Just Go (Guest Post)

(Part 1 of my conversation with Pamela Meyer about ski racing at the age of 55 was published on Wednesday).

When I started talking to my friend Pamela about skiing, she was wearing a sweatshirt from her NASTAR championship week, and she showed me her medals. “I’m just sitting here geeking out about the whole thing,” she laughed. I started to understand how racing isn’t a thing that she does, but part of who she is, and who she’s becoming.

The two of us talk a lot about the things that can go haywire in our bodies as we get older. P has had a couple of cancer scares, and has had to have rehab on her knee to keep skiing. It would have been really easy for her to ease into her 50s on a base of yoga and vigorous walking — the “invitation to chill” that our culture gives us, as she put it. But because of racing, she’s more present to the strength of her body than she ever has been.

“I feel more in collaboration with my body,” she reflected. “I have truly struggled through mid-life, through peri-menopause and post-menopause — the extra 10 pounds that may be moving around but it’s not going away. I’ve gotten caught up in the whole western civ body image frustration. Racing and doing well has given me the perspective of what am I complaining about, this is a great body, I’m healthy, I am getting to do the things I love well.

“I realized I have a uniquely good body for skiing – if I were thinner I might not have the same centre of gravity. At first I was really self-conscious about pouring myself into the speedsuit. But after racing — I realize, I don’t look so bad. There are some areas I wouldn’t mind photoshopping, but this community — it’s people of all shapes and sizes. We’re all out here being willing to shimmy into our suits. It’s given me a love of our foibles and humanity, made me cut myself some slack, appreciate myself more than criticize myself.

“That’s our socialization – we’ve been totally hoodwinked into battling our bodies. It’s not helpful! In my work with organizations I take such a strength-based approach, but with myself, all I want to do is focus on deficits. Racing has helped me revel in my strength.”

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We talked about how being in your body and its strength is about making choices and being intentional — and it’s also closely intertwined with decisions about who we want to be as we age.

“To be an athlete at mid-life requires being more mindful,” said P. “I take a very phenomenological approach to exercising and racing. I have to be in my body, I have to pay way more attention to my form. I take boot camp classes and I’ll sometimes go slower than the rest of the 20 – 30 somethings, really pay attention, make sure I’m not landing funny on my knee. The things I could get away with in my 20s, 30s, 40s – I can’t get away with now.  You can’t be an athlete or an active person without being in your body all the time – even standing. I have to work on my postures, remember to engage specific muscles.

Racing keeps P motivated to stay fit all year around. “I was back at the gym two days after winning the gold medal.  I pay tons of attention to what I eat.  It’s about making conscious choices overall.  It’s not super-strict but I have a lane that I try to stay in.  The alternative is incremental decline – it’s the lobster in the pot thing – if you’re mindless, then you keep rationalizing poor choices, as opposed to making conscious choices.”

P had a concussion at the end of last season, as well as some issues with her knee. I asked why that didn’t make her rethink racing.

“The concussion seemed like a bit of a fluke.  Because it was at the end of the season, it wasn’t a disruption from skiing.  I focused on the recovery.  I learned  everything I could about from concussions. I know people who’ve had all kinds of injuries who come back, and I know some who haven’t.  I’ve chosen to pay attention to the people who come back.

“If you ride the chairlift enough on your own you hear all the stories from the over 50 crowd — like the racer who says ‘I just had this hip replaced.’ It’s just expected that stuff will start to break down and you’ll do whatever you need to do to get back in action and you’ll just be joining everyone else.  I was at a racing camp where the oldest person was 77, this guy Jimmy, who said, ‘you stop skiing, you’re dead.’

“Once you decide you shouldn’t be skiing anymore, then you think of all the other things you shouldn’t be doing.  And there is always risk.  I had another conversation with a woman who said ‘I stopped skiing because I decided it was too dangerous, I stayed home and slipped on some black ice in the driveway.’ Someone else I know slipped loading her dishwasher and blew out her ACL.  Shit happens if you’re flying down the mountain or loading the dishwasher. I’d rather get hurt having an interesting life than loading the dishwasher!”

Starting to think of herself as an athlete in her 50s has also shifted how she negotiates the world. “Now I seem to interact with the people who construct me as a serious competitive person — who don’t treat me as a dabbling middle aged lady .  Whether it’s people in the ski shop, health providers, physiotherapists — people who take me seriously as a racer. I think that’s crucial. First, I have to take myself seriously. I  have to seek out and co-create that identity in many communities .  I’ve moved past treating this part of myself in a little bit of a joking way — now it’s just what I do — I love it – I’m not apologizing or making it a goof thing – it’s another part of my life and who I am.”

The most powerful impression I was left with after our conversation was about how racing for Pamela is about living as fully as possible, flying in the face of fear.

“There’s this moment at the top of the course, in the starting gate. You’re trying to strategize, and there are so many variables, and there can be a lot of fear. And then it’s your turn, and you slip into the start gate, and the course director is at the top on the headset, and says ‘Course is clear, Racer ready, 3, 2, 1 GO.’

“I just LOVE that – that moment of Racer Ready, when in all of your being you have to be ready.  it’s negotiating your preparation, your fear, your physicality.  When they say “go” – you’re expected to be ready to go.   I don’t care what noise has been in your head, you have to GO.

“We have so many metaphorical starting gates in our lives — moments where you have to GO whether or not you’re ready.  It all crystalizes.  I realize that if I can do this, I can speak in front of hundreds of people, I can negotiate all of the other burblings of fear in my life.  I take this attitude of just go, there’s a point where you just can think about this anymore – go on the date, sign up for the class – just go.

“It’s like I remember a friend describing driving in India — realizing that you couldn’t wait your turn because there will never be a turn. You have to just go.  Don’t wait for the perfect time where you don’t have a stomach ache, where you have no fear.  I love that – it’s the best socialization ever. Take that attitude into anything and you’ll survive.”

Pamela Meyer is an author, educator and organizational consultant living joyfully in Chicago and skiing wherever she can. Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who works as a consultant and teacher in the space of strategic system change in academic healthcare in Toronto, focusing on creating sustainable, socially accountable healthcare communities. She also co-leads a learning and development project for orphaned and vulnerable youth in Uganda, and takes every chance she can to explore the world. She also blogs at fieldpoppy.wordpress.com.

Weight training only?

weights versus cardio cartoonI’ve written before about mono exercisers, advocating instead for an account of fitness that includes multiple components. See Is there life after running? and Fitness, yes but fit for what?

It used to be that I spent time with runners who only ran, cyclists who only rode bikes, and triathletes who wildly mixed it up a bit on the endurance exercise front. But none of them, or almost none of them, lifted weights. Maybe on the off season, maybe. But even then only reluctantly in service of their chosen sport.

These days I’m hanging with some weight lifters who eschew cardio. See comics above and below!

Is it really true that the efforts of one work against the other? (Tracy is going to post later about endurance exercise and the goal of fat loss.)

It seems obviously true that at the outer limits it’s true that these goals can compete. Marathon and ultra-marathoners are small people usually. Extra weight, even in the form of muscle, just makes the job harder. Upper body muscles have no place on the bodies of cyclists who specialize in hill climbing.

Here’s an excerpt from a New York Times piece on size and athletic performance. Note though that a fair amount of this is self-selection. It’s true that elite runners are small but not necessarily true that running made them small.

“The rules of physics say that distance cycling and distance running are for small people. Rowing and swimming are for people who are big. The physics is so exact that when Dr. Secher tried to predict how fast competitive rowers could go, based only on their sizes and the weights of their boats, he was accurate to within 1 percent.

At first glance, a big rower (and elite male rowers can weigh as much as 250 pounds) may seem to be at a disadvantage trying to row hard enough to push a boat through the water. But because water buoys the boat, weight becomes less of an issue compared with the enormous benefits of having strong muscles.”

The same reasoning explains why elite swimmers are big. Great male swimmers often are 6 feet 4 inches tall, and muscular. And because of the advantage that large muscles give for sprints over short distances, the shorter the distance an athlete must swim, the greater the advantage it is to be big.

Tall swimmers also have another advantage: because swimmers are horizontal in the water, their long bodies give them an automatic edge. “It’s the difference between long canoes and short canoes,” Dr. Joyner said.

Distance running is different. Tall people naturally have longer strides, but stride length, it turns out, does not determine speed. Running requires that you lift your body off the ground with each step, propelling yourself forward. The more you weigh, the harder you have to work to lift your body and the slower you will be.

The best runners are small and light, with slim legs. “If you have large legs, you have to move a big load,” Dr. Secher said. “The smaller you are, the better you are.”

See Bigger is better, except when it’s not

Here’s Fit and Feminist blogging about regretfully losing muscle while marathon training:

I will also cop to feeling frustrated that I’ve lost some of my upper body muscle, even though I made a point to lift at least twice a week and to increase my caloric intake to compensate for the calories burned off by my runs.  In fact, I ended up actually losing weight, which is basically unheard of during marathon training. The fact that this happened has led me to another realization, which is that while I really love and admire well-developed upper bodies and would love to have one of my own, I have come to the realization that I am not one of those people whose bodies can accommodate a lot of running AND have big, beautiful muscles.  So I am still focused on lifting, but it’s also with the understanding that I might not have gorgeous muscles to go along with the strength I build.  *sad trombone*

And for people interested in growing muscle, whether for strength training for body building, it’s true that running, biking, swimming marathon type distances can work against your newly built muscle.

But happily most of us aren’t performance oriented ultra-runners or only interested in the size of our muscles. Most of us are middle of the pack athletes, running middle distances and lifting weights for strength and health reasons. For us, it’s a mistake to be distracted about what’s true for those with single minded fitness goals.

I’m a  Jill of all sports and I’m okay with that even if it means I don’t do as well in any one as I would do if I did only that thing.

See you in the weight room, on the soccer field, out running, biking, or rowing, in the dojo, or on the cross country ski trails!
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Cold fingers and female athletes

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There’s a line that makes me want to punch people. “You know what they say, cold hands, warm heart.” Yeah, that line.

For many years, I was just fine with winter. I love the snow. My first years in Canada–my family moved to this country when I was four–were spent in cold, snowy Newfoundland. I didn’t even mind, as a young person, the shorter days. I mind them now.

And then I started to get seriously cold and for a few years I spent most of winter inside. That drove me a little bit bonkers. I love the outdoors. So I started running. And cross country skiing. The really neat thing was that exercise kept me warm in a way down coats never could. I love being active outside in the winter. I love the outdoors and moving fast meant I was warm enough finally.

But then a new problem emerged, Raynaud’s phenomena. Or that’s what my doctor tells me it’s called. Since they can’t do anything and it’s more an inconvenience than a danger, modern medicine doesn’t have much to tell me other than a name. Thanks doctors. But I’ve been poked and prodded an investigated and that is what I have.

I’d start skiing and work up a good sweat but then my fingers would start to get really cold. They’d get lumpy and hard and I knew frost bite would soon happen. I had a few really scary run ins with frost bite. I’d be skiing and find myself with hard frozen hands miles from anywhere. I’d be running, even with the best gloves on, and start to get pain in my hands. Once I considered knocking on a stranger’s door and getting in out of the cold.

Now it happens even in just a few minutes, in the walk in from the parking lot at -5 for example. I’ve even had it happen indoors.

I have battery operated mitts for skiing. Oddly, the mitts themselves never feel warm but your hands never ever get cold. I also started skiing in loops around a fixed point so I’d never be too far away from warmth.

What is Raynaud’s phenomena?

A condition of unknown cause in which the arteries of the fingers become hyperreactive to the cold and go into a spasm. It is more common in women than men, and may affect up to 10% of otherwise healthy female athletes causing them great difficulties in cold environments. Warm gloves and calcium-channel blocking agents may relieve the condition. Read more: http://www.answers.com/topic/raynaud-s-phenomenon#ixzz2lVB3LK7c

Raynaud’s disease, also known as Raynaud’s phenomenon and sometimes simply Raynaud’s, is a condition that causes some areas of the body to feel numb and cool in response to cold temperatures or emotional stress, caused by a problem with the blood supply to the skin. Raynaud’s disease is a vasospastic disorder – spasms in the blood vessels lead to vasoconstriction (narrowing). What is Raynaud’s?

There’s not a lot you can do. My doctor’s advice: Plan to retire somewhere warm. Gee, thanks.

There is some concern that outdoor, winter exercise makes the condition worse. See here.

“Exercising may shift blood away from the skin to the muscles. During exercise, body parts, including the hands, are in need of more blood. Even though you may feel warm, if your skin is sensing cold, then the shift to the muscles and other parts of the body may be exaggerated.Exercising in a warm environment is recommended for people with Raynaud’s, and people with severe disease may not be able to safely exercise in the cold. To help, it is important that the central body and brain sense that it is warm, even if you are in a cold environment. This is done by using layers of warm clothes, including a hat to cover the head as well as gloves and socks for the fingers and toes. After exercise, it is critical to warm the central core temperature, and not just the fingers. Swinging the arms in a wide rapid circle can force blood to the fingers.”

I now spend more money on mittens that just about any other item of clothing. Maybe footwear is the only thing that costs me more. I read online reviews of mitts and I have alerts set up for medical literature on Raynaud’s.

I’m not going to stop playing in the snow. The photo below is from a trip to Algonquin a few years ago. Love it.

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Winter is coming: Some thoughts about adventure and fitness (Guest post)

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This time of year, my thoughts turn to adventures in the snow, especially the tantalizing 160 km Canadian Ski Marathon. The CSM easily fits archetypal male adventure narratives, or what a friend of mine once called the genre of “Men Who Die in the Cold.” You hear stories, like the one about the man who did the gold-level marathon each year with a frozen fish—“dinner”—strapped to his back. But the CSM actually emphasizes a very inclusive and open understanding of adventure. Thanks in part to adventure narratives from people with diverse abilities, ages, sexualities, and cultures, we know that there are many different ways to be an adventurer. What counts as an adventure is relative to your personal and social circumstances. Because the focus of the CSM is skiing not “winning,” skiers can design their own adventure while still experiencing the fun of a shared event. You happily find all sorts skiing the CSM.

Adventures like the CSM have, I believe, something to teach us about how fitness contributes to well-being and a good, flourishing life. And this is that fitness matters less than you might think. While I fully agree that exercise is important for physical and mental well-being, there are at least two difficulties with “fitness.” First, fitness is not by itself a goal worth pursuing. We want to be fit because it will help us achieve things we desire, like living a longer, better life, or do fun things like skiing, walking, or chair racing. My guess is that if you pursue fitness for its own sake, you are going to come up empty. The second issue is that for many, fitness goals are tied to body image ideals which are in turn tied to the judgments and evaluations of others. By focusing on how “fit” or “attractive” your body is, you are likely focusing on evaluations that are external to your identity, needs, and well-being.

One problem with focusing on these kinds of external evaluations is that they can sap your motivation. Exercising to look good for others, please others, and avoid negative judgments is dispiriting. Granted, motivation is a complex phenomenon. But my most successful training happens when I do it because it feels good and inspires feelings of adventure. Fitness happens as I experience joie de vivre, test limits, face fears, navigate risks, have fun, be with friends, and wholeheartedly engage the natural world. Motivation depends crucially on setting internally meaningful goals and it is easy to find meaningful goals in adventure.

“External” fitness and body image goals in sport also appear to undermine happiness. Research suggests that people who have obsessive passions for their sport—that is, they ruminate about how their sport relates to self-worth and social acceptance—are less happy than those with more harmonious passions. Those with harmonious passions for their sport—that is, those who do not ruminate and who are better able to achieve “flow” while engaged in their favorite activity—have greater well-being and higher achievement in general. (See the work of Robert Vallerand and Geneviève Mageau.)  When we ruminate about body image and fitness ideals, we miss out on the wonderfully enlivening emotions—awe, fear, joy, passion, exhilaration—that adventures offer. When we allow ourselves to experience these emotions fully, we develop our ability to experience flow and consequently, happiness.

Framing athletic experience with extrinsic motivators like body image or fitness levels also won’t help much with living a more ethically meaningful life. As cheating athletes show, fitness is no loyal partner to ethics. But a wholehearted adventurous spirit might be. In “Climbing Philosophy For Everyone,” Pam Sailors draws a link between ethical action and climbers of two different stripes. “Summiteers,” who focus on getting to the summit and doing so the fastest and with the most fitness, are less likely to help other climbers in trouble. “Mountaineers,” who focus on the experience of climbing mountains, fostering relationships in their climbing teams, and gaining self-knowledge are more likely to abandon their climbs to help others. People with a harmonious sense of adventure focus on meaningful internal values, which includes fostering those values and caring for others.

But perhaps the nicest advantage of adventure over fitness is that adventure isn’t tied to success in the same way. Misadventures can be just as valuable for your life. Just before the Gatineau Loppet last winter, I came down with a bad cold. My training for it hadn’t gone well and the cold seemed like a good sign that I should sit it out. But I really didn’t want to miss my first loppet—and ski—in gorgeous Gatineau Park. And besides, I could always leave the race if I had to, right? Well, I didn’t bail, but you would be right to suspect things didn’t go well. I nearly missed the race start because, after a long washroom line-up, I lost track of my family and didn’t want to begin without waving to my daughter. I followed the slow start with slow skiing: in my weakened state the snow felt like fudge. Then about 5 km in, a skier who couldn’t stop crashed into me when someone wiped out in front of us on a downhill. Toques everywhere. By the 10 km mark, I thought I was going to drown in my own immunological goo.

But I kept going, and I’m glad I did. I felt such joy seeing my little daughter wildly ringing her cowbell and yelling “Go Mommy” as I crossed the finish. I met my goals of experiencing a loppet and skiing in Gatineau Park. And I learned that I could overcome “negative” self-talk like “you’re going to get pneumonia, you fool.” Good to know in case I’m ever, say, skiing with the flu while being tracked by hungry coyotes. But the point is that I took away some valuable lessons and experiences and I didn’t spend any time ruminating about fitness or body image or social acceptance afterwards. I could have cared less—I made it out alive! And I’m guessing that elite skiers who engage their sports with harmonious passion feel similarly. Good adventures have a lot to do with how you handle and value the misadventures. They are not made of ruminations about who has superior maximal aerobic capacity.

I don’t want to sound unsympathetic—au contraire. The additive effect of body image and fitness ideals from countless sources in our society is substantially influential. But we are nonetheless responsible, individually and collectively, for the goals we set. In my view, wholehearted, adventurous engagement with your activity is the best antidote for fitness and body image ideals. And the best motivation for tackling damn fool events like the Canadian Ski Marathon. Fish or no fish.

 

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Moira Howes, B.Sc., M.A., Ph.D., is a philosophy professor at Trent University. She philosophizes about lots of things, but mainly about argumentation, biology, feminism, intellectual virtue, and objectivity. Most recently she has been writing about mindfulness, virtue, and adventure sport. Her favorite activities include trail running, skiing, snowshoeing, canoeing, and hiking.