competition · fitness · race report · running

Bettina’s sunny 10k race report

Last weekend, I ran a 10k race. It was only my third ever ‘proper’ race, so these things are still sort of new and exciting to me. A key difference was also that I ran this race with a group of colleagues. To be fair, I started my first 10k running with a friend, but I knew he was going to be way faster than me so I wasn’t surprised when he took off after the first kilometre and the rest was very much a ‘me-vs-the-road’ thing. Last week’s race definitely felt like we were doing it as a group.

I had specifically picked this race because it was a flat course. I do very, very poorly on hills and it’s something I want to work on. So if anyone has any tips on how to improve running uphill, send them my way. I really need them. I also had a goal: I wanted to do it in under 60 minutes.

Bettina post-race, complete with post-race hair.

The day of the race was a beautiful sunny Sunday and threatened to actually get quite hot. That thing about the hottest spring in the history of weather recording? Definitely true for this part of the world. It felt more like July than early May. Luckily the race was in the morning and substantial parts of it were in the shade. Still, when the 5k water station came around I was very grateful.

I started off sticking to a colleague with whom I’d run in the past and whom I knew to be more or less at the same pace as myself. Well… it turned out that apparently she’d been getting in a bit more training than me  and  set off faster than anticipated. Nevertheless, I tried to hang on to her as long as I could, because if anything, I’m competitive. But about three kilometres into the race I knew I had to let it, and my colleague, go.

But given that I was doing well for speed, I decided to try and stay at roughly a 5:30km/h pace, which is still faster than I normally run. At this point, I wanted to see if I could do it. And I almost could! In the end, I averaged 5:34, which is really good for me and I was very pleased with my final time of 56:46. I would have been even more pleased had I been able to do it in 55. So that’s my goal for next time.

Overall, it was a very enjoyable race in a small town with a very community feel, organised by the local sports club. The atmosphere was really relaxed, and while some of our team mentioned that it would have been nice to have more people cheering us on along the course, I actually didn’t mind the calmness of our run through fields and forest.

I’m not going to lie, parts of it were a struggle. It was quite hot out in the fields, so that was a factor. Also, when I had to acknowledge that my colleague was actually too fast for me, while a few months ago she was definitely slower, I couldn’t help but feel a bit frustrated with myself. But I’m trying to push past that and focus on the fact that I ran an awesome time by my own standard. All in all, I had a great time. We went for a nice lunch with some of the team members afterwards and it was a lot of fun. I hope we run again soon!

fitness · traveling

Bettina goes Patagonia, hikes a lot, and thinks about things

My husband and I just spent three weeks in Patagonia (both Chile and Argentina). It was fantastic. Here’s a quick round-up of the itinerary and activities we did, and some thoughts about travel and feminism and sustainability.

Santiago, part 1: in which we cycle through vineyards

We flew to Santiago de Chile, where we spent a day and a half. We spontaneously booked a cycling tour of a vineyard located right at the edge of the city (picture below). The contrast between city and vines is actually quite striking.

The Cousiño Macul vineyard with the skyline of Santiago de Chile in the background

The company we booked with offers different cycling tours of the city and nearby vineyards. I liked them because they openly state that they have a pro-LGBTQ hiring policy, and because they try to offer something different and active, but are quite inclusive about it. They make it clear right when you book that you’re not signing up for a workout, but for a leisurely ride. Ours lasted about one hour plus another hour and a half touring the vineyard’s facilities. We also sampled five different wines. It was relaxing and wonderful.

Bettina and her ride, a seasoned green bike ideal for cruising around, but not for competitive cycling.

Torres del Paine National Park: in which we hike a lot and are exposed to the elements

From Santiago, we flew to Punta Arenas in the very South of Chile and took a bus to Puerto Natales, a small town that mainly functions as the tourist

hordes’ gateway to Torres del Paine National Park. We spent a night there, left some luggage at the hotel (we were returning five days later), and took only the necessary hiking and camping equipment to the park.

Torres del Paine is the national park everyone ‘does’ when they travel Patagonia. It’s easily accessible and has some stunning scenery. As a result, the infrastructure is excellent. There are lots of campsites, refugios where you can get a bed, and even some pretty luxurious hotels and cabins. Chile’s only eco-hotel is also located in the park. Also as a result of this, Torres del Paine is totally overrun. I wasn’t joking when I wrote “hordes” above. We visited at the tail end of the season, so it wasn’t too bad, but in high season, around January and February, I can only imagine it must be packed. We did a four-day trek known as “the W” (because of the route, which looks like the letter W) and stayed in our own tent.

View from our trusty red tent. The poor thing got quite battered by the Patagonian winds and rain, but it kept us nice and dry.

The park has suffered quite a lot from this; there have been some major fires and it’s definitely not as untouched as you might associate with the cliché of Patagonia. Rules are fairly strict, you can only enter if you have all your reservations beforehand, fires are forbidden, and at some places they don’t let you cook with a camping stove (conveniently, this also means the campsite/refugio can charge you a ridiculous amount of money for mediocre food; on the upside you have to carry less of your own).

What can I say? It’s still beautiful despite the masses. There is a reason the park is so full – it’s stunning. One morning at 8 o’clock, I’d just woken up and stood, mouth agape, marvelling at the mountain behind the campsite, aglow with the rising sun. It was out of this world.

The mountains, aglow with the rising sun

We had initially considered going to a much more remote park with next to no facilities, where we would probably have been mostly alone. However, we would’ve lost considerable time getting there, plus two contingency days for resting and in case we took longer on the trek. It would also have meant two additional flights and thus even more emissions, and this trip already wasn’t exactly an exercise in CO2 reduction. And as I mentioned before, there are upsides to the infrastructure: hot showers, you don’t have to carry all of your food, and you can go somewhere nice and dry when it’s storming and raining outside, which did happenon a few occasions.

It also occurred to me that on the whole, it may be better if only a few places are “ruined” by tourists – it offers an opportunity to keep the rest of the region largely untouched. I’m really not sure where I stand on this, and whether it actually is better to “sacrifice” some parts for others to be preserved. The way tourists concentrate in a few key locations throughout Patagonia is astounding. As soon as we moved off the beaten track, which we did for a bit of our overall trip, we were often on our own. I will return to this below.

Road trip: in which we bomb around Patagonia, stay at mostly empty campsites, and hike the Perito Moreno glacier.

Having completed the W, we returned to Punta Arenas via Puerto Natales to pick up a little camper van. We then drove south towards the Magellan straits (where I saw a dolphin! I’m still excited!), and then up to Argentina, across to the Atlantic coast, where we had planned to see a penguin colony close to Río Gallegos. Unfortunately this plan failed because of the poor road conditions and our van’s distinct lack of suspension and 4×4 drive. So we spent a lazy day in Río Gallegos.

This brings me back to my point about people not really moving off the beaten track. Maybe this is different during the high season, but both south of Punta Arenas and in Río Gallegos, we stayed at completely deserted campsites that were like straight out of a bad horror movie. We did get some beautiful sunrises out of this though, below the one from Río Gallegos.

Sunrise over the river Gallegos. Our campsite was located directly on the shore.

Via another stop further north and a guided hike through a petrified forest, we moved on to El Calafate. This little town is another touristy place and the gateway to the Perito Moreno glacier. El Calafate is nice and seems to consist mostly of tourist accommodation. We ate very well there.

We had booked an all-day hiking tour of Perito Moreno in advance. In the early morning, we were picked up by a bus and shipped to the Parque Nacional de los Glaciares, the national park covering most of the Argentinian part of the Southern Patagonian ice sheet, including Perito Moreno and Mount Fitz Roy. Perito Moreno was everything we had imagined and more. We lucked out with the weather and got a sunny day that made the blues of the ice intense and the three-hour hike on the glacier very pleasurable.

The face of the Perito Moreno glacier with some icebergs floating in the water

The guides split our busload into two groups first – a Spanish and an English-speaking one – to approach the glacier. It was a just under one-hour hike up to the access point, where were fitted with crampons before they subdivided us into smaller groups of about eight people for the hike on the ice.

One thing that surprised us was that the tour company didn’t follow through on their advice to wear suitable footwear and clothes, and only allowing people with a good level of fitness on the tour. There were lots of people who wore running shoes or sneakers and jeans rather than the recommended hiking boots and hiking gear. And a fair number of participants struggled on the hike to the access point already.

Bettina, wrapped up warmly and arms spread wide, atop Perito Moreno.

In a way it’s nice that they’re lenient, because it makes the experience more inclusive, but I do have to say that it compromised the experience of the rest of the group somewhat since accommodations had to be made for people who hadn’t read or didn’t care about the instructions on the website. They’re very clear and could only be improved in one way, which would be to remove the advice that this tour is not for overweight people – you can be “overweight” as long as you’re physically fit.

But I digress. Once we were subdivided into smaller groups it was fine; I think the guides did realise this was an issue and formed the subgroups accordingly. We very much enjoyed our three hours and lunch on the ice! The absolute highlight was an ice cave we got to see on the way down. Incredible.

Ice cave below the glacier – incredible hues of blue!

Goodbye Patagonia and Santiago, part 2: in which we “rescue” a solo traveller

From El Calafate, we took a small detour to a lovely campsite on a lake called Lago Roca. This was the only campsite where at least a handful of people other than us were staying overnight, and it was very well run. We then took two days to head back down to Punta Arenas to return the van and fly back to Santiago.

While we were waiting at the airport having a coffee, an American woman suddenly turned up at our table asking if she could talk to us for a while. It turned out she had been pestered by a guy who had kept asking her awkward questions about how long and where she would be staying in Santiago and what she’d be doing there. She had pretended to know us to get away from him, so we invited her to sit with us and had a nice chat.

I had thought about this on several occasions throughout this trip already: my privilege of accompanied by a man, who was also clearly my partner. No man on any of the tours or anywhere we went took any sort of “particular” interest in me.

I have travelled in Latin America on my own quite a lot and this lack of unwanted attention was a welcome change. As a female solo traveller, I have had to spend time fending off such approaches and have generally been a lot more alert. It’s definitely doable and lots of women do travel the region on their own, but it’s a different experience. Aside from general security considerations, this isn’t something a solo male traveller would have to spend a lot of time thinking about.

This also made me more acutely aware of my privilege as a woman living in a society where it is, for the most part, safe to walk around on one’s own after dark and go wherever I want. It’s complex, because in this particular case, it’s also about being a tourist. I don’t know if our airport friend would have had the same experience had she been Chilean. It’s possible, but probably less likely.

And also, even though it’s mostly safe for a woman to do all those things on her own where I live (in Europe), it’s not completely safe either. At a much lower level, here I’m also on alert walking or running alone in the dark or in a place where there are few other people. Or a creepy guy can chat you up in public and be difficult to get rid of. It’s an interesting thing to think about, and I’d love to hear your experiences with solo travel at home and abroad.

fitness · swimming

Meet our newest Fit is Feminist Issue regular blogger, Bettina!

Following my first post, I’m excited to return on a monthly regular schedule! Sam asked me to make this post an introductory one, so here goes.

My name is Bettina, I’m 33 and from Germany. I live in Heidelberg, a university town south of Frankfurt, with my scientist husband, who is originally from the Basque Country. I always joke that we’re here because of him, not because of me, and it’s true – I would’ve happily stayed abroad after finishing university. As it turned out, I ended up earning my PhD in Political Science back in Germany, having spent the last two years of high school and most of my undergraduate years in the UK, plus a year in Spain.

While working towards my PhD, I realised I didn’t want to pursue a traditional academic career. Slowly but surely, I moved into research management. Three jobs later, I am Senior Project Coordinator at a European research funding and enabling organization in a field that has nothing to do with my own – the life sciences – and loving it.

Fitness has always been a part of my life, but not to the degree it is now. When I was in primary school, my mother got worried about my bad posture and put me in the local swimming club. With short interruptions, I’ve been swimming regularly ever since. It’s my meditation, my favourite way of clearing my head after a long day. I love doing laps in the pool. Lots of people find it boring, I find my zen in the back-and-forth.

I’ve tried lots of other sports, many of them water-related. I love surfing and kayaking, but since there are no large enough bodies of water close to home, these are currently not often on the sports menu (sigh). Being outside is always good, so hiking is another favourite. I’ve done lots of yoga, which nowadays happens mostly at home, right after getting up in the morning, with Youtube tutorials.

Fitness has taken on another dimension for me over the past year though: a year ago to the day, I was diagnosed with Auto-Immune Haemolytic Anemia (AIHA), a condition where your immune system breaks down your red blood cells. Many things can trigger AIHA; in my case it was probably the flu. It’s pretty serious but treatable, and I’m in remission now.

But while I was in treatment, exercise became a way of feeling like I had some control over what was happening to me, full of all sorts of medicine and shocked as I was by this experience that was entirely outside both my control and my comfort zone. Incidentally, exercise is also a pretty good barometer for a relapse, which can happen at any time (or not – there’s a large suspense factor with this condition): one of the first things to go is your stamina, which was also how I started noticing I was sick in the first place when I could no longer keep up with my swim mates.

Since my diagnosis, I’ve started running much more regularly in addition to swimming twice a week if I can. Having been a rather reluctant and irregular runner before, I’ve done a 10k and an 8k since last September. I’ve also taken up a new sport, bouldering, which is different from anything I’d ever done, and which I love for its community spirit (Lynette recently wrote about it here and here). And it’s so empowering when you’ve figured out a tough route!

Empowerment is also where fitness and feminism intersect for me. Both are, in a way, about feeling strong and being entitled to that, no matter who you are or what gender you identify as.

There’s still a lot to fight for in terms of feminist fitness. Athletes who are not straight males continue to be on the receiving end of everything ranging from condescending advice to discrimination and hatred. We’re overlooked, spoken over, not taken seriously, judged for our looks rather than our athletic achievements, objectified, and ridiculed.

Feminism in fitness, to me, is about considering how a feminist lens can change our thinking about fitness and what a “fit woman” looks like. It’s about what the needs of women practicing sports are and how they’re different from those of male athletes. It’s about what we can do to make women of all ages, shapes, and abilities feel welcome in the world of sports and encourage them to discover it.

Bettina, looking distinctly wet but happy, in hiking gear at the summit of Skiddaw in the Lake District, UK
Bettina, looking distinctly wet but happy, in hiking gear at the summit of Skiddaw in the Lake District, UK
fitness · Guest Post · running

Competitive streak (Guest post)

I work on the campus of a research institute with lots of scientists working round the clock to get out their next, hopefully highly-cited, paper, knowing full well that their career hinges on being faster, better, more hard-working than the person next door.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of these people aren’t just competitive in research, but in all aspects of their lives, including fitness. One colleague of mine referred to it as a “cesspool of incredibly fit people”. Personally, I’ve left research in favour of a career in research management. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have a competitive streak of my own.

I exercise quite a lot, swimming, running, and bouldering mostly. I love hiking, kayaking, and surfing, although I don’t do much of the latter two these days, mostly for want of a large enough body of water nearby. I enjoy all of it immensely most of the time.

The problem is: I’m not good at any of it, or at least not what people generally define as “good”. I’m not strong, or fast, or well-coordinated. And I constantly compare myself to others.

The reason I mentioned my workplace before is that I sometimes go running with a group of colleagues at lunchtime. Our campus is located outside the city on a hill in the forest, which is perfect for that. Most of them are faster than me, in fact I’m frequently the slowest member of the group by some distance.

I boulder with a group of people a couple of times a week. Most of them can do harder routes than me, even the ones who have started bouldering later.

And in the pool, I compare myself to the people who are faster, not those who are slower. Every so often, I come home from exercising feeling frustrated and bitterly complain to my husband.

Why can’t I be better at sports? What’s the point of doing it if I won’t ever be any “good”? I like the social element of exercising in a group, but I can’t seem to stop comparing myself to others. And so my competitiveness sometimes gets in the way of my enjoyment.

I sometimes wonder if this is related to the way society expects women to give 150% in order to be considered “successful” (or even adequate). Or is it just my own personality? Am I intrinsically competitive, or have I been socialised to be that way, through the environment I grew up in and the academic training I’ve received?

As usual, the answer is probably “a bit of everything”. The thing is, in sports I don’t owe anyone anything. As long as I enjoy doing it, it shouldn’t matter if I’m any “good” at it. And yet.

So I’m interested: how do others cope with their own competitiveness? Does it affect your enjoyment of exercise if you work out with people who are better than you?

Bettina is a political scientist-turned-science-manager and feminist from Germany, where she now lives after stints in the UK and Spain. She enjoys sports, reading, food, and travelling.

Picture of Bettina in a green running shirt after completing an 8k race on New Year’s Eve 2017, during which she couldn’t stop comparing herself to other runners, but had fun nevertheless.