Here’s a guest post by Michele M (posted by Catherine W)
Content note: This post contains some talk about eating disorders.
Last week, I swam 10.3 miles in the Tennessee River in 5 hours and 8 minutes. I used the race to raise money for a family with two small boys who just lost their mom, at 34, to breast cancer. She was one of my closest friends. This race was not my first long distance swim and it is certainly not going to be my last. But this one was special insofar as it marked a transition in the way I think about my body, what it is capable of, and how I have been treating it. I also came to realize more than ever that women are badass (duh). More on that later.
I have always had a hard time declaring “I’m an athlete” without simultaneously assuming everyone must know I am an impostor. Despite growing up doing ballet and swimming competitively, apprenticing with the Atlanta ballet during college, and today, staring at a shelf full of trophies from numerous races I’ve completed, even ones where I was first or second female overall, I feel like a fraud when I even try to think privately to myself ‘yeah, I’m an athlete.’ I think this is because deep, deep down inside I am still battling the demons of anorexia and bulimia and over the years, I have added long-distance swimming and triathlons to my repertoire to beat those demons down even further. And all those eating disordered voices have been pushed down and out pretty far, so far in fact that they are almost mute and unrecognizable. But I would be a liar if I denied that a huge part of what drives me to swim farther than most humans care to run is a fear of uncontrollably gaining weight. Swimming absurd distances, ironically, lets me obsess over eating for very different reasons. Turns out, that if you are going to swim 5, 6, 10, 13 miles in open water, you need to EAT. Like, a lot. Who knew?
I’ve loved reading the posts on this blog and one written by Megan Dean recently really hit home with me. Responding to Google’s new fat-phobic feature that lets you know how many cupcakes you will walk off on a particular journey, she said she has actively tried to keep calories out of her life, instead focusing on fitness and food for the pleasure they bring her. I couldn’t agree more, and I wish it were an easy thing to do – to simply ignore all that data. But it’s shoved in our faces more and more each day. My Apple watch constantly reminds me I have ‘x’ number of calories left to burn for the day, and I get praised by the myriad of apps I have whenever I complete a workout, with something along the lines of “you burned soooo many calories today! Way to go champ!” Thus, rather than try to ignore it all, I have learned to use this information to remind, convince, and re-convince myself that 1. I am totally burning enough calories and will not uncontrollably gain weight and that 2. Yes, I am, in fact, an athlete.
Data also help me to train appropriately. With endurance racing, the problem often is not getting enough fuel or not getting the right kind. For this 10 mile swim, I really had to focus on my diet, but not in the obsessive calorie-restrictive ways I have been accustomed to as a ballerina. And it just naturally seems to happen that when I train for long distances swims, I pack on a few extra pounds. Training for the first major swim I did – Swim Around Key West, a 12.5 mile ocean swim – I was miserable because the scale just kept creeping up. Same thing happened with the 10k swim I did last year in Tampa. But finally, this year, I decided to just embrace it and see it as a sign that I was training correctly. Besides, the weight always levels back out when I return to a more running-heavy routine.
Moreover, when you gaze out at the array of bodies participating in these absurdly long swims, the variety of shapes and sizes is astounding. I recall thinking to myself as I prepared to hit the water the other day that half the people here look like they eat cheeseburgers and chug beer as a professional job (I think nervous, not-entirely-appropriate thoughts before races). And you know what? Every single one of them kicked my ass. Well, nearly all of them. I came in 85th out of 105 swimmers, even though I averaged 30 minute miles for over 10 miles. I got beaten by a 14-year-old boy, a 65-year-old man, many, many folks who appeared to be in way less shape than I, and, wait for it…a woman who was 31 weeks pregnant (she beat me by about 2 minutes). It is always a strange mix of humility and pride that I feel after one of these races – knowing that I got creamed by so many amazing swimmers, while also knowing I am capable of doing something very few people in the world will ever be able to add to their résumé.
The winner of this race, Sandra Frimerman-Bergquist, swam it in 3 hours 17 minutes, nearly 2 hours faster than I did. Of course, I was in awe of her time, but what struck me the most was that it was a WOMAN who won this race, hands down, by over 15 full minutes! And the next TWO swimmers were also women, who tied with a man at 3 hours 30 minutes.
Audrey Yap and I, along with Caren Diehl and Cassie Comley (a Sports Psychologist and Sociologist, respectively), recently co-authored a chapter in the forthcoming MIT Handbook of Embodied Cognition and Sports Psychology about stereotype threat and female athletes. We focused on martial arts, swimming and surfing, in order to show the ways stereotypes are maintained or disrupted in these sports. It was striking to find that in marathon swimming, the supposed gap between male and female performance is not as drastic as it is in sports like running, and when you start looking at major distances like the English Channel or the Manhattan Marathon, women often outperform men. So, going into this race, I knew all that, but still, to see it happen in real life (not that I saw these fast-as-hell women finish – they were the ones waiting for me, drinking beer, looking like they didn’t even swim ten 19 minute miles) was nothing short of exhilarating. Women of marathon swimming are some of the most badass people I’ve ever met.
So yes, this race was super inspiring in so many ways. It was the first long distance swim I completed after having my son 16 months ago that I genuinely felt proud of (I completed a 6.5 mile swim 5 months postpartum, but it was too soon after birth and I was just not in shape for it). It was also an important stepping stone toward the next race I’ve challenged myself to do: a Half Ironman in April. (I think I can safely say I have the swimming part down).
But I was reminded, as I began to really hit the wall around mile 6, why nutrition and cross-training are so important. I could probably stand to do better at fueling my body, especially for Ironman-distance triathlons. And I could definitely stand to do more strength training. Old habits die hard and the phobia of turning into a ‘big woman who lifts weights’ keeps me out of the gym more than I’m proud of. But it would have been nice to have slightly stronger muscles to power me through that horrible 6-7 mile spot where I wanted to quit.
To this end, I’ve hired a coach to really help push me to my full potential in all three sports, but also in nutrition. And that means counting not calories so much as nutrients, electrolytes, and weird things like base salts. Most of all, it means letting go of what my body might start to look like the more I train. Thanks to the women who kicked this race’s ass, and to all the feelings I had getting out of that water after 5 hours of swimming, I was encouraged to keep working toward the most difficult goal I’ve ever set forth for myself: to love my body for what it can do, not so much for what it looks like. I’m never going to be able to beat the ‘skinny demons’ entirely, but becoming the strong and resilient marathon swimmer and triathlete I am today sure has made it easier to land a solid punch in their skinny-obsessed faces.
Michele is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Arkansas State, mom to a 17 month old who is the size of a 3 year old, partner to an Engineer/poet, and guardian of 2 dogs and 2 cats: Darwin, Tesla, Cixous, and Nom Chompsky. She is currently working on a book with University of Georgia Press, “Minding Dogs: Co-Evolving Cognition in the Human-Canine Dyad”.