We watched the first episode of a fun documentary series at my house the other night, The Human Playground. It’s on Netflix, narrated by Idris Elba. There’s a book project of the same name released to coordinate with the Netflix series.
We watched the first episode, Breaking the Pain Barrier which included a marathon in the desert, bullfighting, a brutal bicycle race, and ice swimming.
What was striking was that three of the four athletes featured were women
The first was Amy Palmiero-Winters who raced in the Sahara Desert, in Southern Morocco in the most painful marathon in the world, Marathon des Sables, French for “marathon of the sands.” It’s a six-day, 156-mile-long ultramarathon, equal to six regular marathons. One marathon a day for six days over blazing hot sand and yet there are hundreds of participants each with their own personal reasons for taking on this very painful challenge.
Needless to say we weren’t tempted and I’m still shocked that there are that many participants. It’s not the back to back marathons that make it look impossible but the conditions including the bright sun, the heat, and the scorching hot sand.
Next up was cycling and the story of the famous very dangerous Paris-Roubaix race and its first women’s event.
The episode follows Ellen van Dijk, one of the first women to ever compete.
Why is this race so dangerous? It includes sections on ancient cobblestones, the bicycle’s worst enemy. This race is so bad it’s called the Hell of the North. There are numerous inevitable crashes and broken bones and damaged bikes. It looks terrifying to me.
The episode also includes the story of a woman who swims below the ice in bone chilling temperatures. And there was a dude who did some sport that involved risking his life dodging horned animals while unarmed. I confess I tuned out about during that bit. Not because the athlete was a man but I’m not a fan of sports that involve animals in combat.
And I’m someone who has enjoyed her fair share of punishing workouts and pushing myself. That said, this show did not really help me understand the athletes who seek out the extremes. The ice swimmer’s story involved recovery from sexual assault and she sought out very painful (and very risky) extreme cold swimming as a way of dealing with trauma. But I worried she was going to die beneath the ice from passing out from the cold the whole time I was watching her swim. I thought, “get a therapist!”
The scorching sand marathon? No way on earth. And even the bike racing–the least deathy of the activities and most in my wheelhouse–didn’t appeal even though the worst case outcome involved broken bones and not death and there is skill involved in not crashing. The bike race and the horned animal avoiding sport at least looked like there was more skill involved than just your body’s ability to endure the extreme conditions but still, no way on earth…
Watch it and let me know what you think.
I asked Sarah who watched with me if the show either helped her understand the athletes’ motivation or tempted her to undertake such painful and dangerous sports. She’s promised me her two cents in a separate blog post.
My favorite thing about summer is the knowledge that, at any time, I could run and jump in water. Ocean, lake, river, backyard wading pool– just about anything will do. All of them call my name throughout the season. My best real-estate fantasies include a backyard pool, with beautifully landscaped surroundings, all of which are magically maintained by unnamed third parties. Alas, I know (second-hand from my sister) how much work and expense a pool takes. So far, none of my friends have taken the plunge and kitted out their residences with a gorgeous aquatic oasis. But one can hope…
In fact, I’m lucky to live not far away from both ocean and freshwater places to swim and paddle. This summer, my plans include regular dips and laps and floats and strokes and landings and submergings, always surfacing for that big breath of air waiting for me.
Surfacing, taking big breaths of air. I think of those children and teachers in Uvalde, Texas, with no more breaths of air awaiting them, and my own breathing becomes more ragged from anger and grief. I’m not alone. Author and meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg led an online loving-kindness talk and group meditation on Friday night. One thing she said that resonates with me is that sometimes, the breath is not the thing that settles us. Sometimes it is sound, or a visual image, or a touch. Maybe it’s the feeling of the weight of our bodies in contact with a cushion, mat, chair or floor.
What always settles me and puts me in contact with the world and myself is the feeling of my body in (and even on) water. I feel feelings I rarely experience on land: I’m buoyant, weightless, sleek, smooth, strong, even patient. I know, right?
I don’t know what to do or say right now. I don’t even know how to settle my breath when I read about or focus on the horrors that are happening in the US. There’s a lot to be done, and I want to do my share, pull my weight. This requires strength and stamina and stability. I think that being in and on and around water– for me– will help me gather myself for the work to be done.
Readers, I hope one or more of the elements speaks to you and strengthens and sustains you. Thank you for reading.
For the past four weeks, someone I love has been in a hospital intensive care unit with an unexpected and grave medical crisis. Immediately, friends and family mobilized, and many of us tried to keep ourselves busy with tasks ranging from dog walking to email updates for work colleagues. COVID regulations plus ICU rules severely limit visitors, so hanging out at the hospital, walking the corridors and trading off bedside shifts is not an option. As a result, there hasn’t been much to do except wait, worry and try to maintain our regular life routines.
Yeah, like that’s going to happen.
I know, I know: the advice we’re all given when a loved one is very ill or dying is to try to make a little space for self-care: eat food that feels good (and doesn’t come out of a vending machine if you can help it); get some rest as you can; and do some kind of physical activity, preferably outside.
The internet has all kinds of articles telling us that movement is helpful for grief, sadness, depression, pretty much whatever ails you. This article seems to suggest “sweating out the sadness”. However, others are more balanced and modest in their advice for those dealing with stress, sadness and grief. In this article, we hear from an expert who, given my current experience, really gets it:
“This is not a time to be judging oneself and it’s important to listen within. People become more fatigued and can become more accident-prone during grief. Both of these can affect exercise and this is not a time to ‘push through it.'”
“Sometimes all one can do is walk to the mailbox and back”…
Thank you, internet article expert. Because I have not been moving much at all the past four weeks. I’m teaching my classes and dealing with the absolute necessities, but as soon as I get home, I flop on the couch and talk on the phone to give or receive medical updates (yes, I’m one of those throwbacks who uses phones for real-time two-way audio). Or, I watch episodes of Top Chef or Blown Away or other craft or cooking reality shows. For food, I’m scrounging in my kitchen or ordering takeout.
But movement? My yoga mat is sitting on my living room floor, mostly unoccupied (I’ve managed a few sessions, but nothing like I want or need). My bike trainer is not set up. And the outside remains too far away for me to venture out. I’m just too sad, too flattened, too depleted to move.
So I’m not moving a lot these days. I am, however, moving a little. Sometimes I’ll hear a song on the radio in my kitchen (again, throwback moment– I have a radio that plays songs real-time over the airwaves; but I don’t churn my own butter, in case you’re wondering). That might get me into a rhythm, even inspire a few dance moves. I’m parking in the lot not closest to my office at work so I get a few more steps in. I’ll stretch before bed and after my morning coffee.
And then there’s meditation. Meditation is saving my bacon right now. I’m meditating several times a day right now, mainly because I have to in order to 1) get out of bed; 2) get through the transitions of my day; and 3) get to sleep. You don’t have to move to meditate. In fact, it’s recommended to stay relatively still. Yes, I can do that.
One thing meditation teaches is that, when you’re paying attention, things change. All the time, they’re changing. I don’t know the outcome of this crisis for my loved one. But I do know that things will change. I’ll move more again. Just not right now.
Readers, if you feel like sharing any thoughts or experiences you have with grief and physical activity, I’d be honored to read them.
I get it. You’re facing down the barrel of your mortality right now, and the mortalities of your parents, grandparents, children and other people you care for. It sucks. Random, horrible things can happen and change your life forever. Or end it. But this isn’t news. Life can change in an instant, and it can be completely out of your control, and that has always been true. The only difference is now you are being forced to face the reality you could comfortably deny as long as your life was banally humming along. Welcome to my world.
At the age of 24 I went from a healthy, active person to someone with a disabling, life-threatening immune condition. Random chance, totally bad luck, threw me a curve ball that kept me in the hospital for a month, left me missing a big chunk of one lung and unable to walk up a flight of stairs without assistance. I spent 8 months on high-dose Prednisone and three years after that on weekly chemotherapy drugs to keep my body from attacking itself and killing me. I hate stories about how some horrible cancer diagnosis “was the best thing that ever happened to her” or how some terrifying ordeal “helped him have gratitude for the important things in life.” I don’t think my immune conditions (I’ve developed more over the years) have made me a wiser, better person. But I have learned from the experience, and I’d like to offer you these potentially comforting observations I’ve noted along the way.
The hardest part is the not knowing. It took about half a year before I had a diagnosis. Even with a diagnosis, the prognosis was up in the air. At one point I was told that I had only a 50% chance of living past 5 years. Later on, I was told they really didn’t know, there was just too little data to base any predictions upon. I believe that knowing is always easier than not knowing. How do you live your life day to day when you can’t plan for the future? You will make very different decisions when you know that something is temporary than when it may be indefinite. Coming to a place of accepting that you don’t know, living in the moment while planning for the future is the best balance I can suggest. For me, I have had to learn over the years to consider my barriers and limitations as flexible unknowns–I have to push against the boundaries to test them–is this a real limitation or simply something I feared would limit me? It’s a constantly moving target, and I’ve learned to be flexible as situations have changed.
Your life is at increased risk. You can get used to it. In fact, if you are going to get on with your life, you have to get used to it. We can only hit the pause button for so long, and then we need to get back into the swing of things. You will need groceries, a paycheck, a new pack of underwear. I live my life every day with the awareness that my condition can come back. Every time I have a cough, I have to consider, “Does this feel more serious than just a cold? Am I being irresponsible if I wait it out before going to the doctor?” Every little aberration in how my body moves and feels carries a heightened awareness to it, and yet, I don’t go around constantly anxious about my future. I notice it, I pay attention, and then I move on. Most of the answers to my questions come with time and patience. If you can avoid insisting on instant reassurance, you will find that you fare better.
Most people facing their own mortality don’t have the benefit of a social circle that understands. Don’t take it for granted. When I got sick, I was alone. Only about 6000 people in the entire United States have been diagnosed with the condition I’m facing. Not to mention, my peers at the time of 20-somethings could not even kind of relate to my ordeal. Lucky for you, pretty much everyone around you is dealing with some version of the same fear right now. You can support each other because you understand your shared uncertainties. On the other hand, you are at higher risk than I was for “social contagion.” The downside of collective awareness is that your anxieties can compound upon each other, fear can beget more fear, and as social animals, we are built to mirror each other’s emotions. Compassion and empathy are important, but I encourage you to temper them with calm and mindful acts of support.
It isn’t helpful to let the current situation dominate your thoughts. Practice the discipline of reframing your thinking, and you will experience less stress. This would be an excellent time to limit your exposure to social media, too. You don’t need other people’s fear speaking voices in your head. For those of you who like that woo-woo shit, feel free to increase your focus on your “gratitude practice” right now. Me, I’m going to limit my exposure to the news and increase work on some neglected projects around the house. This seems like an excellent time to begin planning my basement remodel. This sort of intentional shift of focus gives me something productive to put my energies towards rather than stirring up fears of the unknown.
On a related note, don’t let fear be your guiding principal. Consider making important decisions when your mind is feeling more calm–like right after a good meal with some satisfying, slow-digesting carbohydrates in it. Your fear-based decision might be making people like me less safe, if it means you switch to antibacterial soap, for example, and increase the likelihood of superbugs. The panic that has led to emptying store shelves isn’t doing the community any good, either. Consider finding other ways to take care of yourself than giving in to the hedonic needs of your fear.
If someone near you gets sick, when it is safe to do so, literally embrace them and return them back into your life. I developed mysterious lung symptoms and a persistent, low grade fever just about the same time SARS was in all the news. When I was released from the hospital, we didn’t know why I had nearly died, but we did know it wasn’t an infectious process. Despite this, I was treated like a pariah. No one would hug me, hold my hand, pat my shoulder. People would literally take a step back when I told them what had happened to me. It was like they were afraid that my near-death would rub off on them. It was exceptionally isolating in an experience that already left me alone in so many ways. So I ask that you please, please, welcome back the folks who become sick. Love and support them, touch their hands, kiss them on the cheek, and help to reintegrate them back into your world.
You don’t know what’s going to get you. That’s always been true, you’re just now having to face it. I used to feel like I knew better than most people what was likely to kill me. However, even when my condition was quite severe, I still could get hit by the proverbial bus. That hasn’t changed, and it’s true for all of us. None of us know what is going to get us in the end. We can’t live our lives dancing around the edges, hoping nothing will ever take us down. We have to live the best life we can with the life we’ve been given. Uncertainty will always be a part of the equation. Part of making the best of it is keeping that in mind and keeping it in perspective. That’s how I live my life every day, and I encourage you to do the same.
Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found picking up heavy things and putting them down again, and wondering when the gym will be closed, in Portland, Oregon. You can now read her at Progressive-Strength.com .
A red and pink heart shaped rock, resting on fall leaves on the ground, sprinkled with snow. It’s hand painted and the black letters read “every day is a fresh start.”
You can read all my past monthly check-in posts here. They all have a content warning for discussions of weight loss, including this one.
What’s up? (and down?): I’m working out a fair bit. I’m going to easily make my goal of 218 workouts in 2018. I’m doing lots of different things and enjoying them. But something feels different now. It’s catch as catch can. I don’t mean that in a bad way but I’m not training. It’s not purposeful. It’s fun and it feels good but I’m learning that, for me, that’s not enough motivation. It’s got me thinking about life and plans and what makes me tick.
On the one hand I’m impressed that I’m managing to work out while dean-ing, but on the other, I want to achieve something. I need goals, people. Big goals. Like being the fittest by fifty! But not that. I’ve been there and done that and co-written the book. You can buy it here.
I’m a type A goal achieving sort of person and I need that in my fitness if it’s going to be fun.
But there’s only so much Type A my life can take. And Dean-ing is a big job. I don’t mean that just in terms of hours. It’s also about scope of responsibility and making big plans. It’s no surprise that my big fitness burst took place during my break from academic admin roles. I was Chair of Philosophy at Western from 2002-2011 (with a year off for good behavior somewhere in the middle, hello Australia!). I started Dean-ing in 2018. The fittest by fifty challenge and this blog began in 2012. Tracy and I turned 50 in 2014.
So big ambitious jobs and big ambitious fitness goals aren’t fitting together very well for me. That might be just fine. The one, modest but very important goal I do have concerns my knee. It’s a lot of work! All of this damaged knee maintenance is wearing me down. Yes, I’m doing the thing. I’m losing weight. I’m doing physio. I’m so far successful at wearing the knee brace when I am doing long walks.
And fitness is still fun but I’m also still sad about all the things I miss: No more running. (See sad bye bye running post.) Definitely no more soccer. I’ve also said goodbye to Aikido, but not here on the blog. I’ve been too sad to even write about that loss. I’ve got a post in the drafts folder about how I miss throwing people around but I can’t finish it.
I keep thinking I should just stop blogging about fitness-y things, make it a less central part of who I am. Blog about dean-ing? Or, sometimes I keep looking for big fitness goals I can do, like riding and lifting. Or continue to make progress with swimming. Or new things I want to try like horseback riding.
Oh and it’s dark, really dark. We’ve got the earliest sunsets right about now. And some days it doesn’t ever seem to get light at all.
On the bright side, I’m really loving my new job. I love the College and all the exciting work that’s being done here. I also love Guelph. You can come check it out in January at the Night at the Museum Event. Register here.
Michelle Allison, the Fat Nutritionist, wrote on Twitter, “I first made the connection between social hierarchy, health, and the fear of death many years ago, as a teenager, but it became really explicit to me in online arguments about body weight and health just a few years back. It was so obvious that people constructed hierarchies……of “better” and “worse” people (along lines of body weight, presumed lifestyle choices, and other health indices) as a way of convincing themselves that they wouldn’t ever do something as gauche as GET SICK AND DIE. A lot of this came from various alt-right types and corners….I remember one of my twitter friends responding in the most perfect way ever to these attempts at bullying with “That’s right, in this land of immortal highlanders only the weak die,” or something like that. It cracked me the hell up, but it also pointed to something crucial……which is a theme running through alt-right and neoreactionary ideas, a sort of ubermensch or superhuman ideal, but in the updated format of transhumanism or the technological singularity. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, it’s okay, I kind of wish I didn’t.)”
I’m interested too in the extent to which fear of fat is really just a version of fear of death.
I teach courses on death, and on feminism and death, and as someone who shares the feeling, I’m interested in our fear of death.
If that’s where our fear of fat comes from, fear of death, those of us who preach body positivity have our work cut out for us.