Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Snows of Kilimanjaro

So...Africa...I've been back for coming on a month and no blog post about the adventure yet. In blog years (which are even more swiftly accumulated than dog years) that's probably the equivalent of a decade, and, indeed, it does feel like a long time ago that I reached the summit of Kilimanjaro, peaking just ahead of the sun, and then watching the light leech into the glacier and crater on either side of Uhuru as I headed back down.

Then last night I was reading, belatedly, Hemingway's The Snows of Kilimanjaro. A short story about a man, a writer even, who is dying of gangrene caused by the prick of a thorn he didn't treat with iodine some weeks earlier on his journey. He waits for death on the savannah, near the base of Kilimanjaro, while his companion, a woman he cares little for, waits for the rescue he no longer desires.

A strange coincidence.

I was back in the support van on the fourth day of the run from Mombasa to Kilimanjaro. Two days earlier I'd injured both my big toes so badly I couldn't participate in the run anymore. I felt like a failure. What had gone wrong? I'd run 30 miles the first day and 21 the second day, but something must have been strange with my gait, I suppose; some adjustment to the long miles I was hoping to put in over the 6 days of the run. Or maybe I was just a wimp and couldn't take the pain. I had blisters, yes, but worse, my toes were swollen tight, the skin stretch, the nails fit to burst off my toes. Other than popping the blisters, I'd done nothing to take care of my toes. Then, sitting in the van, as it drove slowly alongside another runner, I felt a cool drop slide down my foot. The blisters, instead of healing and re-filling, as they usually do, were seeping. I'll spare you the rest of the details, except to say this...flies buzzed and settled on my toes. David said, "Now will you put on some iodine and cover those up?" Indeed. Not to mention the double doses of Advil I started to take for the swelling. Things improved. And unlike Harry, in Hemingway's story, I was able to continue the journey. By the time we reached Kilimanjaro I was able to walk without too much difficultly, and I guessed that the uphill would be no problem and would give my toes extra time to heal before they had to endure the downhill. Fortunately, that theory worked out in my favour. And fortunately for everyone else, it's not sandals season, so no one has to look at the aftermath.

But I've jumped ahead, again. I'm giving you Africa in puzzle pieces, which will, I promise, fit together into some kind of picture by the end. It is, after all, the season of puzzles, or at least my family always seemed to have a complicated one going over this time of year.

The run--215 miles in 6 days, from the Indian Ocean to the base of the tallest freestanding mountain (19,300 ft). The roads--for the first 3 days we were on the main trucking route from the ocean serving Kenya and the surrounding African countries. Yes, it was as busy, terrifying and smoggy as it sounds. Never mind the heat. Then 2 days on a less traveled dirt road, through Masai country and Tsavo West, a game reserve. Yes, again, that means watch out for "game"! On the fifth day we crossed the border into Tanzania and the last day took us to the Marangu gate of Kilimanjaro.

My personal run highlight--Running on day 2 with three schoolgirls in uniforms, no shoes, carrying large jugs of laundry detergent and small plastic bowls (for food? they looked too small for washing). The girls (all under 14) ran about 2 miles, chatting to me the whole Swahili. So I followed suit, and chatted right on back at English. When we reached what appeared to be their school, they peeled off. Later that same day a teenager ran with me for some time, whether he was a bit loco or not is anybody's guess (our van drivers were concerned), but he was hare-fast, and popped in and out of huts along the way, always catching me up after his stops, always carrying his toothbrush in his mouth, clamped down despite his giant smile, an extra pair of pants in his hands, and his head bobbling with pleasure.

After injuring myself I spent a day wallowing in self-pity and then pulled myself together to play proper support for the other runners, and discovered that when I let go of the feeling that I had "failed" by injuring myself, I enjoyed my new role immensely. Along the way the driver, who was a bit of a professor, gave me Kenyan history lessons, so that I learned just where the Germans, crossing into Kenya from Tanzania, had laid down their arms at armistice in WWII.

Next up was climbing Kilimanjaro. And, as a friend of mine says, "This was not my first rodeo."

19 years ago I had climbed Kili, or rather, I climbed most of Kili. On the day we were to summit, my then-husband was hit with bad altitude sickness and we turned back together. So for almost two decades I carried around this thought--"I could have made it." But I hadn't. And I wanted to know. This trip was going to clear up unfinished business, or so I hoped. Well, you already know the answer, since I gave it away at the beginning.

When I finally reached the summit, Uhuru Peak, it was still dark. I first glimpsed the summit in flashes, literally. Seeing the traditional mountaintop flags and the wooden sign announcing the summit lit up in the lightning poof of a camera, then disappearing again, like a hallucination. I started crying, overcome by relief and happiness in equal measure. The shroud of darkness began to lift, and grey-eyed Athena's early morning light leaked in, barely rose, more like a black and white photo, the soft greys of the glacier, huge cliffs of ice that looked as if they had been shaved off by a giant wielding an ice pick, the crater a grey savannah, softened by a layer of misty clouds.

We hiked down to Kibo Hut (from where we'd come), and then made the decision to hike down and off the mountain right away, another 20 miles. The day was exquisitely long and unending. Far from living in the moment, I wanted nothing more than for it to end. I had done what I'd come for, and I did not have the energy to re-focus on the descent properly, as gorgeous and varied as the terrain was.

Once down and showered, after a day that had lasted from midnight to 6 p.m. already, I finally had a moment to really consider what had happened; and what I felt was a deep sense of contentment. The feeling was not ecstasy, nor that electric glow I've sometimes felt after doing something exceptionally difficult (say...Pikes Peak), but something DNA-deep, a sense of opportunity re-captured, something we so rarely have a chance at, a setting right of things, a confirmation that I could do what I'd always thought I could. The question, the scintilla of doubt that had assumed a post in the corner of my mind was put to rest, banished.

I let the new feeling settle. Become a part of me, in the way each new experience we have can cause tiny shifts in our self.



Tuesday, December 14, 2010

This Poem Rocks...

Just read this on Megan Hueter's great blog, Because I Played Sports; and had to share it. We can't have too much of this message, especially in the face of preposterous-ness like the new Lingerie Football League (I kid you not)!

Maybe It's My Fault: From a Female Athlete

(Thank you, Michael Jordan and Lebron James, for inspiring this)….

Maybe it’s my fault.
Maybe I led you to believe
That I don’t deserve to play,
Or that girls don’t belong in sports.

Maybe I let you think
That women’s sports is easy..
Or that my whole life,
I haven’t worked just as hard as the boys.

Maybe I let you think
that I’m OK with the fact
that MY championship game isn’t on TV
Or on the front page.

Maybe I let you think
that I’m happy with you crediting my dad,
my husband or my coach,
and forgetting about me.

Maybe I let you think
That girls don’t have passion.
That we don’t get mad, kick, or punch.
or get angry at the referees.

Maybe I led you to believe
That it’s OK to criticize my body, or sexuality,
And not my game.

Maybe that’s my fault.

Maybe I let you think
That instead of doing an interview,
I’d rather pose naked the cover of a magazine.

Or that I’d rather be doing yoga,
Or talking about a new diet,
Than showcasing a sneaker line.

Maybe I let you think that,
Because I like baggy clothes,
Or refuse to wear makeup,
It means I’m a lesbian.

Maybe I led you to believe
That I like to play football in my underwear,
Instead of just liking to play football.

Maybe, for some reason, I led you to believe
That I don’t want muscles.
Or that I can’t get strong.

Maybe I let you think
That it’s OK to market our events
With less effort than the men’s.
Or that it’s OK to repair the stadium during MY season
But not his.

Maybe it’s my fault that you don’t see
That holding out for a better future
Is my only motivation.

Maybe I’m what’s wrong with women’s sports.
Or maybe…
You’re just making excuses.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Barbie Be-Gone

Stuck in traffic on Madison Avenue yesterday my wandering gaze was drawn to the windows of the Barbie store and its large media screens featuring what I assume are all different Barbies, though frankly it's hard to tell the difference, other than hair colour.

I was somewhat disappointed to see that the store looked jammed with shoppers; women, of course. We are so good at perpetuating the most damaging aspects of the very thin ideal, which wreaks such havoc on our psyches. A recent study showed that girls aged five to eight who played with a Barbie reported lower body-esteem and a greater desire to be thinner compared to girls of the same age who played with a doll that had more realistic body proportions.

Don't we want the next generation of girls to grow up with better self-esteem and a stronger sense of self, whatever her proportions?

Jodi Norgaard does. And she's doing something pretty cool about it. Jodi ran track and played tennis as a child, and she still loves to be outdoors and active. She says that when her own children were small and she'd had a rough day, her husband would come home from work, take one look at her and hand over her running shoes. "I'd leave exhausted and come back refreshed!" she says.

Naturally, she wanted her young daughters to grow up with a healthy sense of themselves and their bodies, and how those two were connected. She enrolled them in the Girls on the Run program, and even coached at GOTR herself, which incidentally, I wrote about some time ago in this blog. But every time she tried to find a doll for them, the toys' messages were "grow up fast, wear short skirts and put on makeup."

No thanks.

And then her experience at GOTR and her failed efforts at finding the right doll switched on a lightbulb in her brain--and Go!Go!Sports Girls was born. While I admit I'm partial to Ella, the runner girl doll, with her crazy, kinky hair and bright orange singlet (uh-huh sounds like a mini-me), really all these dolls are pretty darn cute, whether they're playing tennis, golf, softball, basketball or soccer, or doing gymnastics, dance or swimming. That's right, Jodi has founded a company that makes dolls with a message: Be active; live a healthy lifestyle; and dream big and go for it! A message we could probably all use a little more of, so nice to have it in the house for the little girls in our lives.

These Go!Go!Sports Girls kick Barbie's ass!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Sports Expanding Horizons

Today is the National Women's Law Center's Rally for Girls' Sports Day, and so I'm going to go backwards in this post, to the moment some years ago when I "discovered" running.

It's 1993 and I've just just moved to New York City. I'm studying for my Master's of Law at Columbia. I know no one, except a few people in my classes, but hardly well. More, for the first time in my life I've built up to running 10k in one go!

One day in the law library, a woman I hope to befriend asks me about my running.

“Oh I run about ten, three times a week,” I say airily. I am, if the truth be told, somewhat intimidated by her. She has run marathons, something inconceivable to me.

And really, I have only once run three times in a week, but I am determined to do it more often, so I feel only mildly guilty telling her it is an established habit.

“Wow,” she said, “You’re really serious about running, that’s great.”

I walk away feeling the pleasant pricklings of pride until I realize...oh no...she thought “ten” meant ten miles, not ten kilometers. I have never run ten miles in my whole life! I have misrepresented myself—unwittingly of course, but I am still mortified.

I go home, thoughtful. I take advantage of my student-flexible schedule. I put on my shorts and shoes, and go to Central Park. I run one loop. Ten kilometers. Or as I am now trying to think of it, six miles. I run a second loop. Twenty kilometers. That's twelve miles. My conversion math is getting better.

My feet hurt. My hips feel misaligned. Salt cakes my temples. My skin tingles and my hair stands on end. My lungs expand and open up, so that I breathe in an entire world at my disposal. I have just run the furthest I ever have in my life, twice over, and I feel amazing.

Only a few hours earlier I wouldn’t even have thought it was possible. It is as if I have opened a door to an alternate universe, my own Narnia, or Alice down the rabbit hole. What next? I think, newly plugged into a high voltage of potential. What do I think I can’t do? I’ll do that! Maybe, I think, there is no such thing as an I-can-only-dream-of list.

Sports show us dreams are possible. Goodbye "she's just a dreamy girl." Hello, "she's a kick-ass dreamy girl!"