As I was preparing for the Senior Canadian Curling Championships my recurring knee and shoulder injuries were making it hard for me to curl my best. On the ice, I was in constant pain. I needed to get help and to get help fast. A local physiotherapist was recommended to me, but I was skeptical. I’ve been to a dozen physiotherapists, without much luck. Many have made assumptions about my physical ability and age, which ticked me off. At the same time, I was desperate to relieve the pain. Why? It wasn’t so I could get a better sleep or take less Ibuprofen, it was so that I could curl better — full stop. That’s what a lifetime of competing, pushing, and playing does. The academic in me is critical of this. The curler in me is not. The aging woman in me … well the jury is still out because, I can’t lie, it’s getting harder.
I reluctantly made an appointment with my physiotherapist, Nelson, who turned out to be very young and very fit. This could go badly, I thought. As he was collecting information about me, he learned that I was a curler. He very quickly informed me that he is often mistaken for one of Canada’s most famous curlers, Brad Gushue (2022 Canadian Men’s Olympic Skip).
Connection made … check. Rapport built … check.
As Nelson was assessing my injuries, he told me that “the best thing for you to do right now is rest, but I know you are not going to do that so let’s see what we can do”. I liked this for a couple of reasons. First, there was nothing said about being a woman of a certain age and the importance of scaling back at that age; things that I have heard way too often. Second, he respected that I am an athlete who needs to curl, and to curl well.
Five weeks later and we were off to our competition. I felt a lot better. Not perfect, merely better. But then, what is feeling perfect? For me, there is not a day that goes by where I don’t feel physical pain. As I’m writing this post, my hamstrings are sore, different bits in my back are stiff, and my shoulders ache. As a society, our tendency is to attribute the pain I feel to the fact that I am a 56-year-old woman. But this kind of attribution is simplistic, essentialist, and quite frankly, ageist.
Ageist assumptions about pain permeate other domains of life too. Several years ago, my colleague, Kim Shuey, and I wrote a paper on aging and the perception of disability in the workplace. We found that workers who attribute their disability to aging are less likely to ask for workplace accommodations and are less likely to receive them even if they do ask.
Feeling “perfect” for me is living with some degree of pain, regardless of my age. It is difficult for me to know how much of my pain I should blame on aging or the spinal fusion surgery I had when I was 11 years old to improve a major case of scoliosis. My back is fused from top to bottom, and as a result, other body parts get stretched to their limits. I don’t think that I have lived a day since my surgery where I haven’t experienced pain. I’m used to it and I’m telling you this because it shows that we need to interrogate our assumptions about the relationship between aging and pain.
Interrogating, however, does not mean ignoring. Competing, pushing, and playing is getting harder. Particularly over the last 5 years, recovery time is longer, more body parts hurt at once, and injury is more prevalent. All of this makes the motivation to train more challenging; especially with a pandemic making it unclear whether my team will have an opportunity to play. Why continue? Because I love curling, the curling community, the exercise, and competing.
So, what says the aging woman jury? — Rest!
But I think not. I guess my identity as a curler is stronger than my identity as an older woman, at least for today.
60 days ago, I wanted to shake up my relationship with running, which had fallen into a bit of a rut.
I used to run a great deal, but after my second ultramarathon (which took place in May 2018), I struggled with setting new goals. This was problematic, because I’m highly goal motivated. I didn’t feel I could make improvements on my pace, and wasn’t ready or willing to commit to running distances longer than 50 km. Over the past couple of years, my running went from consistent training for some race or another to doing a lacklustre 5 km a week or so.
To change things up, I decided on something very simple: a run streak of at least one mile (1.6 kilometres) per day for at least 30 days.
I put the idea to some friends, several of whom joined in, either to do the minimum mile or mixing in other sports with the goal of consistent daily commitment and progress. After the first 30 days, I felt like I was getting a lot out of the process, so I decided to continue.
Streaking took a lot of thinking out of the equation for me. I always knew that I would run; the only questions I had to answer were when and how far. A mile does not seem like much on any given day – it’s roughly 10 minutes of activity, which always made that goal feel achievable.
This was particularly important on days when I otherwise would not have run at all due to other life circumstances, and when I found myself in some physically challenging situations. For example, I had a tooth extracted during the 60 day streak. I made sure to run before the extraction, and was pleased to find out I could handle a mile the day after it as well.
I also injured my back over the course of the 60 day streak while doing another activity that I enjoy a great deal: weight lifting. I pulled something while trying to improve my barbell squat, and had a brief worry that my streaking would be cut short as a result. But because I had set a goal, I figured I owed it to myself to try to achieve it. I made sure to slow things right now, and even while injured I managed to get in my mile per day.
Because a mile does not seem like very far, it also would not ever have really felt worth doing on its own on any given day, without the mental commitment. Why bother heading out the door for such a short distance? But getting out the door is exactly what I needed to do on many days. On many occasions, my mile morphed into two, three, or more.
Overall, I would call the experiment a resounding success. I rediscovered the joy I used to feel in running, the catharsis, and the physical benefits. And I got to share the joy in watching my friends meet — and in many cases exceed! — their goals as well.
January 1 was day 60. I did 10 km, which is the farthest I’ve gone in one run throughout the streaking process. Across all 60 days, I covered a total of 179 km, which works out to 3 km a day. And now I feel ready to do more again.
As I figure out what my next goals are, I think I will continue the streak. Depending on what I decide to do next, it may make sense to commit to including full rest days into the mix. But for now, I’ll continue to enjoy the benefits of consistent, incremental progress.
Bio: Stephanie Keating is a science writer at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. She lives in Kitchener, Ontario, with her partner, Kevin, and their two cats. She has dabbled in many athletic pursuits, but her favourites remain running, weight lifting, hiking, and cycling.
I am a curler, and I’ve been curling since I was 12 years old. Some of you may know my sport. Others may be wondering about what it is or have a vague idea that it is an Olympic sport played on ice. In our household, when we ask Alexa what its favourite sport is, the reply is this; “Curling is my kind of game, it’s like chess on ice, if chess was played with tiny brooms”. As scary as it is that Alexa responds to us this way, we have often referred to the strategy involved in curling as, ‘chess on ice’. Good curlers think three to four moves in advance as they plan their play. Curling brooms aren’t that tiny though. They are about four feet-long, they are made of a light durable material with a fabric bottom that is used to brush the ice surface. Curling is a difficult game to explain, and I can’t do it justice here. If you want to learn more, check out the World Curling Federation’s 2-minute guide to curling.
One member of the team directs the play, a second throws the curling stone, and the remaining two members of the team sweep.Photo credit: Robert Davies
Since 1988, when curling was a demonstration sport at the Calgary Olympics, it has been the brunt of jokes. Late-night television hosts and comedians seem to get a big kick out of it (see Ellen Degeneres, James Corden, Stephen Colbert, and Rick Mercer to name a few). It has made appearances on The Simpsons, The Little Mosque on the Prairie, and in several movies (e.g., Help) and songs (e.g., The Weakerthans’ Tournament of Hearts). In the best-case scenario, my sport is depicted as a novelty, but in most cases, it’s seen as a bit of a joke. Just last week, Saturday Night Live made fun of curling after NBC pulled their broadcasting of the International Olympic Qualifying tournament because it had a sex toy company as one of its leading sponsors. This is a story so interesting that it deserves its own post!
Am I offended by these jokes? Not really. Whenever curling gets mentioned or when I see images related to curling, I get excited because it means that my sport is no longer ignored. But it is odd to be an athlete who plays a sport that most folks either don’t know about or don’t take very seriously. Yet, the fitness, agility, strength, precision, and mental resilience required to curl should not be discounted. My family and I have taught a lot of athletes from other sports how to curl, and without exception they say “this is harder than it looks”. A few former NFL players decided to get a team together so that they could represent the United States at the Olympics in curling. That didn’t go so well.
Images of curling rocks used to identify physical distancing in Vancouver.
My Nova Scotian curling team recently competed at the Canadian Senior (aged 50 and over) Women’s Curling Championships. As an aside, the title sponsor for this event is a funeral concierge service, which makes most of us laugh. We played 12 games (each game lasts about 2 hours) over 6 days and finished with a bronze medal. Bronze medal games are tough but I’m proud that my team hung in there. On our way home, we arrived at the Toronto Airport and of all days, the escalator to get to our gate was broken. Ouch!, is all I have to say about that.
Team Nova Scotia after winning bronze at the Canadian Senior Women’s curling championship. Four very happy women!Photo Credit: Curling Canada
I am an old (er), competitive curler, and I love my sport. My relationship with curling has changed over the years but my identity as a curler has not. I’m becoming very interested in how athletes age within a sport and how this relates to their identity. But more on that another time.
As I have written on this blog before, I have not started engaging in athletic endeavors until later in my adulthood. So, when the pandemic first started and all my triathlon friends were really upset about all races being cancelled or postponed, I didn’t quite understand or empathize with the loss they were experiencing. I always thought I love training for training’s sake, for being able to get out of my head, and all the structure that regularly training brings to my life and writing.
Thanks to all these side effects, I was able to cope with the pandemic and the stress associated with being the partner of a frontline worker, by dedicating more time to triathlon training. I was able to continue to swim and run with my teammates outdoors (Thanks, amiable San Antonio weather). As the vaccinations spread and the impact of the pandemic lessened in severity, regional races started coming back, and I did a quarter triathlon in September (close to Olympic distance), and a half marathon in December.
Both of these races went a lot better than I expected, and I appreciated what people love so much about racing. Spoiler alert: For me, it wasn’t so much about my speed or how I ranked overall but being able to enjoy every minute of the race, seeing new sights, and experiencing all the rush that comes with pushing the body do something challenging, in the company of others.
My first race was at the 2021 Kerrville triathlon Festival. Initially I was registered to do a sprint triathlon, but decided – with the push of my coach and teammates—that I could challenge myself to do a quarter distance. I was hesitant because I had not trained for it but I also knew that I have been active in all three sports consistently and that I could treat it as a little challenge. The distance was 1000m swim, 29-mile ride, and 6.4. mile run. The race morning was fun, always great to see that many high-energy people at 5 am in the morning. I knew I had to be on top of my nutrition throughout the race so I got some last-minute tips from my coach, Mark: Eat something every 20 minutes on the ride and hope for the best.
The first 5 minutes of the swim were a bit nerve-wrecking, I love swimming but I hate pushing through the crowds as I swim. Once I settled into a steady pace, I was able to distance myself from others by falling behind or cruising ahead. There were times I felt like I could try to go faster but I paced myself, I knew I needed the energy in bike and run. I got off the water in good spirits and ran to my bike. I took an extra couple of minutes in transition making sure I have my nutrition easily accessible.
Then on to the bike, which was my favorite part. The wind was on my side and I enjoyed the beautiful scenery of the rural Texas. I didn’t always feel like eating on the bike but I did, knowing that I would need it to not crash on the run. Once the bike course was over, I was in a good mood and felt like the race was just starting. I made friends along the course during the run, who were the same pace as I was and we chit-chatted supporting each other. I reminded myself to enjoy the course and not worry too much about the speed. It helped and I finished.
Overall, I was done in 3 hrs and 33 minutes, which was pretty good for a first quarter-tri without that much training. It felt so good to do the race, I had gotten the race bug. I registered for a half marathon in December thinking I would for sure be able to train for it and do well.
Turned out training for the half marathon in the Fall when we all got back to real-world ended up being tricky. I had more work responsibilities than anticipated, and was hard on myself for not training properly but I tried to do as much as I could. Some days I could not do the 5-mile run on my training plan but instead of doing none at all, I went for a quick 2-mile. When the half marathon day arrived, I said to myself ok I am not trained the best but I have tried consistently.
The race was fun. The weather was more humid than desirable but I enjoyed being able to run with a dear friend and enjoy exploring the areas of San Antonio that I had not seen before. I took regular walk breaks for about 10 miles as my friend and I had decided to do the race together and she needed to slow down a few times to catch her breath. At mile 10 she insisted that I go ahead and I gave all I got to the last three miles and went fast (for me). I finished it at 2:38. It was not a PR.
My last half marathon was 6 years ago, and I had run it with my students and had finished at 2.22. But I still felt great as a good come back half marathon. I left with feeling that I wanted to and could run another 10 miles. I was also happy that I did not let my feelings about my imperfect training to prevent me from racing. Perhaps I am one of those athletes who love racing now? I signed up for my next half, to take place January 8. I am going to try to perfect my training!!!
How about you, readers? Do you like racing or do you just like training with no particular race in mind? How do you feel about imperfect training?
Photos of our blogger on her bike (left) and after the race (right)
Şerife Tekin is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and the Director or Medical Humanities Program at UTSA. Her favorite exercise involves being chased by her cats Chicken and Ozzy. Her website is www.serifetekin.com.
Over the course of about ten days, I spent several hours on the phone with Elections Canada being transferred to one person after another as I tried to get correct information about my voting options, figured out how to vote by mail, and how to resolve complications with the process. I could have voted at any Returning Office before the 14th, but by the time I learned that I was in Espanola and was under the impression that I still had plenty of time to vote by mail since September 14th was listed as the deadline to apply.
Unfortunately, this is misleading since in reality it wouldn’t allow for enough time to receive the special ballot via Canada Post and then get it back to Ottawa by 6pm on September 20th. That’s right, post mark dates aren’t what count here; it has to physically arrive in Ottawa by the 20th. That sort of turn around *might* be possible, but only for those who can afford $85+ to courier it there.
Why is the government not footing this expense for all mail in ballots given the impossibility of the deadline they have listed? Disabled folx and those in remote communities (like Northern Ontario) will be disproportionately excluded by this process. How many ballots will arrive late and thereby be excluded? During the last election “11.1 percent of national ballots and 11.8 percent of international ballots were returned late” (Elections Canada Vote by Mail FAQ). Clearly this is a significant issue even outside of a pandemic.
I applied on September 9th, but even this wasn’t enough time by regular post and maybe not even by express post. My ballot finally arrived to Iron Bridge on September 15th. At that point I was in Thessalon and had been told by Canada Post that the mail left at 5pm. Express post should get it there in three days – just enough time. I packed up as quickly as possible and rode hard and fast to get there in time.
On the way I made a quick stop at Little Rapids General Store for food. I’d heard they had lots of delicious smoked meat and cheese and I needed food anyway to get through the next stretch without grocery stores. Little Rapids did not disappoint. The smoked rainbow trout and taco flavoured cheese curds were delicious. Beyond that though, the town is a beautiful hole in the wall spot that most drivers would likely miss. I was disappointed that there wasn’t time to hike out to see the salmon spawning or take in the heritage museum. It also had lots of spots that looked great for stealth camping.
About half way to Iron Bridge I realized that without taking the highway I’d never make it. Pro tip: avoid this stretch of highway 17 at all costs. There’s no paved shoulder and drivers will risk your life here. If I hadn’t been so emotional about the messed up system I likely would have bailed and hoped it would get there anyway. As it was, I plowed on.
My cousin didn’t have time to drop my ballot off and I knew there was no way I’d get to the their place and then the post office in time. A random kind gentleman in his driveway picked up the ballot from my cousin’s (only a few blocks away) and dropped it off at the post office across the road. I made it to the Iron Bridge post office just before 5pm!
But I got misinformation for the bajillionth time: mail left at 3pm, not 5pm. Couldn’t have gotten there earlier anyway. I cried… not for the first time about the likelihood of my ballot not being counted. I jumped through so many hoops trying to get this ballot in – including changing my route multiple times. Right now it’s not looking hopeful – as of now it’s showing a Tuesday arrival and has no updates since it left Iron Bridge on Thursday.
As someone who has lived in poverty since my teens, the right to vote is a huge deal. It’s how we raise our voice, call for change, and hold our government accountable. If you weren’t planning to vote today, please get moving and go vote. My vote probably won’t be counted, but yours still can (if you have the privilege of accessibility). If transportation is a barrier phone the office of anyone who is running and a volunteer will help you get there!
The Menopause Manifesto isn’t a manifesto. It would perhaps have been better for Dr. Jen Gunter, author of The Vagina Bible, to follow her previous branding and call this second book something like The Menopause Bible – which invokes a lot of information and story about which there is the need for interpretation, debate, and critique as a key part of faith.
I am really excited by the increasing number of books and blogs talking openly about hormone transitions of all sorts, and how they can be made less bad. I’m a feminist who studies transformations in medical practice, and I came into this book ready to cheer for anyone attacking medical sexism, especially the specific form that sexism takes in how it talks about menopause. I’m a nerd and I love there being uncountably many books about stuff I’m interested in. I’m an easy sell!
So, I’m disappointed in how strongly I cannot recommend this book to you. I was about to write, “to you feminist readers of this blog who think critically about fitness, many of whom are nonbinary, or trans women, or fat, or disabled, or asexual, or cancer survivors, or not parents, or all those things at once.” But really, having to put all those caveats in means that pretty much wherever you land on these matrices of experience the book will stab you on one of your other vectors of awesomeness.
My impulse to say: “If you’re thin, cis, straight, monogamously coupled, have had no problems having and bearing children, never had chemo related early menopause, and if you’re otherwise are this book’s normal, you can read this book” is actually really awful. I know that the particular brand of liberal feminism that means you can write a whole book, with the best will in the world, as though all the rest of us are sidenotes, actually doesn’t help even people in the supposed centre of the frame.
And I believe that Gunter really, really means well! She has taken on Goop around its antiscience grifting, the Toronto Star about bad medical reporting, and regularly engages various randos on the internet about health generally. The Menopause Manifesto has some great parts. Gunter is very sympathetic to taking hormones, especially in the perimenopausal years when they can actually help with vasomotor symptoms (hot flashes and night sweats, for example), and so she has detailed accounts of various hormone options and what they do. So those chapters will be helpful if you’re in perimenopause, having those symptoms, and interested in hormone therapy to help with them – it explains a lot.
The other very great part of the book is a list of signals for when to walk out of a doctor’s office around menopause stuff, because these things indicate that they are either quacks or so behind the science as to be potentially harmful to you. That list includes:
salivary hormone level tests
hormone level testing to guide therapy
recommending only hormone therapy and not the other things that can help menopause symptoms
prescribing topical progesterone cream to offset the dangers of transdermal or oral estrogen
selling supplements or products.
(Re this last one, here is your reminder that it’s always a good time to read or reread Middlemarch and to reflect on the long history of people trying to practice integrity and care, including in and around medicine.)
But one of *my* signals for when to walk out of a doctor’s office, unless there are really really specific conditions that actually involve weight, is when they say:
To solve these [waves hand] health problems, you should lose weight!
Gunter does this All. The. Time in this book. It’s SUPER WEIRD! Even when she’s talking critically about how sexist weight loss advice is, she reproduces it.
Doctors in general have a tragic axiom lock around weight – they struggle so much to look at fat people and treat our actual health, even when they know that fat isn’t the reason we’re in their office. They can say in one breath that standard measures, like BMI, are unscientific and useless and in the next breath reiterate just slightly updated versions of dodgy, unscientific pap about fat. Gunter goes for “visceral fat” and waist circumference.
Many doctors, Gunter included, go on from using bogus measures of fatness-as-illness to suggest weight loss as a good remedy for what ails us (in this case, menopause). In a book so critical of pseudoscience and from someone aware of the problems with generalizing health advice from a single person’s experience (Gweneth Paltrow might have good personal results from jade vaginal eggs, but she oughtn’t market them), it’s so odd to see Gunter recommend that her readers do what she does as though it will work for us.
She says, “Admittedly it’s a work in progress and I’m not recommending this approach for anyone. But experts say that journaling is a low-risk intervention that can help with weight loss and weight maintenance” (83). Which experts? Where are the studies? And it’s jarring to have her acknowledge that weight loss advice is sexist, and political, that weight interventions overwhelmingly fail, and proceed to give the usual pablum weight loss advice in the chapter “Metamorphoses of Menopause” (Watch what you eat! Cook at home! Don’t eat ultra-processed food!). I’m here to say, I’ve done or do all of these things and I’m still fat! And I’m good with that!
The standard move here is to follow “I’m fat” with “and I’m really healthy!” But appealing to health as a foil for the “it’s bad to be fat” line is just another trick. Many of us are never going to be not sick, and all of us deserve solid help for problems with menopause, fat or thin, sick or not.
“Obesity is a medical condition, but it’s one of the few in which we assign or imply blame to the patient. It’s also one of the conditions where medicine generally provides the least amount of guidance and support. What if we treated people with cancer or high blood pressure the same way? Can you imagine a world where a provider would give the diagnosis of breast cancer, imply it was the person’s fault, and then send her out into the ether to find help?” (85)
So, you can see that Gunter thinks that people should have more and better support around fat. But, as readers of this blog know well, obesity is not a medical condition – fat is not a disease. Even if it were, the precise approach to fat that Gunter here excoriates is pervasive in the book, not just in that chapter. Weight loss is suggested as a remedy for almost every problem perimenopause and menopause might throw at you, and it is named as a potential beneficial side-effect for almost every medical intervention Gunter recommends. I was going to try to give you pages to avoid if you want to get some of the helpful stuff from this book but not be sent down a fat-hating, body-surveilling wormhole and I’m afraid I got overwhelmed. So, general content warning, I guess.
But then content warning for so much more. I know I’m harping on this, but it really is shocking how Gunter is able to identify sexist medical inaccuracies and perpetuate them in the same breath and in the name of feminism.
Aside from leaving when medical professionals talk go first to fat, I have a couple of other signals to walk out of offices – when people go to evolution to explain health advice they’re giving me, when all their heroes are straight and cis, and when they have no disability analysis.
These are more signals that make me wish I’d walked out of this book, but, well, I guess I can offer you my experience. It is just hopelessly, deeply, pervasively committed to a particular understanding of evolution that grounds the worth of menopause in a narrative of “the grandmother effect” (a real and good thing, just not something that we should limit our explanatory scope to). This narrative pervades the text in a way that brings along with it a whole cluster of things around reproduction as the point of human existence, bundled with a whole bunch of stuff around evolutionary fitness. Making menopause a good thing because evolution just tangles us back up in eugenic narratives of personal fitness as a subset of the health of the population. This sucks.
The Menopause Manifesto is deeply straight. Its normative subject is someone who is going through menopause in her forties to fifties, with a uterus and overies, who is having sex with cis men. I feel it really minimizes cancer and decisions people might make around cancer risk that do not ignore other problems postmenopausal people face, such as heart disease and osteoporosis.
All of these grate the more because Gunter references misogyny over and over, and she is able to identify the sexism in her archive even as she reproduces it. It is actually very possible to write a book about menopause that does not do these things – Heather Corinna has done so just this year!
I think that all of us should be demanding books that apply to and help women think about their experiences but that at the same time resist gender oppression generally. Acknowledging that non-binary people exist and go through menopause, acknowledging that trans men exist and go through menopause, that some people have had early menopause because of cancer or other medical treatment, acknowledging that not everyone wants to have vaginal sex, that not everyone needs to have a pregnancy test, and so on – these things actually help us fight sexism and oppressive gender norms. (Sophie Lewis’s book Full Surrogacy Now! offers a parallel example to Corrinna’s What Fresh Hell is This?, giving a political analysis of pregnancy without restricting it to women. It’s possible, and great!)
So, closing sidebar, not the point of the book but a plea for more science. Anyone who menstruates and weight lifts who I know probably has been interested in studies about lifting and menstrual cycles. There is data that training hard during your follicular cycle, the bit between when you start bleeding and when you ovulate, has strength benefits. I remember my aunt Karen Moe Humphreys, a two-time Olympic swimmer, gold-medalist in the butterfly, who has been a fierce and impressive athlete her whole life and continues to get stronger in her sixties, reflecting on her strength gains post-menopause and saying that she wished people would research this more.
Gunter, and everyone else writing about menopause, talk often about how perimenopause can involve higher levels of follicule stimulating hormone circulating in our bodies – but they do not make the connection to work on weight training during our follicular cycles as helpful. Rather they take it as given that menopause will make us weaker, less muscly, more fragile, no matter how much we exercise. So, I’m interested in someone doing more science on this, but in the absence of good studies, I’m personally going to decide that perimenopause is a good time to get incredibly strong.
And whatever you’re deciding to do with your perimenopause and menopause, I just want to say that you can do it just as you are, and you deserve help and care that doesn’t hate on any part of you.
Bio: Teacher, writer, SF nerd, functional potter, queer, currently obsessed with doing handstands in middle age. Author of Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times and working on a book called Collecting Our People, about getting together to solve big problems in which we are complicit.
There is freedom waiting for you, On the breezes of the sky, And you ask “What if I fall?” “Oh but my darling, What if you fly?”
This quote by Erin Hanson has strengthened me in an enduring way that only a couple other quotes can lay claim to. The start of it is engraved on my iPad as a form of resistance to the impact of perfectionistic ideals that often hold me back. But since my collision in 2013, these words have encouraged me to push beyond my comfort zone in countless ways.
As recently as last summer, I was super anxious about everything that might go wrong on a hypothesized weekend canoe trip with a friend. But interestingly, internalized ableism was a significant contributor to my camping trip fears. Because of this, solo camping (even bike touring) actually feels less daunting: I can go at my own pace without fear of slowing anyone down.
Even so, it’s plenty daunting! I’ve never biked on country roads, never ridden more than 40km in a day, and I pitched my first tent this July… I’m a newb in every possible way and I’m diving in anyway!
I finally made it out of London on Saturday evening and was shocked that I made it to Lucan without needing more than brief water breaks on the side of the road. Not sure if that’s thanks to electrolytes or adrenaline, but I’ll take it!
Even before I made it out of London there were plenty of hiccups! I figure that’s par for the course given the steep learning curve! But I’m fumbling my way through, figuring it out, and pushing back against gender stereotypes and ableist views that say I shouldn’t do this… especially as a solo female. I’ve heard “you’re so brave” way too many times already in response to these plans. Do people also say that to men embarking on solo bike tours? I’m guessing not.
Adventure was not the initial driver of this trip, but despite the complicated backstory it appears to be shaping into a delightful adventure. I’m doing all the things that excite and also terrify me… but I’m more excited than anything… which is a major shift even in the past few weeks! I’ve no doubt this adventure will significantly change me and the decisions I make through life… I think it already has in many ways. Because how could showing myself all that I am capable of not change me?
The other day, I was in Value Village and I spotted a pair of neoprene pants in the “leggings” section. You wouldn’t think neoprene pants would bring on a bunch of anxiety, but they did.
Here is the conversation in my head:
Voice of reason: Oh, hey, have you thought about the fact that your wetsuit might not fit anymore because of pandemic coping?
Anxious Alisa: I DO NOT HEAR ANYTHING.
Voice of reason: You should buy these pants, just in case. They look like they’ll fit.
Anxious Alisa: My old wetsuit HAS to fit, so I don’t need these pants.
Voice of reason: Um, actually, laws of physics, the wetsuit does not have to fit. These pants are 15 dollars.
Anxious Alisa: But, that was the biggest wetsuit they had way back when, and if they don’t fit, I can basically never do scuba again and that would break my heart. I can’t buy those pants because it will be an acknowledgement that the wetsuit might not fit. Then, my life will be over.
Voice of reason: That is ridiculous. Buy these pants. Your wetsuit jacket will still fit; it’s always been loose. You might have a less than ideal suit, but you’ll make it work because you LOVE scuba diving.
Anxious Alisa: LA LA LA LA LA LA LA. I don’t hear anything.
Voice of reason: We’re buying the fucking pants.
I’ve always been so afraid of not fitting in my wet suit? Like why? You know what, Alisa, you can buy a new wet suit. Problem solved. Surely, there is a company out there that has figured out that women of larger sizes also like watersports and don’t want to freeze to death? I have clothes that fit best at different body sizes. It doesn’t bother me at all to change which clothes in my wardrobe I wear based on different body sizes. Why do I not deserve the same in wet suits?
Self love is buying a new wet suit that isn’t going to cut off my circulation.
So, my old wetsuit does not fit, at least not if I want to be able to continue circulating blood through my body. Yesterday, I was underwater for the first time in 2 years. I was awkwardly dressed in those gift from heaven neoprene pants, a shirt meant for the ski hill, and my neoprene jacket, but who is judging my fashion underwater? The fish? Also, yesterday, I called the company Truli (Truli Wetsuits – Women’s wetsuits for all water sports.), which carries sizes called “defiant” and “fierce” in 21 sizes. They show pictures of women with round tummies and powerful thunder thighs on their website. I am currently waiting for them to call me back to help me figure out what size I am. We’re talking a Canadian-based, woman-operated wetsuit making company that knows that my generous hips do not make me ineligible for staying warm while in the water. They can take ALL my money. I promise to report back about buying with the, once I’m in my ADORABLE polka dotted wetsuit from them. I cannot wait.
Alisa Joy McClain spent the first half of her life thinking she couldn’t do cool exercise-y things because she was fat and is now spending the second half of her life enjoying the body she has and all the cool things she can do with it like rock climbing, cycling, and scuba diving. When not trying to be a fat athlete, she can be found reading books, playing pinball, hanging out with her family and children, and ranting about various social injustices.
I have blogged previously about group exercise adventures–winter hikes, fun runs, wall climbs, etc.–so it was only a matter of time until we ended up at an aerial adventure park. Set at a western Ontario ski hill forest, this treetop adventure has courses of increasing height and challenge in which participants climb ladders, cross wood and net bridges, and zip line from tree platform to platform.
Through some Wikipedia surfing I learned that aerial adventure courses were borne from military training-style ropes courses and alternative adventure education. However, most of today’s adventure parks are touristy fun that Wikipedia describes as requiring “neither climbing techniques nor special/specific physical fitness experience.”
Judging by our next-day muscle soreness and little bruises, there is at least some physical fitness required. But more than exercise, it was thrilling to hop across wobbly bridges, and stand high in the trees without falling out of them. The course didn’t require teamwork to complete obstacles, but we encouraged and cheered each other a lot.
Among my GoPro pictures, I found one of my handheld carabiners that the trainer had described as “our hands” while we were out on the course. This meant that we were to latch one or both carabiners onto within-reach “lifeline” cables throughout the entire course.
Using a self-belay system in a tree top adventure was a little scary because we were responsible for our own safety. We received some initial supervised practice on a training course, but in the park it was up to us to keep ourselves attached to the steel cables.
Looking at the photo afterwards, I realized that being responsible for my own safety had given my mind something to pay attention to in the trees and on the ladders. Each step was a reminder–in order to move forward I literally had to put one latch in front of the other. The carabiners kept my brain focused on a safety system that wouldn’t allow me to fall, and the constant latching also distracted me from thinking too much about falling.
The above photo also made me realize that I have not always put “safety first” and foremost in my brain when I go to exercise. This is especially true with activities that I perceive as less risky, or when I feel I am more familiar with the risks. But, on the treetop adventure, it was precisely because I was forced to put my safety first in a potentially dangerous situation that I confidently enjoyed the activity all the more (or, I suppose, experienced paralyzing fear all the less).
There is always risk in exercise, which is not an inherently bad thing. But, no matter how strange or familiar the activity may be, we are our own self-safety systems. Safety can create fun. In the future, I think that reminding myself of that fact when I go to exercise will be a good thing.
In this month’s lead up to the Olympic Games, various American track athletes have been posting about the injuries that prevented them appearing at the trials (June 18-27) where they might have qualified for a spot on the US Team. The heartbreak is palpable: “I live in an optimistic world,” writes Emily Lipari, “but I have truly struggled to find the good that comes from this one.” Keira D’Amato observes the fickle nature of her ill-timed injury: “The fall of 2020, I was able to push [my] limits and accomplish some incredible personal feats. Unfortunately, this spring season was on the other side of that equation.” These women, and many others, are watching their long-dreamed of chance at Olympic competition recede over the horizon.
“We have tried everything,” Lipari remarks of her knee injury, and I can relate. Last March, I was ready to run the Boston marathon, with 10 km and half-marathon PBs freshly minted in January and February races. We all know what came next. I slogged out a quiet summer of running and looked ahead, along with the rest of the planet, to 2021. But a niggling knee pain in October developed into a full-blown injury by December, and suddenly I was no longer running, at all. I did my rehab exercises and resigned myself to a couple of months off. An MRI showed a complex meniscus tear, probably the work of many years, aggravated by who knows what on a long run. I got on a bike and I jumped in the pool and I waited for recovery to arrive with the spring cherry blossoms.
I have been here before. After several years of running in my teens and early twenties, I developed knee trouble and my physiotherapist suggested that, since I liked swimming well enough, I should just stick to the pool. I don’t remember this moment very clearly, so I couldn’t have minded giving up my runs. Thirty years later, I mind very much. When I started running again at fifty, I thought, “We’ll see.” As the years passed and the knees showed up, week after week, my fears of injury subsided. “Besides,” I thought, “the science is better now. My physio will fix me if I break.” But my physio has tried his very best, and I’m still broken. A few short runs in April resulted in another flare up and pain all over the place. The specialist has advised me that I should start planning an “alternative activity” future—my knees are telling me it’s time to quit, he says.
The fact that my heart, as well as my knee, is broken this time round tells me that running has been doing some heavy lifting for me over the past few years. It found me a new community after a midlife move across the country; it helped me recover from the loss of a parent and a family home; it gave me goals to reach for, a way of moving through my fifties with confidence and strength. Now, I walk the dogs. I swim my laps. I pedal miles along a country road. Sometimes dark clouds block the sun.
It is a small loss in a year of catastrophic losses, but it is a loss just the same. No one likes to see me sad and friends have weighed in with advice and opinions. Everyone, it seems, has a meniscus surgery success story to share. It’s time for a second opinion, they say. Hyaluronic acid, plasma injections! The options seem endless, until they aren’t.
Covid has taught us all that we don’t know a lot of things. Like many others, I struggle with uncertainty and would rather find a story to tell, one that puts me back in charge. Blaming myself for the injury is one way to know something. Tracking down a specialist who will give me the right referral or a different diagnosis is another. For now, though, I’m swimming into an uncertain future, about which, today, I know nothing. And I’m thinking about all the runners who have gone before me and wondering how they felt when they put their trainers away for the last time.
Alison Conway lives and works on the unceded territory of the Syilx (Okanagan) Peoples.