body image · cycling · Fear

Kim asks herself: why do I ride?

Content note: there is some mention of body image issues and struggles with weight loss in this post.

A couple of weekends ago, my cycling club held its annual feature ride to Rattlesnake Point, a conservation area on the Niagara Escarpment that road cyclists reach by climbing an absolute corker of a hill. (At just a kilometre, and with grades well above 10% along the way, it’s basically a wall of pain with a twist in the middle.) I did the ride last year and made it up the hill, but barely. My memory of it was, “did that, don’t need to do it again.”

This lot makes it look easy. It ain’t easy! A group of female riders racing up Rattlesnake Point in Halton region, Ontario. Image from Pedal Magazine.

When this year’s ride rolled around, though, I started to get a familiar feeling. I should do the hill again, I heard my brain whispering to my quads. After all, it wasn’t THAT bad. Right? Besides, said evil Kim brain to vulnerable Kim quads, if you don’t do it again you’ll always think you barely can and it will haunt you.

I decided to take to the internet for help. I wrote a message in our regular FFI bloggers message group asking the gang to “tell me I should do” the ride. I’m not actually sure what I was hoping for. A chorus of you go, girl! ? Maybe. Or maybe a good reason not to go?

Cate weighed in straight away, and in her inimitable Cate way drove to the heart of my problem. There’s no should here, she said. Why do you want to do this? What will it do for you?

KABOOM.

Why do I ride? This is a question I’d actually already been thinking a lot about, before Cate hit the nail on the head. It’s been following me and my bike across the ocean for a couple of years now. It dogs me on club touring days, when I have to decide if I stay or if I go. And it’s there when I’m tired, but something inside says to me, get up! Don’t be lazy. You said you were going to ride today, so ride already.

There are a lot of answers to the question, why do I ride? Some are frankly awful. Some are amazing. And some of them are different now to what they once were, and different to what I ever expected they might be.

Here they are.

First, I ride because I love to ride.

(Images above, from top left: Kim in green helmet, riding glasses in her teeth, snaps a selfie at the top of Box Hill in Surrey, England, with green rolling hills in the background; Kim in the same helmet and blue, black and white kit walks her bike up a very steep lane, autumn leaves on the ground, and she’s walking because she couldn’t get up the hill but she’s smiling anyway; Kim in pink helmet and black Castelli kit stands in front of her bike proudly, hands on hips, in Richmond Park, South London, England. All these images are from 2014-15.)

This is objectively true and always has been. Road cycling is my sport; I’m massively strong and fast and awesome at it; I handle my bike with skill and have surprising amounts of chutzpah on the road that I don’t always have elsewhere in my life. I heart my bike, full stop. This is my best, and favourite, reason for riding. But it’s not always, or even often, the main reason I head out on the bike.

I also ride because I worry that if I don’t ride I’ll gain a bunch of weight. In other words, I ride because somewhere in my brain I’m convinced I have to or else bad shit is going down. This is my least favourite reason for riding, but it’s often the quickest motivator for me.

I have always struggled with body image; I was raised in a household where nobody was thin but thinness was the ideal. My mom and her sisters policed each other’s bodies like crazy, and mine too. I was overweight as a kid and lived with a terrible, irrational fear of gaining more weight. Passive aggressive comments followed many of my food choices, and someone was always watching and commenting on the contours of my body. I felt followed, all the time, and I felt horrible about myself.

I’m much better now, but that’s because I’ve been fit and strong for a while and as I’ve gotten to my fitness goals I’ve learned to appreciate the complexities of a strong and fit body. I’m still by no means thin – who wants to be thin when you can be strong? – but I have a great deal more body confidence. Still, the nagging fears with which we are raised do not just disappear. They transmogrify; sometimes they are countered by new practices and hard-won beliefs, but sometimes – often – they lurk. So one of the reasons I ride is to outrun this lurking worry about my weight. I’m not proud to admit it, but it’s real for me.

Third, I ride because I can, because not all of us can and therefore I am really proud of what I am able to accomplish, and dammit do I feel strong and amazing when I do. (I also love this reason.)

A glamour shot of my road bike, Freddie, with grey cross bar and orange bar tape, with a traditional stone wall and gorgeous rolling dales in the background. I took this photo after getting to the top of yet another stunning climb in West Yorkshire, 2017.

This is what I replied to Cate when she answered my message about the Rattlesnake ride, and then I thought a lot more about it – more carefully about it. I did not end up going on the feature ride that weekend (my partner turned up at my house on the Sunday morning and I very joyfully spent the day with him instead) but the next day I realized that I’d actually wanted to do the ride, because I knew I could get up that hill stronger than I was last year, and I wanted to show myself how strong I am today. I wanted to feel my strong body haul myself up that stupid-ass hill. So on the Monday morning I went out and did it, alone – and got a personal record, too. (It felt amazing.)

Fourth, I ride to go places and make new discoveries about the world. This is a new reason for me, and I’m excited about embracing it more often in future.

If you’re a regular reader you’ll know that Sam, Susan, Cate, and blog friends Sarah and David were recently on a seriously grit-laden (literally and figuratively!) cycling trip to Newfoundland. Early in the planning for this journey they asked me to come and I decided not to join them. I knew I would not enjoy it: I dislike camping; I knew it would be freezing; I suspected we would be tired and possibly wet pretty much all the time. For me, this sounds like a world of pain, not a holiday.

There was a time I would have said yes anyway, though. I would have decided it was a challenge, I would have told myself that I never shirk from a challenge, and that therefore I would have to go. For quite a while in the early planning stages of the trip I was actually worried that I was going to say yes for this reason; I have a history of saying yes to things that I think will be good for me in some horrible you-can-rest-when-you’re-dead way, and I almost never enjoy them (though I do get a feeling of satisfaction from the endorphin rush and the adrenaline of succeeding in the end). It actually took a lot of work and a lot of courage for me to tell myself definitively, you will not enjoy this. Say no. Not going to Newfoundland was a growth moment for me, then, as a cyclist and as a person.

While the gang were in Newfoundland, however, I was riding too – in Anglesey, an island in northern Wales. This trip was like many I’ve taken, where the bike and I get on a plane and then on a train and head for a cottage where we stay for a while, riding every day or every other day to neat new places we’ve never been before, racking up the miles and the Strava segments. This is my preferred way of bike touring: no camping, no schlepping in panniers. Stay in one place; return there to eat and sleep and shower each evening. Over the years I’ve learned that I don’t just prefer it this way, but love it.

(Images above, from left: I’m in my green helmet and riding glasses, taking a selfie with green pastures and blue sky in the background; Freddie and her orange bar tape chill out against a barrier with soft sand and blue water in the background, at Trearddur Bay, Anglesey; another selfie, this time with grey frog statue from a random Anglesey front yard. Half of my face is visible, glasses on my nose, and I’m looking quite serious, on behalf of the frog.)

On this trip to Wales, though, something new happened: I had to use the bike for errands, not just for touring and challenge rides. My friend and I had no car, and the nearest shop was 1.5 miles away up a hillside; the nearest proper shop was 6 miles away. So some days I rode the bike 50, 60, 90km, visiting beaches and outcroppings and a very cool salt factory; on other days I rode the bike 10km, 25km, 30km, to buy cheese and meat pies and veggies and swim in the ocean.

The pop-up caf at the amazing Halen Mons salt stop. An Airstream is kitted out with typical coffee shop accoutrements, and there’s a posh looking picnic table in the foreground. The sky above is azure-blue, and the shop’s name – TIDE – sits proudly on block letters above the Airstream.

I hadn’t done this before – on previous cottage-style bike holidays I’ve either had a car or been based in a town centre – and it was actually really joyful. Using the bike for all sorts made me feel like I was connected to a community, not just passing through it on the way to yet another Strava prize. And it reminded me that my love for my road bike is about freedom and independence, joy in the outdoors, a love of movement, as well as strength and speed and skill, all blended together.

There’s one more reason I ride: to get stronger. I do this by riding with faster people in my cycling club and struggling to keep up with them. It’s not fun a lot of the time, but it works.

This reason I’m still struggling with.

As recently as last summer, I thought – as with my initial reasoning about the Newfoundland trip – that it was my duty to myself to always ride with the fast folks, and suffer and endure, because if you can, you should, and if you don’t you’re being lazy and will never improve. (Again, I’m aware these intrusive thoughts are not helpful, but they are real for me.)

But earlier this season something weird and unexpected happened: I decided not to care anymore. I arrived at a club ride in April and made the decision to ride with the second-fastest group, not the super fast kids. I told myself, sure you can ride with the fast gang, but it wasn’t that much fun, was it? Maybe you could prioritize joy over speed this time. Maybe there’s an important component of getting stronger in that choice, too. Through the season, I’ve been riding with social group two more often than speedy group one. And I’m OK with it, for now.

I still ride from time to time out of an obligation to my demons. But the great news is that, more and more, I’m riding just for the pure delight of it, knowing that I’m growing as a person, not just as a rider, when I do. I posted in our message group with my demons in tow, asking the gang please to validate them; instead, Cate reminded me that I do not need to pay attention to those dudes so much. There are lots of absolutely wonderful reasons to ride my bike – more than enough to keep me happily rolling.

Why do you ride? Do you struggle with demons around exercise? Can you tap into the joy of movement unencumbered? Let me know.

cycling · equality · femalestrength · stereotypes

On being underestimated

Many of you will have heard about this already:

A female cyclist (Nicole Hanselmann) is forced to stop after nearly catching the men’s pro race that had begun 10 minutes ahead of her women’s race. Hanselmann wears black and light blue-striped kit and rides a white road bike with blue bar tape; also in the photo we see part of the peloton’s motorcycle convoy, which has stopped Hanselmann and is speaking to her on the pavement. She looks annoyed. (Photo by Luc Claessen/Getty Images)

Swiss cyclist Nicole Hanselmann was competing for her Bigla Pro team at a race in Belgium; the men’s race had a 10-minute start, and Hanselmann made that up pretty quickly after grabbing an early lead. Her race was stopped so the men could get ahead again; she was given a head start once the women’s race resumed, but the wind had left her sails by then. (UM: DUH.) She finished 74th. Later she instagrammed the incident: “awkward” was her photo caption.

A female cyclist (Hanselmann), wearing her black and light blue-striped Bigla kit and helmet, leans on her right gloved hand while smiling into the camera through her cycling glasses. You can see this image on her instagram feed here.

Why did this happen? I’ve been looking around for an explanation for the last day or so and have no clear one to offer you. It sounds like the officials made a wrong call on the race gap: 10 minutes was not long enough. (Is this a standard gap for this type of race? I can’t tell – I haven’t been able to find this information out. If you know, please say in the comments!) It also sounds like Hanselmann had GREAT legs going into the race, and really took advantage. (There are structural reasons why this might be the case; women’s race lengths are often not long enough to capitalize on women’s peak fitness, which means early attacks happen. Go here for more.)

But “why” on this day, in this place, is not really the point; there are a lot of culturally-embedded, fairly obvious reasons why this incident is newsworthy. And if you’re a strong female cyclist, you already know the why.

We get underestimated. This is true of pretty much ALL female athletes, but it’s definitely the case for female athletes in male-dominant sports. Snoop around on our blog for lots of qualitative evidence, most recently this fantastic guest post from just a few days ago, about trying to lift around men at the gym.

I’ve been riding road bikes since 2012; I learned early (from a hugely inspiring female coach) that I was strong and suited to the sport. I drop a lot of guys. I’m faster than a lot of guys. And I love riding with folks who are faster than me, because they make me get faster.

But fast guys also tend to misunderstand what it means to have women on their ride.

(And here, let me specify: I’m talking largely about CLUB rides. When I go on organized rides with guys I know and trust and train with, we are all good and the adventure is ace. #notallmaleriders, of course. But still plenty.)

How this misunderstanding? Step one: mansplaining.

If I’m on a high-end bike that fits my body, the bike is kitted out with all the gear, and I demonstrate clear road- and club-riding skills, chances are I do not need you to tell me basic things about the sport, my bike, or anything else to do with what we are doing at the minute. Keep it to yourself, unless you see me in obvious need of assistance. And if that happens, maybe ask first if I need any.

Step two: aggressive off-showing. Yes, I’m on your ride because I’m fast enough for the posted ride pace. This should not be an invitation to you to attempt to ride significantly faster than the posted ride pace, just because you can. Or maybe you’re trying hard to show off to the other dudes on the ride? (I see this A LOT. God, it must be exhausting to be a male club rider.) At any rate, 38kph on a posted 32-34kph ride is too fast for me. You are going to drop me. And quite possibly you’ll drop the other, less fast, guys on the ride too. Is that really what you want? (And if so, ask yourself: WHY DO YOU WANT THIS?)

Step three: excessive complimenting. I pulled that pace line for two minutes and it was a strong, effective pull? We held a good pace? Yup, that’s what happens when you pull, after resting inside the pace line for a bit. I pulled the peloton with another woman at the front, and it was a strong, effective pull? Whadaya know. We have #madbikeskillz. GET OVER IT.

If you’re not going to say “hey! Great pull! Way to go!” to the guys on the ride, when you say it to me the message is clear. You didn’t think I could do it. You underestimated me. Thanks for sharing.

It’s not just guys who underestimate women riders, though. Many women I know have no idea how strong they are. Many of the women in my club think they are too slow for the two faster groups the club runs; even the amazing mountain biker I train with in winter (like, PODIUM MB-er, peeps) isn’t sure she can hold the faster lines. (Spoiler alert: she really can.)

I know these women are stronger than they let themselves think. They don’t believe it, and that’s because they have been taught, over years of aggressive gendered socialization, that women aren’t fast or good enough when it comes to sports like cycling. There’s tonnes of external reinforcement of this idea, too: just ask Hanselmann. All around us the messages normalize the notion that women can’t do it, not really, no matter what Nike says as it tries to sell us things.

I know this post sounds cranky, but I’m fed up. Being underestimated is exhausting; it makes it hard to want to go on the rides, to try to get faster, to deal with all the noise while ALSO trying to ride the ride. Cycling is hard enough work; I don’t need to be doing extra emotional labour on the damn bike, too.

A delighted woman, circa 1950s, in white shirt-sleeves and a skirt on an upright bike, huge smile plastered on her face. The caption reads, “He said a woman’s place is in the kitchen. So I dropped him.”

What’s your experience on the bike? Do you have supportive ride-mates, or do you experience unnecessary gender blow-back on your usual club dates? Do you have race experiences you’d like to share?

cycling · winter

Winter Riding: what you do when the snow won’t come

This time last year, we were under several feet of snow here in Southern Ontario. I know, because Facebook told me. Here are some images from 29 December 2017 that Big Brother Zuckerberg shared with me as “memories” a few days ago.

A photo of a black collie mix (Emma the Dog) standing on a snow-covered rail bridge in the woods.
A snap of Kim, a white woman wearing large maroon-coloured sun glasses and a red and white toque, bundled in a black parka, smiling into the snowy wilderness.
Emma the Dog contemplates the waterfall to her left, on the snowy path in the woods.

This year, no such luck. Today, it’s 10 degrees Celsius and raining, and Emma the Dog is hiding in a mucky hidey-hole in the garden. (Cheers, Emma.)

Last year, with all the snow and my glamorous new snow shoes from Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC), Emma and I got all kinds of exercise out on the rail trails around our home near Toronto. Walking in snow shoes is both incredibly fun and an amazing workout for the hamstrings and calves.

This year, I’ve been alternating taking Emma for extra-long no-snow walks in and around our many protected escarpment woodlands, riding my bicycle trainer while watching The Good Place on Netflix, and walking the escarpment stairs for a nice glute and quad (not to mention cardio) workout.

And then, of course, on dry days, when the temperature is zero or above, I go for that painful mixed blessing: The Winter Road Ride.

I know Sam has been enthusing on the blog recently about the joys of winter riding (in all its unexpected, stolen glory), as well as the pains of having to clean the darn bike when it’s over.

I share both her enthusiasm and the annoyance re the cleaning. But I also feel other things around winter riding, which I thought I’d share with you today in case anyone else in the community rides in winter and wants to commiserate.

1. Winter riding reminds you that just because it’s nice outside when you go to get the mail, doesn’t mean it’s nice outside for three hours/75km.

It seems like a great idea at the time. You walk the dog and it’s cool but not cold, cloudy but dry, only a bit breezy. You decide to suit up.

One of those cheeky cards, this one featuring a young woman in a parka holding ice skates, reads: “I’m over the cold already and it’s not even that cold yet.”

You climb the 150 or so metres out of the lake-side valley in which you live and are winded and cursing yourself when you finally get to the top of the escarpment and can finally start riding properly. In summer this climb is annoying but OK; today, though, you are already pretty cold and wondering what made you think this bike ride was a good idea.

You get onto “flat” land (all “flat” land to the north and west of me is a false flat, until it’s a swoopy downhill and all your cares are forgotten – roughly 35km in). You start to pick up speed. Then you wonder why “pick up speed” means you’re going 26.5kph, rather than your more usual 28kph…

2. You’re generally slower in winter for lots of invisible reasons. Because of this invisibility, you see your average speeds drop, feel demoralized, and then get even colder.

Yes, I know some people argue it’s a myth, but I’m firmly on the “big temperature drop = not insignificant speed drop” side of things. I’ve got years of riding to demonstrate this anecdotally, plus there’s a very good reason why club ride start times inch upward as the temperature drops. Cold weather riders experience drag from poor air density, rolling resistance, and extra layers of gear worn against the cold. Plus, it’s typical not to pump those tires up to max in winter, to ensure you’re in a better position to navigate winter obstacles and debris on the road.

(Want to know a bit more of the science? Here’s a pretty good article by the folks at FitWerx, a top-rated bike shop in the northeastern US.)

I typically roll at 27-30kph, wind and incline depending; my average solo speed is usually 27-28kph in summer, accounting for anywhere from 400 to 800 metres of climbing (and the attendant gleeful rolling back down again at top speed). In winter, my average speed drops to 25-26kph – partly for all the reasons noted above, but also because the wind feels sharper and colder (and thus less motivating to push through) in winter, and because, given the time of year, I’m not riding for all-out, Strava-busting goodness; I’m riding to build my base and stay in my tempo (mid-range aerobic) zone as much as possible.

Logically, then, I can expect to be slower in winter, and That Is Totally Fine. But we are not logical creatures, us humans. We are rational, yes, but also deeply affective: how we feel shapes how we behave so very, very often. (Need proof? Um, you know where to look…)

So when I’m out on a winter ride, I’m already cold. And then I see my speed and go, oh feck. “I’m so slow today! What’s wrong with me??? Obviously I need to train more/better/focus harder/get me off this thing…”

3. All that gear adds weight, discomfort, awkwardness. As in: I CANNOT WAIT TO GET HOME AND PULL IT ALL OFF ALREADY.

Yes, riding at any time of year is a pleasure. And yes, if given the opportunity, I would DEFINITELY rather be riding in a pair of shorts and a lightweight jersey, with just my helmet adding a bit of extra drag.

Instead, winter riding requires the following:

  • basic shorts, not too bulky (but still really well padded!)
  • at least two, if not three, under layers (hello, wind chill)
  • a pair of thermal tights
  • a really good, insulated if possible, long-sleeve winter jersey
  • winter gloves (think ski gloves with a bit more maneuverability)
  • a cycling balaclava (to keep your head warm and also provide chin and mouth coverage if the wind kicks up)
  • a neck “snood” or equivalent (basically, a cycling scarf – mine is the fantastically-named Castelli “head thingy”, which I bought for the name alone and which I absolutely adore)
  • two pairs of socks, and maybe some hot pockets to keep your toes alive
  • shoe covers (an absolute must: cycling shoes are breathable, after all, which means the cold air gets in immediately)
A female cyclist, dressed in black winter tights and jersey and standing through a corner, models the Castelli Head Thingy, worn here around her neck (as I often do). Note: this is NOT me. This woman looks like she’s moving pretty quickly, for winter. Lucky her.

All this stuff adds weight, bulk, and makes usually simple maneuvers fairly awkward. There’s also, again, that all-important feeling that things aren’t quite right; it’s supposed to be a free-wheeling sport, this, with equal parts “wheeee!!!!!” and zooming along in a tight, fast formation. Plus just feeling the wind on your face and not going, “fecking winter wind so cold ARGH! WHY AM I DOING THIS!!!”

***

So here’s the thing. As long as it’s not freezing cold and snowy outside I ride my bike. I try to remember that I’m base-building and it’s winter and I’m trussed up like a turkey and it’s cold, so it will be OK but not AMAZING. If it’s a good day out (especially if there’s sun!) there is NO WAY I am getting on my bike trainer, Jameela Jamil or no Jameela Jamil. So winter riding and me are here to stay.

But it’s not going to be ace from start to finish. A lot of it is going to kind of suck, TBH. And I am definitely going to miss my snowshoes.

Please tell me I am not alone!

But, having said that, readers, I’d love your winter riding stories/thoughts/feelings. Do you avoid it? Love it? Notice a performance drop and feel bad about it? Notice a performance drop and not care? Thanks for sharing!

Happy New Year,

Kim

competition · Fear · fitness · racing · Rowing

Maybe I’m not actually in it to win it

Have you ever believed a thing about yourself, just fervently believed and adamantly defended it, and then one day you’ve woken up and realized that perhaps what you’ve believed and defended has… changed? Or perhaps was never quite true – not in the way you had imagined, anyway – in the first place?

The-Race-Poem-Children-Race-To-Win

An image of six boys running on a school track; it looks like nearly the end of the race. The boy in the foreground is racing to win; the image is in sepia tone. What does this have to do with my post? Read on.

This story begins back in spring, when I hopped back into the scull at Leander, my new boat club in Hamilton, Ontario, full of keen interest. My bum was not even on the slide yet when I realized that the women I was now training with were experienced, serious, committed, and out to win.

Not that they are not completely amazing humans, balanced and sane and gorgeous, and not that they are not fun, or out to have fun. They are all these things too. And, OF COURSE, not that there is anything whatsoever wrong with wanting to race to win. On the contrary: I love winning. I LOVE WINNING!

Or so I thought.

Rowing with these women started to freak me out pretty much immediately. I was painfully aware that, while I’m strong as hell, my technique in a scull is not honed enough yet to be easy or natural; this is another way of saying that I kept yanking our boats off course because I’m strong enough physically, but still weak enough technically, to be something of a liability. I was hugely embarrassed about this from the get-go, because I knew these women needed an able and consistent teammate. I wanted to be that teammate. I did.

Or I thought I did.

I told myself: I’ll improve over the summer. It will come in time. There’s time! Training consistently will help! I will do the training required.

Then summer rose high, and I had (as usual) lots of work travel. (This is why I rowed much more casually back in London, Ontario, with my delightful and equally casual and fun teammate Jen. For us, the water was pure joy. PURE JOY. More on this later.)

So: despite my best self-talk, I got out to Leander’s regular masters practices much less over the summer months than I’d hoped. Or that I had told myself I had hoped, anyway.

I wasn’t in the boat enough to be improving, and I realized that; I chose not to sign up for regattas in the expectation that I would not be ready.

It all seemed sensible and logical enough in my head: just not quite ready, not yet.

After a while, and a chat with Cate, it dawned on me that something else might be going on – other than me being super busy.

My-Big-Duh

A large “Duh!”. Because, Kim, come on. DUH.

I realized I might be finding lots of excuses not to go to rowing practice, because actually I was scared of going to practice.

I was scared of letting my teammates down. The pressure to improve was destroying the pleasure, the pure joy, rowing held for me.

When I thought about it more, as the summer passed, I realized that I actually hadn’t been all that busy, not really. Actually, I had chosen not to go to many practices, or sign up for regattas, because the thought of racing was making me crazy nervous. The idea of getting to the race was making me nervous. The idea of spending a day at the race was making me nervous. The idea of driving back from the race was making me nervous.

Not because I didn’t want to win a race; don’t be silly. I LOVE TO WIN. But because … well, I didn’t actually want to race.

I realized: I. Did. Not. Want. To. Race. Not like this, anyway. Not now, anyway. Maybe not… ever.

Surprise, self. Surprise.

Autumn arrived, and then my teaching schedule and family commitments meant I could only reasonably commit to one practice a week. And then family health problems arose and made me so tired, so exhausted from the thought of even trying to row, that I just emailed my head coach and stopped. I should have done this long before, of course, but finally I had an excuse that was legit. Or that I thought was legit. “Family crisis!” sounds so much better than “Really just not enjoying it!”

But the truth is, crisis or none, after I emailed Greg I felt immeasurably better, lighter.

I want to be clear here that I’m not suggesting that racing is bad – hells no! If it is your cuppa, please head straight for the starting line! I also want to be clear that I’ve thought a lot about the mixed and complex feelings I was having around rowing practice over the last few months, and I’ve concluded that the cloud of expectation I felt around me about racing was really, powerfully, hampering both my love of the sport (which is real) and my desire to be better at it (which is real, too). I started out telling myself that of course I was going to race, and of course I was going to commit to all the things in order to make that happen. No excuses! But it turns out that hyper-motivator of a phrase was the opposite of motivating for me.

Early in the autumn, the head of the women’s crew and I found ourselves in calm water in the double one Sunday morning. She knew I was struggling but I doubt she knew the depth – almost certainly not, since I had only just begun to admit it to myself. We started talking about the club, its culture, and then I asked her about the Rec program: was it super loosey-goosey and frustratingly disorganized like Rec rowing often can be?

No! She told me. She sang the praises of the coaches and the structure and the fun of it. She told me it was how she had gotten interested in racing, inspired to leap up to masters. I suddenly realized that maybe I could grasp again the joy and fun of the learning that goes into rowing by dropping down to a low-pressure, no-stakes, but still structured and technically focused environment next season. Maybe I could actually develop a true, heart-felt, joy-filled desire to race one day.

Soon, we spotted a heron on the shore and stopped hard for a look. We commiserated about the heat building and the sweat beginning to ripple on our arms. Greg came by in the coach boat to chat about his new super-wicking shorts; we had a laugh and took away a pro sartorial tip. And I remembered the pleasures I take from the boat, when the pressure to perform eases off.

2207933758

A young woman half-sit in her single scull along a lakeshore, looking into a cloud-filled, orange sunrise. She is wearing a white sport top, blue sport shorts, and looks to have her hair in a braid across her right shoulder. This is not me! But maybe, next season, it might be.

See you next season,

Kim*

*This will be my last regularly post for a while. That family health crisis I speak about above is actually, really, a crisis, and I’ll be turning my attention there for now. I hope to write again before too long, though. Thanks for reading.

fitness · holidays · traveling

Give me a break already

fullsizeoutput_12d5

(A sandwich board reads: “high tides and salty vibes.” This post is about how I spent my summer vacation.)

Last month, I posted from the UK, where I was traveling for work. In that post I talked about how a spontaneous two-day cycling break in Sussex raised my spirit and helped me get through an emotionally tough patch.

That was a terrific little holiday, to be sure, but it wasn’t enough: it was only two days, out of a three-week trip that was full of work-work, alongside the emotional labour associated with seeing friends and family and visiting a life I used to live. Cycling through the Sussex countryside was fab, but when I returned to Canada I still felt drained, exhausted, and unsure where I was going to find the energy to finish the rest of my summer work roster before heading back into the classroom this fall.

While I was away, I was also planning another holiday: a trip to Newfoundland with my boyfriend, D. Neither of us had been, and we both wanted to go. But D’s a fairly new immigrant to Canada and wasn’t sure where to look for the best accommodation, or what the most effective way for us to get there would be (we had the dog along for part of our trip). So the bulk of the planning fell to me. More work, more drainage.

Between my return to Canada from the UK and the trip to Newfoundland I was at sixes and sevens getting all kinds of deadline-heavy work done, and because I returned from abroad tired I never really got my bearings back. Near to our departure for Newfoundland I broke down while in the car with D; he’s a loving and patient man and wanted me to try to explain what was going on. I told him I was overwhelmed and exhausted and had no idea how all the things were going to get finished. My therapist always says, there is no such thing as an academic emergency, Kim!, but at that moment all the undone work seemed like an emergency to me.

D listened with genuine kindness, and then asked me: do you want to cancel the holiday?

I realized in that moment that I absolutely did not want to cancel. I realized I needed that holiday! Even though my brain had no idea how I was going to get through the handful of work days left before we departed, my body was adamant.

And I have learned it’s always a good idea to listen to my body.

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(A blue-washed photo of an Atlantic headland with rocky cliffs, water and sky, wildflowers in the foreground. Taken on the Bonavista peninula, at Trinity Bay. This is one of the many gorgeous places my brain did not yet know it needed, but was going to get. Oh ya baby.)

I needed the trip, but I also needed to cope with the state of catastrophe I had let myself fold into, so that I could enjoy the trip and also get the most out of it. So here’s what I did.

First, I worked out what needed doing before we left and what could wait. I made a priority plan for the stuff that would be waiting so I knew what I’d work on after we got back, in what order, and for what amount of time. I was pretty sure everything would get done by 4 September and I’d be ok, ultimately, if I more or less stuck to that plan. Then I put the plan away.

Second, I decided I would leave my computer behind.

Right now, I realize that some of you are probably going, DUH! Why would you take your computer on holiday?? I know. But academics tend to live their work; our passions intertwine with our labours. For a while I thought, I’ll bring it and write for an hour each morning, write for pleasure, free-write, see what emerges. D said, bring it for watching movies; I’ll make sure you don’t check your email. But then I realized the free-write promise was not worth the risk I’d check the email – it’s only a tantalizing click away and I am so freaking type-A I knew I would succumb to the click. Decision made.

Third, I decided that it would be ok for me to eat and drink whatever I wanted while on holiday. Usually I’m careful about not eating much junk food and I have been working on drinking modestly, especially because I have a tendency to use alcohol as a quick route to relaxation after a long work day. My holiday plan, instead, was this: enjoy any and all food that looks enticing. Enjoy days filled with a good amount of relaxing so that a drink at the end of those days is for the pleasure of the lovely drink, not for relaxing itself.

To my surprise, this worked. I enjoyed loads of terrific fresh fish and yummy chips (French fries served with fried fish), among lots of other things, stopped eating when full, and experienced no hangovers or headaches of any kind during our two weeks away. I felt great each morning and went to bed feeling happy and sated each evening.

(These photos were taken at the Port Rexton Brewing Company taproom in Trinity, Newfoundland. A photo of a sandwich board that says “No wifi; drink beer and talk to each other” alongside a close-up of two sample-size glasses of beer. There were gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches and more delicious chips to go with the beer; this was a mid-hike break, and SO SO worth it!)

Part of that feeling great also came from choice number four: to move in enjoyable ways each day, not worrying too much about being away from my regular fitness routine and my bike, and not connecting energy expended to calories ingested, even in my imagination.

Believe it or not this is a big problem for me: I’m super type A and a bit of an endorphin junky, so usually when I take a trip I look for ways to exercise, and I mean REALLY exercise, every other day at least. If I can’t do that I begin to get anxious about the foods I’m eating. Part of this is a learned fear of gaining weight, I think, but it’s also connected to the fact that exercise makes me pleasurably hungry, while I also feel I’ve “earned” the treat. I know this is not the healthiest attitude in the world, but it’s also my lived reality; the point I’m making here is that I worked actively against this attitude while on holiday and discovered real value in abandoning it, at least for a while.

Newfoundland is a terrific place for hiking, and D and I enjoyed parts of the East Coast Trail, the famous Skerwink Trail on the Bonavista peninsula, as well as a fairly steep but oh-so-beautiful climb up Signal Hill in the middle of St John’s. I also got the chance to bounce around in the ocean a couple of times, and to have a proper, delicious swim in a fantastic and almost-empty swimming pool one Saturday morning. Otherwise, exercise was limited to walking out to headlands to look at puffins, and holding on for dear life in a Zodiac while getting farted on by whales. Which is not something I get on a regular road ride, and was pretty special TBH.

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(A photo of me, wearing sunglasses and a blue shirt with white pineapples on it, arms out as though flying. I’m standing in front of the puffin colony at Elliston, Newfoundland, a rocky headland jutting into the sea, making like a funny little orange-beaked bird. And feeling great.)

Reading this post over, I realize it sounds like I Took A Holiday And It Was Good. News at 11! But what is striking for me is that I don’t do this often, or really ever; it actually IS newsworthy for me. And I bet I’m not alone.

How many of us don’t really take a break when we take a break? How many of us work over our holidays as a matter of course, even if it’s “just” checking the email? We’re living the 24/7 life, the one that says if you’re not working you’re slacking, and I am as guilty a party to this pervasive neoliberal reality as the next middle class professional.

But when I got home from Newfoundland I realized something urgent: I felt 100% better. Like, SO MUCH BETTER it was literally unreal to me. NONE of the work waiting for me seemed like the emergency it had appeared in my pre-holiday imagination. On my first morning back I settled into the job of catching up and calmly got shit done. I ate some salads and some delicious soups from my freezer, drank some home-made iced tea, and it all tasted the sweeter and more delicious for having been preceded by fourteen days of utterly guilt-free indulgence, pure relaxing pleasure.

Best of all, I had way fewer emails waiting for me than I expected. And the cherry tomatoes had all ripened on the vine.

Bring on the fall!

Kim

cycling · fit at mid-life · fitness

Kim gets out of a rut by getting back into the saddle on a spontaneous solo bike holiday

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(A grey road bike with orange bar tape and white lettering reading ‘cervelo’ set against a backdrop of rolling countryside. This shot was taken in celebration at the top of Ditchling Beacon, the great stinking East Sussex hill in the blog post below.)

If you follow my posts on FFI, or follow me on my teaching blog, The Activist Classroom, you know I’ve been a bit low lately: not resting enough, feeling frustrated with work, unsure about my fitness commitments.

I’ve had some significant change in my life over the last handful of years, but now that I’m more settled, in a wonderful new community, I’m realizing that my emotional upset isn’t just keyed to all the changes: it’s also more.

I’m at midlife, so there’s that. I’m looking into the next 20 years of my career, and wondering what it is I really want to do. I’m in a new relationship, which is fantastic but also makes for the adjustment of well-loved (and relied-upon, and sanity-saving) routines. And… and… and…

It’s an emotional cul-de-sac. And I’m in it.

Usually, when I’m not in a great place, I’m cheered immensely by getting on my bicycle. There’s incredible freedom in just rolling, sometimes punching a hill and coasting down the backside, letting thoughts pass in and out, engaging in some supportive self-talk. It’s like meditation for me.

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(Another glam shot of my orange-and-grey road bike, this time set against a tree trunk in a forest setting. I put a filter on this shot to make it look a bit nostalgic; I miss my bike these days.)

Lately, though, jumping on my bike has not been as regularly possible as in the past. I’ve made a commitment to row quite frequently with the master’s squad at my new local club, and that’s eating a lot of free time. (More on my vexed relationship with rowing in a post later in the summer. I’m still working it out.)

With up to 10 hours per week at the rowing club – and practices scheduled directly against the group rides organized by my cycling club – I just can’t find the saddle time I’m used to. And I’m really quite bummed about that.

I had a chat with Cate about all this over breakfast a couple of Sundays ago. She said: you know what? You need to do what nourishes you.

Forget about the rowing club commitment for a bit; nobody is going to die if you say you can’t make it to practice. They’ll work around you. And you need to work for you for a while.

Very shortly after this breakfast chat I was packing for a work trip to London and Belgrade. I had 10 days in the UK ahead of the conference I was attending in Serbia. I was going to just spend it with friends.

Then I had a brilliant, spur-of-the-moment, idea.

Why not carve out a couple of days just for riding? Someplace wonderful! Someplace I know, but haven’t been in ages. Someplace restful, scenic, where I can be alone and at peace on the bike all I want.

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(A black-and-white photo of an iron sign that reads “Best Kept Large Village in East Sussex, presented by the Sussex rural community council”. That’s Ditchling, my cycling home for two days in early July. And what a fine little town it is!)

I always travel to England with my road bike; I first learned to cycle properly there, and I know the ins and outs of the home county roads well. So I was always going to have my bike with me already. (NB: traveling with a bike is easier than you think! You need a good bicycle box for airline travel, but otherwise it is not that complicated.)

The morning of my flight, I sat in my garden and arranged two days in Ditchling, East Sussex. It’s a short train journey from central London (about 50 minutes), but a world away, in the rolling South Downs just over the hills from Brighton.

I have cycled there twice before – riding the “Puncheur” cyclosportif (aka, a gran fondo ride), which happens every spring in the area – and I’ve stayed at the wonderful, picturesque Bull inn too.

The Bull team told me I could park my bike in their locked shed overnight, and accommodated all my cycling needs (ice water constantly on tap; friendly faces telling me about their own cycling adventures). I arrived on a sunny Monday afternoon, dropped everything, and headed into the hills, GPS maps for my bike computer downloaded from the Puncheur’s website.

Then, the next morning, I retraced the race route I’d last cycled in 2014.

(A group of four photos from my long ride in Ditchling. There are rolling hills with parched grassland – there was a drought going on – and copses of greenery dappled throughout. In one shot we see the roadside sign for The Crown freehouse in Turner’s Hill set against a bright blue sky. In another I’m smiling into the camera with my helmet and glasses on; I look pink but that’s the filter. My kit is actually green. Oh, and there’s a sheep chilling behind me. I’m in the Ashdown Forest.)

It’s a pretty tough ride, at 101.5km and almost 5000 feet (1560 metres) of climbing, including a brutal 3/4 mile category 4 climb (Ditchling Beacon) at the end.

But hey, I wasn’t actually doing the race! I reminded myself, when things started to get iffy, that this ride was just for me, and I was in charge of how it went: nobody was watching, and nobody was timing me. (OK, I was timing me. But that’s a little bit different.)

When I saw cows and sheep in the road, in the pretty Ashdown Forest, I stopped to photograph them. When I felt drained and like I probably couldn’t go on much longer, I stopped at a public footpath to eat my lemon drizzle cake, purchased from the sweet Green Welly cafe that morning, and take in the view.

And when I got to the bottom of the bloody Beacon, really drained from a long day on my own in the sun and wind, I said: you know you’ve got this. Just spin nice and slow; you’ll get there.

And I did.

At the top I snapped some photos of the view, cheered my achievement, and noted that I had beaten my 2014 route time by almost 20 minutes. That means that, even though back then I was 4 years younger and 15lb lighter, since then I’ve obviously grown stronger, and even more able.

The lesson for me? Although things feel a little bit crap at the moment, and I’m not quite sure what’s ahead, at the top of the beacon I knew: my bike and I have got this.

Ride on!

Kim

accessibility · body image · fitness · gender policing · inclusiveness · swimming

Being Naked in Public, pt 2: languages of instruction

Back in December I wrote a post about being naked in public, three ways: in new “universal” change rooms in pools in my city of Hamilton, Ontario; in the same kinds of spaces (with WAY more cubicles and tight corners) in London, England; and in a public spa and thermal bath complex in Konstanz, Germany (few cubicles; lots of comfy nudity).

My questions in that post revolved around etiquette, protocol, expectation, and the cultural labour these spaces appear to be doing towards supporting inclusive, body-positive community (whether or not they are actually doing that labour).

Today, for the first time in a while, I returned to one of the facilities here in Hamilton that have converted to M/F/U change spaces; I was overbooked and had to skip my usual Friday swim (which happens at an older facility not yet renovated to include a gender-neutral room).

To my surprise, when I swanned toward the universal change room entryway, I found this:

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(A sign, posted on a green cinder-block wall, that reads: “Change in dressing cubicle only; clothing or bathing suit myst be worn at all times outside dressing cubicle.” The images on the sign include a green circle around a woman’s body clad in a one-piece swim suit and a man’s body clad in swim shorts; and a red circle with a strike-through against the images of the same bodies, with one-piece and shorts off to the side. Note: I snapped this photo from the change-room threshold, which is barrier-free and opens onto the lobby. I made sure no bodies were nearby in order to respect the “no photography in change rooms” rule.)

I stopped for a minute, a bit gobsmacked. New sign; aggressive sign.

NO NUDITY! DO NOT EXIT THE CUBICLES NUDE! THIS IS A GENDER NEUTRAL SPACE!

OK, so that’s not exactly what the sign said. But it might as well have.

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I googled “gender-neutral change room etiquette” and this list of do’s and don’ts turned up. It is haranguing: be neat, tidy, and for god’s sake cover up your freaking horrific human of a body; don’t be lazy, slow, or glowery. Get the fuck out ASAP. Sounds familiar.)

I’m trained as a literature scholar and a scholar of theatre and performance; that means I read cultural texts for their nuances, for a living, and try to make sense of what they aim to accomplish amongst actual, human lives.

My pool’s universal change-room sign said the following to me.

The bright blue that backgrounds “Change in dressing cubicle ONLY” sets that text off in sharp relief. All-caps for ONLY is scolding typography, as though to say: DO NOT DARE LEAVE YOUR CUBICLE NAKED! It is fairly patronizing and deeply shaming.

The images are workmanlike and designed to be read across languages and cultural contexts (more or less; only North American Christianity could, if you ask me, dream up such a blatantly unsexy way to render human nudity). The communication is meant to cross language barriers because there are lots of immigrants in our community (I witnessed one Chinese-language speaker interacting with a lifeguard this afternoon, for example), and the sign is obviously in part, if not primarily, targeted at them.

So tick the xenophobia box too, please.

The sign makes no mention of the showers – my personal favourite part of locker-room-sanctioned nudity – but we can guess the implied protocol.

What to make of this?

Well, on a purely pragmatic level, I’ll tell you what I made of it in the split second it took me to decide what to do with my body upon encountering this sign.

I realized I could be my nude and joyous post-swimming self only in the women’s change room, so I went there.

And here’s the rub, the sad bit, the loss: I had to choose between body-positive feelings, and the gender-neutral change room.

Some neutrality; some body positivity!

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(Another image that popped up in my google search. It reads, in a plain, sans-serif font: “A gender-neutral restroom designation means this restroom is safe for transgender, gender non-conforming, genderqueer people, as well as people of all gender identities and expressions. If you choose to use this restroom, you are aware that it is a safe space. Please refrain from gender policing… If you are uncomfortable using a gender-neutral restroom, please use any of the other restrooms, as this is your privilege.” NOW THIS SIGN I CAN SUPER GET BEHIND.)

I thought a lot about the change-room sign incident after I left the pool. I thought, too, about the several FFI community members who fed back about my original post and noted they would not be super comfortable nude in mixed spaces.

I realized that my biggest problem with the sign wasn’t the message it was (sort of, maybe, clumsily?) trying to communicate.

The problem was with language, and its intention.

The sign is trying, I think, to say this: DO NOT GET NAKED IN FRONT OF PEOPLE WHO DO NOT WANT TO SEE YOU NAKED. ALSO: DO NOT GET NAKED AGGRESSIVELY.

This is, totally, a worthy goal.

But the language also, therefore, assumes predation, assumes a lack of tact and generosity on the part of body-positive users; it assumes that all bodies in the space share a sense of nudity-as-shame, nudity-as-aggression. Which isn’t true.

So in the car on the way to my next gig, I started thinking about how I might phrase some similar caution in a more welcoming, dare I say body-positive-positive, way.

I came up with this:

This change room is a gender-neutral, body-positive space that welcomes people of all identifications.

Please use the space in a way that respects the privacy and comfort level of others around you.

Thank you!

(I’m not sure about imagery. I’d love suggestions!)

The language I’m proposing states what I hope are the deep intentions behind the creation of the space: it’s for everyone, care-fully. I think that’s the idea behind gender-neutral spaces in Hamilton-area pools; I’m not sure, though. (My sense from the sign I encountered today is that they might be souped-up “family” change rooms. Sigh.)

It also places the responsibility for fair use on a community of users, acting together in everyone’s best interests. (This is called democracy, btw. At least to me.)

Are you alone in the space? Go nuts! You do you! Get naked, sing ABBA. Rock on.

Is someone in the space with you who seems more modest, shy? Perhaps calibrate your ostentation to remember that they also share this space, and that your ostentation might be taking up more than its fair share of that space, for them.

Is someone in the space with you who might be nervous about your presence? That’s ok – they are here because they have trust and faith. Be you, but not aggressively. Instead, assert your good will toward that person.

Is someone in the space with you who might think you are unnerved by them? That’s ok – it’s part of the process of becoming a community. Be you, welcomingly.

This is just one shot – my shot – at a better way to say what needs to be made clear in gender-neutral spaces: some protocol for what to do once you’re inside, but not in a way that assumes a normative sense of embodiment, nor that assumes body-as-shame.

Do you have examples of, or suggestions for, gender-neutral change-room etiquette? I’d love to hear!

Yours swimmingly,

Kim