cycling · femalestrength · racing

Sports heroines: Fiona Kolbinger

I know promised a post on my newfound love of cycling last time, and a post on this you will get, eventually. But first, I want to talk about an amazing female athlete, a cyclist in fact, whom I find incredibly inspiring. I’m talking about Fiona Kolbinger, the 24-year old woman who just won the Transcontinental Race, a self-supported 4,000 kilometre bike race from Burgas (Bulgaria) to Brest (France). Please bear with me as I fangirl a little.

Fiona was the first woman to win the race, which was in its seventh edition this year. The race website describes the event as follows:

The Transcontinental is a single stage race in which the clock never stops. Riders plan, research and navigate their own course and choose when and where to rest. They will take only what they can carry and consume only what they can find. Four mandatory control points guide their route and ensure a healthy amount of climbing to reach some of cycling’s most beautiful and historic monuments. Each year our riders cover around 4000km to reach the finish line.

About the Transcontinental Race

Doesn’t that sound so amazing? And so hard? Fiona did it in 10 days, 2 hours and 28 minutes. She slept for about four hours a night. What a champ! (Personally, I couldn’t sleep for hours a night for 10 days without being in a 4,000km cycling race. I would be curled up in a corner snoring on day 2.)

Of course, Fiona being a woman, this is a big deal. Out of the 265 starters in the race, 39 were women. And one of them won! This is actually not all that surprising: women have shown again and again that they are amazing endurance athletes. In ultra-long distance events such as ultra-marathons, or ultra-long distance swimming, women have been managing to close in on the gap over the past decades. If you look at the record-holders for the longest recorded swim distances, there are a lot of women (note that this doesn’t necessarily have to mean they are faster than men, although there is a study saying that too, at least for swimming. But it seems they can often go for longer). [Update 11 Aug 19: The BBC just published a piece about women and endurance sports following Fiona’s win. It’s very interesting, a lot of this is apparently also down to how women manage these events emotionally and mentally.] Nevertheless, given that there were a lot fewer female than male participants in the Transcontinental, and given all the crap female athletes constantly have to put up with, and the fact that society makes it so difficult for women to excel in sports, this is a huge deal.

But back to why I find her so inspiring: Fiona is not just a badass athlete, she is also a cancer researcher! She’s an MD student at the German Cancer Research Centre‘s paediatric oncology unit. This woman is studying how to cure children from cancer. And in passing, she wins a 4,000km bike race. I can’t even.

In an interesting turn of events, the research centre she works at is actually in my home town. It is, shall we say, not one of the world’s worst research institutions. And she is not the only one around here. Just recently, I was doing laps at my local outdoor pool when a woman turned up only to literally lap everyone swimming in the fast lane, at what to her seemed like a casual speed . It was beautiful to watch, I had never seen anyone swim so efficiently in real life. She was wearing a cap with her name on it, so I couldn’t help but look her up afterwards. She turned out to be a former member of the German Olympic swimming relay. And, as per the next link that came up, she’s a physician at the local university hospital. There are so many inspiring female athletes who are also doing amazing other things.

Just why is it so hard to find them? Why doesn’t everyone know who they are? Yes, often they are unassuming. But also, they don’t get the coverage. This really needs to change. Fiona has received plenty of coverage this week, but I still want to bet that if you ask a random person on the street if they know who she is, you’re going to draw a blank.

Meanwhile, Fiona? When she’s not busy beating more than 200 men at cycling a very, very long way or curing kids’ cancer, she plays the piano, while still wearing her cycling kit. I rest my case.

climbing · men

Men explain things to me: the bouldering edition

This week, I was going to post about my new bike and commuting with it, but I’m afraid this is going to have to wait until another time (though spoiler: I’m loving it). Something happened to me this week that really annoyed me, and I need a space to vent.

Mansplaining apparently never gets old. When I prepare a post I always double-check it hasn’t already been written, or what the other fit feminists here think about a topic. Lo and behold, when I checked for “mansplaining”, a post from Sam came up from 2014: Men explain things to me: The Gran Fondo Edition. Five years later, enter the bouldering edition!*

I’ve written before about how bouldering is a social sport that is a lot of fun in a group, and it is. Even if it so happens that you show up at the bouldering gym alone, you will usually end up chatting to someone about a problem that you’re both working on. And most of the time it’s nice. On Monday, however, it so happened that I just wanted a bit of quiet time figuring stuff out for myself. It’s been really busy round here, we have visitors at home (whom my partner was taking care of for the day), and I needed a bit of space. So maybe it wasn’t the best idea to engage in an activity that usually provokes chats. Maybe I should’ve just gone for a run. But I wanted to boulder, so off I went.

A smiling Bettina hanging off a bouldering wall, enjoying the triumph of a solved problem.

Oh boy, did people talk to me. And by “people”, I mean men. Out of an admittedly small sample of n=3, 100% of the people to give me unsolicited advice on problems I was working on were male. I got so pissed off I left earlier than I normally would have, or else specimen no. 4 would have had a “CAN A PERSON NOT HAVE SOME SPACE IN HERE?!” thrown at them. I didn’t want a hypothetical specimen no. 4 to suffer thusly.

The most blatantly mansplainy exchange was this:

ME: *works quietly on a boulder problem, chickens out before the end because doesn’t want to slip and bite the wall*
RANDOM GUY (RG): But you almost had it, you just have to step up on the last bit!
ME: But I didn’t want to. If you slipped there, it would be really nasty.
RG: Hm, OK. But have you tried this problem? *points to problem next to the one I’d been trying*
ME: No, I haven’t.
RG: You should, it’s a fun one.
ME: OK, sure, I’ll give it a whirl.
RG: Try it, and then I’ll show you how.

I mean, seriously???!!! I hadn’t asked him for help, I hadn’t asked him what problem to do next, and I certainly hadn’t asked him to “show me how”. The conversation went on like this for a bit as I tried my hand at the problem (he wasn’t wrong, it was kind of fun, just not with a random guy watching and doling out “helpful” advice). Eventually, I sort of bowed out and scampered off to the other end of the gym. Yes, I enabled this guy by agreeing to do the second problem. But what does one do in such a situation? Is there a way of shutting mansplainers down without being rude? Or should one just be rude?

Interestingly, I have hardly ever encountered unsolicited advice-giving from women. Mostly, they either don’t say anything, or they wait till you ask. On rare occasions, they have said something along the lines of “Have you tried doing this or that? It might not work for you, but it did for me!” As in, not just telling me what I “just have to do”, and waiting a while until politely offering a possible solution, while being aware of the fact that it may not work for me.

Often, I’ll have an exchange with someone and a witty reply will come to me after the fact. This time, I’m still stumped. What would you have done? How do you all deal with this sort of situation?

*Others have written about this too, notably Kim in her post “Why I hate spin“.


Her new bike is teaching Bettina the waiting game

I’m not known as a patient person. Once, I dared to express to my partner the notion that I wasn’t totally impatient. He laughed for about 10 minutes. But right now, my new bike is really teaching me the waiting game.

Because it’s taking its sweet time to arrive! I ordered it in March. I was told early May for delivery. In mid-April, I got an email asking for a bit more patience, because they were having delivery issues with the frames of the batch my bike was in. Then, at the end of May, finally, the frames arrived at the manufacturer’s! My bike is being assembled now (or so I hope) and I’m waiting for them to call me any day now to tell me it’s ready to be picked up.

This is the beauty I’m waiting for, in a different colour.
(Photo of an elegant-looking grey gravel bike in front of a black background)

I’m growing more impatient by the day! The weather is amazing now and I’m so excited to finally start riding! To keep up the good spirit, I’ve slowly been kitting myself out (a cycling top here, my first ever pair of bike shorts there…), and reading and learning from my fellow fit feminist cyclists about what an aspiring member of their crew needs to survive. A lot, it turns out: water bottles, spare tires, a mini tire pump, a multi-tool… Sam has a super helpful post from some years ago that covers the basics – thanks for the public service, Sam!

And I’m trying to keep myself busy doing other things, and riding the bike I already own. I’m sure there’s a learning opportunity in this. Any other tips on how to stay patient? Any other excited new riders out there this season?


Another year, another 10k for Bettina

Last year, I ran a fun little 10k race with some colleagues that I blogged about. In a surprise turn of events, I ran it again this year! I hadn’t been a very regular runner since the end of March: first I got sick. Then we went on holiday, where lots of waling but no running got done. Then I was really busy at work. I managed to get in a few short distance runs, but come last week I hadn’t clocked more than 5k in quite a while, and so my first reaction when a colleague asked if anyone wanted to join the race last minute was “naaaw”. But then on Thursday, I went for a 7k lunchtime run and thought “hell, if I can do 7k without dying today, I can do 10 on Sunday!”. Since the race was exactly the same course as last year, I thought it would be a fun comparison. And it was!

Last year it was hot and dry. This year we had a forecast of less heat but possible thunderstorms, but the weather decided otherwise and just as we set off, the sun came out. It was quite humid, and I quickly broke a sweat. I’m really not sure whether I preferred last year’s heat or this year’s humidity. I regretted not taking my sunglasses along though!

Bettina towards the end of the race, running along a paved countryside road next to some fields, looking ever so slightly exhausted 🙂
Photo credit: TSV 05 Rot (Helferich)

Last year, my goal had been to do it in under 60 minutes and I managed, and I wrote in my race report that my goal for this year was to do it in under 55. Given my recent training history though, on race day I settled for “I’ll be happy if I can do it as fast as last year”. Checking my watch early into the race, I was doing 5:35 mins/km, which was not super fast, but on track. The “hill” I’d struggled on last year was much easier this year, so I was happy! Generally, the going was good and I was feeling fine.

Feeling fine wasn’t a given as my period had staged an entrance that morning and I had some cramps. Could it have picked a worse day?! (It turns out that yes, it could have – had the race been the following day it would not have been good. At all.) A little bit into the race, the cramps dissipated and I didn’t hear from them again until kilometre 8, when they made a strong comeback.

Speed-wise, I didn’t check again until just before the halfway point because I started getting the feeling that I was perhaps going a bit fast. At that point, I was doing 5:13 mins/km! So I gave myself a stern talking-to – I didn’t think I could sustain this and needed to pace myself. I found myself a personal “pace bunny”: a guy in a bright red shirt who was running right in front of me and seemed to be going at a reasonable pace. This race is a combined 10k and half marathon, with the half marathon route splitting off from the 10k at about 8.5k. From the colour of his bib, I could tell he was doing the half, and figured that if I could stay with him until the turn-off I was set for a decent time.

My strategy worked out beautifully! So beautifully in fact that my last 1.5k, once I’d lost my “bunny”, were tough. I couldn’t find another person to anchor myself to, so for the home stretch, it was just me, my cramps, and determination.

And I did it! I broke my personal best, and surpassed last year’s time by over two minutes – I did 54:05. In the end I met and even surpassed the goal I’d set myself last year! I’ll be honest, when I initially told myself the same time as last year would be fine, I was trying to not set myself up for failure. In the back of my mind, the “under 55 minutes” goal was still niggling, and once I got to the halfway point and realised how well I was doing for time I started thinking it just might be possible.

I’m really happy to see the improvements vis-à-vis last year’s race. Last year I was fairly well-trained, and still I struggled more than this year. Had I been in training this year, I could maybe have run even faster this year, or at least it would have been easier to run the pace I did. Continuity and perseverance, along with hill training, have paid off. I’m signed up for another 10k in July and am starting to plan for a half marathon in the autumn, so Sunday’s race gave me a big confidence boost (although I did wonder in the end how anyone manages to run twice the distance I did, and in much less time!). I’m really excited about my new goals now.

I also mentioned this last year, but I just have to say again how much I love this race. It’s local, small, and the volunteers from the organising club are super friendly. All the logistics are incredibly well organised. It’s family friendly too: one of my colleagues, who also did the 10k, brought her husband, who did the half marathon, and their kids. They could just drop them off at childcare, which they said was really well thought-out with fun activities – in fact, their kids didn’t want to leave at the end! Two other colleagues didn’t run themselves, but brought their children to participate in the kiddies’ fun run. And afterwards, we all went to the lake to picnic. Yay for spontaneous races!

P.S. Unfortunately I forgot to take any pictures, but to get an impression of the race you can click here or here (both websites in German only, sorry).

aging · fitness · health

How Bettina learned to stop worrying and love the physio (well, maybe ‘love’ is a strong word)

My mother has back problems. And shoulder problems, neck problems, and arm problems. In short, she’s a chronic pain patient. It started when she was in her early fourties. One day, her shoulder started hurting and never stopped. The rest came as she went along. She tried cycling, she got back problems. She tried swimming, she got elbow problems. Knitting, lifting anything even remotely heavy, too much yoga (and you never know in advance what “too much” is), sitting anywhere with even the hint of a draft, are all out of the question. Being my mother – one of the most strong-willed people I know – she soldiers on. She’s now 71 and still does light yoga, a lot of hiking, and a huge amount of daily physio exercises.

I’m in my mid-30s now. Needless to say, one of my main fears is that I will run into the same issues. Granted, I have a few things going for me that might, at least, buy me some time and at best, prevent me from ever having the same amount or intensity of issues. My mother was born in rural post-war Germany, when good nutrition wasn’t a given. As the daughter of farmers, she spent a lot of time crouching in potato fields when she was young. She worked as a nurse for years and did a lot of heavy lifting. She didn’t really exercise regularly until she was middle-aged.

I, on the other hand, started swimming when I was in primary school (at the insistence of my mother, because it was supposed to be good for my back). I’ve always exercised regularly. I was well-nourished from the start. I’ve never worked a physical job. And yet.

So, in anticipation of Really Bad News, I postponed visiting the orthopaedist for a Really Long Time. But earlier this year, fear finally got the better of me, so I went. “I don’t want to end up like my mother”, I told him, and asked what I had to do to prevent it. “Are you in any pain?” he asked, which I happily denied. He looked at me slightly funny, but gave me a thorough examination. Apparently apart from a tendency to hunch and wonky hips, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with me. But just so my insurance could get its money’s worth out of the visit (by paying more money), he prescribed me five sessions of physiotherapy.

Photo of a bendy wooden doll. Bettina is trying to get her body to stay that flexible.
Photo by Kira auf der Heide on Unsplash

I went to the physiotherapist and got similarly quizzical looks. It seems like if you’re not in pain, you’re not supposed to be there? I was surprised. And I realised my privilege of being relatively young, fit and “healthy”-looking has a consequence I hadn’t really considered much: people mostly concerned with healing don’t expect me. That was an interesting experience.

Luckily, my physio is awesome and adaptable, and was happy with damage prevention rather than control. He realised quickly that I actually do a fair amount of sports. So in the first session, we did a test that’s normally administered to athletes to discover their musculoskeletal weaknesses.

My lower back, hips, and shoulders are my weak points, with the lower back being the weakest. So my physio has been giving me exercises to do at home to strengthen it, and I’ve been trying to incorporate them into my routine. Honestly, I don’t enjoy them much. They’re exhausting, which probably means they’re working, and fairly boring. But that’s why I went, wasn’t it? To do things to hopefully prevent me from being in pain. So I’m going to take a page out of Sam’s book and try to do my un-fun physio exercises regularly. I’m also trying to focus on yoga routines that centre on my “problem areas” and incorporate asanas that are similar to the exercises I’m supposed to do, like Warrior 3, or chaturanga.

So what’s the verdict after four out of five sessions? I have a better awareness of my weak points and how to correct them. I have a bunch of exercises I can do at home. I’m curious to see if they will bring long-term improvement. Watch this space to find out how long my newly-found love… er, tolerance of physio lasts.

Do any of you have experience with physiotherapy? And how to be disciplined and make it stick, even if the benefits aren’t immediately obvious?

fitness · self care

When things get too busy

I am incredibly busy right now. I know everyone loves to “complain” about how busy they are, and how problematic our culture of constant busyness is (Susan wrote about this a while ago, and it still stands). But the fact of the matter is, for me, things are busier at the moment than they have been in the past. I think this will subside again, or I’ll get used to the new amount of stuff I have to do, but right now, I get to the end of a workday and I feel like I’m ready to crawl into a corner and sleep.

When things get too busy, I want to be this kitten.

Photo by Alex Pavlou on Unsplash

Others on the blog have written about self-care quite a lot, and why it’s problematic and a privilege and also about what it means for different people, or at different moments. So, acknowledging all that, and wondering (as I often do) whether I actually have anything new to contribute to this conversation, it’s something that’s been on my mind for the past couple of weeks since this hell-storm of busyness has broken loose. So let me say that I feel extremely lucky to have the privilege of being able to enjoy self-care during this busy period. But what does that mean to me?

When things get too busy, I tend to have problems switching my brain off. I spend a lot of the day troubleshooting. It’s part of my job and I enjoy it, but when the proverbial shit hits the fan, I tend to be in troubleshooting mode and thinking about work (and non-work) problems 24/7, trying to figure out a good way to solve them.

So when I notice my mind is spinning at the end of a work-day, I normally know it’s time to get moving. Swimming is best. The repetitiveness of the motions, trying to swim more effectively and efficiently, drowning out the outside world… it always works. I have never once emerged from a pool session and not felt much calmer and more clear-headed. Running is good too, in a different way. My mind wanders more, and I sometimes think about new angles to an issue, or – even better! – find myself lost in deep thoughts about something completely different than what was preoccupying me before. And then there’s bouldering, where you just need to concentrate so hard while you’re on the wall, and think about how to tackle a problem before you start, there’s no room to ruminate about other things while you’re at it. So yes, when things get too busy, doing some sort of exercise usually helps.

But then there are the days when I’m just too tired. Last Tuesday, I didn’t have swim practice (the school pool we train at was closed due to holidays), so I’d originally planned to go for a swim at a public pool instead. Well, it turned out those were closed too – apparently my hometown takes carnival more seriously than I had thought, and things close on Shrove Tuesday. I was also exhausted. So what did I do instead? I thought for a moment about doing something else – TRX or yoga at home -, but then I decided to sit on the couch and allow myself a rest day. Would I have normally taken my exhausted self to the pool? Probably. And would it have been worth it? Almost certainly. But I was pleased with my unplanned rest day, too.

A picture from Bettina’s run commute: still wintery-looking trees in the foreground, a town on a river being slowly illuminated by the rising sun in the background.

And then, on Wednesday, I resumed my run commutes. It’s finally light early enough in the mornings and late enough in the evenings to do that again – and it felt fantastic. It’s a great way of getting a workout in when I’m really busy: right before and right after work, on my way there and home, a trip that I’d have to do anyway. Also a plus in the self-care department: it forced me to leave the office at 5:30pm, before it got too dark (that will go away soon as the days get longer, but it was perfect this week).

When things get too busy, I’m finding that different things can help, that I need to listen to what my body is asking for, and that I have to strike a good balance between movement and stillness. Not exactly a groundbreaking finding, but an important one nevertheless.

Dear readers, how do you unwind? Do you have secret tips for taking care of yourselves during busy periods?

climbing · femalestrength · fitness

Bouldering: what it is and why Bettina keeps doing it

This year, I’ve joined the 219 in 2019 workout challenge: the goal is to work out 219 times this year. We check in with each other on Facebook. There are two groups, the general one and one that grew out of Tracy, Cate and Catherine’s feminist fitness challenge. I post my updates to both of them, and in both cases when I mentioned I’d been bouldering, people asked what it was. So I thought I might blog about it here, since it still doesn’t seem to be a very well-known sport – even though you wouldn’t be able to tell by the amounts of people at my bouldering gym!

Bouldering is a type of climbing, but it’s done at relatively low heights (I’ll come to that in a moment) where you don’t need a harness and rope. You can do it outdoors and indoors, although I’ve only ever bouldered indoors. For outdoor bouldering, there are special mats, called crashpads, you can carry to where you’re climbing. At an indoor gym, the floor is one gigantic soft mat. So if you take a fall, at least you fall onto something soft (again, we’ll come back to this). Here’s what a bouldering gym looks like:

A bouldering gym with people climbing, resting, and studying different routes.

On the walls of a bouldering gym, you’ll find holds (aka boulders) of various colours drilled into the wall, forming different routes (aka problems or routes) of various levels of difficulty. The goal is to complete a problem without touching the boulders of another one. You’ve successfully completed a problem once you get to its “top” boulder with both hands.

So what do I love about bouldering? The short answer is: almost everything. It makes me feel strong and badass. By the time I finish a problem, chances are I will have overcome moments of fear, my arms will have almost given out, and my hands are sore. It turns out I’m more afraid of heights than I’d previously thought, so higher walls are a real challenge for me, and it feels fantastic to rise above that. It often takes me several attempts to finish a route because I get scared. There is some reason to this – despite the soft mats, it’s not a danger-free sport. You can fall and break something. You can hit boulders while falling or scrape yourself. I’ve definitely come home with more than one big bruise. And yet.

Bouldering has taught me that I’m stronger than I often think. Yes, there are problems I can’t do because they’re too long and I run out of strength before I make it. But at least as often I just think I won’t be able to do it, while I actually can. It’s a full-body workout that requires a lot of body tension – core strength combined with the ability to use your arms and legs to push into a wall or against a boulder all at the same time. So it’s tough, but it’s also made me tougher, and I’ve found that being able to control my muscles better has actually had a positive impact on my swimming. Plus, the longer you boulder, the more you figure out what your individual strengths are. Mine are balancy problems and slab walls. A bouldering mate of mine loves overhangs (he has excellent body tension), and so on.

That’s also why I find bouldering to be quite gender-inclusive, at least from what I’ve experienced. Yes, there is the odd gang of muscle-loaded “super manly” dude-bros who need to show off in front of each other (and everyone else). But then a women will often come along and leave them mouth agape because she could do a problem they hadn’t been able to manage. There are routes for everyone: the stronger and the less strong, the more and the less supple, and the taller and the less tall. It’s very empowering. Also, by and large, it attracts an open-minded crowd that’s in it together and has decent manners. At least at my gym, the “super manly” dude-bros are far and few between.

Bettina on a bouldering wall (not actually climbing a problem, just monkeying around).

And then there’s the mental challenge of figuring out how to approach a certain route. I love tackling stuff head-on, but here I’m learning to think before I do. Strength is precious, so you don’t want to waste it by not being able to complete a route because you got stuck somewhere and hadn’t thought about how to best place your hands and feet, balance your body, or manage a particularly long reach. (Sam blogged a while ago about how climbing seems to appeal to philosophers in particular, and I think this extends to researchers more generally.)

Finally, bouldering is a social sport. I enjoy going to the gym alone – you always end up chatting with strangers anyway and giving each other tips -, but it’s more fun in a group. We help each other through problems. We egg each other on, celebrate our victories and share our frustrations. There’s a lot of resting involved between exhausting problems, so we hang out on the mat and chat, or squint at walls together trying to figure out a good way to tackle a route. And afterwards, we have a beer together.