Surprised by Glide

Over the years, I’ve put a lot of effort into getting good glide out of my classic-style cross-country skis. I learned to wax my own skis to get better grip and glide. I took lessons to improve my form and studied videos of ski racers—like Marit Bjørgen—who have inspiring classic technique. I also bought multiple pairs of skis to achieve the best glide in different conditions. My favorites are a pair of “zero” skis designed for temperatures around zero degrees. With zeros you sand (rather than wax) the kick zone, so you can even ski on ice. The glide is amazing.

Glide waxing:

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Despite the fun I’ve had chasing better glide, this year I decided to pursue convenience instead. I’ve had a somewhat challenging year and my personal time has been limited. It takes time to prep skis and if you don’t gauge the weather and snow conditions correctly, you often have to wax or sand again while out on the trails. It also takes me about 40 minutes to drive to the beautiful track-set trails at my local Nordic club. Getting out for a quick ski before work or at lunch started to look like an attractive second best. So I added a pair of “grab and go” waxless skis to my ski wardrobe. Less glide, but more convenient. And good on the rougher trails close to home and work.

It turns out, though, that waxless skis have improved a lot. On my inaugural waxless tour through the neighborhood, I was surprised by how great the glide was. I sailed over rough snow and icy footprints and had some seriously good, effortless fun. But the great glide also made me suddenly aware that I hadn’t really felt free and joyous in a while. Unsurprising, I guess, given that I was busy choosing convenience over passion in the first place. But it was nonetheless an epiphany of sorts.

This got me wondering about the broader significance of glide. Glide is the lifeblood of most, if not all, sports. Athletes spend a lot of time working on form, strength, and endurance to reduce the physical resistance of water, air, and various surfaces. Swimmers adopt good form to reduce drag in water. Cyclists adopt aerodynamic body positioning to reduce drag through air. The result is glide. (Or at least the feeling of glide. Are cyclists technically rolling rather than gliding? Or are they rolling over the ground and gliding through the air? A debate for another time perhaps!)

The experience of glide also has interesting psychological dimensions. When gliding, we often leave judgmental, busy minds behind and immerse ourselves in the moment. It’s fun, and sometimes involves experiences of flow or “being in the zone.” Glide can also awaken us to the simplicity of being, or signal that we are drifting from authenticity elsewhere in our lives.

Given the significance of glide, now seems an especially good time to notice it in our athletic activities. From the standpoint of social and economic justice, this year looks pretty challenging. It will take strength to respond wisely (and creatively) to prejudice, cruelty, and bad behavior. Staying centred and keeping our collective spirits up will be important. In this, maybe glide can help.

And if not, at least we’ll have fun on the ride.

My waxing bench and current ski collection. The new waxless skis are second from right:

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Where the Wild Girls Are (Canoeing in Killarney!)–Guest Post

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Bell Lake, Killarney Provincial Park

Over the last few summers I have taken my daughter on a number of canoe trips, and we’ve always had a great time. She loves stopping at little islands to explore and eat snacks, and when she was really young she would nap in the canoe. This year, I signed us up for a three day “Women and Girls” canoe trip in Killarney Park guided by Wild Women Expeditions. While I love planning routes and organizing trip menus, my work schedule has been heavy enough that a bit of luxury seemed in order. With the fab WWE guides in charge, I just had to pack some gear and get us to the trip access point. Better yet, on this trip my daughter would have other girls to play with. I want to nurture my daughter’s sense of adventure and offer her challenging opportunities, but I also want it to be fun. Kids are the experts there.

And they had fun. They swam, jumped out of canoes, and took over a tiny island which they quickly determined was for “kids only.” (No Lord of the Flies, so far as I could tell…) They ran wild for hours and encountered many fascinating creatures: a water snake, a beaver, a barred owl, and the usual frogs, minnows, loons and hawks. The trip was also just the right length for 7 year olds. We spent enough time in the canoes for the girls to get the feel of travelling by canoe, but not so long that they were bored. And there was only one short 30m portage, so the girls got to experience portaging without its unique hardships. They can find out about those later.

The trip was great for the grown-ups too. Laughs over gritty ‘cowgirl coffee,’ lots of swimming, and a break from the usual demands and judgments of everyday life. It’s also really good to connect with others who want to nurture wilderness skills for girls and foster their sense of adventure. And I found the trip freeing in the way that backcountry trips usually are. In wilder places, I feel light and peaceful.

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Cowgirl Coffee Time

Nothing brought home the full meaning of our trip more, though, than two comments directed to my daughter and I at its end. As we unloaded packs onto the dock, one of the outfitter guys challenged “Isn’t this women-only trip sexist?” Later that night, we were eating dinner at a resort and a man stopped at our table and “joked” to my daughter “You know what I like most about you? You look like your mother.” This man – whom I suspect has been entertaining women with his comedy for decades – was probably unaware that his jokey compliment contained an insult. Among other things, he conveyed to my daughter that what might be best about her is her looks and moreover, that what is good about her looks is that they involve looking like someone else.

The comparison over appearance that women and girls engage in, and are subjected to, is a source of much unhappiness. So is the entitlement that some men assume in their interactions with women and girls by virtue of the fact that they are male. These ways of relating with women and girls steal joy and dampen feelings of adventure, wildness, strength, and capability.

On the bright side, these two fellows offered up some fine teachable moments. I explained to my daughter why I didn’t like these comments in an age-appropriate way. More important, though, is that we had just been on a fun adventure. She saw women charting routes, hauling packs, building campsites, paddling lakes, all the while not giving two hoots about appearances. She experienced first-hand the energy of strong, capable, respectful, fun-loving, and risk-taking women. And she got to feel wild and free. Such experiences fortify girls and women against poisonous compliments and willful ignorance about social power, and do so in ways that may run deeper than conceptual points or clever come-backs (however fun). Where the wild girls are, and how they spend their time, may be more important than we realize.

 

My trip to gender equality in sports coverage

I just returned from a terrific work-related trip to the lovely and truly impressive Lund University in Sweden. When planning my trip, I realized that I would also be there for the Tjejvasan, a 30 km women’s cross-country ski race in the heart of Sweden. Unfortunately, with 10,000 women signed up for the event, the race was full. I nonetheless held out hope that I might find someone to sell me their bib (which is permitted). Sadly, I eventually realized that even with a bib, it would be logistically impossible to get myself from Lund to the race. I felt pretty disappointed. How often does one get the chance to ski a race with 10,000 other women, and in Sweden no less? The disappointment deepened when I realized I was also going to be in Sweden for the FIS Nordic Ski World Championships and there was no way I could be a spectator at any of the events.

But I ended up having an unexpected and really awesome vicarious ski experience in Sweden. It turns out that coverage of cross-country skiing in the Swedish media is terrific. Whenever I turned on my TV in the hotel, cross-country skiing was on. I asked one of the guys at the conference about this and he said “Oh yes, in Sweden we love our skiing!” The 90km Vasaloppet cross-country ski race is apparently the most watched sporting event of the year.

But what was most striking was the coverage of women’s skiing. They had full coverage of women’s events, complete with post-race commentary and panel discussions. It was on par with the coverage of men’s skiing. My experience of watching the Swedish women’s ski events was therefore kind of surreal: it was as though I was suddenly dropped into an alternate reality where women’s athleticism is valued as much as men’s athleticism.

Of course, Sweden still has a way to go towards women’s equality in sports and sports media coverage (through probably not as far as most other countries, including Canada). And a lot of this has to do with factors beyond Sweden’s—or any individual country’s—control. All of the women’s cross-country ski events in the FIS World Championships and the Olympics are set for shorter distances than the men’s events. These restrictions have no good rationale: women can unquestionably compete the same distances as men. And they prevent women from experiencing and showcasing their full athleticism.

These points are underscored by women’s participation in the 90 km Vasaloppet, the final race in a week of races that includes the Tjejvasan. The Vasaloppet is mixed gender and has a men’s winner and a women’s winner. While only 2000 of the 15,800 participants this year are women, they can be expected to do very well in the race. Last year, Laila Kveli won the women’s class with a time of 4:31:57.30, and did so without using grip wax – the first woman to do so in this race. The male winner – John Kristian Dahl – had a time of 4:14:33.75. (Also notable is the age range of participants from 19 to 89. If you are looking for life-long sporting passion, you can’t beat cross-country skiing!)

Anyway, as annoying as I find the gender inequities in competitive cross-country skiing, I am grateful for my encounter with Sweden’s media coverage of skiing. If only for a short time, I experienced what equality in women’s sports coverage might be like. This is one reason why I will be watching the 2015 Vasaloppet today—on Swedish SVT online.

Running to, or from? Why exercise isn’t therapy

Image: Cheam Peak Hike

Image: Cheam Peak Hike

Jen Miller recently wrote an inspiring post about running as therapy for the New York Times blog “Well.” After a painful breakup, Miller began to put her life back together not with therapy – as her mother suggested – but by signing up “for a 10-mile race instead.” She went on to train for longer distances and found that distance running helped her to feel better mentally and physically. She wasn’t running from her problems – a concern her mother expressed – but running to a different, better future.

The comments on her post are overwhelmingly positive. Readers really connect with her story and many share their own stories about how running and other physical activities helped them cope with difficult life situations. I connected with her story too. I skied myself through the end of a relationship many years ago. The intense exercise and time spent alone in the wintery wilderness was good for me and those around me. I suspect that the need to exercise outdoors is fundamental for our health and primordial in origin. As Sam B says, “We’re human animals and we need the outdoors, I think. It’s essential to our health and well being.” (Green exercise and the health benefits of the great outdoors) Michelle LG has also written about the deep comfort that exercising in nature can bring. (Forest Bathing)

The comfort we find in full-bodied physical movement itself is probably primordial as well. We all know that rocking calms babies. And maybe later-term fetuses as well: during the last trimester of pregnancy, my developing daughter fell asleep every time I got going on the elliptical machine. (At least I think that was what she was doing. The clincher for my theory was her startled return to movement when I fired up the blender for my post-workout smoothie. To this day, she leaves the kitchen when I take the blender out of the cupboard.) But whether or not we think the comforts of exercise are primordial, physical movement clearly helps us stay well physically and psychologically.

But is exercise “therapy”? Miller says that she “ran down one problem at a time.” And some of those commenting on her post suggest that exercise is as good as therapy for solving problems. “Observant” says: “If everyone were to walk the average 10 miles a day that most farmers do as they go about their work, we’d probably solve about 99 percent of the world’s problems, including the dreaded ADHD…”

Others are doubtful. “Victor” says: “Exercise is a terrific balm, but that’s all it is. What do you do when, eventually, your legs fail you and your mind is still broken?” And we might wonder why, if distance running really is equivalent to psychotherapy, that commenters like Sharon — “Ridiculous stress and personal chaos is why I run ultras! Too much is never enough!” – still have stress and chaos in their lives. If running helps us deal with our problems, then wouldn’t it help us create lives that are less stressful and chaotic?

Part of the problem may simply be terminological. When some people say that exercise is therapy, what they really mean is that it is therapeutic. And they are right. Exercise is therapeutic. It makes us feel better. It helps us solve problems. It strengthens our resilience and perseverance. It helps us become more mindful and peaceful.

But exercise – even in the great outdoors – is not equivalent to therapy in the psychotherapeutic sense. We generally cannot gain deep self-understanding from distance running in the way that we can from therapy. Therapy helps us get at the roots of our suffering, whereas running helps us cope with its branches. For deeper traumas, we must devote time and effort to therapy just as we must train for a marathon. It will be painful, but the gains in psychological well-being from therapy can be genuinely life-altering.

And this where I have concerns about how Miller’s admittedly inspiring and thoughtful perspective might be interpreted. While running is therapeutic and important for maintaining psychological well-being, it is not a substitute for a deeper examination of ourselves and our relationships with others. The advances in the field of psychology in recent decades are remarkable and to not make use of this field in the darkest moments of our lives is, to my mind at least, unfortunate. Therapy can mean the difference between a life of sadness and disconnection and one that is meaningful, peaceful and loving. It can save lives, metaphorically and literally. I would be concerned if someone used running in place of therapy to address a serious trauma because they thought it would be just as effective. Exercise is important to recovery, but it is not a substitute for social and psychological support.

And for anyone imagining some halcyon past of vigorous physical activity and happiness (as I sometimes do, for whatever deluded reasons), it is worth remembering all of the ancient traditions that address suffering. If exercise really did extinguish emotional suffering, Buddhist philosophy probably wouldn’t exist — word is Buddha was an accomplished athlete. But to address suffering through meditative practice (or philosophy, or prayer) takes effort and consistent practice. Psychological changes require focused attention over and above the time we spend exercising.

One last concern related to Miller’s story involves social stigmas about mental health. While we champion those who transform their problems into marathon-sized achievements, we sometimes stigmatize people in therapy. Given this, I worry that the promotion of exercise as therapy (rather than as therapeutic), is fueled in part by social prejudices about psychological support. Because the truth is that any one of us at any time might need psychological support and we shouldn’t have to feel ashamed about it. Bad things happen to all of us sooner or later, and therapy can be invaluable for making it through. Well, that and running.

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Guest Post: On Ageism, Taking Control and New Movement Cultures

On a trip to the Alps twenty years ago, I got on the train at Chamonix at the same time as a mountaineer. Replete with climbing gear, the mountaineer had the taut muscularity typical of those who spend years climbing in extreme conditions. And she was probably over 70 years old. I was surprised by her, which indicated that I still had unconscious biases in my thinking about women, aging and adventurous activity. A Reinhold Messner-type, smiling broadly through an icy beard, lived in my mind and was not going to make room for others without encouragement.

I remember this woman not only because she gave me an opportunity to examine my biases (yet again), but also because she presented an option for the future I had not considered. People of exemplary character often transform others in just this tacit sort of way. The lack of opportunity for these kinds of tacit encounters is just another of the many harms of ageism.

One way people have tried to address this problem in sport is to “add women and stir.” The idea is that if more women participate in non-traditional sports and more young girls and women have good role models, we will eventually achieve equity. And if more older women participate in sport, we will be able to overcome biases associated with aging and activity.

But the “add women and stir” method will only get us so far. In Canada, many think the goal of exercise for the elderly is to delay physical decline, disability and dementia, even though old people themselves often cite other reasons like fun, sociability, excitement and challenge. And many think that what the elderly do for exercise – whether recreational or competitive at the masters level – merely amounts to lesser, easier versions of exercise for young people. Why should this these be the dominant ways of conceptualizing the physical activity of older people?

An article by the sociologist and historian Henning Eichberg first drew this problem to my critical attention. Drawing upon shamanistic traditions that involve dancing and other forms of activity, Eichberg argues that there are radically different ways to understand aging and physical activity. He says that in these traditions, elders offer

‘something that the young people cannot …They create their own movement culture, from out of their own premises – and as a gift to the rest of society. They do not do sport ‘for’ the elderly, but they dance for the community.’

The problem, he argues, is not so much aging in sports as it is ‘social organization that conceals the resources and the otherness of aging.’ And because aging is viewed in very different ways cross-culturally, many different resources for movement cultures exist. But this is typically hidden in mono-cultural perspectives of sport.

Another option for understanding aging and activity stems from Simone Fullagar’s ‘slow, social and sensuous’ view of sport. Her approach challenges the dominance of ideals related to strength, speed, and ‘winning’ in sport and re-values diverse forms of physical activity. The slow, social and sensuous aspects of sport are on par with other aspects of sport and do not just apply to activities like yoga and dance. These experiences are also a part of sprinting and skiing and all else. And we can learn a lot about these other dimensions of sport from older, more experienced athletes.

This is not because they are slower athletes. Often they are faster and train smarter. Rather, older active people have often developed wisdom through experience and are better able to integrate wisdom in living with sport and recreation. When I think of Barbara Hillary’s expeditions to the north and south poles at ages 75 and 79 respectively, and read what she has to say about adventure and life, I see wisdom and integrity. Her virtues in living and physical activity are fully integrated and this is inspiring and empowering. And tremendously reassuring: when older women take control of situations, blaze trails, and share their knowledge and experience they build conceptual structures for other women to climb. Women like Hillary are wise in ways that most young people simply are not. Thus, out of her ‘own premises,’ she offers a great and unique gift to society.

I don’t know what radically new movement cultures created by people older than me might look like in my own community, but the possibilities are exciting. Drawing attention to them – and finding ones that exist but are hidden by prejudice – is perhaps one of the most important projects ahead for women in sporting contexts. I’m sure the mountaineer in the Alps had a lot to teach me about movement in the world and I’m delighted that she and Barbara have joined the Messners of my mind. What I need now is to learn more from people like them and find ways to help others take control of movement cultures, the ways in which they are defined, and the values that they promote in sport in recreation.

Moira Howes, B.Sc., M.A., Ph.D., is a philosophy professor at Trent University. She philosophizes about lots of things, but mainly about argumentation, biology, feminism, intellectual virtue, and objectivity. Most recently she has been writing about mindfulness, virtue, and adventure sport. Her favorite activities include trail running, skiing, snowshoeing, canoeing, and hiking.

Winter is coming: Some thoughts about adventure and fitness (Guest post)

This time of year, my thoughts turn to adventures in the snow, especially the tantalizing 160 km Canadian Ski Marathon. The CSM easily fits archetypal male adventure narratives, or what a friend of mine once called the genre of “Men Who Die in the Cold.” You hear stories, like the one about the man who did the gold-level marathon each year with a frozen fish—“dinner”—strapped to his back. But the CSM actually emphasizes a very inclusive and open understanding of adventure. Thanks in part to adventure narratives from people with diverse abilities, ages, sexualities, and cultures, we know that there are many different ways to be an adventurer. What counts as an adventure is relative to your personal and social circumstances. Because the focus of the CSM is skiing not “winning,” skiers can design their own adventure while still experiencing the fun of a shared event. You happily find all sorts skiing the CSM.

Adventures like the CSM have, I believe, something to teach us about how fitness contributes to well-being and a good, flourishing life. And this is that fitness matters less than you might think. While I fully agree that exercise is important for physical and mental well-being, there are at least two difficulties with “fitness.” First, fitness is not by itself a goal worth pursuing. We want to be fit because it will help us achieve things we desire, like living a longer, better life, or do fun things like skiing, walking, or chair racing. My guess is that if you pursue fitness for its own sake, you are going to come up empty. The second issue is that for many, fitness goals are tied to body image ideals which are in turn tied to the judgments and evaluations of others. By focusing on how “fit” or “attractive” your body is, you are likely focusing on evaluations that are external to your identity, needs, and well-being.

One problem with focusing on these kinds of external evaluations is that they can sap your motivation. Exercising to look good for others, please others, and avoid negative judgments is dispiriting. Granted, motivation is a complex phenomenon. But my most successful training happens when I do it because it feels good and inspires feelings of adventure. Fitness happens as I experience joie de vivre, test limits, face fears, navigate risks, have fun, be with friends, and wholeheartedly engage the natural world. Motivation depends crucially on setting internally meaningful goals and it is easy to find meaningful goals in adventure.

“External” fitness and body image goals in sport also appear to undermine happiness. Research suggests that people who have obsessive passions for their sport—that is, they ruminate about how their sport relates to self-worth and social acceptance—are less happy than those with more harmonious passions. Those with harmonious passions for their sport—that is, those who do not ruminate and who are better able to achieve “flow” while engaged in their favorite activity—have greater well-being and higher achievement in general. (See the work of Robert Vallerand and Geneviève Mageau.)  When we ruminate about body image and fitness ideals, we miss out on the wonderfully enlivening emotions—awe, fear, joy, passion, exhilaration—that adventures offer. When we allow ourselves to experience these emotions fully, we develop our ability to experience flow and consequently, happiness.

Framing athletic experience with extrinsic motivators like body image or fitness levels also won’t help much with living a more ethically meaningful life. As cheating athletes show, fitness is no loyal partner to ethics. But a wholehearted adventurous spirit might be. In “Climbing Philosophy For Everyone,” Pam Sailors draws a link between ethical action and climbers of two different stripes. “Summiteers,” who focus on getting to the summit and doing so the fastest and with the most fitness, are less likely to help other climbers in trouble. “Mountaineers,” who focus on the experience of climbing mountains, fostering relationships in their climbing teams, and gaining self-knowledge are more likely to abandon their climbs to help others. People with a harmonious sense of adventure focus on meaningful internal values, which includes fostering those values and caring for others.

But perhaps the nicest advantage of adventure over fitness is that adventure isn’t tied to success in the same way. Misadventures can be just as valuable for your life. Just before the Gatineau Loppet last winter, I came down with a bad cold. My training for it hadn’t gone well and the cold seemed like a good sign that I should sit it out. But I really didn’t want to miss my first loppet—and ski—in gorgeous Gatineau Park. And besides, I could always leave the race if I had to, right? Well, I didn’t bail, but you would be right to suspect things didn’t go well. I nearly missed the race start because, after a long washroom line-up, I lost track of my family and didn’t want to begin without waving to my daughter. I followed the slow start with slow skiing: in my weakened state the snow felt like fudge. Then about 5 km in, a skier who couldn’t stop crashed into me when someone wiped out in front of us on a downhill. Toques everywhere. By the 10 km mark, I thought I was going to drown in my own immunological goo.

But I kept going, and I’m glad I did. I felt such joy seeing my little daughter wildly ringing her cowbell and yelling “Go Mommy” as I crossed the finish. I met my goals of experiencing a loppet and skiing in Gatineau Park. And I learned that I could overcome “negative” self-talk like “you’re going to get pneumonia, you fool.” Good to know in case I’m ever, say, skiing with the flu while being tracked by hungry coyotes. But the point is that I took away some valuable lessons and experiences and I didn’t spend any time ruminating about fitness or body image or social acceptance afterwards. I could have cared less—I made it out alive! And I’m guessing that elite skiers who engage their sports with harmonious passion feel similarly. Good adventures have a lot to do with how you handle and value the misadventures. They are not made of ruminations about who has superior maximal aerobic capacity.

I don’t want to sound unsympathetic—au contraire. The additive effect of body image and fitness ideals from countless sources in our society is substantially influential. But we are nonetheless responsible, individually and collectively, for the goals we set. In my view, wholehearted, adventurous engagement with your activity is the best antidote for fitness and body image ideals. And the best motivation for tackling damn fool events like the Canadian Ski Marathon. Fish or no fish.

 

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Moira Howes, B.Sc., M.A., Ph.D., is a philosophy professor at Trent University. She philosophizes about lots of things, but mainly about argumentation, biology, feminism, intellectual virtue, and objectivity. Most recently she has been writing about mindfulness, virtue, and adventure sport. Her favorite activities include trail running, skiing, snowshoeing, canoeing, and hiking.