker on Wall Street, and then a gallery owner, has run since childhood. Her favourite time is 5:30 a.m., when the reservoir in Central Park looks like a Frederick Church painting as the sun is coming up, an incentive to set the alarm. To some, notwithstanding Frederick Church, that might sound like a wee bit early and a mite obsessive. But as Robin says, running looks obsessive to other people, because you stick to it and get out there. When she was pregnant with her first child, some busy body spotted her out for a run one day and thought it a good idea to warn her that she was “cooking her baby.” Well, I guess the good news is that her ovaries hadn’t fallen out, as Michelle Theall’s mother had warned. The other good news is that her (apparently un-cooked) daughter has a great role model for strength and discipline. Whether she’ll listen to her mother is a whole other story, of course.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Run Like a Boy

I just had the great good fortune of speaking with Mary Wittenberg, Prez & CEO of the New York Road Runners Club. "It's like a secret," she said, "that this activity (running that is) can transform your life in more ways than you can ever know." Not just running, but really any sport pursued with purpose. For Mary it started with rowing. In the last twenty strokes of every race, when she was at her limit and pulling harder still, that's when she realized how far she could really go. "The mind," Mary says, "can go way farther than your body thinks it can." And once we understand this, we can never go back. Once we know that it is our minds limiting our capacity, and not our capacity setting the limits, then we've opened a world of possibility.

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

Bringing life to the world

As Joseph Campbell, the extraordinary writer of The Hero with a Thousand Faces and other fantastic books, said in the interviews he did with Bill Moyers in the late 80's, "A vital person vitalizes. If you find where your own life is, then you will bring life to the world."

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

Learning to take risks

What I'm loving about the process of interviewing women is what I think of as the "Miss Clairol factor." I'm probably dating myself, but for some reason I can never forget the Miss Clairol ad with the line "...and she told two friends, and she told two friends," with the ever multiplying head shots of women with lush coloured hair. Every time I interview a woman about the impact of sports in her life, she tells me about someone (or more ) other woman I ought to speak with. So I thought I'd work backward for a moment and mention Sarah J. Murray, who introduced me to Michelle Theall, of my last post.

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

amazing women...

There are some pretty amazing women out there. Not news, of course, but always so inspiring to come across. I've been lucky these last months, because working on my book, Run Like a Girl, I've been interviewing some pretty fabulous representatives of the fair sex.

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.