by Nicole Plotkin
by Nicole Plotkin
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?
CW: images and talk of weight loss and discussion of movie theme that connects weight loss to increased fitness and happiness.
Full disclosure: I haven’t actually seen this movie. But: I have read a bunch of articles about it, including interviews with the main actor, Jillian Bell and a really interesting Runner’s World piece by marathoner Kate Brown, who identifies as fat.
So why I am writing about a movie I haven’t seen? Because I think the movie/advertising/fashion/fitness industries have (sort of) taken in the message that it’s not okay to blatantly fat-shame people or overtly identify lower body weights with fitness, success and happiness in life. Notice, I said “overtly” and “blatantly”.
This movie, “Brittany Runs a Marathon” is more subtle that that. Here’s the overall plot, from our friend Google:
A hard-partying woman receives a startling wake-up call when a visit to the doctor reveals how unhealthy she is. Motivated to lose weight, she soon takes up running to help her prepare for her ultimate goal of competing in the New York City Marathon.
Here’s a synopsis I like better, from Kate Browne’s essay:
Before she starts running, Brittany is sad and lonely, prone to self-destructive behavior and overindulgence resulting in an out-of-control life. As a runner, Brittany shows commitment by not partying too much before a weekend long run. When she starts running, Brittany is portrayed as fat, gross, and childish. After her first workout running around the block, she returns to her apartment so drenched in sweat that her family comments on it during a video chat. Then we see a montage that depicts Brittany becoming slimmer, more stylish, and more confident with each workout. Her weight loss continues and she finally reaches the New York City Marathon finish line glowing, but not sweaty.
In all the interviews and promo materials, the producers and director and star of the film insist that this movie is not about how weight loss and physical activity are the keys to a happy life. In the trailer, there’s a voice-over from one of the characters, saying “You changing your life was never about your weight” at the same time that we see quick-cut edits of Brittany rowing and doing strength training exercises at the gym with a noticeably smaller body. And then there’s this:
There are some strong fitspo messages buried (not too deeply) in this film:
The reality is very different. First, from Kate Browne:
I am a fat runner. I know this because I can’t assume that running stores will carry clothing in my size. I started running for the same reason that Brittany’s friend Seth (Micah Stock) does—to show my kid that I could do the impossible. I joined my local running club and started running for 30 seconds at a time. As I bumped up against each new milestone, I had to quiet the voice in my head that told me I didn’t get to call myself a runner. Thirty seconds became a minute, then a mile, then a marathon. I have emotional highs and lows like every other runner. I can tell you stories about racing in terrible weather and every time my watch failed to connect to my GPS. I have a prerace ritual, a set of mantras for when I hit a wall, and a certain way I like to tie my shoes.
She also has a TEDx talk, called How I found real fitness inspiration, saying no to fitspo. You can check it out here.
Thinking about fitspo before-and-after images sent me to my own photo archives. Here’s some of what I found:
Me in 2005, screaming around a corner at the end of my first (of two) triathlons. Pardon the graininess of the image…
That was the year I really started to learn about cycling. I raced on my road bike and mountain bike and cyclocross bike. I’ve done long rides and short intense training sessions. Over time, those intense sessions got replaced by fun rides with friends and family. Some long, some short, some in kit, some in casual clothing. These are photos from 2012 through last Friday.
My body is older and bigger than it was in 2005. It’s also still moving me along on two wheels. Yes, I have fitness goals for the future– I want to be able to ride longer distances again, try my hand/wheels at bike touring, and continue to use a bike for transportation as much as I can, wherever in the world I am. We shall see how these play out over time.
Brittany runs a marathon? Good for you, Brittany. But so does Kate. And Catherine rides a bike. And is still going.
Readers, how do you react to all the fitspo messaging in media? How do you keep yourself grounded amidst all that hype? I looked to images of me with friends, doing an activity I love. What about you? What connects you to your currently moving self? I’d love to hear from you.
Returning to jogging after a hysterectomy is proving to be a longer process than returning to lifting–or maybe it just seems that way? When you need to regress a lift, it’s pretty straightforward–you use lighter weights, you do fewer reps, or you do an easier version of a movement. But how do you regress jogging, especially when you (I) are (am) not starting from a place of much strength to begin with?
When I was in “really good” jogging condition, I could go about 5 miles at about an 11-min mile pace. (I was in a good place with my jogging when I first wrote this piece about calling myself a “runner.”) I achieved that feat of jogging mediocrity by going out once a week to run pretty much every weekend for a handful of years. It was slow, plodding progress that suited my slow, plodding movements.
That ended over a year ago, when pain made it less feasible. First my hip, and then later, my uterus, made any kind of plyometric movement too painful to let it be enjoyable. So, enter today, post-hysterectomy, and with over a year of physical therapy attempting to address the imbalances and mobility challenges that made jogging a problem.
And I really want to run again.
In fact, about 5 weeks after my surgery, I found myself practically jumping out of my skin with energy–I needed to move, to really exert myself after weeks and weeks of being careful and modulating my movements. Do you know that feeling? Maybe you’re out walking and your feet are just skipping ahead, seemingly without a conscious decision on your part? That’s where I was at. I NEEDED to move.
So, I did. I went out on my daily walk, and while I was at the park, I did a slow, shuffling jog from one light post to the next. Then I walked a while to catch my breath (3 light posts?), and I jogged again. I had to keep my feet very close to the ground, as bouncing felt unpleasant, and I found myself sort of holding my abdomen with my hands, as if I could support my insides by holding my outsides. I did this lightpost-based interval training for the rest of the walk and crossed my fingers that I hadn’t hurt myself unknowingly. But I seemed ok.
The next day, I was achier than usual. My abdominal muscles were telling me that I had used them, and I felt swollen around my vagina. But otherwise, it really seemed to be ok.
So, when I was released to return to normal activities a week later (I cowardly didn’t tell my doctor about my little jogging experiment . . .), I added these little walk-jogs after my lifting sessions sometimes. And I have to say, even if just for brief moments, it feels amazing to move and break a sweat. It’s helping with muscle soreness from returning to lifting, too–I feel so much more mobile afterwards.
I’m monitoring my hip, but so far, it seems to be going along with it ok, too. Someone I’ve read online (Tony Gentilcore, perhaps?) wrote about pain and how to monitor if an exercise is helping or hindering. Whoever it was talked about measuring your pain beforehand on a scale, say you’re a 3 on a scale of 1-10, and then afterwards. If your pain is the same or one notch higher than before, a 3 or 4 in my example, then keep doing what you’re doing. Only if it increases the pain more than that do you pull back on the activity, since it might be doing more harm than good. I like this model, as it acknowledges that I don’t have to expect to be pain free. Many of us do not live like that, and fear of the pain makes it worse than accepting it does.
There are a few more resources out there for people returning to running after a hysterectomy than there are for returning to lifting, but most of the advice boils down to “take it slowly and feel it out before you do too much,” usually paired with the seemingly obligatory, “everyone is different.” Decades ago, they told women not to run afterwards, ever. But advice back then was to never run while pregnant, too, and as more people have researched this, the more we’ve learned that activity does not have to be as restricted as once feared. In fact, for many people, increased activity makes the healing go more smoothly. Thankfully, my surgeon seems to agree with this perspective, and I don’t have to feel like I’m going against doctor’s orders (because, let’s be honest, I’d be doing all this stuff anyway).
And so, I am doing these walk-jogs two or three days a week. I can’t state enough how good it feels to push myself and work up a sweat, although I have to stay very mindful of how I’m moving–keeping my steps short and low to the ground to avoid jostling my insides too much. It is getting less uncomfortable each week, and I am slowly increasing the length of the jogging intervals. One unexpected positive outcome of this surgery may be that I have found a new way to build jogging into my routine–doing short bouts after lifting sessions instead of one longer one on the weekends. Although it’s too soon to know if it will stick as a routine once the school year is back in session.
Thus, I continue to push forwards as I heal. I can still feel uncomfortable at times, but that does seem to be slowly getting less common. Sitting for too many hours can be just as problematic as “overdoing it” on a jog or at the gym. Either way, I have five weeks before I have to be back to my full work/life routine. I feel very fortunate to have the luxury of this time, and I plan on taking advantage of it to build my strength and endurance at my own pace.
Can you relate to the impulse to just GO after a long period away from movement? Do you have experience returning to running (or lifting) after a hysterectomy? I’d love to hear from you!
Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found picking up heavy things and putting them back down again (and occasionally jogging from light post to light post) in Portland, Oregon.
Look what I got in the mail! A book by the blog’s Mina Samuels, which includes interviews with me and with Kim.
You can read all of Mina’s posts on the blog here.
You should also go buy the book. I have been picking it up and browsing and reading and smiling ever since it arrived.
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?
Last Saturday I embarked on the Lululemon 10K I would say that I am not too much into material things but for those that know me would say that might be a stretch when it comes to Lulu! I like to do races for the company and the swag but this race I only had the swag as my company, Anita and Tracy, have been globe trotting and training for the 30 K the past few months.
I have to admit I have not run as often as I should but when I do I run hard for like 5 minutes and crash when I am on my own. Anita is the pacer of the group and without her I am often lost. When alone I often call this my ‘run like hell’ and die runs or sprint and walk. Tracy is the one that often motivates with her interesting and passionate discussions and the things I have gained from the both of them can not be measured in words.
I was a bit nervous but I had done a lengthy run 2 weekends before with Anita (almost died but survived) and I was going out every other night for my run and die sprints. So I felt confident and I approached it with the attitude of once I have the shirt I only have to finish and they had walkers at the end so no shame.
I was grateful to learn that there was a pace bunny, incredibly people these pacers, just ask Tracy and I how grateful we are to have Anita to ‘slow us down guys.’ My approach that morning was no technology, no phones, no watch, other than my fossil time telling and no monitoring devices. Just me, the ground and 10 000 other racers.
I felt good and we started early so this bode’s well for me and my bathroom habits so off I went, alone, into the running coral. I pulled into the Green coral for the 61-75 minutes and found a bunny. It was typically crowded and the weather was exactly perfect, not too hot or sunny and I was dressed right. When we started to go I felt strong and listened to Anita in my head telling me to hold back and slow it down. No need to burnout I did this once and it was very self defeating.
I passed the markers with pretty good ease and tried to stick to a 10 min run and 1 min walk as I normally do but I was feeling good after 20 minutes so I kept pace behind the bunny with only about 3 walks for less than a minute for the total race. I could hear Tracy in my mind commenting on the pacing and the feeling of the race, there were bands and singers, lots of energy and at one point I passed a series of spin cyclists biking and cheering us on. I wondered what Tracy would have thought she likes to see these things along the race and there were the giant angels with donuts, the dancers and of course the witty signs. However, with all of this I looked up and saw that 7 km had gone by with a fair bit of ease so I picked up the pace and rounded the bend to the uphill.
I remember this from my Scotiabank Race a few years back but I was strong, calm and Anita was there chanting in my mind to keep a steady pace. I hit the top of the hill and with 2 km left to go I picked it up more and the crowds were a bit heavier. I was a bit frustrated by the lack of runners etiquette with many slower runners going 4-5 wide and it was difficult to pass. No one was moving to the right and a couple of times I almost ran into people in mid stride on the left side of the lane who just stopped. I was tired but used a few tricks Tracy told me about in her training (1,2,3,4 …I can run a little more, 5,6,7,8 … keep on going get to the gate … 9,10 do it again!)
I rounded the bend and saw my chance and took off for the finish.
I finished the race in good time 1 hour and 3 minutes!! The worst part of the race was the finish line where everyone stopped before hitting the third marker and then the crowds came to a slow crawl. It seemed to take forever to get the medal and there were people just crowded everywhere. One could not go left or right. They handed out Sage essential oils and some snack bars but I did not get these as I was not able to see anyone in the mosh pit of a finish line. I got my banana and tried to get to an exit which was impossible. They handed out boxes of what I learned later were dry and dusty donuts but the box was neat. It took about 20 minutes to go from the finish line to a clearing.
All in all I was so happy with my time and my t-shirt and I purchased some extra swag at the end with Toronto 2019 and coordinates on them so that was a nice $$$ takeaway.
Would I do it again? Given the distance from home it is a bit more $$ but if you make it a bit of a trip and like the gear then it was fun. I am happy with my time and I got my banana! I also learned that the people you run with over time become a part of your race and inspire you in so many different ways. No technology made it better I think as I was not focused on a wrist watch and I instead felt my feet on the pavement, my breath in the air and my friends in my mind. I will rate this one a success and on to my next race or Sunday run with Tracy and Anita (if they are up for the challenge)!
Julie Riley – Fitness enthusiast at times reluctantly but always a team player! Runner, CrossFit and general city walker who also teaches yoga on the side. Julie is passionate about working on her healthy choices one day at a time without judgement of the setbacks!
News feminist philosophers can use
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(aka learning how not to be an asshole)
Because pedagogy is a public practice.
Feminist reflections on fitness, sport, and health