Reflections on Hills, Size, and Confidence

Yelagiri Hills in India
Yelagiri Hills in India

I’m just going to come right out and say it: when I’m riding my road bike, I’m terrified of having to go up hills. I imagine hitting my limit, with no gears left to downshift to, grinding to a halt, and toppling over.

This almost happened when I was out on that canal ride with Catherine, Christine, and Sam last weekend. On a really short and not even steep hill, Catherine tried to give me an impromptu lesson on hill climbing. She’s an experienced rider who has run clinics and workshops, so lucky me that she is so willing to share her wisdom. The trouble is, I’m the kind of learner who needs to know what I’m about to learn.

So a lesson on the fly doesn’t always work for me. I need an explicit account of what I’m trying to achieve.  Maybe that’s overthinking things. I’m a philosopher, so you could accuse me of worse. Anyway, the point is when she said to pedal really fast and downshift, I got all frazzled and shifted into a tougher gear.

Then my chain kind of slipped or at least didn’t quite take hold when I attempted to fix the situation.  And in the end I ended up grabbing onto the railing. Lest you think that the entire canal run has a railing, let me say that in fact I think the only place there was any kind of thing to grab onto was right there at that exact spot.

I held on for all it’s worth. Catherine, so kindly, jumped off her bike and grabbed mine so I could unclip and dismount.

Now, when I’m out there I try to feel confident. And in fact, I’m getting better. My clipping in and out comes easily now. I never so far have simply forgotten to clip out. I did have a mishap in an intersection later that morning. I had my right foot unclipped, all ready to stop. And then lost my balance in the other direction.  I heard the people standing on the other side of the road say “ouch” when I hit the ground.

It must look odd to see a cyclist all decked out in their professional looking kit do one of those slow, inevitable falls to the ground.  It didn’t hurt or anything.  My husband Renald didn’t believe that when he saw the bruise and chainring wound. But scrapes and bruises are as much a part of learning to ride with clipless pedals as they were when I learned to ride a bike without training wheels as a kid.

Anyway, back to the hills. Sam always tells me that I will be a good hill climber in very short order.  Why?  Because I’m small, she says.  This is apparently an objective fact about me qua cyclist.  Weighing well under 150 pounds puts me in an excellent position to become a proficient and fast hill climber.

Soon, Sam assures me, I’ll be the one waiting at the top of the hill for everyone else (or almost everyone else. Maybe not Eaton, who is a climber par excellence).

Whenever she says this I find myself incredulous.  My skepticism has everything to do with a lack of confidence. I’ve already written about how I never think of myself as fast. I’m a slow runner and a slow rider. I can’t believe I’ll ever be ahead of anyone on the bike. Right now, it feels to me as if I will always be the one everyone is waiting for all the time.

The last time I went out alone with Sam, she spent the entire time coasting or waiting for me. A route the probably usually takes her one hour took us two.

Where is my confidence?  I truly believe that confidence is a feminist issue. This slowpoke narrative that runs through my head hooks right into the doubt I feel about calling myself an athlete. I wrote about this more than a year ago. See “Am I (Are You) an Athlete?”

Even as a swimmer, which is my strong point, I’m not bullet fast. I’m faster than some, but lots of people are going to blow past me in the swim leg of the triathlon.

Catherine agreed with Sam that I would one day be a fine climber.  Again, it’s supposedly because I’m small. I was doing some searching around the internet for info about hill climbing (because that’s what I do — I research something and then apply what I read).  I came across some advice in a couple of posts, Hill Climbing 101: Pedalling and Shifting and Hill Climbing 102: Riding Techniques.

The author says:

Climbs are the yardsticks by which experienced cyclists measure themselves while new riders often look on them with fear and loathing.

I get the part about fear and loathing. That right there bought some credibility. The posts are geared at the new rider. They, along with the encouraging words from Catherine and Sam (and a number of other people), have helped me see that hill climbing on the bike requires a skill set.

So it’s no wonder that, having only been out on my road bike FOUR times ever, I haven’t mastered the skill set. Objectively, it’s got to be within my reach if I work at it.  I just need a little bit of confidence.

The author of Hill Climbing 101 and 102 tells a great story about encouraging a woman who, like me, didn’t think she could make it:

Climbing is hard but learning to climb is worth it.  During the AidsRide I rode up and down that hill I mentioned earlier several times helping riders make it to the top.  The hill was the longest on the entire 340 mile ride and many of the new riders had been dreading it since the ride began.  I began riding with one woman at the bottom of the climb who was very much overweight and out of shape.  Like maybe 100 lbs overweight.  In addition, she was riding a hybid rather than a road bike which was making the climb a good deal more difficult for her.  About a quarter of the way up, she knew she wasn’t going to make it.  I talked to her about the hill climbing techniques discussed here and in Hill Climbing 102 and encouraged her to keep going.  Another 10 feet, just make it another 10 feet.  She was in agony.  Just 10 more feet.  The hill had such a fearsome reputation that a good number of people had stopped to stand along the road and cheer the riders on as they struggled up the climb.  Someone had parked a van with a sound system in the back near the top of the hill and Gloria Gaynor’s disco anthem “I Will Survive”  was booming out.  We’re halfway up and the woman was going so slowly that I don’t know how she remained upright on the bike; I had to keep looping around in small circles next to her in order to move fast enough not to lose my balance.  She knew she wasn’t going to make it but she refused to give up until she absolutely couldn’t give it one more pedal stroke.  Just 10 more feet.  Tears of pain and effort were streaming down her face.  About 30 feet from the top of the hill amidst the music and the cheers of the onlookers she realized she was going to make it, that she was going to succeed at something that just moments before she believed was impossible.  The look that came over her face at that instant was so beautiful and so pure that it made every moment I had suffered building the climbing strength that allowed me to ride with her that day worth it.  It was the kind of thing you never forget.  Hills will do that for you.



Niagara on the Lake to Niagara Falls: Such a pretty ride up and such a fun screaming fast ride down


Sam’s story

It’s a ride I’ve done maybe a dozen times but I love it each time I do it.

I’ve done the holiday-with-friends version and the Gran Fondo version, each fun in its own way. Cyclists tend to be a bit evangelical. I love sharing my passion, including some of my favourite places to practise it, with friends.

This time I rode this route with friend, colleague, and guest blogger Catherine Womack.

My favourite direction is from Niagara on the Lake, up the off road bike path to Niagara Falls, and then back–whee! zoom!–on the Niagara Falls Parkway. You can warm up on the path, enjoy the falls, and then head back down. Yes, you can ride up on the road but the path is both shadier and takes a more forgiving route up the big hill. After a certain point on the way into Niagara Falls the bike path becomes a multi use pathway, a bit dangerously crowded with awe struck tourists. At that point moving on to the road seems prudent.

By the falls there’s the tension between the requisite cyclist-in-front-of-falls photo and the desire not to get one’s good road bike wet. Also, wet smart phones aren’t the best idea either.

We compromised by stopping short of the actual spray. Here’s our Canadian Falls selfie.

After that we zoomed away, riding on the road at a pretty fast pace, back to our car in Niagara on the Lake. Sad part? Balzac’s espresso machine was broken. We’re cursed. The first time we stopped there the power was out. And sadder still? Despite zooming we were were late for the session we’d aimed to me on time for (we’re here for the Humanities and Social Sciences Federation Congress) due to a lift bridge, a large ship, and a route back to campus that involved crossing the Welland Canal.


Catherine’s story:

Today was my last day, both of the Canadian Philosophical Association meetings in St. Catharine’s, Ontario, but also (and as importantly) the last day of group riding with my philosopher/blogger/cycling friends.  Samantha and I got up early (really really early for me!)– 5:30am— to drive to Niagara on the Lake, a lovely little town on Lake Ontario.  We were to do a ride Samantha had done many times– on the bike path to Niagara Falls, then on the road back to Niagara on the Lake.  Round trip total 46K,  about 28 miles.  This is a great distance for me– long enough to get a good workout, and short enough so I don’t have to start thinking about where to refill bike bottles, even if it’s hot.

I am NOT a morning person, and certainly not a morning cyclist/activity doer.  But this trip has convinced me that there are joys to be had by riding early.  We started out at 6:51am, and Samantha quickly issued a warning:  the squirrels are out!  She was right– black squirrels were scooting around and often right in front of us.  She shared stories about cycling in Australia, where kangaroos pose a rather larger problem of this same sort, sometimes hopping alongside packs of cyclists.  Well, nice to know it could be worse…

Riding along a bike path, even on a road bike, has a different sensibility– it encourages a meandering pace, tempting one to stop occasionally to admire a view, take a picture, inspect flora, or even just pause to take a sip of sports drink and enjoy the scene.  The easy pace also allows for more conversation, and Sam and I swapped stories of places we had cycled, noting many of the small but important differences that make a cycling lifestyle easier or more difficult.  She told me that at Australian universities, there are very commonly showers on all floors of many buildings so people can walk.run, ride to work and then clean up for the day.  I really wish this were more common in the US.

On the way there was one very short but steep climb on the road, followed by a winding path up the escarpment and through the woods.  It was super-well designed to be gradual– I rode slowly but easily up to join Samantha who was waiting for me at the top.

We switched to the road once we got into Niagara Falls proper, and at that point focused on potholes, the occasional car (it was still before 8am and things were quiet), and finally: the jaw-dropping view.  We took the obligatory many pictures (including selfies with Falls in the background), and then headed back.  We were on the clock, as there was a conference lecture at 10am.

The ride back was on the road, and it was a different experience.  We were both focused on cars, road conditions, handling, pace– all those factors that a road cyclist manages in the course of her ride.  We chatted some, but for the most part just pedaled along the still-quiet country roads.  It felt like a completely different ride to me.  The surroundings looked different from the perspective of the open road (the path was shaded).  The view of the river was further away, and didn’t tempt me to stop.  I was also riding faster, so that meant (for me) turning more inward, more meditative, aware of my breathing, my leg cadence, hand position, location on the road, etc.  This is not a bad thing– in fact, one of the great pleasures in my life is a quiet road ride, my mind turned inward and mostly quiet, noticing the ways my body is making the bike move through space.
Remember that meandering woodsy path that we took up the escarpment?  Well, we opted to take the road back down, and it was a screaming downhill– a little winding, so we both scrubbed a bit of speed (but not much), steep and in good condition (no potholes).  This was followed by that steep bit down on the road, so it made for an exhilarating descent.  I whooped at the end.
Before I knew it, we were at the parking lot.  I was sad it was over, but am already making plans to come back for more bike explorations of this area, hopefully with some of my blogger pals!




Running with a goal time in mind (Guest post)

Zoomphoto Inc Event Photography
Ryder Photography (http://ryderphoto.ca/)

I started running three years ago, at the tender age of 25. Prior to this, I was a firm believer that running probably qualified as torture under most international treaties. Somewhere along the line, I decided that being able to run 5km was a “thing-that-I-ought-to-be-able-to-do,” and I hopped aboard the Couch-to-5k plan. It was a surprising success. I discovered that not only did I somehow enjoy running, I was actually kind of speedy. (I want to be clear, however, that I do NOT think being speedy is necessarily a “good” thing, or that being slow is a “bad” thing! It was just surprising to find that I was capable of running “fast” [which is itself a relative term!], when I had never before considered myself a runner, or even an athlete! Hmm, there might be fodder for another post in there…)

Anyways, 5km races led to 10km races which led to me running my first half marathon last May. It was the Toronto Women’s Half Marathon in Sunnybrook Park. I had trained well for it, and despite a huge hill at 17km, I finished with a time of 1:57:39, over two minutes under my goal time of 2 hours. Feeling confident after that race, I signed up for two more half marathons (within two weeks of each other!).

The first of those went well in some respects. I knocked two and a half minutes off my previous time. But the improvement came at a price: halfway through the race, I  developed huge painful blisters on the sides of both my feet. I spent the last five kilometers stopping, talking to myself to in order to get myself running again, and gazing sadly at my GPS watch as my average pace got slower and slower. It was a very difficult race. I’m still not entirely sure how I managed to dig deep and make the time that I did.

Two weeks was not enough time to recover (mentally, at least) from that experience.  At the halfway point of the next race, I decided that I wasn’t yet ready for the pain that setting a new PR would entail. So I took it easy, and finished with a time eight minutes slower than the previous race.

This year, I signed up once again for the Toronto Women’s Half. I had lofty aspirations of smashing my previous PR, especially considering that this year there would be no giant hill at 17km. I found training plan and stuck to it as well as I could, confident that if I put in my miles, there was no way I could fail to get a new PR. One of the things that I’ve really enjoyed about running is that the progress, for me, has been so tangible. In general, the more I run, the faster I get, and the farther I can run.

In the spring, one of my very inspiring friends signed up for her first ultra-marathon (this woman is all kinds of amazing!), a 50km which also happened to be a trail race. Because I was going to cheer her on anyways, I decided at the last minute to sign up for the 15km distance. The race was called the “Seaton Soaker,” and it’s a fitting name: 2 km from the finish line (well, for the 15km and 25km runners – it’s the halfway point for the 50km runners) you have to cross a river! In your running shoes!

I approached that race differently than most races. It was a totally new experience. I hadn’t trained on trails before. Being just two weeks out from my goal race, I wasn’t really “racing” it. So I ran it with no goal time in mind, just happy to be out there supporting my friend and trying something new. I had a blast! Trail running is different in many ways from road running. There is more to think about, in terms of the terrain. At the same time, it’s somehow both relaxing and energizing to be running on a gorgeous day through trees and flowers and even rivers (which felt blessedly cool on the warm day). I came away from the race feeling refreshed. 

Finally, race day arrived for the half marathon. Two of my friends also signed up for the race – and for both, it was going to be their first race of this distance. There was much to be excited about! I started out fast, after a less-than-graceful start wherein I ended up doubling back to make sure I had crossed the timing mats. It was already warm at 8am, and it was only getting hotter. With the long, cold winter we just had, I hadn’t been training in the heat.  Naively, I thought that I could “bank” some time before it got even warmer. My 10km split was 51:43. If I had been able to keep that pace, I would have been on track for a sub-1:50 finish. Unfortunately, I started losing steam at kilometer 13. I could feel those big, ugly, painful blisters forming in the same spot as they had before. I was overheating. Everything hurt!

Maybe I was capable of pushing myself to a sub-1:55 finish, but that didn’t happen. I kept slowing down to walk, then convincing myself that “even running slowly is better than walking”. Finally, one second shy of 2:05, I crossed the finish line: a full ten minutes slower than my intended goal pace.

Although I was disappointed in my time, I still enjoyed the race, thanks in no small part to the enthusiasm of my friends who were running it for the first time. They both crossed the finish line with smiles on their faces. It’s impossible to feel anything but happiness when seeing that!

Now I’m sorting out my feelings about the race and thinking about what I want my relationship with running to be like in the future. Even though I am proud of myself for finishing the race, it still feels somehow like “failure”. It is strange to admit that, because even while I am disappointed in myself, I am legitimately proud and impressed by both of the friends who raced with me – one of whom ran a time that was extremely close to my own. Still, it’s disheartening to train for several months, only to fail to meet the goals that I set out for myself. I don’t want running to start to feel stressful in that way. So I think, for now – at least, for the rest of the year – I am going to take a break from running with goal times in mind, and instead focus on new experiences.

I will likely return to racing-for-personal-records. When I do, I know I need to train smarter. One thing I need to do is hit the weights. Strength conditioning was the one thing I neglected during my training this season, even though I know how important it is. I need to make time for it and commit to it.

After having such a great experience on my first trail race, I want to explore that community more. There is a 25km trail race in September which I am looking into. I’ve also signed up for my first triathlon (sprint distance) in July – I’m excited to have swimming and cycling in my schedule along with running! And finally, I have been toying with the idea of trying a full marathon. The idea terrifies me, but maybe that’s a good thing. And if I do it, it will be enough just to finish, no matter what the clock says. 

Stephanie is a PhD candidate in Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto. She is also a runner, photographer, drinker of craft beer, and a newbie triathlete-in-training.

competition · cycling

I’m a woman, a cyclist, and I want to get faster, now what?


I’ve written in the past about tips and strategies for beginning cyclists who want to get faster.

Pro-tip: Ride with people who are faster than you! You should ride with the fastest people who are willing to have you along. While we were out riding this week along the Welland Canal Pathway, Tracy asked, not in a mean way, but out of genuine curiosity, why I liked riding with the fast bike club in town. And that’s part of my answer. Those rides pushed me. I got stronger and faster riding with them.

But beyond riding with fast people and spending some time way out of your comfort zone doing intervals, it can be tough to find out what works when it comes to increasing speed. Yes, sprint. But how much? How hard? For how long? It’s a challenge navigating sports research if you’re a woman who wants to get faster. And it’s worse yet again if you’re midlife woman wanting to find out what works.

Almost all the sports performance research is done on young men.

Consider this story from Bicycling Magazine: The Ultimate Interval, All it takes to develop blow-their-legs-off power is one hour—one brutal, agonizing, endless hour of astounding misery and pain. Just one.

It talks about a workout that researchers dubbed T-Max.

Laursen’s findings, which have been backed by other recent studies, show that the workout he dubbed T-Max can, on average, increase maximum power output by 5 to 6 percent, and raise VO2 max sky-high. The T-Max Interval is effective because it tailors work and rest time, and intensity, to your genetic ability and fitness level, rather than prescribing an arbitrary set of conditions. Here’s how it works: T-Max is the length of time you can hold your peak power output before succumbing to exhaustion–or, scientific jargon aside, how long you can ride really, really hard until you feel so much like you’re dying that you stop. For most of us, that’s about four to six minutes.

The results sound pretty promising but when you read the study details you realize that the testing was done only on male university athletes.

Would the same results hold for women? For anyone over 20? Who knows? It’s frustrating.

If anyone knows of a good set of studies on speed training for women cyclists, let me know. Bonus points if it’s been tested on women over the age of 40!



Four Feminist Philosophers and the Welland Canal (Group post)

Sam, Christine, and Catherine.
Sam, Christine, and Catherine.

We’re at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences 2014 this week, held this year at Brock University in St. Catharines. We’re each involved in a bunch of different sessions–Sam gave a keynote on feminism and fitness to the Canadian Society of Practical Ethics and also organized and presented in a panel on the ethics of obesity.  I co-organized a panel for the Canadian Philosophical Association’s Equity Committee.  And Sam and co-organized and are both presenting at a panel on blogging.

But it’s not all work. St. Catharines is in a beautiful part of Ontario, near Niagara Falls, the Welland Canal, and the Niagara Escarpment. It’s a great place for cycling.  And so this morning at 7:15 a.m. we headed out with guest bloggers Christine and Catherine for an easy ride along the Welland Canal. Here are four perspectives on our outing.


This morning I met Catherine, Samantha and Tracy at the Schmon Tower of Brock University and we headed toward the canal in Thorold for a ride. I was intimidated by their very professional gear, clothing and clipping shoes. I already knew that they were more serious riders than I with my hybrid commuter/riding cycle. Thank goodness I was wearing running shoes because of the chill rather than my summer usual sports sandals!

Anyhow, the pressure was on for me not to linger behind. After all, I was to lead the way. It an odd experience for me. I am not used to think about other riders and leading a pack. It made me more mindful of a number of things. It was quite enjoyable to try to adjust my pace with others and to have a chat on the way. The weather was so beautiful, I wish I was still out there riding right now!


As usual I was approaching the group ride with my usual trepidation and insecurity, full of managerial disclaimers ready to launch at a moment’s notice. To my great pleasure I didn’t need any of them– the four of us just rode in natural pairs (all combos were used), enjoying the scenery, chatting, and in my case getting to know everyone better.

Lesson learned: trust. Trust myself, as I in fact know how to and enjoy riding immensely. Trust others, as we were all committed to a lovely and fun ride together. Trust the bike– it continually amazes and pleases with with what it can do if I just give it the gas and get out of its way.

One thing I shouldn’t trust, though: my judgments on directions. I confidently directed us past our designated turn back to town, and down a scenic but steep and winding long downhill, followed by a STEEEEP 12% grade uphill. At the end of which we had to turn back around, sail down the steep hill and go back up the windy and long uphill. Such is the way of group rides. However, it was very good fun, and I’m looking forward to more tomorrow.


This morning was my second ride of the season, my fourth ever on the road bike.  I’m always a bit nervous before these rides–I’m new at it, so not all that confident about my skills yet.  I’m also painfully aware that I’m slow (when I rode with Sam last week, she spent the whole time either coasting or waiting).  But this time I was also excited to get out with a group of feminist philosophers.  What a treat!

Christine warned us that she was a slow rider, but she blasted out in front with Sam as soon as we hit the road. I held up the rear for most of the ride. It was a stunning morning — sunny, with just the right amount of cool in the air.  We encountered little traffic on the way to the canal. We rode right past Christine’s house and then picked up the bike/pedestrian path along the canal.  We took it easy, chatting and soaking in what felt like the first truly perfect day for cycling of the season.  The canal route is easy, relaxing cycling. We went about 20km to Welland. Stopped for a quick coffee (well, I had a tea), and then headed back, stopping along the way for a photo op.

It was on the way back, when we left Christine’s house, that things started to go awry.  By this time, I was feeling quite comfortable with my clipping and unclipping.  Heck, I even thought back to the time when I hadn’t yet figured it out.  No need to fall over anymore, I thought. I’ve got this clipless pedal thing all figured out.

Well, no need to get cocky.  Sam and Catherine were stopped ahead at a light. I did my usual thing of unclipping well ahead of the actual need (this is my practice at the moment). And don’t ask me what happened but as I pulled up behind them I felt myself toppling over toward the side that was still clipped in.  There is really nothing that can be done at that stage other than to fall over.  Bam.  I hit the ground and my chain ring hacked up the back of my leg (looks worse than it is, I’m sure).  Biggest bruise of all: the ego.

And finally, we got lost.  I don’t mind getting lost. It was a lovely detour that took us down a dramatic, winding road (which was our first clue that we were lost, since we definitely hadn’t climbed that hill on the way out earlier–but as we flew down that hill, there wasn’t a lot we could do).  Then up that 12% grade. I had to walk my bike up half of it.  Wrong turn. We had to go back down and then up the other side . Thing is, you kind of have no choice but to go with it.  I did my best.  I had to walk the bike up part of the way and am pretty sure I went faster when I was doing that than I would have had I attempted to keep grinding up the hill.

I learned a lot.  Sam is a great teacher, full of excellent advice and tips. Turns out Catherine is too. Between the two of them I picked up some new skills today, including (in theory) how best to climb a hill.

Loads of fun. Can’t wait to go out with these women again!


I love riding my bike in the Niagara region. For a number of years I’ve vacationed here with my partner and our bikes, sometimes with friends and their bikes too. It’s spectacular riding country. I loved the Gran Fondo Niagara last year, http://fitisafeministissue.com/2013/09/16/riding-not-racing-the-niagara-falls-gran-fondo/, and I’m sorry they’re not repeating it.

So when I knew Congress was to be held at Brock, I started pitching the idea of bringing bikes and getting some riding in. I know Tracy is a bit nervous about riding with cars and has some apprehension about hills, so the canal path seemed like a great ride to start. Christine who teaches at Brock and lives near the canal offered to meet us and lead the way. Fun!
The canal path is lovely, paved and wide, and mostly clear of dogs, roller bladers, skate boards etc. If we’d just done that, it would have been an easy, pleasant 40 km morning ride. Instead we got lost on our way back to campus and hit some of the Niagara region’s famous hills. That added adventure and some hill training to our day. It was beautiful and fun and we did it. Whee! Zoom! Have I mentioned how much I love riding my bike, especially with friends. Thanks Christine, Catherine, and Tracy.
Tracy, Catherine, and Christine on the shore of the Welland Canal.
Tracy, Catherine, and Christine on the shore of the Welland Canal.
advertising · athletes

Sporty girls smoke Luckies…

From the series "Sports Girls" (C190), issued by the American Cigarette Company, Ltd., Montreal, to promote Gloria Cigarettes
From the series “Sports Girls” (C190), issued by the American Cigarette Company, Ltd., Montreal, to promote Gloria Cigarettes Issued by the American Cigarette Company, Ltd. (Montreal) Date: ca. 1889 Medium: Commercial color lithograph Dimensions: Sheet: 2 5/8 x 1 7/16 in. (6.6 x 3.7 cm) Classification: Prints Credit Line: The Jefferson R. Burdick Collection, Gift of Jefferson R. Burdick Accession Number: Burdick 257, C190.16

It’s odd now, in light of all we know about the health impact of smoking, to think about a positive connection between sports and cigarettes.

But that wasn’t always the case, especially for women.  Both smoking and being physically active were hallmarks of the independent woman. Yes, smoking’s allure was partly about weight loss but it was also about women’s new found autonomy, careers, and education.

According to the Center for Disease Control, “Tobacco advertising geared toward women began in the 1920s. By the mid-1930s, cigarette advertisements targeting women were becoming so commonplace that one advertisement for the mentholated Spud brand had the caption “To read the advertisements these days, a fellow’d think the pretty girls do all the smoking.” As early as the 1920s, tobacco advertising geared toward women included messages such as “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet” to establish an association between smoking and slimness. The positioning of Lucky Strike as an aid to weight control led to a greater than 300% increase in sales for this brand in the first year of the advertising campaign.”

Tobacco companies sought to tie their product to women’s independence and often featured women in sports. again, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s newly released collection here are some images of sporty women on cigarette trading cards.

For more see here.

And here’s a feminist case for quitting smoking in case you haven’t yet been convinced. I smoked for 10 years of my life, from 14 to 24, and quitting, for me, coincided with other efforts at getting stronger, fitter, faster.  I was amused the other day to see photos of Tour de France riders from many years past sharing cigarettes on their way up the mountains. So hard to believe that they didn’t know it hurt their efforts and that they really believed that smoking opened up the lungs.

Archery, from the Games and Sports series (N165) for Old Judge Cigarettes

Guest Post · inclusiveness · soccer · stereotypes · team sports

My Love-Hate Relationship with Co-ed Team Sports (Guest post)

The blogger in her early days playing coed team sports with her elementary school
The blogger in her early days playing coed team sports with her elementary school

Spring!!! As soon as I see the first patch of grass, I’m itching to get out and play… soccer, basketball, ultimate, football, I’m up for whatever. These past few summers, I’ve been playing pick-up soccer with a meetup group… They’re awesome, super well organized, they meet three times a week, and there’s usually a pretty good turnout. But, despite my eagerness to get out and kick a ball around (finally!), there’s also a part of me that’s hesitant to head out and play. And, really, if I’m going to be honest, a big part of what’s keeping me away is the worry that by the end of the game, I’ll feel upset. There’s a bitterness that tends to well up in me when I’m playing co-ed team sports; a sort of dense multi-layered sludge that keeps on giving, even once the game is over.

Here’s how it goes: I show up and notice how few women there are, if any. We start playing, and I quickly pick-up on this pattern where I’m often not covered and still rarely get the ball. It’s like I don’t exist. And when they do interact with me, the guys feel like they can coach me, like give me “helpful” hints. I get this feeling like my calling for the ball (“I’M WIDE OPEN!!”) is just seen as obnoxious, especially if I get at all insistent, after the fifth missed opportunity. Then, when I finally get the ball, I feel like I have something to prove. And, I might make a good play, which is nice, or, I might mess up, which is less nice, and leads to the confirmation that I’m not a reliable player, even though everyone messes up now and then. “All this because I’m a woman”, I privately fume.

But, then, this immediate sort of frustration gets processed through self-doubt and self-reflection: Am I really getting the ball less often than I would if I were a man?  Maybe, the other players have just played together for a while and have a good rapport… Maybe I’m not as good as I think I am… Maybe they’re just not that good and aren’t aware of good passing opportunities… I’m probably just being oversensitive… And, if playing co-ed sports makes me so upset, why do I insist on participating and putting myself through these unpleasant feelings, and possibly even making the game less fun for the others… Why can’t I just get over it and have fun?

As a counter to this self-doubt comes the dredging up of the past. While, it may be that I am being over-sensitive in this particular case, I have reasons for being watchful for cases of differential treatment. Ever since I can remember, I have been treated differently in team sports. Early on, boys (uncensored, as kids will be) voiced their prejudices about not wanting girls to play, or not accepting that girls could be better than them. It often took adult intervention for them to take me seriously, such as a coach telling the boys to pass the ball to me because I was a good player. And, in my grown up years, I’ve experienced the more obvious type of discrimination in leagues that require teams to have a certain number of women on the field. The gameplay can sometimes become centered around the men, and the women become human pylons.

Finally, there comes the meta-frustration, or, anger at “the system”. I consistently get the message that women and men are not on equal footing when it comes to team sports. For one, when I’m paying attention, I notice a near absence of women in pickup sports. Also, women can be given conditions that make a sport “easier” (if not easier, just different) for them, such as a smaller ball in basketball, lower volleyball nets, shorter matches in tennis, no tackle football games… or, remember girls’ push-ups in high school?  And, truth be told, I know that even I perceive women and men differently on the field. All this just leaves me in a funk, thinking about how pervasive and entrenched these systematic divisions are.

But, then this weird thing happens, where I remember that, sure, sometimes I end up feeling pretty down after playing co-ed team sports, but, still, there are other times, where I meet awesome people who both play hard and encourage each other. And there’s this added bonus where I get to be a woman playing pick-up sports, which changes things just a bit. So, this weekend, I’m going to play soccer with the meetup group, and, damn it, I will have fun running my guts out, trying to set up good plays, and generally just letting my aggressive and competitive spirit run loose.


Jeanne-Marie just got her MA in philosophy at Tufts University, and is now giving computer science a go. She loves team sports (all of them), biking, swimming, and has not yet learned to love running.

clothing · cycling

Cycle Chic cica 1890: Thanks Metropolitan Museum of Art

Wondering what to wear on your bike ride today?

I’ve written before about riding bikes in skirts and dresses.

Though I’m not a fan of  cupcake Rides and Heels on Wheels rides (see also Bike ride, pants optional!) I like the idea of tweed rides. Here are some photos of Windsor’s tweed ride. Rumour has it that London, Ontario is having one this September. Stay tuned!

If you want to go all out retro, you can consult the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Here’s some dapper riding clothes for women from the 1890s.


Cycling suit
Cycling suit
Date: 1896–98
Culture: American
Medium: wool, leather, silk, linen, cotton
Dimensions: Length at CB (a): 21 in. (53.3 cm) Length at CB (b): 37 in. (94 cm)
Credit Line: Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Mr and Mrs. Morton Sultzer, 1979


Cycling shoes
Cycling shoes
Date: 1895–1900
Culture: American
Medium: leather
Dimensions: [no dimensions available]
Credit Line: Gift of Newton Elkin Shoe Co., 1945
Accession Number: C.I.45.92.1
Date: 1880–99
Culture: American
Medium: silk
Dimensions: 28 in. (71.1 cm)
Credit Line: Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Mrs. Frederick H. Prince, Jr., 1967
Accession Number: 2009.300.2119a, b
Stockings, originally designed for practical purposes, soon transformed into a fashionable accessory with the invention of the knitting frame in 1589 and then the circular-knitting machine in 1816. This technology allowed for a tighter weave and a better fit. Also, it was much easier to produce stockings, making them more affordable and readily available to a larger public. Plain white stockings were in mode for quite some time, until the mid to late-1800s when hemlines rose, and the ankle was revealed. This change in fashion called for colorful and fanciful motifs to decorate the lower leg, a visually appealing effect.
The colorful, striped patterning of this pair of stockings gives them a modern sensibility. Overall, they have a sporty feel, yet their sheerness adds a touch of elegance. It is very likely, that these would have been worn during the afternoon, appropriate for one of the sports of the day such as tennis or bicycling.


A couple of days ago we shared some of their newly released bike images too.

Guest Post

Still learning! – On breathing and focusing (Guest post)

cdI have blogged before on what I have learned from my personal trainers. Once the term was over I was left to myself and felt somewhat like an abandoned puppy. True enough, my trainers have left me with a program and a wealth of information but it is not the same training on my own. Continuing to workout the way I did with them is a challenge: stretch enough, focus, push myself. If no one is there to remind me, it is tempting to go straight to workout without the stretching and as tempting to just hop in the shower once done (I talked about what I have learned about stretching here).

One thing I have learned from my trainers has been to focus: pay attention to my body when I set it in motion and work it out. The first time I went to the gym for a workout on my own, I had my iPod with me. There was no reason not to listen to music since I was by myself. Before training with my personal trainers, I had always used my iPod. But something interesting happened as I was returning to this old habit: a few minutes into my weight lifting, I noticed that I was doing it all wrong: mindlessly moving the weights around and not focusing on the strength and movement and what my body was feeling. I was also losing count and being distracted by the music. I simply unplugged! I have not used my iPod since then for my workout sessions, be they cardio or weight lifting. I find that I can concentrate more on what I am doing and feel I am getting better results this way.

Another very important thing I have learned in the last weeks of my training program was proper breathing while running. One of my trainers noticed that I was not breathing properly while we were running around the track. The running was always done with intervals: two thirds of the track jogging, 1 third sprinting. The sprints would put me out of breath completely and it was very hard to do multiple laps. I thought my stress-induced asthma was the sole culprit. Thanks to my trainer’s observation I found out that I was in the habit of breathing as fast as my running pace. This worked kind of ok while jogging but the sprints were a killer: try hyperventilating while running! He advised me to take longer, deeper breaths. I had to learn to dissociate the breathing pace with the running pace. Every running sessions after that I would just focus on my breathing, making sure to get the air way down into my belly and then completely out. I am also learning to breathe in through my nose and exhale through the mouth. I am getting better at it, every time I go out and run. It is making my jogging/running much easier, even if I still need my puffer to get me going (this asthma won’t cure itself).

I continue to apply what I have learned with my trainers, especially to be focused and to breathe properly. It feels great and I feel more powerful!

Book Reviews

Review of A Life without Limits

life without limitsConsidering how much I love triathlon and how little I feel drawn to ultra trail running you’d think that I’d be much more excited about Chrissie Wellington’s A Life without Limits: A World Champion’s Journey than I am about Vanessa Runs’ The Summit Seeker

But no.  In every respect, The Summit Seeker  is a superior memoir. Captivating, with universal appeal and a compelling and attractive narrator who, as a reader, you care about, The Summit Seeker is a fine example of first rate first-person narrative non-fiction.  You don’t need to be interested in or even care about ultra running to get drawn into the book.

A Life without Limits is the opposite.  It’s only because of my interest in triathlon, and perhaps also because some of the story takes place in the little known Swiss mountain village of Leysin where I spent a good chunk of time as a teen, that I persevered through Chrissie Wellington’s book about her journey to becoming the women’s Ironman world champion.

The book proves what I learned as a creative writing student and what I tell my own students when I teach “The Art of the Personal Essay”:  a great life story doesn’t guarantee a great book.  You need to be able to write it. You need to be able to deliver more than a series of anecdotes (the “situation,” in Vivian Gornick’s terms) and instead tell the story — that’s the narrator’s inner journey, where she struggled, what her moment of epiphany was, and how it changed her, and how she (not just the external circumstances of her life) was different after that change.

That’s the personal narrative author’s most important skill and greatest challenge. It’s not a great surprise that writing is not Chrissie Wellington’s strength.  Why should it be? She’s a professional Ironman triathlete.  It’s amazing that she had the time and perseverance to write and complete the memoir at all!

There is no denying her athletic greatness. Chrissie Wellington is an exceptional triathlete whose record-breaking accomplishments and fast rise to the top in the Ironman distance have garnered her well-deserved accolades. But for me, her book was an endurance challenge all on its own.

I felt myself wishing for the end, as I do on one of those runs when I check my Garmin all too frequently, more often than not disappointed at what it’s telling me in terms of distance-to-go, pace, and time-to-the-next-walk break.  As I read, I jumped ahead for the interesting bits, and even then struggled to read them objectively because I found myself irritated with the narrator’s character and voice. It drags a lot in the first half, talking about her life before she become a professional triathlete, from childhood, through her teens.  Again, I would have liked to see how that feeds into the overall story of who she is, but I for one had difficulty picking up that thread and holding onto it.

The book has its moments.  She is a wealth of information about what it takes to train for triathlon at the professional level. It’s brutal and demanding. As even amateur age-group athletes know, any kind of commitment to endurance sport requires mental toughness as well as physical stamina.  Chrissie tells this story well. The most absorbing chapter is entitled, “The Triathlete’s Life.” Here she gives insight into the day to day of a professional triathlete, not something most of us know anything about.

I wish I loved the book because, as I explained in yesterday’s review of The Summit Seeker, the stories of strong women competitors are few and far between, not nearly as available as the stories of men.  All this goes to say that I was positively disposed to liking the book.  And I tried. But it’s full of clichés (e.g. “the end of my tether,” “the end it nigh,” “all hell breaks loose,”–none damning in itself, but this tired and uncreative language litters every chapter; a better writer would, upon revision, reach deeper for more impact). Not only that, the narrative voice lacks humility. Maybe it’s hard to be humble when you’re a several time Ironman world champion. And extra-hard when the whole reason your book has an audience is that you’re writing about your experience of becoming that world champion.

But if I’ve learned anything about good first person writing, it’s that the narrator has to be likeable.  That is, she has to come across as sympathetic, someone you’d enjoy sitting down with for a long and leisurely lunch (not just to pick their brain about something they’re expert in, but to engage in reciprocal and satisfying conversation). Chrissie may well be a charming and generous person in reality, but the narrative persona she adopts for this book is kind of off-putting and narcissistic.  Of course it’s a challenge to talk about yourself for pages and pages, as a first person account requires, and not be narcissistic about it.  Again, it takes a certain kind of skill, and who can fault Chrissie for developing (to great success) her other talents?

I won’t go into the book’s shortcomings in great detail. It contains some good information about triathlon training and the experience of doing Ironman triathlons, including the World Championship in Kona. It gives us some insight into her life, her relationships with coaches, other competitors, family (who support her wonderfully), and (eventually) her life partner, Tom.  As a memoir, it’s not the best example of a good, gripping life story out there, but it does have these other things to recommend it if your primary interest is to learn about the life of a professional triathlete rather than to read a great book.

And I have to say that as I began to write this review, I started to reflect on whether I would have the same feelings concerning a man who adopted a self-congratulatory and supremely confident tone towards his own achievements as a professional athlete?  We expect it of men (for better or worse), but not of women (who are socialized to be more self-effacing, gracious, and other-regarding). I spend all sorts of my professional life talking about why that set of expectations is sexist and unfair. Did I give her credit not just for her accomplishments, but also for the recognition of others?  One thing I can say is that while she doesn’t present the most gracious attitude towards her peers, she has a lovely section about her triathlon heroes.

Like Vanessa Runs, Chrissie’s heroes are not the elite athletes who are her actual rivals. Rather, they are the people who endure the Ironman against all odds. Like Rudy Garcia Tolson, a double-above-knee amputee and Sister Madonna Buder, who started training at age 48 (I love that, since that’s about when I started my triathlon journey!) and has since completed over 300 triathlons.  You also have to admire Chrissie’s commitment to staying on site until the last competitors cross the finish line. For someone who came in first in such a long and demanding event, that’s quite a wait and says something about her attitude. I would have liked to see more of this side of her in the book.

I know from the Amazon reviews that lots of people liked A Life without Limits, liked Chrissie, and recommend it with a full set of five stars. For me, it’s not quite what I look for in a memoir even though it delivers some good information about the sport.