competition · covid19 · Guest Post · race report · racing · triathalon

Mary’s non-race race report (Guest post)

by Mary Case

May 31st 2020.  It is race day. Perfect conditions in Middleton Connecticut where the 70.3 Half Iron Man is scheduled. The sky is a clear blue; the temperature is 16 degrees in the early morning with no call for rain.

This day has been years in the making with hard physical and mental preparation, not to mention the hill repeats. This was the race to celebrate retirement from thirty-five years of teaching.

However, this race is not happening.

Covid- 19 a closed border, and I’m recovering from a broken wrist. This day is turning in a different direction.

This is a non-race race day.

What does someone do with a non-race race day?

Option number one: stay in bed. Duly considered. It is an unseasonable 9 degrees in London, Ontario.

Option two: drink tea and eat pancakes loaded with fresh maple syrup, topped with coconut whipped cream and fresh fruit followed by a Netflix binge. (Now we are talking. But as it turns out, this comes later.)

Option three: race!

What! Race? Is that even possible?

How does one define a race anyway?

Who decided it has to look a certain way?

What would be fun?

What else is possible here that I have not considered?

What is it I really love about race day?

What part of that can be duplicated, and how?

And so, as I stare longingly at my triathlon gear, the non race, race day plan is created.

No alarm set, no travel required. Not so bad really.

Race day breakfast is prepared. Steel cut oats with fresh fruit, maple syrup, sunflower seeds, dried cherries and almond milk. Delicious.

Support crew John Case has absconded for the day. It begins with him walking the dog and preparing a few more nutrition pieces for my day. I am warming up with some running drills and a short walk.

And the non-race race begins. 

I chose to start with the bike. 

Mary’s living room bike trainer set up

Rule number one of the non-race race day: break the rules to create what works for you.

So, the order of events is changed.

I hop on my bike trainer. Still somewhat limited with gear changing due to the weakness in my wrist, it seems the next best option when not able to ride outside. I choose a 1:45 minute program found in Trainer Road, one I had completed already in early February. I set a challenging Functional Threshold number.

Knowing that this was a race and not “just” a training ride, there was no taking a break. No stopping on the last set when it got challenging. This was a race, and when the going got tough the mental game was ramped up. I found this ride a great challenge and pushed through the last ten minutes as if ascending one of the challenging hills of Connecticut in anticipation of the final downhill into the town. My heart rate was elevated, my legs were burning, and I felt great.

Phase two: run. Unfortunately, my wrist is not so happy with the jarring motion of running, and so we get a new phase two: walk.

Mary getting ready to walk

No problem, no rules here. I call my friend Chris for some social distance phase two support and we head out on a favourite University Hill route at a brisk pace. I am grateful for the company.

One hour and fifty minutes later, a 10k walk is complete. It was a gorgeous day. Perfect temperature. I notice things that perhaps would go unnoticed when wrapped up in the focused intensity of running. The flowers, the river flowing, the birds singing. This non-race race thing is not all that bad.

Now, home for phase three. I am delighted that I have an outdoor swimming pool as all public pools have been closed since Covid-19. I change into my Canadian Triathlon Suit for full effect and head to the water.

Mary in her pool

The non-swim swim in the non-race race consists of short lengths, some water running and drills for 30 minutes. Not quite the open water swim that I love so much, but I was grateful for this option.

In the end, the non-race race was half the time and distance of the Half Ironman. There were no cheering crowds, finish lines, expos and aid stations. I did not receive a medal or a fancy hat. I still do not have that 70.3 bumper sticker to display on my car and… I am so grateful for this non-race race day. 

Amidst these crazy times, this was a day just for me. It was simple, challenging and rewarding, and it reminded me, as cliché as it sounds, that sometimes it is not about the destination, but about the journey.  

It is about resiliency, about choice, about flexibility and adaptation in this game called life.

Mary is a recently retired Elementary School Music Teacher, an Energetic Body Worker and a professional violinist. When not involved in any of the capacities mentioned above, she can often be spotted in water, on a bike, or running to prepare for her next triathlon.

competition · cycling · fitness · racing

Ways of organizing amateur athletes for fair and fun competition

I’ve been racing lots on Zwift lately. See Six Things I Love about Racing in Zwift.

It’s fun. I like riding and racing with a team.

One of the things that’s interesting are the different ways races are organized to make racing fun and fair. What do I mean by that? Well, it’s no fun if you have zero chance of winning and not fair, maybe, if you’re competing against younger, fitter, more powerful riders. So bike races use categories to divide up riders to make the competition more even.

Think of it like one design sailboat racing where everyone races the same style of boat. Or car racing where there are rules about what the cars raced are like. There’s less determined by gear and skill is more of a factor. It’s like that bike racing only instead of boats, it’s bodies. Now it’s true that in both real life, and in Zwift, we’re also riding different bikes–Zwift has different classes of virtual bikes and some are more aero, lighter, faster. You acquire them by “buying” them with virtual coinage you acquire by riding lots. That’s an element of the “game” part of Zwift. But the big difference isn’t bikes, it’s rider power, measured in watts. Some cyclists are more powerful than others and Zwift divides riders in various ways.

Here’s three different ways of classifying riders in Zwift races that I’ve experienced. I’m sure there are others.

The most obvious one is by sex. Tonight I’m racing in the Monday Madness series. It’s a team based series across categories A-E. Cats A-D are open to all riders and the differences between them are based on your power output. I started out in D but as I got fitter and faster I got bumped to C. Roughly, C means that I race somewhere between 2.5-3.1 watts/kg.

Cyclists care about power, but what really matters, unless you’re riding on very flat terrain, is power to weight ratio, or watts per kg. Here is an explanation.

Here’s me in the yellow TFC jersey between two men racing in the D category.

An aside: Entering a race in a category below the one in which you should be racing for the purposes of an easy win is “sandbagging.” Zwift has introduced the green cone of shame which appears above your head while riding if you exceed the power limits for the category in which you’re racing. See Zwift takes steps to limit sandbagging. They also notify you in advance. In my case I got disqualified, DQ’ed, after my first race that I won while exceeding the power limits for D, and the next time I registered for C. All good–no cone of shame. Phew!

Image from Zwift Insider, https://zwiftinsider.com/anti-sandbagging-test/

But tonight I’m racing in E, which is the women’s category which is open to all women riders. That means that I’ll be racing against women in all categories. Ouch! I won’t win. I might come in somewhere in the middle. But that’s true for me in C too. I was winning D races but as I got faster it was no longer fair to have me in the D cat. Why race in the women’s cat? Well, it’s a team sport and our team gets points for having riders in each of the categories.

In an ideal world, I think that we won’t need special categories for women riders. Certainly lumping all the women together isn’t fair. But lots of women want to race against other women. In the real world, I can see that, especially in amateur racing.

I’ve also raced in Zwift in age groups. But again that was a little strange. There are some very fast 50-somethings out there! My theory is that lots of people ride and race in their 20s and 30s but by the time you get to 50 only the fast people are sticking with it.

Anyway, it’s complicated but I like that there are a variety of ways of dividing up riders to make racing more fun.


competition · cycling · Guest Post · injury · triathalon

What does retirement, Covid19, an orange cast and a cancelled race, have in common? (Guest post)

by Mary Case

In January I wrote a blog post about my first week of retirement. It was filled with the joyful anticipation of long workouts in preparation for a half ironman race in May, a lane to myself in the pool, lots of recovery time, the freedom to train when I wanted and workouts at what I would call ‘civilized” hours.

As the month unfolded, it was all of that and more. Building through February to cycling over two and a half hours on the trainer, while indulging in classical music on CBC radio, longer runs built up to 13k , long swims and a stunning trip to Arizona for hiking and outdoor adventures. I was on target for race day, May 31st.

And then things changed a little. First a small injury requiring a shift from running to walking for a bit. No big deal. This, while somewhat frustrating, could be managed. I did notice however, how challenging it was to “slow down”. Little did I know what “slowing down” would come to mean.

Fast forward one month to March 1st. I was walking my dog Ranger, the last vestiges of ice on the sidewalks, when this walk was cut abruptly short with a fall on the ice resulting in a broken wrist.

I digress briefly in this blog from my theme here, to acknowledge the incredible kindness of strangers I experienced as people stopped their cars, called an ambulance, made sure I was warm, called my hubby and took care of the dog. True angels of humanity.

Many hours later I was sporting a beautiful orange cast. It seemed only fitting that I choose the Balance Point Triathlon team color.

Author on bike trainer, sporting orange cast supported on pillow

Now what? This is taking slowing down to yet another level. As the bones heal, Netflix binging becomes the activity of choice. Sitting still for this girl, proves to be somewhat challenging.

Meanwhile enter the unprecedented times of Covid 19. Social distancing, the closing of many of my frequent hangouts; gyms, pools, yoga studios, physio clinics. While the time frame for wearing a cast and slowing down for it, was somewhat annoying, there was light and recovery at the end of the tunnel. Now what?

The pain of the injury subsides and the body is restless. Slowly I am able to add some time on the bike trainer with the arm propped up and the arm can now be at my side for some longer walks. 

I start to notice something on these walks. There is a sense of peace in this slowing down. I hear the birds, my senses are heightened. The traffic is quiet. There is not the constant mind chatter of the next workout, of pace times, of calculating nutrition needs. Something is shifting.

And then the announcement that the race is cancelled. While this was at first difficult, I do notice that I slow down again. Things that were relevant it my world fade for now. There is more space. Priorities change. My thoughts shift especially as I witness what others are going through. How important really is a pace time?

I know that I will ramp my training up again at some point in the future. My body loves to move, it loves a challenge and it really does not do Netflix well. Who knows what racing will look like in the future and when that will take place?

What does Retirement, Covid 19, an orange cast and a cancelled race have in common? For me it is the gift of slowing down. The chance to be still, to play a little with technology, to read, to listen to the birds and meditate. I reprioritize and experience life in a different way, if only for a little while.

 Meanwhile, the tires remain pumped.

Nostalgic photo of author at empty race site. 

Mary is a recently retired Elementary School Music Teacher, an Energetic Body Worker, an Access Consciousness Certified Facilitator and a professional violinist. When not involved in any of the capacities mentioned above, she can often be spotted in water, on a bike, or running to prepare for her next triathlon.

competition · fitness · Guest Post · running

The Women Runners of Kelowna (Guest Post)

by Alison Conway

Diane Leonard, Grand Master of the Maui Marathon, Sunday, Jan. 19th, 2020.

Malindi Elmore, from my home town, smashed the Canadian women’s marathon record on Sunday, running a blistering 2:24:50. Canadian Running observed that it has been a spectacular year for Canadian women runners. Twenty records have fallen over the past thirteen months. In Houston, as Malindi was crushing the marathon, Natasha Wodak became the first Canadian woman to run the half marathon in under 70 minutes. 

Fingers crossed, Malindi will run for Canada in Japan this summer, and I know the Kelowna running community will be glued to the live stream when she races. The success of our home-town superstar reflects the achievements of a larger group of amazing women runners of all ages and stages. Liz Borrett, age 80, ran the Boston and London marathons back to back last April, winning her age group at both races. Christy Lovig was the top Canadian woman at the New York marathon in November. Diane Leonard, age-group winner of the 2017 Boston, was declared Grand Master of the Maui marathon the same day Malindi broke the tape in Houston. Kelowna is home to Cindy Rhodes, six-time winner of the Victoria marathon.

I have often speculated that there is something in the Okanagan water that makes for such greatness. But having run with the Kelowna Running Club for the past two years, I’m pretty sure it’s about the running community, a community that has fostered women’s running for decades, even when running—especially the marathon—was all about men. The loneliness of the long-distance runner is well documented, but in this place, everyone has your back, whether it’s Park Run or Boston that you want to race.

When I moved to Kelowna, my friends in Ontario warned me: “Those people out there, they’re not kidding.” And it’s true—they aren’t. They race to win. And racing to win is not for everyone. But the joy of racing, at any level, is the about the joy of testing your limits. And for me, testing limits and gaining confidence in the face of adversity (currently, the fresh hell that is the marathon), is part of the feminist work I undertake as a daily practice. The women of Kelowna push me forward when I want to step back. Of my half marathon performance in the fall, a running friend observed, “I thought you would do better.”  When I say these words to myself, they are part of a language of self-criticism and defeat. When I hear them from a friend, they motivate me to reach the standard she has set for me. The same is true on a long run. When a Boston veteran tells me I had better pick it up for the last five kilometres of a 20 km run, you can be sure I get my ass in gear. I run harder because the women of Kelowna believe in me, even when I don’t believe in myself.

On Sunday, while Malindi was chasing her PB in Houston, I was running a half marathon in California, and Diane was running her full in Maui. I thought of my fellow Kelowna women as I ran, knowing that all three of us were suffering.  As I reached mile ten, a woman came up on my shoulder. “Let’s pass these guys,” she said, nodding at the men in front of us. In that moment, I remembered what is distinctly feminist, for me, about racing. Women prove, by their efforts, that they have great strength, strength that often goes unrecognized and unrewarded in our culture. We prove that we are determined to overcome the barriers we encounter. We prove that we will get to the finish line, one way or another, with the help of our friends and allies.  Approaching the end of my race in Pasadena, I saw a young woman in front of me struggling. “You’ve got this,” I said as I came up beside her, and she took off. I kept her in my sites as I ran for my PB. I was doing my thing, and she was doing hers. But we were doing it together.

Alison Conway works and runs in Kelowna, BC.

body image · competition · diets · fitness · weight loss · weight stigma

Can you watch the Biggest Loser ironically?

No. That’s my answer anyway.

I have some thin friends who say that they just watch it for a joke. They’re looking forward to new episodes. It’s so bad, it’s good they say. I’m not a “it’s so bad it’s good” kind of person.

I said, just stop. It’s not funny. It’s abusive. It doesn’t work. It hurts people. But also, it affects your attitudes towards fat people. Did you know that?

“A 2012 study published in the journal Obesity found that people who watched just one episode of the show exhibited higher levels of explicit bias against fat people. “Participants who had lower BMIs and were not trying to lose weight had significantly higher levels of dislike of overweight individuals following exposure to The Biggest Loser compared to similar participants in the control condition,”the researchers found. Just one hour of watching the show left thinner people with an even greater personal dislike of fat people.” From Jillian Michaels and the Alarming Legacy of the Biggest Loser.

What do you think? We know that my sense of humour about the treatment of large bodied people by the media is running low. You might have read my very very cranky review of Brittany Runs a Marathon.

You can’t miss the announcements: “The all-new Biggest Loser | Premieres January 28th‎.” But you don’t have to watch the show.

We’ve written about the show before. Lots. As you can guess we don’t much like it.

From the Olympics to the Biggest Loser? Say it ain’t so Holly

TV shows, fitness, and weight loss: Love and hate

I know the mistake they made: The biggest losers just stopped exercising

More on the mistakes the biggest losers make: But what about muscle?

The biggest losers just did it the wrong way! They lost the weight too quickly!

Extreme Dieting and Metabolic Adaptation: The “Biggest Loser” Dataset (Guest Post)

Imagine if size didn’t matter. Can you?

So has Caitlin at Fit and Feminist:

THE ‘SHOCKING’ OUTCOME OF THE BIGGEST LOSER IS NOT ALL THAT SHOCKING

Don’t watch the Biggest Loser. Watch this great ad instead!

competition · cycling · fitness · Guest Post · racing · running · swimming · triathalon

Is this what retirement is like? (Guest post)

by Mary Case

Day one of retirement was officially declared a “jammie” day. No alarm clock, a pot of tea, a good book, feet up, sitting in front of the fireplace. It was blissful and lasted almost ninety minutes.

Author in a comfortable arm chair, sitting in front of a fireplace with her feet up, reading a book with her dog at her side.

And then that was enough for the dog who, delighted that there was another human home, insisted on a walk.

Somewhat reluctantly I changed out of my jammies.

It is so quiet and peaceful on this crisp winter’s day.  No noise except the occasional passing car. Was this what it’s like, this retirement thing?

I returned home an hour later, fully intending to return to my perch. (My colorful, cozy jammies now replaced with walking gear, looking suspiciously like running gear), and then I had a vision: an empty pool, a lane to myself perhaps. Was that actually possible? 

Empty YMCA pool.  All lanes free.

It was too irresistible, and so the perch by the fireplace was abandoned again. And there it was: my empty lane. Two kilometres of blissful, uninterrupted swim strokes.

Was this what retirement is like?

The choice to retire from teaching elementary school music was a tough one. I loved my job and was not particularly desperate to get out. 

I had a fulfilling and vibrant career but, I was curious what life would be like on the other side. 

Last fall, in a moment of “but what will I do when I retire?” I wondered what it would be like to be a gym rat, and so I approached my computer in search of half ironman races. These are called 70.3’s in the triathlon world. It seemed a good idea at the time, and it was a distance that my years as a triathlete had prepared me for. 

I chose a date. May 31st, that worked for me. It would have been concert prep time, if I was not retired. 

I chose a location. Connecticut, I could drive there. 

Done! I signed up. 

Oops. I missed a little bit of homework here. I found out later that this half ironman is called the Beast of the East. 

As I write this blog, week one of retirement is almost over. It’s also my 59th birthday. I think about this “fitness” thing. For me, it’s always about the joy of seeing what my body is capable of. I do not have a point of view about speed, competition, losing weight, or much of anything else. 

I love a challenge; my body loves to move endlessly, and the amazing thing is that I am fitter, faster and stronger than I have ever been. 

I think I might  be able to get used to the quiet, the recovery time and being able to head to the gym, my trainer or the road, at hours that do not involve the numbers 4, 5, or 6 attached to “a.m.” 

I think I can get used to this thing called retirement. And who knows, hills may just become my new best friends. 

Author, School photo.  Looking very professional in a pink top and pearls.

Mary is a recently retired Elementary School Music Teacher, an Energetic Body Worker and a professional violinist. When not involved in any of the capacities mentioned above, she can often be spotted in water, on a bike, or running to prepare for her next triathlon.  

competition · Guest Post · race report · racing

Moving around (Guest post)

By Şerife Tekin

    Exercise was not a regular part of my life until my early 20s. Not because I did not like being active, it was simply not an opportunity or privilege afforded to the kids of middle income families in the 1990s Turkey. I was able to swim, however, in the summers, and I felt so at HOME in the Aegean waters.  I discovered running as a young adult during my MA in a super cold city in Western Canada (Saskatoon!) thanks to my roommate K and continued to run on and off during my PhD in Toronto. Loved running around the Lake Ontario: was as close as I could get to the Aegean.

    I never considered myself an athlete though, because (i) I wasn’t particularly fast nor ambitious enough to get faster, (ii) I mostly ran solo, so was not part of a “team spirit”, and (iii) I ran so that I could write: I never ran for running’s sake. I grew the habit of drafting my papers, and then eventually my dissertation during these long runs. My love of running complemented my love of writing. It was during those years that I read Murakami’s “What I Talk About When I talk About Running” so many times. 

    I trained for and finished my first ever half marathon when I was 29 with a beloved Toronto friend a few months before I finished my PhD. I was 29. Fast forward 10 years: Moved 5 more times in 10 years (academic job market!!!), went through several episodes of back pain exacerbated by a combination of cold weather, job market stress, sitting long hours on horrible chairs to write. I continued to run on and off, even did half marathons with my students, but never dared to call myself a runner. I also started spinning at indoors with my friend A: Spinning kept us warm and cozy during the epic snowpocalypses of Buffalo. I always wanted to incorporate running and cycling into my daily routine and start swimming but the perpetually cold weather, pre-tenure grind, and the intermittent back and knee problems were not particularly helpful. 

    Things have finally changed for the better when I moved to San Antonio: Even before my fly out for my job interview I knew everything about the UTSA’s gorgeous heated outdoor pool and how warm the city stays in the winter! I got the job. Within first few months of moving down, I started biking in the gorgeous trails that lace around the city and took lessons to improve my swim. My swim coach introduced me to the UTSA triathlon club and Paragon Training and for the first time in my life I started regularly training with a super supportive team of athletes from different walks of life under the leadership of my inspiring coach Mark Saroni. It was January 2019. It was a humbling start, I felt like I was constantly trying to catch my breath during the swims, and just “wanted to die” during the 5k run time trials. To my surprise, however, I did start feeling like an athlete even though I was and still am constantly struggling. Overall, I had more energy. I was a lot happier. I made great friends which was SO welcome because moving – yet again— to a new city in mid-life is NOT easy even for social butterflies like me.

    I did my first Sprint Triathlon at the end of September in a cute Texas Hill Country town. Not only was I able to finish, I also got pretty good results. Most importantly I had so MUCH fun. I loved the high energy nature of the sprint triathlon; I loved how focused I was during the race: just one breath, one stroke, one pedal, one step at a time. After the race, I started training more. 

    Today I raced the running only component of Texas Tough Duathlon which is put on by the UTSA’s triathlon team (go Runners!!) and Paragon Training. Caveat: there were NOT that many runners, but the course was super hilly and I broke a PR – 8.43/mile – and won the first place among women. I am so happy and proud of how far I have come.  After having moved around all years, literally and figuratively, I am happy to have found a community that moves around with me to “suffer faster,” in our coach Mark’s words. What I learned from fellow athletes is that you start planning your next race the second you are done with one: For me, it is a Half Ironman, for which I shall start training once I get tenure.

Şerife Tekin is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Medical Humanities at UTSA. When she is not moving around she can be found petting her kitty cat Cortez. Her website is www.serifetekin.com.

body image · competition · fitness · Guest Post · health · injury · race report · racing · running

Couch to 21.1 km (Guest post)

by Jennifer Burns

Content warning: Body image 

Last Sunday, I ran my first race. I’ve been running for eleven years (and are my legs ever tired!) but I’ve never run any kind of a race before. Mainly because I’ve just never been much of a one for races. I even dropped out of the rat race a few years ago, because – as a funnier and wiser woman than I once pointed out –  even when you win, you’re still a rat. 

So naturally, for my very first race ever, I chose to run a half-marathon. Because why not? 

Actually, it was Andra’s idea. Andra is my physiotherapist, and a former competitive swimmer and volleyball player. She takes no shit from anybody, least of all me. 

I’ve been working with Andra for over three years now. For two of those years, I wasn’t running at all. She helped reconfigure my body after my last pregnancy downloaded and installed some updates that I don’t ever remember clicking “OK” on. 

The thing is that, apparently, for most of my adult life, I’ve been walking around with an undiagnosed case of scoliosis: a bent spine. Mine curves from side to side, creating a posture somewhat reminiscent of one of Tom Thomson’s windblown jack pines. I always knew I was a bit off-kilter, but I never knew until three years ago that I had A Condition. 

Apparently (don’t quote me on this) if you have scoliosis, one pregnancy is OK, but subsequent pregnancies can worsen the spinal curvature. Much hilarity ensues. Like, if you’ve ever wanted to recreate the Grand Canyon between your rectus abdominis muscles, scoliosis plus pregnancy can totally help you with that. 

Now, I did not want the Grand Canyon, but it ended up being part of the whole post-partum package-tour I embarked on back in 2016 (you really gotta read the fine print on these things). In addition to scheduled stops at Sleepless Gulch and Hormone Crash Hill, there was also plenty of commentary from the locals: “Already pregnant again!?” “Is this one of those weird twin pregnancies where they’re born weeks apart?” “Wow, I forgot how long it takes to look normal after giving birth!” etc etc. 

Worst trip ever. But at least, after the magical “six weeks pp” were up, I’d be “allowed” to run again. Right? Right?!

[Ron Howard’s voice: “She was wrong.”]

In September 2016, I found out that not only did I have scoliosis, but it had also probably worsened during the pregnancy, turning the area under my ribs into a veritable pressure-cooker and creating a gaping 12cm/6-finger separation between my abs. This separation, together with the scoliosis, was setting me up for even worse alignment problems that could result in spinal deformities, disc herniation, urinary incontinence and – everybody’s favourite – pelvic organ prolapse. 

And so, given this, I should give up running, forever, and take up race-walking. (If my life were an episode of Friends, this would be the one where Chandler Byng quips, “Because race-walking is such a ordinary, everyday activity that doesn’t make you look ridiculous or stand out AT ALL.”). 

Oh, and also? My abdomen would never be flat again without at least ten-thousand dollars’ worth of plastic surgery, followed by a two-month recovery and almost inevitable chronic and incurable pain from nerve damage. Pretty much the best thing I could do, in this strange, new, disloyal, and no longer conventionally-attractive body, was “be grateful” I was a “mama”, and “embrace” my “journey”, along with my “battle scars” and my “tiger stripes”. 

I am still mildy amazed that I didn’t “drop-kick” the “physiotherapist” right there and then, but forgive me, my reflexes were pretty shot from lack of sleep. 

That was Physio No. 1. Physio No. 2 was Andra. Who, in her no-nonsense, does-not-suffer-fools-gladly, clipped Romanian way agreed with Physio No. 1 that my situation was “not good” (“It feels like gummy bears in here, it feels like a trampoline” she said, prodding my abdomen). 

Then she uttered life-changing words: “We will fix this.”

If I’d known, sitting in a tiny office up the street from the Reference Library on a dreary winter afternoon, that the path to “fixing this” was going to involve a two-year slog through electro-accupuncture, progressive core-activation exercises, swimming endless laps, tedious floor work, before finally graduating to modified workouts with a trainer at the gym – I’d have crumpled to the floor. This piece, written then, knowing that, would have been entitled By the Toronto Reference Library I Sat Down And Wept, and I probably wouldn’t be running today. Actually, I’m not sure – I’m a stubborn old cuss when you get right down to it. But knowing that entire years lay between me and me getting back to my preferred – at the time, my only – sport, would have been devastating. Andra was smart. She didn’t say anything about how long it could take. She just said we would fix it, and I believed that we could so I was ready to show up and do the fricken work. 

And if you’d told me that in less than three years, I’d run a half-marathon – me, who had never run any race, ever, who had run a continuous 20K exactly one time, in three hours, four years ago – me, always picked last on teams in gym class – me, lugging this living cautionary-tale of a postpartum body around, a “Here Be Dragons” warning made flesh – me? Run in a marathon? I would have laughed so hard I’d probably have busted a gut. (Except it was already busted, so no worries there). 

But. Reader, I marathoned. OK, I half-marathoned. I ran the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Half on October 20, 2019. My goal was modest: sub 2:30. I crossed the finish line at 2:27. 

A year ago, almost exactly, I was running one minute and walking five. I was glad to be running again, even if only for a minute at a time, but I was finding it really, really hard. I had so little endurance, despite all the work I’d put in over the past two years. And when winter came, I quickly got bored of running on the indoor track at the gym. So I took up skating instead, because if you can’t beat Winter, you may as well throw your arms wholeheartedly around it while also leaping around frozen surfaces on sharp blades.

When the ice melted, I moved the skating indoors, but I also went back to running. With Andra’s endorsement, I registered to run the STWM half. I didn’t commit to seriously training for it until June, which is when I made the total rookie mistake of upping my daily mileage by 6K in one day and made the fascia around my right hip “angry”, in Andra’s words. My hip’s temper tantrum set me back weeks.

Nevertheless, I persisted. Andra’s advice plus a tennis ball and a foam roller got me back on track. By September, I was running 10K easily.  Then 12, then 14, then 16, and finally my last three long runs before the race were just over 18K.  

Seasoned runners joke that running a marathon is simply a matter of putting one foot in front of the other. So too was my recovery. Except, I stopped looking up while I was doing it, because every time I looked up, I scanned for a horizon I couldn’t even see, much less imagine, and this made me angry and scared and sad. So, I just kept my eyes on my feet and kept moving them forward. One foot, then the other. Physio, swimming. The gym, my bike. The stairs in High Park, and then the hiking trails. Run one, walk five. Skate a bit, run a bit more. One foot, then the other. I just kept showing up. I went to the gym and to the rink and to physiotherapy (thank you childcare, part-time job, supportive partner, and generous spousal health insurance coverage!) and somehow, somehow along the way on this metaphorical “journey” (*makes flourishing air quotes with hands*) I upgraded from the all-inclusive Occasional Runner package, to some kind of Choose Your Own Jock Adventure deal. And that’s an upgrade I’m more than OK with. 

Jennifer is a writer, mother, wife, runner, cyclist, skater (ice and inline), and non-profit administrator. She lives in Toronto. 

competition · fitness · Guest Post · motivation

Fitness Is Not a Competition (Guest Post)

Fitness is not a competition.

By Shana Johnstone

The comparison trap is a difficult mindset to be stuck in. I hear it all the time in my gym community—folks not satisfied with their progress because it doesn’t match someone else’s. I also hear it in my own head. I hear my inner dialogue as it compares the barbell I lift to the amount my friend can pull, and I feel my self-worth increase or decrease with how much—or how fast, far, long, or many—I can do. And I’m sick of it.

Rationally, I know that seeing my fitness as a competition with others is a reliance on outside factors and external validation to feel good about myself, and I’m slowly talking myself out of this mindset. I’m paying more attention to my inner voice and deliberately disrupting the dialogue with a new set of messages.

I’ve learned that how I talk to myself matters, and so I have started a practice of drafting pep talks. I like this practice because it encourages me to dig into some of the finer points of comparison and competition, and by writing to “you” (who is you that is reading this but also is me in the mirror) I can develop and order my thoughts in a considered, deliberate way. How we speak to others can be so much more compassionate—and, also, more objective—than how we speak to ourselves, and I’ve found this approach helpful to busting out of—or at least putting some serious holes into—the need to compare and compete. 

What Is Competition?

Before we get into reconstructing our mindset around fitness, let’s consider the characteristics of competition.

A competition is a contest in which there are winners and losers. At its core, competition is a comparative exercise. Someone comes out on top. Sport is competition; fitness is not.

In sport, we determine a winner or a ranking of the top few. Someone is identified, as objectively as possible, as the fastest, the strongest, or the most skilled. Validation comes from others; it is external to the self. The point is to win.

The pursuit of sport and the pursuit of fitness are fundamentally different. In fitness, there is no finish line, no award ceremony, and no gold star. Validation is found internally, from meeting your own needs. The point of fitness is to be able to participate.

This doesn’t mean that fitness is easy. In fact, it’s often harder than sport. Without the clear parameters of winning, how do we know when we achieve it? Without agreed-upon rules of engagement, how do we know we’re doing it right? And perhaps most confusing, without competition, what drives us?

By shifting how we think about fitness away from competition and toward participation we open ourselves up to so many more benefits beyond just the physical.

Fit for What?

Can you identify the exact criteria for fitness? Few can agree on what to measure, never mind the thresholds required, so don’t be surprised if you find it difficult to pin down. Part of the issue is identifying the fitness objective—what is it being used for?

My fitness objectives are likely different from yours, and yours are likely different from your neighbour’s. For example, I’m currently fit to care for myself, do basic maintenance around my home, carry my groceries, walk around town or hike through the forest, go ocean paddleboarding, and learn new gymnastic skills. In other words, my fitness matches my objectives. I have other objectives that I’m also working towards, and my fitness is moving in that direction. Should my objectives change, I would likely work to alter my fitness accordingly.

But I’m a competitive athlete, you say. Well, do you want to run hurdles, or long-distance cycle, or execute a tumbling routine, or fence, or play rugby? Great! Are the fitness requirements the same for each sport? Are you working on fitness specific to your objectives?

There’s no bar for fitness, nor should there be. Fitness is not an absolute. There is only the ability to do the thing you want to do, at the level you want to do it at.


When you picture yourself as a fit person, what activities are you doing? If you’re already doing those activities, mission accomplished. If you’re on the path to making it happen, mission accomplished also. Everything—everything—is a progression.

It’s All About You

Your situation is unique. Really, it is. Hear me out.

Your physical fitness and the mindset you bring to it are specific to you and your personal history. What you can do with your body, right now, is a manifestation of that lived experience.

The variables are infinite. Blow out your knee ten years ago? Recovering from a major illness? Not sleeping well or working eighteen-hour days? Your mental and emotional stressors are just as significant and combine with the physical to create the you of this moment.

This is the you that is capable of what you can do right now.

Does it make sense to compare your work-, family-, or injury-related stress to someone else’s? No? Then why would you compare your one-rep max of anything?

How about this: if you and I were to compare our fitness in a contest of shoe-tying, would it matter who wins? If it doesn’t then tell me why it matters that you lift more than me or I run faster than you. Each of us can do what we can do and it’s irrelevant to compare.

But there is a place where our unique situations are indeed relevant to others. We all experience challenges, sometimes small and niggling, sometimes devastating. And we all experience successes, be they fast and fleeting or sticky and triumphant. Though incomparable, our experiences are what allow us to relate to each other. Comparison is pointless, but empathy is gold.

Abundance

Sport is competitive, as are many other things—a game of chess, a spelling bee, a job opening, an audition, the last seat on your bus-ride commute. What do all of these have in common? There is a winner and there are those who . . . didn’t win. The reward is limited to one, sometimes to a few. The system is based on scarcity.

For many of us, the competitive mindset is in our blood. We feel driven to lift heavier and move faster than those around us. We want that personal best. We want to “catch up” to our friends who can do more than we can. We want to regain a skill, a speed, a body we once had because we think we used to be a better version of ourselves.

We’re comparing a past or an imagined future to where we are now and judging our current selves lacking, less worthy than before or not yet enough.

Your fitness doesn’t exist in a system of scarcity. It is available to you now, or later, whenever you decide to strive for it and regardless of who else is working on theirs. There’s no podium and no limitation on who can have it, how much you can have, when you can have it, or how long you can have it for. There is no competition—it just doesn’t exist.

Moreover, you don’t live in the past or the future. You live in the now. So how are you not enough? You are, literally, everything.

In the land of fitness there is infinite room, space for all, enough for everyone.

That Feeling

It’s okay if you see something that someone else has and want it for you, too.

Maybe you see a stranger climb a local pitch, or your friend completes a Gran Fondo with style, or someone at your gym has a two-pull rope climb.

You might feel . . . jealousy. It might be hard to admit, but there it is. It’s no surprise, really. We’re taught to compare ourselves to others. We expect to compete for limited resources. We learn that there are winners at the expense of losers and that the rewards go those at the top. But with fitness there is no competition. You can have it too.

Here’s the important bit: your response to others’ achievements paves the way for your own. If you celebrate the success of others, you’re saying yes to that success for yourself, too, whether it be now or in the future. None of us exists in a vacuum. Your support of others matters—to them, to a future you, and to everyone else who wants to succeed. It creates an environment where we all can strive and where more is possible.

Likewise, if you put down the success of others, you’re saying that you’re not interested in that achievement for yourself. You are, in effect, saying that the achievement has no value—not for you or anyone else. This creates an environment of apathy.

If, by watching your peers increase their fitness, you discover a sharp desire to handstand, increase your bench, or row a lightning-fast 2k, channel that motivation into your training. Now you have a goal and the drive to make it happen. Go get it! Your achievement won’t supplant someone else’s. But do this first: cheer on the person who is inspiring you.

BIO: Shana Johnstone is an editor and writer who lifts, learns, and loves in Vancouver, BC.

competition · race report · racing · running

Mina Wants to Be Noticed

These last six months, running and I have been on a rollercoaster ride together—queasy stomachs and screams of joy. In March, I agreed to do a half-marathon with a friend on her April birthday and immediately started dreading it. I swore off road races about a decade ago. The running events I participate in once or twice a year are off-road. Runs on forest trails or in the mountains. To compound my dread (or perhaps because of), I trained poorly and my race result was disappointing; actually, extremely so. I wish I’d read these wise insights right after, it would have helped me process: So You Had a Crappy Race … Now What?

I don’t want you to notice that crappy half marathon.

In an attempt to redeem myself (for myself), one month later I recommitted to running by joining a Hood to Coast relay team. That’s a 200-mile relay run from Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood (near Portland) to Seaside on the coast of Oregon. Our team of 12 ran 36 legs (three each) ranging from just under 4 miles to as long as almost 8 miles. My legs (as runner 6) added up to 17.6 miles (plus the two bonus miles I had to run just to get to the handoff points when our van was held up in the event’s inevitable traffic snarls (with more than 10,000 participants, imagine the people moving pile-ups). Did you notice how challenging the event sounds?

I am not much of a joiner. This event was uncharted territory for me. I felt a responsibility to train properly, not just to re-energize my own relations with running, but for my team. Fortunately, I was in my favourite place to run for the weeks leading up to the event. Every summer I spend a good chunk of time in California’s Sierra Mountains. There was a period of a few years when I would run for hours by myself training for an ultrarun. But in 2016 I had surgery to remove a Morton’s neuroma from my foot and I seemed to have lost that source of joy. This summer, with Hood to Coast on my calendar, I recaptured the bliss of long runs alone in the mountains. In addition to my longer runs, I added a new training discipline. There’s a short-ish loop my partner and I have always loved as our super-efficient workout. Glacier Way. 4.2 miles. 45 minutes (give or take). 724 feet of elevation gain (and loss). This year we did the run once a week as fast as we could go. As a friend of mine used to say of such intense efforts, “I almost coughed up a lung.” It had been a long time since I’d pushed my speed like that.  

Two weeks before Hood to Coast, I told my partner that I felt the strongest I had since my foot surgery. He was shocked. I virtually never say things like that. Partly out of self-doubt and partly superstition. I don’t want to tempt fate by saying that I feel strong out loud. It’s like saying, “Oh the traffic isn’t bad,” right before your car comes to a full stop because of road construction. On the Monday before the event, I surprised myself with my best ever Glacier Way run, cresting the hardest climb, as if the wind were at my back. No one saw me do it. I didn’t need anyone to notice. It felt so good just to be alive in that moment.   

Despite the great run, I was scared about the relay. It was my first time doing the event, so I was worried about everything from food, to what to wear, to the mental and physical discomfort of sitting in a van for long stretches and lack of sleep. Plus, I didn’t know most of my team mates. I was overwhelmed by social anxiety. What if my van mates (each team of 12 has two vans of 6 runners) disliked me? Or vice versa. We were about to spend long, intimate hours together. 

I figured out what to eat—pre-made peanut butter, honey and coarse salt sandwiches and dried mango. I brought one pair of running shoes and three complete running outfits, plus a long sleeve shirt in case my midnight leg was that cold. And I wore the same loose pants, tank top and flipflops the rest of the time, donning layers as needed, including a knee length winter jacket for extra warmth, which doubled as a sort-of sleeping bag.  

As for my team mates. They were super nice. Easy. Good spirited. No pressure. 

Really, no pressure. So much so that they didn’t really care that I’d been training my heart out and had sharpened up my speed and endurance. Each leg I finished faster than the leg before, I felt like a child bringing home crayon drawings to be displayed on the fridge. But there was no fridge. Occasionally we’d pass a fast woman runner and someone in our van would comment on her speed. I’d assess whether she was running faster than me and if not, wonder why they hadn’t commented on my speed. If I had run four minutes per mile slower, my relay legs would have yielded the same attention they got. All crayon drawings were admired equally and discarded.  This is, of course, the way it should be on such a team. This is, in fact, the thing that made my team experience so seamless. My longing to be noticed for my contributions of speed is … Needy? Childish? Human?   

I’m going with human. 

While I wanted to impress my team mates, the person I most wanted to wow was myself. But, as I am also my harshest critic, I often need others’ praise to truly believe that I’ve done something well. I know I shouldn’t need the outside world to assure me of my okay-ness, but I do. Most people do. And that’s the reminder I came away with from Hood to Coast. I know it’s not just me who wants to be noticed. It’s all of us. I can’t do anything about whether or not someone notices me, but I can (and will) be better about noticing others. 

And this—these fleet moments come and go. If I don’t notice my own strength for my own self, then I miss the opportunity to enjoy these days of running frisky! 

What do you want people to notice about you? And what are celebrating for your own self?