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. 

Fear · racing · running · training

Bettina doesn’t run a half marathon, part 1: imperfect training and disappointment

All of this summer, I’ve been so excited about my new bike and getting into cycling, I’ve only mentioned half marathon training in passing. I’ve done a bunch of shorter races by now, mostly 10k. After the last one, a 10k in the sweltering heat in July, I decided that maybe it was finally time to tackle the half. If I could run 10k in 30C and survive (though just barely), perhaps there was a chance I could run twice as far?

To be honest, I was super intimidated by the sheer distance. I could do 10k, but I’d end up exhausted, and at races that included a half marathon option, I always wondered how the hell it was possible to double my distance. But plenty of people were doing it, and some of my running mates were egging me on: “if you can run 10k, you can do a half marathon, no problem!” and “anyone who runs a bit regularly can do a half!”. They meant well, I know, but this sort of encouragement made my anxiety worse. What if I was the sort of person who could run 10k, but not 21? Or who could run more or less regularly, just not very far? I was really quite scared of the idea of trying to run 21k.

Photo of an unsurmountable-looking, ice-covered mountain face. This is how Bettina felt about the half-marathon distance when she first started training.
Photo by Stas Aki on Unsplash

I’ve always been one to avoid a challenge rather than risking failure, but it’s something I’m trying to work on: getting out of my comfort zone and push myself to take on things that are a bit of a stretch. Learning to maybe fail.

And so I scoured the web for an autumn half marathon with a flat course that was close enough so I could get myself there on the morning of the race. There was no way I was starting out with a hilly half. I settled on a small race around a former US Army base called the Franklin Mile Run. The US Army left a lot of its German bases in the 2000s and these areas are being redeveloped now, and the event website promised an entertaining and – I noted with relief – almost completely flat course. 29 September, I was on!

I started training “in earnest” following the aforementioned 10k race in early July, so I had ample time to prepare. I didn’t draw up a particularly sophisticated training plan: the idea was to run two to three times per week (ideally three), with one long run on the weekends, gradually increasing the distance up to 18k a few weeks before the race, repeat that a couple of times, and then taper the week before race day. I mapped out the long runs on the calendar, knowing I would hit my first 18k at the end of August. Then we’d go on holiday, during which I would do a couple of shorter runs and one more long run before tapering.

Initially, the long runs were tough. I had this mental block caused by my Fear Of The Distance (FOTD): I wasn’t going to be able to do it, it would be too hard – essentially all the negative self-talk that was trying to protect me from failure by sabotaging me, as Cate recently pointed out. It was also really, really hot. And so I would go out, afraid that I wouldn’t be able to complete my run, and any difficulty I’d run into – it still being too warm, being slightly uncomfortable in my gear, etc., would compound that feeling and leave me starting out jittery and nervous. There was one particular run, my second 14k, during which I hit a wall at 10k and spent the final 4k shuffling along in suffering, convinced I would never be able to run a half marathon. In hindsight, it was really just too warm that day. I should have taken something to drink and taken it easy. But at the time, it was quite discouraging.

And then one day, I ran 16k and was fine. I’d taken a water bottle and decided not to sweat it (haha!), and it really helped. A friend of mine, who has done several half marathons, had also given me an amazing pep talk the day before. Not the “anyone can do this” kind, but the “you, Bettina, can do this, I know how much you train, you’re clearly in great shape”, kind. After this successful run, I was much more confident. I even knocked my first 18k out of the park. By early September, I was ready. I was feeling strong, doing great for speed, the temperatures were finally coming down, and my FOTD had subsided. Then, we went on holiday, and I got sick. Not ideal, but at this point, two weeks out from the race, I still thought I’d be able to do it.

I got back, went to work almost recovered from my cold, and immediately picked up a stomach bug that was going around. A week and a half out from the race, it was getting seriously worrying. The week before – I hadn’t run in almost three weeks at this point – I was still not feeling 100%. The race was going to be on the Sunday. On the Tuesday, I had planned to do a trial 10k but didn’t manage to get out of work on time – it was also one of the busiest weeks of the year, of course. I finally got myself out for a run on Thursday. I did 10k, which went alright, but it was abundantly clear I wouldn’t be able to do the half marathon. I was gutted. I had been ready! And now, I clearly wasn’t.

It was especially disappointing because I knew I couldn’t just sign up for another half a few weeks later once I was fully recovered. Just two days after the race I was going to have a hyperactive parathyroid removed, which would keep me from exercising for several weeks. By this time, the season would be essentially over and I would likely have to wait until next spring for another go at the half-marathon distance. (There are of course winter races, but none of them meet my criteria of ‘no overnight stay required’ and ‘mostly flat course’.) But there was nothing I could do about it. I hadn’t done anything wrong, I had just been unlucky. I now know that I can do it, so training myself up for another go will be much easier. Still tough, ARGH. Double-, nay, triple-ARGH!!!

Luckily, the race had a shorter option and it was possible to downgrade on the day, so I decided that at least I was going to run something, even if it wasn’t a half marathon. Read on this upcoming Wednesday for the race report…

Have you ever had to bow out of a race (or another challenge you had worked hard for)? How did you deal with the disappointment? I’m curious to hear your experiences.

fitness · racing · sailing

Is dinghy racing exercise? (with update!)

Is sailing a dinghy a workout?

What is a dinghy anyway? Let’s start with basics, “a small boat for recreation or racing, especially an open boat with a mast and sails.” My family has two different sorts, a Laser (raced singlehandedly) and a Snipe (a double handed boat.) Sarah and I have been racing the Snipe.

My participation in the 219 in 2019 group was the impetus to think about the question of “does dinghy racing count as exercise?”

I knew it was tiring. And racing sure felt like a workout so I listed it as a workout. A few hours went by and someone asked why it counted. Wren’t you just sitting on a boat letting the wind take you where you want to go? Maybe on a big boat, I thought. Maybe if you’re not racing. I got bit defensive. I did what defensive academics do. I went and looked things up.

I found this: How sailing can be a workout.

“Sailing is a sport that will work many aspects of physical fitness:

  • Core and muscle strength: Pulling on lines, hiking your boat, and maneuvering the rudder will all help develop core strength and general muscle strength. If you want a few sailing specific exercises, try partial crunches, squats, and single arm rows.
  • Aerobic fitness: If you’re on a relatively small sailboat, you will constantly be on the move doing things like adjusting the sails and moving from port to starboard. Do additional aerobic activity (cycling, hiking, dancing) to build up more stamina for when you next leave the dock.
  • Balance and agility: Manoeuvering around the boat and its tight quarters and finding your sea legs will all help improve your balance. Get a head start by trying activities like Tai Chi or balance exercises, to help prevent “spontaneous” swims!”

For me the there are three physically tough things:

As with rowing, it’s a workout in itself getting the boat in and out of the water. The Snipe weights 381 lbs. Yes, it goes into the water on a small trailer but you still have to lift the front end and pull. It takes two of us working hard. We struggle to get the boat into the water and a few hours later, tired from sailing, we really struggle to get it out the water. “Out” is also uphill! That’s the first hard thing.

The second hard thing is me-specific. With my bad knee I can struggle with balance and agility and finding a good spot to be on the boat where I can reach and see the things I need to reach and see. You also need to be able to change positions quickly and gracefully. It’s not easy and I’m constantly working on it.

The third thing is hard for everyone. It’s hiking. There are hiking straps on the boat. You use your weight to keep the boat as flat as possible. It’s like one continuous crunch. What is hiking exactly? Our friends at Wikipedi say, “In sailinghiking (stacking or stacking out in New Zealand; leaning out or sitting out in United Kingdom) is the action of moving the crew’s body weight as far to windward (upwind) as possible, in order to decrease the extent the boat heels (leans away from the wind). “

(UPDATE) Sarah, late to the blog party, chimes in: ” I think an important distinction to make is between “going for a sail” and racing a dinghy, which are as different as “going for a stroll” and race walking. In the latter, one’s body is actively engaged in going as fast as possible. Even if winds are too light to hike hard, sailors have active cores and legs as they balance the boat for optimum speed. In Sam’s case this can look like an extended deep squat while twisting her upper body to look around. In my case, with the main sheet in one hand and the tiller in the other, all of my movements must be “hands-free”. By the end of a race I am breathing hard and smiling. Dinghy sailing may not always be the most intense workout, but it’s definitely a fun one! “

Here is Sarah Douglas hiking. Douglas aims to represent Canada in the 2020 Games. The Torontonian is the 2019 Pan Am Games champion. Also a University of Guelph grad! (That’s where I’m a Dean.)

I’ve often wondered about the comparison between rowing and dinghy racing. I know rowing is physically more demanding. There’s mental effort but it’s in things like maintaining a rhythm, following orders, withstanding pain! Sailing is less physically demanding but more varied and much more about strategy and timing. You interact with other boats tactically in a way you don’t when rowing.

Here’s one comparison: Dingy sailing versus rowing

And here’s our racecourse from a recent race. It’s from Sarah’s Garmin.

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.