Monday, November 30, 2009

Marathon Woman

In 1967, Kathrine Switzer was the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon, whereupon Jock Semple, the race director, famously (or infamously actually) tried to pull her off the course mid-race. Since then women across all sports have benefited from her commitment to getting women's sports the recognition, respect and participation level (growing every year by leaps and bounds). You can read all about it in her book, Marathon Woman, that I mentioned in an earlier post.

A lesser known fact about of Kathrine is that in November 2009, she was interviewed 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

What is selfish?

Other than the obvious, eating all the chocolate cake leftovers without asking if I wanted some (knowing I would, and therefore you'd have less), what is selfish?

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

Does my race kit make me look fat?

You've trained to within an inch of your life. You're as strong as you've ever been. Fleet and fast. Balanced and centered. Confident. Clunk. That's the sound of falling off the cliff of confidence, when we ought to be flying into our future.

"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

The science behind RLG

We already know from our own personal experience that "running like a girl," in whatever our sport is, makes us feel better--about ourselves and our lives. Still, it's nice that science is catching up to our anecdotal observation. I just finished reading Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, by John Ratey, which shows how exercise actually builds and conditions our brains so that we learn better, are happier, healthier, and can age more gracefully. His goal (and one of mine with RLG) is to re-connect the mind and body. We know, because we've literally felt it at times, how our minds can defeat or re-energize our body and vice versa, how our body can dissipate or re-invigorate our mind. The mind and body are not separate entities, though many in Western culture would like to think so.

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.