Thursday, April 28, 2011

I Missed the Part Where I Asked...

Running across the George Washington Bridge this a.m. I passed a man on a bike (yes, I was running, he was on commuter wheels); a minute later he cycled up beside me and proceeded to advise me on arm position. --??-- I missed the part where I asked him for advice. From whence this urge to be an unsolicited advisor? a woman...natch...because it seems highly unlikely that said commuter cyclist would offer unprompted style tips to a man running.

And what about his advice?--not wrong--drop my arms to ninety degrees--which, strangely, I happened to be working on that morning, as I was trying out new minimalist shoes (thank you, Newton), so I was already concentrating on form (apparently insufficiently, at least according to my new volunteer coach). But the "rightness" of the advice is beside the point, it was the unwelcome, chauvinistic intrusion into my own peaceful concentration.

I'm a girl though, I thanked him and smiled (weakly, I admit). I'm not the only one, right?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Retarding Progress

Some disheartening news about Title IX an article today...turns out that so-called "roster management," aka padding and/or manipulating team rosters, is a preferred method for "complying" with Title IX. How disappointing.

Just when we think things are getting better, to whit, women's ski jumping becoming an official Olympic sport...

Lest we forget though, this is an effort that's been going on a long while. None other than famed, French writer Emile Zola, a master of social realism, recommended in 1900 that, "riding, swimming, cycling, gymnastics, all these should form part of a young girl’s education." You can read Zola's whole article on this wonderful blog post on Women Talk Sports.

Our task?--to keep on keeping on--one day at a time, one woman at a time, as we participate in sports, as we introduce it, and model it for the girls in our lives.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Running Mind

The other day my brother Noah reported, in an email titled "like sister, like brother," that he had fallen and scraped himself up on a run. It's true, I've been known to incur some damage on runs. Once, in South Africa, on a run along a cobble-y stoned waterfront I managed to scrape not just my knee and palm, but also my chin, so that all our photos of the hike we started the next day (the amazing Otter Trail) feature my road rash soul patch. In one triathlon, I wiped out in the first three steps of the run, and gouged my palm, which set me up for a rather rugged look crossing the finish line with blood streaks on my leg, where I'd tried to wipe off my bleeding hand. Any of you who have been reading this blog for a while, or my book, will know about the time I sliced my knee open. Then there was the time...but really, you get the picture already.

Noah said he was going to be more careful about not letting his mind wander on runs.

It got me thinking about how nuanced that balance really is--the one between letting our minds roam free, while our feet carry us along, and being focused on our run. For many of us, running, especially, though not only, if we are alone, is a magnificent opportunity to air out the clutter in our brains. How often have you solved a problem on a run? All that psychic space can give our minds the freedom needed to find solutions, to see more clearly. Yet, we know, too, that if, instead of letting our minds float, we are perseverating over something instead--obsessing, rehashing, engaging in metaphorical scab-picking--then chances are we aren't focused enough on our run...oh, hello (crash), where did that tree root come from?

It's similar to the challenge of savasana (corpse pose), the final relaxation pose of virtually any yoga class. Yes, we are meant to relax, but mindfully, not so much as to fall asleep. Because to fall asleep is to lose the thin thread of focus we are meant to maintain to preserve the meditative quality of savasana.

So it is with running. After all, running can be a powerful moving meditation, too, but that requires our presence. We can't be fussing around inside our heads. Next time you find your mind agitating (as distinct from floating) on a run, stop the spin cycle and create an intention to be present for the rest of the run. How much clearer and cleaner you'll feel when you bend down to unlace those shoes at the end.

And on the topic of running and our minds, a friend forwarded me this fascinating RadioLab interview with Diane Van Deren, a top ultra runner, who got into running when she began having epileptic seizures, as a way to focus her energy away from an imminent attack. She would literally leave her running shoes right at the door, and when she felt the "aura" of an oncoming seizure, she would drop what she was doing and head out the door in her running shoes immediately, do not pass go. The strategy worked, for a while...I'll let you listen to the rest...

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Running With Benefits...

Sunday morning I woke up too early, or at least too early for having celebrated a friend's birthday the night before, to the prospect of an all-day board meeting. Not that the board meeting, per se, was something to dread, it was, after all, for a non-profit, The Possibility Project, about which I can't say enough good things. It was more the idea of sitting still and paying attention all day, on a weekend. I didn't have the heart to get up early enough to squeeze in a run before heading up to the meeting (which was going to take some time by subways and buses), but then I thought--what else is running for, if not to get me there?

I run a lot. But not in a useful way. As in, running is almost always an end in itself--to stay in shape...for...well, for more running. Why not put my running to actual use? Earn it's keep, as it were. So I packed up a little backpack with my meeting notes, a change of clothes, and other quick-change essentials like eye cream (yes, I am a girl), and headed up to the meeting on foot.

How wonderful. With every step I cleared out the cobwebs. Then came the real bonus, as I ran into the northernmost reaches of the island of Manhattan, places I'd never been before, and over the Broadway bridge into Riverdale, more places I'd never seen up close. The map I'd studied before leaving came to life, as 218th street showed its face. Oh, and note to self, flat street maps miss key information, like the fact that there are very very steep hills as you run up and out of Manhattan.

And the meeting?--relaxed and focused = productive.

I call that running with benefits.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Strong Spirits

A few weeks ago my partner David and I went out to cheer for the runners in the NYC Half-Marathon. The day was clear and cold, the air extra-chilled, as it blew in off the Hudson River on the west side, where we had found a good viewing spot. We waited for some time, stamping our feet to keep warm, my hands pulled up inside the sleeves of my coat. And then, without fanfare, without even an accompanying bicycle (as all the other leaders would have), the first athlete on the course came through. She was alone, cranking the hand cycling apparatus of her racing wheelchair with ferocious energy.

She set the standard of athleticism in the race. Though there were many fine runners who passed by a short time later, the beauty of their gaits, their power and almost surreal speed, was eclipsed by her spirit. We whooped and clapped as she sped past; and when David and I glanced over at each other mid-cheer, we couldn’t help but laugh—we both had tears in our eyes. The same question had occurred to both of us. Would I have the same courage or spirit?

I thought of an expression my mother uses, “There, but for the grace of the universe, go I.” Indeed.

When I met Yolanda Jackson, a week or so later, I recalled the expression again.

At sixty-four years old (you would never guess it!), Yolanda radiates a slow burning, steady energy. From her red, red lipstick, to her spikey short hair, to her signature Mexican silver bracelet, which attaches by long-link chain to a matching ring on her middle finger, Yo (as her friends call her) is one of those women you see and want to hang out with.

We’re lucky she’s still around to hang out. Three years ago she was diagnosed with Stage 3 pancreatic cancer, one of the most deadly iterations that disease offers. Yet, much against the odds, Yolanda is not just still here, she’s a force. “I didn’t lose one night of sleep over that diagnosis. I just said to myself, I’m not giving in to this. I’m not going to feel this badly. I’m not going to look like someone sick.” Despite surgery, chemo and radiation, she only missed a few weeks of work. She was hit with every side effect in the book, rashes, peeling skin, pain, nausea, fatigue, the walking-on-hot-coals feeling when her feet touched solid ground. Instead of focusing on the severity of her discomfort, she focused on work, on living life as normally as possible.

She continues to work at the Women’s Sports Foundation, where she’s been for more than twenty years; and she’s still physically active, going to the gym 3-4 times a week, and walking, often as much as 7 miles, on the weekends, staying tuned to what her body will allow on any given day, but at the same time not giving up on her body, because some days its awfully tired.

Where does such strength and resilience come from? In Yolanda’s case, it started with her father, who always told her, “Remember, you’re a Jackson, and a Jackson can do anything.” Yolanda started proving that on the sports field.

As a girl, sports started for Yolanda in the summer recreation program’s Playground Olympics. At the tender age of six years old, she was competing in the then-called “midget” category, sprinting to victory in every foot race, winning more trophies in long jump and the softball throw. She went on to play softball, basketball and volleyball through high school. She learned to play tennis in the convent, and later still she took up cycling, squash and golf.

Yes…You read that right…Yolanda was, for a period, Sister Helene Marie. That’s a whole ‘nother story. Don’t worry, I won’t leave you totally hanging. Here are a few tidbits. Yolanda was “called” to be a nun when she was in high school. So straight after graduation, she drove up to the convent, where, surrounded by friends and family, she entered the order. With a short break, precipitated by an illness, Yolanda committed herself to the cloistered life and became a professed nun. As a nun, she attended college, studying sociology, in preparation for what was to be her work at an orphanage on Staten Island. But her studies, as studying can do, began to raise questions, and with the questions came doubts. Birth control was a big issue at the time, something the Church forbids. Why?—classmates of Yolanda’s asked her. And she found she couldn’t answer, at least not to her own satisfaction. She began to investigate what else in the doctrine made her uncomfortable, and Yolanda found that her questions and doubts could not be allayed. She left the veiled life.

Yolanda still goes to church. “I’m not an A&P Catholic,” she says, referring to Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday, the only two days many Catholics show up for.

She goes on weekday mornings, when the spirit moves her. “It fuels my soul.” And she goes for the community, much like the community she finds at the gym, on mornings she’s not at church.

Yolanda’s reservoirs of strength and resilience run deep, from family, to sports, to church.

On that last, I found myself resisting its importance, as I was writing this, not being a huge fan of organized religion. But then I thought about the beautiful film I saw this past weekend, Of Gods and Men, based on a true story of eight French monks in Algeria, who were caught up in the brutal civil unrest of that country, and ultimately died for their pacifism (the provocative question of the value of their sacrifice is one I continue to wrestle with); and I was reminded how important it is to believe in something outside of ourselves—for me it’s the gorgeous mystery of the universe’s complexity and the energy we create through our existence—for others it may be the more specific tenets of a religion. Ultimately, we make our spirituality, and in that making, we connect ourselves to the world (assuming religious belief is not used to elevate or separate the believer above or from others). And I believe that connection gives us strength. Yolanda is evidence of that.

My bailiwick though is the connection between sports and resilience; and on that, Yolanda says, “Not only did sports ensure that I was physically strong going into the cancer treatment, so that I could survive the disease; but my participation in sports meant I had the mental and emotional strength I needed to get through.”

Friday, April 1, 2011

Bunny Athlete

Question--what do we think about Roberta Mancino?--squirrel-suited skydiver, who has posed in the altogether (aka her birthday suit) for the publicity boost it gives her.

I feel mixed. On the one hand, I think, ugh, she's bringing us all down, by perpetuating and pandering to the market, which gives scant coverage to women athletes, unless they are in their scanties. On the other hand, I think, savvy girl, playing to a paying audience and making her way. She's just a working girl, like the rest of us.

We can be athletes, without being bunnies. Yes, it's true that exigencies of the market seem to dictate that women need to pretty-up and strip down, but the market has also, at times, suggested that investing in sub-prime mortgages was a good idea, or that high-fructose-corn-syrup is a food we ought to consume...ultimately we have choices, right? If we don't want to follow Roberta's lead, or invest in the dodgy, or eat Star Trek-like food, we don't have to. All power to us. It might feel like tilting against windmills, to stand for what we believe, but doesn't it make us feel better in the end?

Roberta does what works for her. We each do what works for us. And what we do, is an expression of who we are.

What do you think?