charity · competition · running

Mudmoiselle 2018 (Guest Post)

Biopsy. It’s not a great word. The first time I heard it directed at me was six weeks after a reprehensibly bad gynecological procedure done by a horrible male doctor. I had always believed doctors infallible. This guy changed my mind. And so, after refusing to return to him when the going got awful, my new doctor requested the biopsy. In contrast to the previous fellow, she was lovely. The biopsy, on the other hand, not so much.

Out of an abundance of caution, we proceeded with treatment as if the results came back positive. A week later, when the results returned inconclusive, I was glad we had. It took another six months before we could repeat the biopsy. Mercifully, it came back negative. There are certain moments in life when you realise you haven’t been exhaling properly. That day was one of them.

I was fortunate that my results came back as they did. I’ve known too many others for whom things turned out differently. I won’t pretend I have the eloquence to capture the toll cancer has taken on the people in my life. It’s a nasty, pernicious, destructive thing.

For me, six months wondering gave me time to think and time to prioritise. I walked away from the experience knowing that I would do my best not to take my health for granted again. I was also determined to be a better advocate for my own self-care…and to punch cancer in the face every chance I got.

Mudmoiselle Guelph was an opportunity I fanatically embraced. The event, run by the Canadian Cancer Society, is held annually at Cox Creek Cellars just to the north of the city of Guelph. It is a 5km obstacle course designed for the moderate to advanced athlete. (They recommend you train for at least six weeks in advance.) The event does allow Mudmonsieurs, by the way, though anecdotally, I’d say most of this year’s 500 participants were women.

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(Image of me covered in mud wearing a Mudmoiselle medal.)

My team of five intrepid Mudmoisellers called ourselves “The Flailings.” Our team slogan: “Let’s get ready to FLAIL!” None of us had participated in the event before, so we figured t-shirts would be handy to help us pick each other out in the crowd. Obviously, a flailing air dancer was a perfect mascot. (Even if it did end up looking like a weird, ghost-like creature according to my five-year-old.)

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(Snapshot of the back of our team t-shirt with the words “The Flailings” and “Mudmoiselle, Sept 15, 2018.” A neon green flailing arm dancer is the centre image.)

Our team was a part of a mid-day heat. The organisers had us begin by reciting the “Mudmoiselle oath,” a moment of sobriety that, I fear, only heightened my team’s sense of giddiness at the ridiculousness of five grown women running around a vineyard in the scorching heat. I don’t honestly remember many of the obstacles that we ran through, though some are etched in my mind forever. First among them, the second obstacle, which was true to the event name.

This memorable obstacle was nothing less than a giant pit of fenced in, man-made, oozing mud. I suppose I give Mudmoiselle credit for putting it so close to the beginning, because if you’re going to get muddy, you had better get to it sooner rather than later. And, of course, the only way to get to the other side was to crawl through the goo. By mid-day, participants had established two parallel ruts, one on the left-hand side of the pit and one on the right. I looked at my team members beside me. We cheered a good cheer. And then I made the only possible decision: go down the middle.

Throughout the remainder of the two-hour experience, we launched ourselves over hay bales, scaled muddy inclines, walked through bogs (while, obviously, singing “Stand By Me” and praying for a lack of leeches), and swung from tires. By the end of it all, I had rope burns, ripped knees, purpling bruises, and exhausted triceps. I also had a blast. I do not remember the last time I cheered on strangers, particularly as they muscled themselves over questionably stable wooden walls. We were all there to help one another along, because goodness knows for many of the participants these obstacles were symbolic of so much more.

(I crouch on my hands and knees on top of a large hay bale.)

There is something unique about the sense of community that emerges out of a group of people dragging themselves through the mud together. At the end of it all, my team and I sat at a table, marvelled at our crusty, sore bodies, and shared stories of people we knew who were touched by this awful disease. We raised a glass to those we had lost.

On the car ride home, with multiple towels draped over my seat to protect the car, the children moaned about mommy’s awful smell. And all I could think was, yes my dears, that’s the smell of being alive…and bog water. Actually, it’s mostly bog water.

(I walk sideways along a wobbly wooden plank while holding on to a guide wire.)

Kimberly Francis is Acting Associate Dean of Research and Graduate Studies at the University of Guelph, where she is also an Associate Professor of Music and a passionate feminist musicologist. She’s not ashamed to say that Taylor Swift, Guster, and many, many tracks from Big Shiny Tunes can all be found on her workout playlist.

fitness · gender policing · stereotypes · weight lifting

Give Me Strength (Guest Post)

Some of my favourite images from sports photography can be found in Howard Schatz’s 2002 book, Athletes. In his provocative work, Schatz photographs Olympic athletes from various sports in black, form-fitting clothing. Arranging them side-by-side, Schatz reveals the various shapes of the athletic female body. There are many ways of reading these images—I am not here to claim they are unproblematic—but the aspect I choose to focus on is how all of these women, in their varying shapes and sizes, represent strength.

I think society has a terrible time accepting physically strong women—women whose musculature is visible and takes up space. (The recent events surrounding Venus Williams come to mind.) We have adjectives for these types of bodies: “broad,” “big-boned,” “stocky,” and “handsome,” for example. But none of these words is meant to be flattering. (Brianne of Tarth, anyone?) As a 6’0’’ woman myself, I struggled well into my thirties with the question of how to be present physically in a room. I knew I wasn’t petite, small, or particularly fragile. I took up space—a lot of it.

For me, everything came to a head when I turned 36 and gave birth to my third child via c-section no. 3. The doctors who prepped me for surgery marvelled at my enormous baby bump, as if it were something glorious and Amazonian. I’ll never forget their astonishment when my beloved Quinton arrived, weighing in at 11 pounds, 1 ounce. I had given birth to a toddler. As for me, postpartum I had never been so heavy nor so chronically in pain. So, I decided I should do what any 36-year-old classically-trained musician would logically do: I decided to take lessons. I hired myself a brief stint with a personal trainer.

I arrived at the gym assuming my trainer would put me on the treadmill—what I had previously been urged to do to “slim down”—and yell at me in an emotionally-uplifting and inspiring way. (Reality tv wouldn’t steer me wrong, right?) But after five minutes of warm up, my trainer turned off the dreaded machine and led me to the free weights. She walked me past the familiar, dainty weights I had compulsively selected in past group exercise classes, and instead handed me the heavy “barbells” from the middle of the rack. Incredulous, I lifted. After a few sessions, it felt great.

In the first weeks working with this trainer I gained fifteen pounds…of muscle. And I grew strong. She quickly learned that we shared an interest in facts and physics. Together, we talked about everything from nutrition, to metabolism, to body mechanics. Herself being 5’4’’ and a competitive body builder, she looked at me and saw a remarkable template. It turned out, the construction of my previously-loathed body meant that I could actually accomplish some pretty remarkable things. She helped me to understand that my metabolism prioritised muscle and would grow it and protect it prior to burning off fat. This celebration of my construction was surprisingly new. And the strength training was far more effective in slimming me down than anything else I had ever done.

My trainer changed my life. She taught me what strength looks like—male or female. So many bodies that I would have previously thought were “bulky” actually belonged to incredibly strong, powerful women. I was astonished—considering myself a fairly educated individual—at how little I understood about the female body. And as I eliminated my fear of weights and of growing bulky, I also began to enjoy being myself a lot more than I had before. Exercising gave me a hobby that helped me moderate anxiety, eliminate chronic pain, play with my children without fear of “putting my back out,” and embrace failure as something amazing. In fact, failure in the gym is key. It is the best way to make you stronger.

Three years later, I still lift, although this summer I began running again as a chance to tackle new challenges. I cannot imagine life without regular exercise, and I talk with my children about strength and being strong. I fear, as a society, that there are far too many instances to undermine women’s ideas of strength, which, as Schatz’s image reveals, can come in many forms. And make no mistake, one doesn’t need to lift the heavy stuff to be a power house; strength manifests itself in remarkably different ways. Improving how I celebrate strength has been essential to improving my outlook on life, making me all the more excited to drive toward that next failure.

Kimberly Francis is Acting Associate Dean of Research and Graduate Studies at the University of Guelph, where she is also an Associate Professor of Music and a passionate feminist musicologist. She’s not ashamed to say that Taylor Swift, Guster, and many, many tracks from Big Shiny Tunes can all be found on her workout playlist.