Resilience

IMG_8480I was traveling for half of July, and a big chunk of that was a bike trip in Latvia and Estonia. The trip was heady and lovely for so many reasons — new space to explore, days and days by myself on the bike, pushing myself past comfort, coping with wind and boredom, feeling the strength of new culture.  When I wasn’t on the bike, walking and walking and walking and running in Riga, in Tallinn, in St. Petersburg.

There is huge privilege and joy in discovering a new place from the saddle or from your running shoes.  You start to make it yours, and even the embarrassing trip-and-fall on a construction thingy in front of a pile of tourists just becomes punctuation, part of the adventure.

This kind of active travel also creates empirical physical accomplishment — mileage in the saddle adding up on my strava app, one or two entries ticked off every day in my “217 workouts in 2017” facebook group.  The mindful presence of moving my body through a landscape blended smoothly with the concrete physical listing of what I’d done — it was a Thing, this bike trip.

And then I came back, to a hot steamy Toronto and a pile of work, and my everyday step counts and my entries in my “217 in 2017” log ground to a halt. It’s easy for me to move a lot when I’m traveling, when even dragging my bag a kilometre and a half to the train station has an overlay of adventure.  Then I get home, and it’s sultry muggy summer, and I’m sitting at my desk with no time for the 75km ride I yearn for, forcing myself out for uninspiring runs every second day, every step muffled and boring.  Trying to remember what it felt like to have activity built into my days.  Activity punctuated by a steady stream of amazing meals.

Ah, the post holiday let down, where I’m making toast and peanut butter again, eating it at my desk, trying to remember how strong my body felt just a week ago.

A week after I got home, I was on another plane, this time for work.  A mini cross country trip to do some focus groups with victims of crime.  My job on this project is to hold the space for people telling the rawest of possible stories, stories of murdered and trafficked children, one woman sharing the most profound experience I’ve ever heard of meeting with her son’s killers after they’d been convicted.  Truth, reconciliation with the worst imaginable experience in this life, the most open humanity ever.

As I did this work, the reason to run came flooding in.  Sometimes running and walking far and riding are adventure, are exploration.  Sometimes they’re discipline, intentional building of strength. And sometimes, they’re elemental, a deep need to have feet in contact with ground to drum into me a deep reminder of my own humanity.

On Tuesday, I politely requested a key to the tiny gym at the airport hotel in Winnipeg after my meeting, and stuffed a hard treadmill workout, mile and half-mile speed repeats, into the time before my next flight.  Then Wednesday, in Vancouver, I coordinated my meetings and my life to run around the seawall in Stanley Park.

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I’ve done this run many times.  I lived in BC for a year a little while ago, and have been lucky enough to be drawn to Vancouver for work a couple of times a year.  It’s the perfect run, a 12 km loop from my hotel, no stops except those you choose to make.  (And one annoying TV shoot at the beginning).  Just you, the seawall, English Bay, the thread of others making their way around on foot or on the slightly separate bike path.

Vancouver is suffering right now, smog hanging in the air from the wildfires across the interior.  The air quality was a bit challenging, and my feet hurt as much as they did in my uninspired runs in Toronto earlier in the week.  The usual deep August blue and crispness of the seascape were missing.  But it was my feet touching down on the seawall, my body moving through the landscape that makes me feel alive.  Feeling privilege of my community, the work I get to do, the life I have.

As I was running, I was re-running some of the previous forays around the seawall. Striding with my dear friend J I don’t see enough of. A walking date I went on with someone I met online when I first moved to BC, just to have someone to talk to.  A kind person, but far too long a walk for someone you haven’t met before and don’t have much to talk about with.  Later, wandering the seawall with my camera and a telescope with an ornithologist/wildlife photographer I was with for a couple of years, crawling on my belly to get a shot of a great blue heron with his fancy lens, pleased when he chortled his approval at my willingness to get dirty.

Running in new places gives me mastery of a new space in a way nothing else does.  But running in a familiar place also gives me illumination.  I’m not the person anymore who would sort of passively agree to go on a long, inescapable walk with someone I’m not sure I want to spend that much time with.  I’m not the person who lets myself get enveloped in other people’s passions.

I know my passions, and I’ve organized my life to live them as much as I can.  I’m very open to new things — goat yoga, anyone? wow, Uzbekistan sounds great! — but I’m also old enough, seasoned enough, to know the things that ground me.  And I’ve learned to do the work that makes the space for them. A long solo walk, and saying a gentle no to company if I really want to be alone. A slightly too hard 12K run I don’t truly have time for. A pounding music-infused treadmill workout when I’ve absorbed other people’s pain.  Asking a friend to meet an hour later for dinner to carve out the time for the 70km bike ride I need.

IMG_9345The Cate who walked the seawall in June 2009 with a stranger is a different person than the Cate who ran it in August 2017. I don’t know if I realized how much until it was spelled out in every footstep of this run.  So much of my work is with people who demonstrate incredible resilience, compassion, who strive for it.  I don’t know if I’d realized how much I’d been learning about resilience for myself doing that work.

Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede. Cate lives in Toronto, where she works in the space of socially accountable education and change in healthcare and other public spheres. She regularly blogs here on the second Friday of every month, as well as when she has something more to say.

Self-guided cycle touring:  10 Practical Tips

Yesterday I posted a bit of a summary about the 7 day bike trip I did last week from Riga to Tallinn, in Latvia/Estonia. Sam also posted my updates from every day on the trip as I did it. Today I wanted to just capture a few practical aspects of doing a self-guided, pre-planned trip on your own, based on my experiences and the way I personally like to travel.

1. Decide if you want to bring your bike or rent one. I don’t have the perfect bike for touring, so I have always rented. This takes care of the “what to do with the bike after you’re done riding” question, but also means you’re on a bit of an unknown quantity. I alleviate some of that by bringing my own seat, pedal and helmet.

2. Decide if you are willing to camp or not. Camping gives you more options for sleeping, but of course is its own logistical ball of worms. I’ve done it, but not alone. If you aren’t going to camp, consider booking accommodations in advance, especially in rural or busy areas. I had the company I rented the bike from book my accommodation, and I was very glad of it — there were at least two nights I wouldn’t have had a place to stay, otherwise. And even in places where there are more options, I personally don’t love arriving in a place at 3 or 4 in the afternoon and beginning the search for a place to sleep.

3. Get comfortable with basic bike mechanics. I am not great at bike repair, and that’s been one of the biggest reasons I have limited my cycle touring in the past. I did a fantastic one day hands on tutorial back in April, and I felt so much more relaxed because of it. I also brought my own tools. I didn’t end up having to use any of my knowledge except to slightly adjust my gear cable but I felt much better knowing I COULD if I had to. (I also did a wilderness first aid course, and ended up helping a woman in the airport who fell and hurt herself as I left). So yeah, prepared!

4. Test your panniers out at home. I bought new MEC 20L Aquanot panniers for this trip because I’d had trouble with the mounting hooks the last time I’d used my older ones for a longer trip. The mounts on these were super easy, and worked well. I chose these because they were also waterproof, but they didn’t squish down quite as much as I wanted them to. I would probably look for slightly smaller panniers next time to reduce the possibility of carrying too much. Which brings me to…

5. Seriously think through what you want to carry with you. I had more than I really wanted, especially shoes, because I had another week in Tallinn and St. Petersburg at the end of the trip. I also had a super heavy lock they gave me with the bike, and wished I’d brought my own lighter lock instead especially since I was in rural areas and almost every hotel had a place to leave my bike inside. I was too compliant to refuse this one when I got the bike, but wish I had — I also lost the only key, so it was a useless piece of heavy hardware in the end. I also chose to travel without any camera except my phone for the first time in 10 years, and it was freeing.

6. Assume it will be cold, and be pleasantly surprised. For someone who travels a lot, I have a weird inability to predict what clothes I’ll want when I’m packing. Layers are my friend. I start with cycling jerseys and shorts and work around that. This time I also had a tank jersey with a built in bra, a winter running shirt, a cycling waterproof coat, a wind jacket and a quilted vest. I wore every layer but the tank at various points. I also had a pair of soft pyjama-like yoga pants and my trusty keens sandals for off the bike and these have become my new traveling uniform.

7. Have access to data. I use the “roam like home” feature on my phone that gives me access to my home data plan while I’m in Europe or Asia for $10/day. This is invaluable to me for staying connected to people when I’m traveling alone and more important, for google maps. Which I needed almost every day at least once, especially to find hotels in cities.

8 Be willing to get a little lost. The bike tour company gave me really good, clear trip notes, along with good maps. There are cycling routes (though not designated cycling trails) all across the Baltics, and they are reasonably well signed. But landmarks and roads and construction change, and pretty much every day I ended up using a combination of the trip notes, paper maps and google maps to find my way. It was particularly important for me to let go of the idea that the mileage number on my bike computer should be completely aligned with the trip notes, because there were variances. I had to let go of feeling like I was following the instructions “step by step” and learn to look around, figure out directions, and get a sense of where I was. (This was hardest in the towns!)

9. Let go of pre-conceived notions of speed. When I’m on my road bike, I average about 25 km/hour, more on a good day. A lot of the time with the weighted cross bike in a headwind, I was looking at something like 13 to 15 km/hour. This can play head games with me and I feel like I’m falling behind or push myself too hard. I needed the computer to be able to roughly match up distance with maps, but I stopped paying attention to anything but indicators of how far I was in my day’s journey.

10. Clipping in helps. I’ve documented many times before how I’ve stupidly tried to use my road bike cleats on tours (spoiler alert: they don’t work for rough terrain when you need to be able to pedal unclipped sometimes), and I finally invested in a not-pricey pair of mountain biking shoes with spd clips. I have two sets of spd pedals that flip to flat sides, and I tested out both before I left. I had some anxiety about clipping in with a loaded bike, and I find spds harder to scoot in and out of than my cleats, but they worked great. On the third day, I lost a screw out of one of the spds, and happened to be in one of the only towns where I could replace them. I liked the new ones so much better that I replaced the other one as well. I was very grateful for the way the weight transfers with clipped in shoes, especially in the wind.

Finally — and I can’t stress this enough — cheese sandwiches are your friend. Most of the places I was cycling, there was literally no place for lunch and rarely a food store. Most breakfasts were continental style, so I got in the habit of making a cheese sandwich on the EXCELLENT (I cannot stress enough how excellent) Baltic bread every day, and eating this at about the 30 km point in my ride, with dried apricots I’d brought from home. The food on my trip was fantastic, but lunch was not reliably available. I also brought some powerbar type snack thingies but something that felt like a real “lunch” was an important motivator for me.

So that’s my survival guide… what things do you find most helpful when cycle touring?

From Riga to Tallinn: Why I Chose a Self-Guided Cycle Tour

I just rode my bike from Riga (the truly lovely capital of Latvia) to Tallinn (the equally enchanting capital of Estonia). You can read about my actual journey last week (three links here, here and here) for all the emotional and experiential aspects of riding more than 500 km across the Baltics. It was a fantastic trip for me, challenging but just the right amount.

Following my trip, Catherine posted about how mine inspired her to do some touring of her own. Kim has also just finished riding her bike up and down many hills in Yorkshire and other parts of England. Sam, Sarah, Catherine and Joh are about to embark on the Friends for Life Bike Rally again. Jean and others have posted in the comments about their experiences cycle touring. These different conversations made me think about all of the different ways to ride bikes far, and why we do it.

There are dozens of different ways to do cycle touring, and different approaches fit different people, different climates and different countries. Over time, I’ve figured out that a hybrid of guided and hardcore improv is right for me.

I’m not the truly hardcore person who gets on bike in, say, Bangkok, with a tent, no plan and a couple of maps and rides for weeks. I’ve met those people — I admire those people — but I’m not one of them. But the more cycling I’ve done, the less inclined I am to also do a fully supported trip. I’ve done those in Vietnam, Laos and Sri Lanka, and had wonderful experiences — but these trips tend to have a bit more of a cultural aspect to them than I strictly want. That means, for example, there will be a visit to an historic site that means a 3 hour bus ride and little time on the bike that day, or they really want you to experience cities A and B so they build in a 2 hour bus transfer. Or suddenly you’ll find yourself in a cricket farm with a plateful of crickets and shots of rice wine. At 10 am. Not the mid-morning snack I want. On those trips, I also had a bit of an experience where the riders liked riding more than the guides did, which meant we were sometimes arguing for more time on the bike — which was odd for a cycling trip.


For me, guided trips are great for countries that are hard to navigate linguistically or in terms of terrain — and I’m sure I’ll do them again. I have my eye on a trip to Mongolia. But for places where maps and cycling trails are plenty and many people speak some English, I lean more and more to self-guided.

A few years ago, I did a completely unplanned trip in Bavaria with a couple of friends. We had one map, a few euros, a couple of tents and hired bicycles. Because one of my friends was living in Germany at the time and understood both the etiquette of camping there and could speak German, I felt comfortable pitching tents in random fields as needed, though I preferred campgrounds or guest houses for the showers. We had no plans, and no real destination — just five days to cycle. We took a train from Frankfurt to somewhere random to start, and at the end, got on another train. It was great.

I’ve realized that I really like the sensation of traveling fully from a set point to another point, seeing both the glorious and the mundane. My second last night on this recent trip was in a weary working town with only one utilitarian guesthouse hidding at the back of a soviet-era apartment block behind a steel door. I enjoyed this as much as the flourishing resort town the night before.

For this trip, I wanted something between the totally improv option and the thoroughly guided. I wanted a narrative-friendly route – a distinct from A to B that had some heft to it, I wanted to go to a couple of countries I’ve always wanted to see, and I wanted a trip with some weight to it that would make me feel like I’d had both an experience of seeing new places and also accomplishing something significant.

Enter Baltic Bike Tours. They do tons of guided trips, but also offer this self-guided option where they give you a decent bike, a route and a bunch of maps, and book places for you to stay. This was important to me, because Latvia and Estonia are very rural outside Riga and Tallinn, and I didn’t want to camp. It was important to me to have a destination I could predict with a bed at the end of it.

They offered the option of transferring my bags from place to place for me, noting the bags would be there by 5 or 6 every day, but I declined that for two reasons. I’ve done that before on point to point hiking trip, and I found it frustrating to not always have my bags there right when I arrived, especially if it was rainy and cold. (This also happened at the end of the Bike Rally last year, when I was running around an old convent in a towel looking for my bags).

More important, though, I wanted the sensation of having transported myself and all my necessary things fully on my own across more than 500 km. There is something really spiritually gratifying to me to be able to say that at 52, I have the capacity, the strength, the fortitude to propel myself and a loaded bike across a significant distance, by myself. Since I got on my first bike at the age of 8 and it became the way for me to explore by myself the towns near the one we lived in in Germany, my bike has been the most grounding place for me, the way to feel in harmony with the world around me. Sam posted a story the other day about a long-distance cyclist and why she likes to ride alone, and there were many echoes with what riding alone for me does. And for this trip, that meant being fully self-supported.

As I wrote in my daily posts, the ride was sometimes challenging, particularly with the wind and occasionally, with rain and confusing navigation. But it also brought me right to the edge of the sea, and past the intimate spaces of rural lanes, and the rhythms of mornings in small towns, and the kindness of people to fieldpoppies by the side of the road. And every day as I pulled into that night’s home, I felt a huge sense of myself at my best, the kind of inner affirmation that goes past words. Just me, exploring, finding, reaching.

Tomorrow I’ll post a bit about the practical side of doing this kind of trip.

Packing for the future

“Packing for the Future:  Instructions” by Lorna Crozier is one of my favourite poems. This is her reading it.

Tuesday night, I was frantically packing for a bike trip in the Baltics. Starting Sunday, I’m riding unsupported, alone, from Riga (the capital of Latvia) to Tallinn (the capital of Estonia). It’s an 8 day ride. I hired a bike from a bike touring company, who also helped me map a route and book accommodation in “the willages” along the way, which are apparently too busy in the summer to risk arriving at sunset without a place to stay. But otherwise, I’m on my own.

Take the thickest socks.
Wherever you’re going
you’ll have to walk.

I travel solo a lot, and I’ve done a fair bit of riding in Foreign Lands. But this is the first time I’m riding alone, unguided, in a country where English isn’t a strong possibility.  I spent a day learning basic bike mechanics, and I did a bit of research, and bought new panniers and some tools, and I’ve been riding a fair bit, as well as spinning all winter. But once the obvious cycling things go into the bag, I get a bit paralysed.  I’ll be gone for two and a half weeks, about half of it on the bike. But when I’m NOT on the bike, I’ll be in cities — Riga, Tallinn and St. Petersburg — and have to dress in something other than grimy lycra. And I have to carry it all on two wheels.

There may be water.
There may be stones.
There may be high places
you cannot go without
the hope socks bring you,
the way they hold you
to the earth.

Packing is pragmatic, and it’s about hope, and it’s a proxy for anxiety.   I started making lists and tossing things onto the couch in my home office two weeks before I had to put it in the bags. It was all overlaid with a sensation that I was inevitably going to Get it Wrong.  (Along with some anticipatory resentment from the cats, who slept on it for a week).

I used to have a Problem with bags.  I would keep buying bags — purses, work bags, travel bags.  They were never quite right.  I think I believed that somewhere, a magic bag existed that would be the perfect container for me to take exactly what I needed, and nothing more.

Take a leather satchel,
a velvet bag and an old tin box–
a salamander painted on the lid.

This is to carry that small thing
you cannot leave.

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I finally realized that there was no way I was ever going to get it right.  I pack the wrong shoes and end up riding 800 km in keens sandals. I underpack and end up wearing every layer I have.  When I’m not in my bike gear, I want to be comfortable, but I also don’t want to dress like Harriet the Spy ALL the time. That means more than one pair of shoes. And maybe a lipstick.

That yearning for the the perfect bag, the perfect packing — it’s really about yearning for equanimity,  for perfect flow.  About wanting to feel perfectly content, at ease, at peace with what is.

In your bag leave room for sadness,
leave room for another language.

When we’re riding, like most athletic pursuits, we can become completely submerged in getting the gear right. The lightest bike, the most effortless shifters, the perfect saddle, the devices that track and record every metric, the wickingest jerseys, the most balanced electrolytes. I do this as much as anyone.  I tested three different pedals with my new shoes for this trip, bought two new jerseys and a raincoat (about the 13th one I own, but this one is Just Right), lamented that MEC stopped carrying my favourite shorts.

And yet.

And yet.

I’ve written many times about how seeing a place from the saddle of a bike is my favourite way to learn the pace local people move at, smell the coffee blooms and car exhaust, experience what the air feels like on your face.  The space in my bag is for those long hours alone with what’s inside me, the joy and the regrets, the light touching of the yearnings I don’t voice, the effort/not-effort of rolling, the sensation of being in a place I’ve never been before and almost certainly will never be again. To roll through it, simultaneously shaped by what’s happening around me and at ease with whatever unfolds.

Take the dream
you’ve been having since
you were a child, the one
with open fields and the wind
sounding.

Really, very little that’s in my bag truly matters. If my bike computer stops working, if I lose my phone, if I don’t have warm enough layers, I will either be just fine without them or I will buy new ones.  If I’m lost, I will ask for directions to Ainaži or Tostamaa. People will point.  I will get lost.  I will get somewhere.

feather revised

Mistrust no one who offers you
water from a well, a songbird’s feather,
something that’s been mended twice.
Always travel lighter
than the heart.

**

Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who writes for this blog on the second Friday of every month. When not roaming the world, she lives in Toronto. 

217 Workouts in 2017: #101

Sam and I (along with our friend Joh and a bunch of random facebook people) are doing a challenge of doing 217 workouts in 2017.  Sam did it last year (216 in 2016), and wrote earlier this year about her experience and trying to figure out “what counts” as a workout. Sam took a very philosophical tack on the question back in January, connecting the question to the Trolley Problem (which reared its head this week, weirdly enough, in my binge watch of this season’s Orange is the New Black.  Philosophy is everywhere!).  My definition is less theoretical, but last Friday I logged my 100th workout, and was reflecting on how clear “what counts” has become for me.

The terms of the group itself are fairly ambiguous:

“WHAT: The idea is simple. In 2017 there are 365 days. We are going to challenge ourselves to work out 217 times in those 365 days…. 

HOW: (1)Workouts are defined as any form of deliberate exercise/movement. Some examples are, lifting weights, doing gymnastics, a CrossFit WOD, a hike in the great outdoors, practising a martial art or yoga. Taking a dance class or playing rec softball with the folks from work also count. Do what inspires you to move your body.

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The image is Cate, a middle aged white woman in a bike helmet, on a break in the middle of a 60 km bike ride last Sunday in Ottawa, looking out over the Rideau River.  She needs more sunblock on that chest.

The group is also simple — we log our workouts in a short sentence, occasionally with a photo.  Sometimes people like each other’s posts.  That’s it.

The simple counting is strangely motivating for me.  The only time I’ve kept track of my workouts before was years ago when I was training for marathons, and that was more of an “am I following my program?” assessment.  This is just… stacking up a list.  And even in this world of strava, fitbits and garmins, I find a simple #97 hot 5K run in middle of day sort of seals a sense of accomplishment for me.  And if I haven’t logged anything for a couple of days, I have a nagging sensation that I need to move my body.  I know in my gut that I NEED to work out for my soul and body to function well, but other winters I have fudged that knowledge many times, letting 3 or 4 days drift between runs or trips to the gym.  This challenge has built in accountability for me — if I have to scroll down too far to find my previous post, it’s been too long. That’s my rule.

I think what I like most about this is that there is a loose external structure — a FB group, a number goal, other people doing it too — but everything else is personal.  You get to decide what counts for you as a workout.  That’s it.  Some people count every 2 or 3 km dogwalk, some people only count if they sweat.  There are no objective “rules.”

Sam and I have a similar approach to “what counts” — we count intentional episodes of working out but generally don’t count everyday movement.  That means we don’t count meeting our basic step count targets or short cycling commutes.  For us, that’s not working out, that’s just living our lives.  We count the things we wouldn’t be doing anyway.

Most counting is straightforward:  one episode of activity counts as one workout.  An episode could be a 3 km run or an 18 km run. One workout.  Going to the gym is one episode, even if I ran on the treadmill and did weights.  But — if I ran in the morning and then went to the gym in the afternoon, I’d count that as two workouts — because it was two different episodes of engaging in activity.

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Image of a bike on a rainy city street: this is an example of an episode of cycle commuting I counted as a workout, because I was soaking wet and freezing the entire ride home, yet I didn’t hop on the streetcar or into a cab.

This does create some grey areas.  Most of my cycling commutes total about 10 km a day, on pretty flat roads, in the city.  I don’t count that as a workout (though I do count it toward my yearly mileage in the saddle).  Other people might.  This is a very “you do you” situation.  However, I HAVE counted that 10 km cycling commute if it was really rainy or windy, because then it becomes an out-of-the-ordinary episode of mobility — although I usually count this as half a workout.  I might count two days of commuter cycling as a workout if I also threw in a few extra stairclimbs, or some pushups.  I don’t usually count hitting 10,000 steps in a day unless I exceed the 10K and it’s combined with a cycling commute.  And I’ve counted 12 or 13000 steps if it also involved moving boxes or lots of stairs, and certainly 15,000+ steps if I marched around a city for hours. I counted an hour of dancing at a wedding one night after I’d already gone on a long bike ride.  Other people have different frames of reference — again, you do you — I’m not going to weigh in on whether I think something constituted a workout for someone else.

In management theory, there is a concept called “felt fair pay,” which suggests that employees have an “innate” sense of appropriate compensation for their work, and the closer you get to that amount, the better motivation.  The theorist behind this  had a lot of crackpot ideas, but in my experience, when we’re engaged deeply in any initiative — whether it’s work or working out — we develop a “gut” sense of what feels fair.  I’ve determined that for me, working out is mostly defined in terms everyone would recognize as a workout — a yoga class, a run, a long bike ride — but there is also this gut sense of “it’s a workout if I added something somewhat strenuous to my day, especially if adding it felt like some kind of effort.”

I like this little challenge, and the completist in me is determined to hit the 217 target.  It’s simple, it’s flexible and I like the data:  I’ve worked out 101 times so far this year. In the movement department, I’m taking care of myself.  Gold star for me.

 

On NOT doing the race

Susan posted yesterday about her first half marathon.   Despite health challenges and some loneliness in her training (which she wrote about last week) — spoiler alert —  she did great and looked radiant in her pics at the end.

Like Susan, I signed up for a race on impulse last winter — my first duathlon.  Also scheduled for last Sunday.  But unlike Susan, I didn’t do mine.  And I’m okay with that.

I’m not much of a racer or an organized event athlete.  When I first started running more than two decades ago, I did a lot of races, and lived in the world of PRs and complex training and this-half-marathon-as-prep-for-that-marathon.  I was reasonably fast and I liked getting faster and having milestones in the calendar to gear up for.  I felt great finding where I placed in the overall field, setting targets.

But then I injured myself, and did a big marathon anyway (it’s BOSTON!  I’m signed up! I have to do it!), and pretty much hooped myself from serious running ever again.  (Boring knee stuff, still waiting for the magical cartilage-fixing goop I keep imagining is just around the corner).

I took up road biking when I couldn’t run much anymore, and for more than 10 years, have been alternating between running two or three times a week, spinning and lots of long rides.  Half-arsed weights and occasional yoga classes.  I do events — last year’s Friends for Life Bike Rally, and the Triadventure that supports the project in Uganda I volunteer for.  But these aren’t races and timing isn’t a thing.

I’ve only “raced” twice in the past 10 years — a 10K about 4 years ago, and a very wet half marathon 3 years ago, both on Toronto island.  I ran those more for the fun of running on the island and having something to shape my workouts around, without any intentions around time.

And — even though I had no expectations around time, and although I know I’m 52 and could never compete with my 35 year self’s PRs, even a “well run race” feels… flat. It was an accomplishment to do a strong half-marathon, but I’ll never come near my best time again.  No matter how much I rationalize it, races that echo my younger self feel like a letdown.

So I just don’t really do them.  I set distance targets on my bike (150 km for Canada 150, anyone?) and learn how to fix my bike, and make myself run even when this spring’s everloving wind just won’t. calm. down.  I engage in generative challenges like the 217 workouts in 2017 facebook group (I’m at number 94).  But generally, I don’t race.

Some of the people around me have become racier as we’ve gotten older.  One of my former marathon training partners was recently national duathlon champion in his age group, and one of my best friends took up ski racing at 50.  Most of the contributors to this blog write a lot about their races, and what racing means to them. Races can provide shape to your training, motivate you, and give you a sense of community and momentum.

But… they just don’t, for me, much, anymore. And that’s okay.

The other day Sam wrote about how she doesn’t really like riding alone, and I commented that in many ways, I prefer it.  I love a ride with a good group or good company, and like feeling pushed to go faster and further.  I like riding and chatting and catching up.  But I also ride to stretch my inner self as much as my outer, and that’s easier when it’s quiet and just me and my bike and the road.  Riding alone has more flexibility — I don’t have to haul myself across the city to meet people for an early start, or deal with the inevitable execrable traffic when the ride is done and the cars are out and it takes three times as long to get home.  And my life is over-scheduled and over-structured, and just hopping on my bike when I feel like it is sometimes the most generative thing I can do.

So why did I even sign up for a duathlon?

For all the reasons above — to keep me moving through the winter, to give my training some impetus and shape, and to make me engage with myself as an athlete a little differently.  And it did those things.  I’ve done 25 spin classes since January, and got out in my running shoes at least twice a week, even if only for 3 km.  That’s way better than any winter workout results for the past 10 years for me.  I rode with Sam and Sarah a couple of weeks ago and was surprised to find that the hills were a piece of cake because of the spinning.  I feel fitter going into the summer than I have in years.  And I was looking forward to fusing the running and riding, just to see what was possible.

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photo depicts Georgia, the cutest kitten in the world

But then, the same day Sam and Sarah and I rode 82 km, I also went to a wedding and danced too hard in bare feet. My metatarsals and knees ached all week.  Then I impulsively adopted a teeny tiny kitten that needed hand feeding.

Then on Friday night before the race I realized that the Ride for Heart was closing all possible avenues for me to get to the race in Milton, an hour away at the best of times.  I made the call not to do the race, and instead, went for a spontaneous, relaxed 32 km ride on Saturday with a friend.

We stood at the end of Leslie Spit looking at the water and the boats quietly for a few minutes in the middle of our two loops.  “I needed this,” my friend said.  “Me too.”

Sunday morning, I woke up to menstrual cramps and cold pouring rain, and felt Very Wise for my decision. I fed the cats and thought I’d lie down a bit more . I slept until 11 pm.  My body knew what I needed.

Sometimes what you need is a race.  Sometimes you don’t.  You just need to listen.

 

 

 

Embracing the role of Auntie

cate and smithAs this posts, I will be in the air, on my 10th trip to Uganda since 2008.  A decade ago, I accidentally ended up one of the volunteer directors of a learning and development program called Nikibasika, for kids and youth with no family support.  Now, I’m part of a tiny group that raises all the funds and supports this group of kids as they transition through post-secondary school and into adulthood and community leadership.  This picture is of me, with Smith, one of my favourite people in the world.  He’s studying to be a public health officer and he’s curious, kind, warm, caring and so smart and committed to changing his world.  I love him.

Nikibasika is a long and involved story of its own — a book, really — but what I want to focus on here is the identity that’s emerged for me doing this work over the past 10 years — Auntie.

I never really had much of an identity related to the fact that I don’t have kids.  I never really yearned to be a mom, but I didn’t deliberately “choose” not to be one either.  I’ve noticed the emergence over the past couple of decades of women who actively identify as “childfree,” a “movement” of women redefining femaleness without the expectation of kids. That’s all great and interesting — but I can’t relate to it.  I assumed I would have some kids, I happened to be with someone who didn’t want kids during prime kid-having years, that was okay.  It didn’t have a big impact on my sense of self.

Then Nikibasika found me, in a culture where women who are mom-age in any nurturing role are called Auntie.  Around the same time, my sister had her first daughter. So as I entered my 40s, the role of Auntie found me.  At first, it was just an affectionate title.  But as I’ve gone through my 40s and into my 50s, it’s actually become a central element of my sense of who I am.

It’s pretty well understood that being an Auntie can be a special role, the one who gets to do fun things with the kids, “hand them back when they’re crying,” be the safe space for the conversations adolescents can’t have with their parents.  Community and family advocate Mia Birdsong has said that aunties “expand children’s internal and external boundaries,” and I like to hope that that’s what I do with the people I’m auntie to — at least some of the time.

I took my 12 year niece to London for a few days over Easter, and the time inhabiting each other’s space had a unique intimacy to it. She sent me a handwritten thank you letter that said “London is awesome and I’m so glad I got to share my first time going with you.”  I’m grateful for what I got from her in those five days too.

I have an Auntie role with some of my friends’ kids too, especially my friend Jessica’s. I was there at the beginning of her precipitous and early labour, I drove her and her partner back and forth to the NICU while the twins baked into humanness, I drove their tiny selves home from the hospital for the first time. In February, I got to spend a few days with Ivan and Felix (and their parents) in Barbados, introducing them to the sea.

Why am I writing about this in a fitness blog?  Like many of the regulars on this blog, I have written a few times about how community and family are an important part of self-care, and important part of balanced health. The extension of that for me, particularly as I’ve gotten older, is a really explicit need to live with a sense of meaning.

A few years ago, I was in a hotel room in Rwanda reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Committed, and serendipitously came across her musing on the need for aunties: “It’s as though, as a species, we need an abundance of responsible, compassionate, childless women to support the wider community in various ways.”   Right that moment, I understood that even though I hadn’t set out to “be Auntie” to the kids of Nikibasika, it isn’t just “a thing I do,” but one of the ways I get to live into the person I most aspire to be.

For me, Auntie is one of the ways that I’m living this stage of my life in a generative way, to use Erik Erikson’s phrasing for the 7th psychosocial stage of development. Erikson’s theory was that mid-life can either be a time of stagnation and self-absorption, or  it can be a time of “generativity” — i.e., working to creating a better world.  “Auntie” captures that perfectly.

I didn’t set out to make a 15 year commitment to a group of kids and young adults in a country I had no ties in.  Running an NGO in another country as volunteer isn’t for the faint of heart, and the fundraising and operations can get extremely wearying. But like everything that makes me more of who I am — whether it’s riding my bike really far, my work that challenges me, or improvising my way through this project, the day to day discomfort, pain and difficult moments fade into the background. What rises up is the purpose — the moments of profound connection, seeing the young adults who had no family support graduate from university, start businesses, get married, start volunteer projects in their own communities.

Over the next 10 days, I’ll be continuing to improv my way through this project.  I’ll be hot, and a little sick, and jet-lagged — and I’ll be fully in my grateful Auntie glory.

Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who lives in Toronto where she works as an educator and strategic change consultant in academic healthcare and other socially accountable spaces. She blogs here on the second Friday of every month. If you have a few dollars to support Nikibasika, you’ll get a tax receipt in Canada, and knowledge that it’s going straight to an amazing group of young adults:  donation link