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?

cycling · femalestrength · racing

Sports heroines: Fiona Kolbinger

I know promised a post on my newfound love of cycling last time, and a post on this you will get, eventually. But first, I want to talk about an amazing female athlete, a cyclist in fact, whom I find incredibly inspiring. I’m talking about Fiona Kolbinger, the 24-year old woman who just won the Transcontinental Race, a self-supported 4,000 kilometre bike race from Burgas (Bulgaria) to Brest (France). Please bear with me as I fangirl a little.

Fiona was the first woman to win the race, which was in its seventh edition this year. The race website describes the event as follows:

The Transcontinental is a single stage race in which the clock never stops. Riders plan, research and navigate their own course and choose when and where to rest. They will take only what they can carry and consume only what they can find. Four mandatory control points guide their route and ensure a healthy amount of climbing to reach some of cycling’s most beautiful and historic monuments. Each year our riders cover around 4000km to reach the finish line.

About the Transcontinental Race

Doesn’t that sound so amazing? And so hard? Fiona did it in 10 days, 2 hours and 28 minutes. She slept for about four hours a night. What a champ! (Personally, I couldn’t sleep for hours a night for 10 days without being in a 4,000km cycling race. I would be curled up in a corner snoring on day 2.)

Of course, Fiona being a woman, this is a big deal. Out of the 265 starters in the race, 39 were women. And one of them won! This is actually not all that surprising: women have shown again and again that they are amazing endurance athletes. In ultra-long distance events such as ultra-marathons, or ultra-long distance swimming, women have been managing to close in on the gap over the past decades. If you look at the record-holders for the longest recorded swim distances, there are a lot of women (note that this doesn’t necessarily have to mean they are faster than men, although there is a study saying that too, at least for swimming. But it seems they can often go for longer). [Update 11 Aug 19: The BBC just published a piece about women and endurance sports following Fiona’s win. It’s very interesting, a lot of this is apparently also down to how women manage these events emotionally and mentally.] Nevertheless, given that there were a lot fewer female than male participants in the Transcontinental, and given all the crap female athletes constantly have to put up with, and the fact that society makes it so difficult for women to excel in sports, this is a huge deal.

But back to why I find her so inspiring: Fiona is not just a badass athlete, she is also a cancer researcher! She’s an MD student at the German Cancer Research Centre‘s paediatric oncology unit. This woman is studying how to cure children from cancer. And in passing, she wins a 4,000km bike race. I can’t even.

In an interesting turn of events, the research centre she works at is actually in my home town. It is, shall we say, not one of the world’s worst research institutions. And she is not the only one around here. Just recently, I was doing laps at my local outdoor pool when a woman turned up only to literally lap everyone swimming in the fast lane, at what to her seemed like a casual speed . It was beautiful to watch, I had never seen anyone swim so efficiently in real life. She was wearing a cap with her name on it, so I couldn’t help but look her up afterwards. She turned out to be a former member of the German Olympic swimming relay. And, as per the next link that came up, she’s a physician at the local university hospital. There are so many inspiring female athletes who are also doing amazing other things.

Just why is it so hard to find them? Why doesn’t everyone know who they are? Yes, often they are unassuming. But also, they don’t get the coverage. This really needs to change. Fiona has received plenty of coverage this week, but I still want to bet that if you ask a random person on the street if they know who she is, you’re going to draw a blank.

Meanwhile, Fiona? When she’s not busy beating more than 200 men at cycling a very, very long way or curing kids’ cancer, she plays the piano, while still wearing her cycling kit. I rest my case.

boats · competition · fitness · racing · sailing

Serious sailing, serious fun: Sam and Sarah race the GCBC Commodore’s Cup

Sarah and I raced our first weekend race today on the Snipe. We’ve done a couple of evenings of short course races at the club but this was our first longer event.

“Serious sailing, serious fun” is the motto of the Snipe class. The Snipe is described as a tactical, racing dinghy. It’s 15.5 feet and it’s raced by two people. Today Sarah was skipper and I was crew.

The good news? We had fun and no one drowned. We finished the course and didn’t crash into any other boats. Our peak speed was 7 knots. We had a good amount of wind. Also, thanks to us an 8 year old racing a laser is very happy he wasn’t last! We’re a pretty good team and we’re getting better at communicating on the boat.

Also it’s a great community. People were very happy to have us out there and recognize that we’re beginners and have lots to learn. We’ve been attending Thursday night race training where an experienced sailor follows us in a motorboat offering tips and advice. Thanks Harri!

The bad news? We lost Sarah’s hat overboard, attempted to rescue it but didn’t succeed. The line for our pole which allows us to fly the jib like a spinnaker came undone and we had to do some fixing underway. We were very much dead last.

But we’re learning lots.

Our experience reminded me of a conversation I had on our Newfoundland trip about the advantages of racing, both bikes and boats. I like riding in a community of cyclists where everyone races because there are skills you only only acquire in that context. It’s true for boats and sailing too. Everyone learns to race as part of learning to sail.

Our day ended with a moving ceremony to remember Mark Parkinson, former Commodore for Life of Guelph Community Boating Club. His grandchildren were there to raise the colours and a bench overlooking the race course has been named after him. We also awarded the Commodore’s Cup to the winning boat. At GCBC it’s filled with jujubes not beer or champagne. Congrats Julian!

Oh, and a friend asked recently about sailing as a fitness activity. I guess it depends. There’s always work getting the boat in and out of the water, even on a trailer. It weighs 380 lbs. There’s moving about the boat as we tack and jibe across the lake. Today we did lots of hiking, getting our body weight out over the edge of the boat to keep the boat flat. That’s a pretty good ab workout.

fitness · racing · running

Showing respect to the back of the pack

I read a story that could have been discouraging if left unaddressed, but turned out to have a happy-ish ending. The story was about the back-of-the-pack runners in the London marathon, who were bullied and fat-shamed by the clean-up crew, among others. But the race organizers investigated and made good. They offered free guaranteed spots to anyone who finished in 7 hours or longer.

The headline of the Runner’s World article about it reads, “Bullied London Marathoners Harassed for Being ‘Fat’ and ‘Slow’ Offered Free Race Entry for 2020.” What’s sad and discouraging about this story is that these runners were actually following an official pacer. So the race officially said it was okay to take 7 1/2 hours. So why was the course even being cleaned up before then?

I had this happen to me when I did the Mississauga Marathon. It took me close to six hours, and the last 10K were pretty much the worst 10K of my life. What I said then I still believe now: there is a certain kind of respect owed to people who stick it out for that long. Of course I am in awe of the speedsters who finish marathons in under 2:30, under 3:00, under 4:00. When you get into the 5 or more hour range, it’s a different kind of endurance that’s required. The mental game goes on for longer. The physical challenge drags on for longer.

I get that this is a choice. That those of us who are slower runners know going in that we will take a long time. But if a race has a window before which they announce in advance the course will be open, then the course should be open for that duration. When I did my marathon (my only marathon, and probably to remain forever my only marathon because it was a miserable experience in myriad ways–if you’re curious, here’s my report), they started packing up the course ahead of me. Since I was among the last few runners, that made it difficult to know sometimes where I was supposed to go. When I got to the finish line, they were out of food. I get that the volunteers had been out for hours. But you know what? So had I.

But at least I wasn’t harangued on top of all that for being slow or fat. That’s absolutely shameful because anyone who makes it to the finish line, or even close, deserves to be congratulated for their efforts. Likely everyone who enters a marathon, regardless of when they expect to finish, has trained for the event, has covered a ton of ground in the months leading up, is nervous, is excited, and is doing something rare and wonderful.

It’s good news that the organizers of the London Marathon recognized that this is not the race experience they promise. That’s why they did a thorough investigation and when the allegations of mistreatment turned out to be true, they sent around an email to those slower runners: “We are sorry that your race day experience was not to the standard we set ourselves. As a result we would be delighted to invite you to be part of the 40th Race Day.”

I hope that at least some of the affected runners take up the offer. For me, an offer of free registration for the next iteration of the event would not have got me to do it again. Regardless, the organizers’ response shows respect for those of us in the bottom few. And it’s a deserved and earned respect.

If you’re a slower endurance runner, has your experience at events like marathons been overall good or overall more challenging as far as race organization goes?

#deanslife · accessibility · equality · fitness · injury · racing

Stairs are not Sam’s friends

Image description:
The Girona Cathedral, also known as the Cathedral of Saint Mary of Girona, is a Roman Catholic church located in Girona, Catalonia, Spain. It is the seat of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Girona.
Also, it has lots and lots of steps leading up to it!

Oh, old European cities. I love you. But I hate your stairs. SO MANY STAIRS.

Why do I hate stairs? They hurt my knees. It’s seriously painful even on days when I’m walking pain free. Down is way worse than up. Handrails help. I’m now a person who notices when they’re there and when they’re at the right height. I also sometimes worry that the stairs are making my knees worse.

So I turned to the Internet with my question. Dr. Google, do stairs simply hurt my arthritic knees or do they make things worse? Here’s a good a survey of the relevant literature.

“Stair climbing increases loads on the knee joints. And if we take into consideration the mechanical factor for appearing and progression of degenerative joint disease, it is clear that damage to joint cartilage increases with stair climbing. So reduced loads are beneficial for knee arthrosis.”

“Combination of stairs and weight or better loading and repetition of it is discussed as having some effect of knee joint degeneration. It is calculated that when someone is walking on plain ground he puts about 5 times the body weight or load in every step into the joint. When stairs are used or walking up or down hill the person is loading the knee up to 7 or 10 times the body weight or load according to the speed used. So repetition (circle of loading) – weight (and load) – and inclination of the ground has possibly effect of degenerative knee disease”

“The reasons why patients are advised to avoid them when OA shows up is that stairs are stress raisers, especially descending them. The point is that OA knees regardless the severity,  are often unstable and in these conditions stairs may  induce shear stresses on the cartilage and speed up the degenerative process. “

So I guess I should try to avoid them. I raised the issue at the knee surgery clinic on Monday when I was there for my regular appointment. Their message was clear. “You need to modify your activity. Avoid stairs when you can.”

See you on the escalator/in the elevator!

Though in these old cities there isn’t much choice.

Image description: Yellow brick buildings flanking a narrow walkway of stairs, in the old city of Girona.
Happy New Year! · race report · racing · running · traveling · winter

Race Report – Bettina’s New Year’s Eve 8k

In 2017, I started dabbling in running one or the other race, and discovered a wonderful one: the Bilbao – Rekalde San Silvestre 8k, which takes place on New Year’s Eve. My husband is from the Basque Country, so we spend New Year’s there every year. I had so much fun in 2017 that I decided to run it again on the last day of 2018. This time, I roped in two friends to run it with me. Overall, just under 2,500 other runners had the same idea. And it was even better than the year before!

I’ll get into this in a moment, but first, there are a couple of other things I’d like to talk about. The first is the reason I love this race: while there are of course some people who are there for the competition, the vast majority are there for the fun. People run alone, in groups, with their families, or dressed up in all kinds of costumes. My favourite this year were the two guys who came dressed as a trainera (a Basque type of rowing boat). In the head picture of this official blog post you can see them! There’s also a summary video of the race that gives you a good idea of the vibe (you really only need to watch the first half, the second half is more boring, unless you want to see how the winners did):

The second thing I wanted to talk about is slightly less fun: it’s the gender split of the race. There are only two categories, male and female, which is a problem unto itself, but the race this year was no less than three-quarters male. That doesn’t seem like a particularly healthy split to me. In fact, even in comparison to marathons in the US (a statistic I could find quite quickly), it’s quite poor. I’m not totally sure what is going on here. It’s a fairly short race (below 10k), not a very serious one, and cheap (10 euros) so it sends all the right accessibility signals, or so one would think… and yet. I was intrigued, so I looked into the data for Spain (from a few years ago) a bit. Generally, women are quite a bit more sedentary than men. For example, in the 25-44 age bracket, 55% of women never (!) exercise, compared to 41% of men. On the European scale*, Spain sits in a middling position overall regarding physical activity, but the difference by sex (again, the data is binary) is comparatively large. Possible explanations would be entirely speculative at this point – but our work, fit feminist friends, is not done.

For now, let’s focus on why I loved the San Silvestre even more this time than the year before. In 2017, it poured with rain throughout the entire race. This time around, we got spectacular blue skies (see picture below) and a perfect running temperature of just over 10°C. It felt amazing!

Runners gathering for the San Silvestre run in front of the Guggenheim Bilbao museum, with a spectacularly blue sky and curious onlookers.

Also in 2017, I was still getting into running and quite slow, and I suffered due to the hills along the route. But over the past year, I’ve been working on my hills quite a lot, and my overall running speed has increased. We’d decided to run the race in our pack of three, so the (supposedly) slowest in the group was our pacer – and he wasn’t slow at all! We ran pretty much at the speed I currently train at, so we did very well. It gets even better: the reason we did the time we did was that our first kilometre was really slow due to the masses of people at the start. Meaning that overall, I was actually faster than ever, aside from that first bit! And the really amazing thing is that I could have run even faster – but the way we did it was perfect because we stuck together as a team and had a fabulous time. Mission accomplished!

*There is so much interesting data in that Eurostat graph, I’m going to make it its own separate post, promise!

Guest Post · racing · running

How I Came to Run (Guest post)


by Christine Dirks

In my early forties I worked from home and would go for a walk mid-day to clear my head. If I was puzzling over something by the time I was home I had an answer. Three years later the half hour walk was more than an hour. I’d been active before but a routine was something new and I loved it.  One day, while walking, I thought, “Run for a few blocks and see how it feels.” It felt good. 


The running increased. Within a year I was running the route six days a week. Sometimes my son, then in late grade school, would ride his bike alongside. Often I’d pick a spot a few blocks away and run as fast as I could telling myself, “Go. Go. Go.” One summer when my sister was visiting she asked how far my route was. I didn’t know. “I’m going to measure it” she said. I wrote down the route which she then drove. She returned smiling, “It’s 10k.”


In 1998 I returned to university to earn my Masters in Journalism and I kept running. In many ways running kept things together. It was the busiest year of my life. I was working part time and my son was in grade nine with lots of homework requiring many trips to the library. We shared the one computer. Running relieved stress, gave me time to think about assignments and tell myself, as often as I needed to hear it,  “You can do it”.  When I was wondering about applying to the Masters program, I told my sister I was concerned about how tough the year would be. “Yes” she said. “But in a year it’ll be over and you’ll have your degree.” She was right and in that year I learned I could manage a lot more than I’d thought possible.

 
I never considered doing a race until I watched the 2000 New York City Marathon on tv and saw the lead women in those final few miles racing hard to the finish line. Their effort was palpable. In the summer of 2001 I registered for the fall marathon in Niagara Falls and joined a running group. One morning while waiting for the group to gather I noticed a poster in the store window. It was the age group qualifying times for the Boston Marathon. Now I had a goal. I was determined to meet the qualifying time for my age group and run Boston the following spring.


The training runs with the group were fun and the longer the runs the more I liked it. Half way through the summer I stopped taking walk breaks telling myself, “You’re not going to walk in the marathon so don’t walk in the training runs”. I had planned on not doing a race before the marathon. Then a running friend said it would be good to do one as I’d know how to handle nerves and pacing. It was good advice. I ran a half marathon and a month later as I approached the finish line at the Niagara Falls marathon and saw the time on the big clock I yelled “YES!!”.  I’d qualified for Boston.

I’m 67. I’ve run 181 races. I look forward to more runs, races, fun times with the running group and new challenges. This September I ran a 50 mile event. Had someone told me when I was young and tearing about that sometime I would run 50 miles I would likely have laughed and said, “I don’t think so.” But as with many things in life, you never know until you try.


Christine Dirks is a writer and editor in London ON.  Early in her career she worked in the Toronto book publishing industry where she specialized in international marketing. Later she wrote two weekly columns and features for The London Free Press. Her work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Canadian House & Home, Canadian Gardening, Azure and other publications. Christine currently provides research, writing and editing services for individuals and organizations.