Monday, October 26, 2009

Practicing non-attachment

Many of us spend a lot of energy in our lives "anticipating the worst." We call it preparing ourselves, as if being ready makes it less hard when bad things happen. If we're waiting to hear, for example, about the results from an exam, or whether we got a promotion, we tell ourselves that we've failed the exam and our career is going to stay stalled. Because we have this idea that we'll be less disappointed, if indeed we get the unwelcome news. And we tell ourselves that we'll be extra happy, if we get the "surprise" news that we've not only passed, but gotten an A, or that our new business cards are already being printed.

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

Taking away the measuring stick

Another day of loving working on this book...

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

Are we strong enough?

I just finished reading Kathrine Switzer's Marathon Woman. She's the groundbreaking woman who dared to run Boston with an official number in 1967, when women were not allowed to run that marathon (oh, or any other marathon). She didn't lie on the entry form. There was no box to check F or M, and she liked using her initials to enter races anyway, K.V. Switzer. It's a great story and the pictures of the race director trying to pull her off the course are amazing--this is only 42 years ago.

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

Eat my dust, Mrs. B

This is one of those "discouraging teacher" story--many of us have at least one of those. Katy wasn't the most sportive of girls in high school. The will was there, but her small size made it difficult to shine on, say, the basketball or volleyball court, against the more robustly sized girls around her. Still she was at a small high school, where everyone got to be on the teams, regardless of talent. So she was on the teams. Not that the coaches ever played her much. Once her volleyball coach accidentally forgot to rotate her off before she reached the serving position, and when he saw her getting ready to serve, he tried to call an emergency time-out as a diversionary tactic to get her off the court. Nice. That's not even the discouraging teacher part of the story.

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, 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


So many of the women who have shared their stories with me (and which I'll share with you over the course of time) have had some element of fearlessness in them, whether it was facing the demons of loss, loneliness, disease, self-hatred, disillusionment; I'll end the list there before I get depressed just typing the words.

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.

Here goes:

"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

Not an object

A few days ago I interviewed Molly Barker, the founder of Girls on the Run. She, like many of us, didn't exactly love her early adolescent years. She was jammed pretty tightly into what she's coined as "the girl box." That's the place we squeeze ourselves into when we're trying to measure up to all those supposed assets a girl is meant to have--be thin, be blonde and petite (aka pretty), be sexy, wear pink, and so on. Her mother wasn't any help getting her out of the box, she was fighting her own battle with alcoholism. Then, when Molly was around 14, her mother started running and suddenly this sweaty, happy, alive woman would appear in the house, so different from the low energy drinker Molly had grown up with until then. Soon enough her mother asked Molly to join her for a run. And that time with each other on the road became the grace in their day.

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.