fitness · Guest Post · Weekends with Womack

I flew in to Sydney and boy are my arms tired: aches, pains and other messages from my body to me

Hi everyone—last week I had just landed in Sydney Australia and blogged here about how this sabbatical work trip was an opportunity to shake things up. I have the time to focus on exercise and activity of all sorts, some work projects I’ve been wanting to do for months, and pay closer attention to eating the ways I’d like to, with more fruits and vegetables.

Well, it’s one week in, and here is what I have to report: I’m unhappy at the physical shape I’m in. Carrying heavy things (laptop, groceries, etc.) for long distances is super-tiring, and my shoulders hurt.

Screen Shot 2015-10-11 at 8.30.33 PM

My right knee, which is sometimes wonky, is rebelling at going down hills and stairs.

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I’m sweating up a storm whenever the temperature is above 20C/70F. Tracy blogged about sweating just this week, right here.  All this extra activity is sending me to bed at 10pm (I normally stay up until 11:30pm—midnight).

However, some other effects so far include: My general stress level is much lower than usual. I’m meditating in the mornings.

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I’m eating less. I’m eating more of the foods I want to in order to feel like I have a nutritious diet. I have the impression that some of my clothes are a little looser on me (hard to tell, and I have no scale, but we shall see). I’ve started doing some strengthening exercises for my knee and core.

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It will be interesting to see how a couple of month of car-free urban living, cycling, walking, taking public transport, and wandering about as a tourist affects this body of mine, I know, I know—small changes are the ones that we can sustain, the ones that are real.

A real benefit of these aches and pains is that my body is giving me some important information, information that it’s easy for me to ignore in my regular, overscheduled, car-enabled life. It’s telling me to get stronger. It’s telling me to eat healthier for me. It may want me to be lighter—we’ll see about that. It is telling me to go to bed and get more sleep.

Okay, okay, body—you’ve got my attention. I’m listening.

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Weekends with Womack

Everyday exercise and car-free living, or how I learned to stop worrying and love hauling groceries

G’day blog readers—I’m now relocated to Australia for the next 2.5 months for a sabbatical work trip (with adventuring on the side). Right now I’m in Sydney for the month of October, visiting here to do some research, chat with people and give a talk. I’ll be moving on to Adelaide for a few weeks to chat with other folks and give other talks, then back to Sydney until mid-December. All this is rather thrilling, as I haven’t had a long trip like this for many years.

Long-distance travel is definitely a shock to the body, especially when it involves sitting on places for many hours (15+ for my LA-Sydney leg; ugh). There’s been a lot of research on the effects of jet lag on athletes. The effects range from insomnia to gastrointestinal distress to lowered cognitive and physical performance. Two main non-pharmacological treatments are recommended for jet lag: 1) natural sunlight—get outside and move around in the new environment during the day; and 2) time—give yourself a few days to get adjusted to the new time zone, schedule and cadence.

So, in service of taking my own advice, after I landed early yesterday morning Sydney time (and had a nap—yes, I know that’s kind of a no-no, but it was not optional), I headed out into my new neighborhood to get food, purchase some groceries for my flat, and explore a bit.

It’s just lovely here in Sydney—it’s high spring, flowers are blooming and this weekend temperatures are in the 90s (33 C right now). I enjoyed walking around, checking out houses, gardens, and seeing what shops were in my area. I got a coffee and brunch at a café, then walked about 15 minutes to a grocery store to get some supplies.

Man, I forgot how sweat-inducing it is to haul groceries for any length of time on foot! Usually when I’m home in Boston I either use my car or ride my bike and put groceries in the panniers. I did bring my road bike with me, but have not set it up yet (that is my project for later this afternoon). Even so, this bike doesn’t take a rack (long story, trust me on this), so I’ll have to use my backpack or just carry them on foot.

And I’m so happy about this.

Yes, one of the big perks I see about this trip is the opportunity to get a lot of everyday exercise in addition to the road riding and kayaking and swimming and nature walking I have planned. This blog has posts about everyday exercise here and here, among other places. I also hear that Sam and Tracy have a chapter on it in their upcoming book. 

There are loads of studies tracking the positive effects of urban car-free living, vs. car-dependent suburban or rural living. As we know, science is complicated—urban living tends to be associated with higher stress whereas rural living can provide stress reduction, for instance in its proximity to nature. But, it’s also been suggested that urban environments can promote increased physical activity, provided there’s enough access to services and facilities.  Again, the story is complicated: for lower-income people and populations that already suffer from health and income disparities, urban living is not so great for their health.

I’m aware of and very grateful for the privilege of the job I have and the opportunities to travel to interesting places, do stimulating work and live in areas that are safe and accessible to services. I’m also very aware that this change presents an opportunity to shake up my previous habits and restart some new ones, a little bit at a time. That means for me now moving around without a car. I’ll be adjusting my timing for shopping, for going to the office, for meeting friends. I’ve brought bike commuting clothing and comfortable knocking-around-town shoes and sandals. I haven’t purchased a Fitbit to track all this, but will be seeing how it feels over time to increase my everyday activity (in addition to planned exercise and sports). And I’ll report back.

Stay tuned also for a blog post on how a change of environment and location and social group affects my eating habits. I’m quite interested to see what happens here, and will let y’all know. For now, g’day and see y’all next week.

Weekends with Womack

Fit to be tied: clothes shopping and sizing madnes

Finding clothes that fit is not the most unpleasant task women face, but it is constant, often frustrating and sometimes downright demoralizing. Sam has blogged here and here about clothing troubles athletic women have, and both Sam and Tracy have blogged (here and here, among other places) on the elusive search-for-the-right-sports-bra.

As a size 14/16 woman, I’m used to (if not happy about) the fact that many clothing manufacturers don’t seem to care about my demographic, even though 14 is the most common size for women in the US.  But this treatment extends to other sizes as well, as I found out in person this weekend.

My 30-year-old cousin Xina and I met in New York City this weekend to hang out with some friends and their kids, go to museums and engage in a bit of shopping and other girly activities. Xina is tall (5’ 11”) and slender. She wears a clothing size 10—12. On Saturday (after getting pedicures, which are a relative bargain in New York) we headed to Urban Outfitters. She saw this really cute jumpsuit that she wanted to try on.

jumpsuitBut we couldn’t find a size 10 or 12. So we went to ask a salesperson if they had one, or if they could find it at another store. The salesperson returned shortly and told us, in discreetly hushed tones, “That item doesn’t come in a 12. 10 is the biggest size we carry, but we don’t have one in the store.” There seemed to be at most only one size 10 left in the entire tri-state area. Huh.

I was astounded. So used to being size and body-shamed in retail outlets myself, I was nonetheless surprised to see it in action with my lovely young svelte cousin as the target. Seriously, people?

Xina used to work in retail clothing stores, and wasn’t surprised at all by this treatment. She informed me that lots of clothing retailers relegate their size 12 and up customers to online sales, not stocking those sizes in stores. There seems to be a fear on the part of these brands that if non-tiny people a) populate their dressing rooms and stores, and b) actually appear in public wearing their clothing, the brand will lose its cachet, its mystique, its je ne sais quoi. Witness Abecrombie and Fitch’s refusal to stock women’s size XL and Lululemon CEO’s claim that “some women’s bodies just don’t work” for their yoga pants. By the way, he resigned a month after making said comments.

One (super-lame-o) claim that clothing manufacturers make about their failure to make decent clothing in sizes 14 and above is that there is a lot of variation in body shape in those sizes, so it’s not possible to systematize tailored garment patterns enough for production.


What holds for sizes 14 and above also holds for sizes 12 and under, namely that body shapes vary in systematic and predictable ways. Of course the variation isn’t unlimited—for instance, people aren’t usually shaped like this:

Screen Shot 2015-09-26 at 6.22.32 PMBut I digress.

Here’s a diagram of a UK size 12 on different height women (for a clothing tailoring website):

size 12

We also see this in action when we put the same dress on different shaped women:


And just in case you didn’t see this already, the “one size fits most” myth got definitively busted here with women of different sizes, heights and body shapes.

And hey, this clothing maker managed to produce cute tops and pants for these different-shaped women without violating the laws of physics:


So.  What do we want?

Reasonably well-fitting attractive clothing in a variety of sizes.

When do we want it?


Okay, I gotta work on the phrasing, but you get the idea.


Weekends with Womack

Supporting the sharks: Boston Sharkfest 2015

Last week I posted about what an unexpectedly excellent active summer I’ve had. Fall is hard upon our heels in the northern hemisphere (google says it starts Sept 23), but I’m wringing out the last drops of summer nectar, with the weather, friends, and opportunities fully cooperating.

Yesterday my friends Janet and Steph and I got up very very very early (5:45am, which for me is like the middle of the night), to head to downtown Boston to help provide kayak support for the Boston Sharkfest open harbor swim event. It’s a 1500-meter open water swim across Boston harbor, and hundreds of swimmers do this, some in wetsuits and some in bathing suits. The cool (and necessary thing) about this event is that the shipping channel is closed during the event, so you get this illicit and delicious feeling of being let loose somewhere you would not otherwise get to explore. Here’s the map of the swim route:


I think this is one of the coolest feelings ever. When they close Storrow Drive in Boston on July 4 and you can walk down the highway, or when they close the Verrazano bridge for the Five Boro Bike Ride in New York City, it is a thrilling feeling to be where you normally cannot. Here’s what I was able to see from my kayak:


Holding big events like open water swims and the swim part of triathlons requires a lot of support help in order to keep swimmers on track and safe. We joined a group of kayakers, paddle boarders and one surfer lifeguard (who paddled with his hands back and forth, covering at least 4 miles) to station ourselves along the route to basically herd the swimmers along the course. We were also keeping a sharp eye out for anyone in distress who needed a breather or some encouragement, and also for anyone with a medical emergency.

Honestly, I would have been scared to death to be in that open water without the security of my boat and paddle. Here’s where they were:

swimmer in process

In fact we joked with the swimmers when they stopped or looked a little discouraged, telling them how awesome they were and how funny it was that we needed boats to cross the area that they were swimming.

There was a huge range of finishing times, and the cutoff was 50 minutes; they had to reopen the channel to boats, so were constrained. I was accompanying a few of the last swimmers, who were tiring but continuing on.


We could see the finish line. They had to swim to the dock, touch the electronic pad to get their time, and then swim around to the ladder.

finish line

This swimmer I talked to later had not only successfully done this one-mile swim after having ankle surgery to fuse her ankle, but she had done a 4-mile swim event in Vermont. Brrrrr.


I was happy to celebrate with what I thought of as my swimmers at the finish line. I never got your names, but hey y’all—you are awe-inspiring athletes!

happy swimmers

Next week I want to talk more about athletic identity; it’s strange that none of the swimmers I talked to thought of themselves as athletes. But of course they are. What’s that about? But for now, let’s all enjoy their triumph.

Weekends with Womack

It was the best of seasons, it was… the best of seasons

I’ve been thinking a lot about the end of summer. Yes, I know, it’s already over; do not remind me.


This summer has been a tough one for me. I’ve had some upheavals in my personal life and some serious medical scares for loved ones, resulting in a major bout of the blues. So I did not do a bunch of the cycling activities that I was planning to do—no charity ride in June, no big Vermont ride over Labor Day, and no NYC Century ride today (have fun, Tony and Jane! Sorry I can’t join you). I just didn’t get myself together to ride and train the way I like to in the summer. And I have been feeling regret about the lost summer, and lost opportunities.

Until I talked with friends and looked back at my summer blog and facebook posts. What do they show? I actually had a super-fun summer, doing all sorts of improvised and different activities—outings I would not have gone on if my situation had been different. For instance, I kayaked a bunch with friends:




I got some instruction and found I love kayaking, which opens up new sports and nature opportunities.

I also spent some time on the Cape with my friend Pata, cycling, wandering and hanging out:



Then there were the adventures on foot in urban and suburban nature wandering: up the north shore of Boston, to Deer Isle near the airport, and in the city (both Boston and New York):



And yesterday was the cherry on top of my unexpected ice cream sundae of a summer—I had a lovely outing on a perfect early fall day on Cape Ann with friends. We cycled and were treated to sights like this:


We went to Halibut Point State Park and wandered around on the rocks by the ocean:


And of course we treated ourselves to ice cream (which we left undocumented).

So, it’s really been a superb summer, full of unexpected adventures. I am grateful for it, and looking forward to what the next season brings.

Weekends with Womack

Ushering out Summer, Ushering in… Spring?

Summer is my favorite season. This isn’t front-page news—after all, who doesn’t love long sunny days, warm water to swim in, and all that fresh produce bounty to enjoy? But September is here, school is starting (my university started classes on Wednesday), the nights are cooler, and the light is changing. Sam recently wrote about welcoming fall here.

I love fall, too. Living in New England, I enjoy the vivid colors of the leaves, the crisp mornings and mellow days, and also the shift in sports. I ride my cyclocross bike more in the fall, and also resume playing squash, in preparation for the league play during late fall and winter.

But this year is different. I’m going to miss most of the fall, including attending my favorite cyclocross race  in November in Northampton, Mass with friends, and opening the season with my squash team.

Why? Because I’m going to Australia for a few months. I’m on sabbatical this fall, which is one of the biggest benefits of having an academic job, for which I am continually grateful. I’ll be a visiting scholar here at the University of Sydney and also Flinders University in Adelaide, doing research in public health ethics. I have friends and colleagues there, and am really looking forward to working on several projects.

It’s going to be spring there when I arrive, and I’m staying until summer is almost underway. This is going to be great for doing outdoor activities. I’m taking my road bike with me, and will set about mastering riding on the left side of the road.  I’m also taking some kayaking gear with me, and will be paddling around Sydney, Adelaide, and hopefully also the Great Barrier Reef. And the weather should be great for hiking and rambling about, strolling and riding around my new city, and exploring on day trips and weekends. What a perfect plan.

Except that I’m missing out on fall.

But why should that matter when I have this super-cool opportunity to sneak in an extra spring season with a smidge of summer before returning to winter in North America?

Of course, this is a super-cool opportunity, and I’m aware of and grateful for the privilege of my position. At the same time, it’s worth noting that I’m stepping out of my seasonal rotation, and flinging myself into a different one. It’s a funny feature of modern technological life that we can do this. Just last week I flew to South Carolina for a family reunion, and the fact that I can transport myself from my world in Boston to my family’s world 1000 miles away in a few hours always gives me a little pause. It’s warmer there, with different flora and fauna (especially insects—they practically run the place), and we can swim in my sister’s pool through September. Fall there is a more subtle event—the temperature drop is slower and later to come, and there are fewer fall colors present. The main shift I notice there is that everyone pays attention to high school and college football. A shift in sports focus—both playing and observing—is a clear way to note the change of season.

This is why it seems strange to think about jumping over fall and winter and heading directly to spring. It feels disorienting. At the same time, I’m delighted that I can extend my cycling and kayaking seasons for several more months, and explore these new environments with the luxury of longer days, more sun, and the green of spring to keep me company. Of course I will have to pay when I return in late December, as it will be winter. But I guess I can deal with that when it comes. For now, time to pack the sandals, sundresses, bathing suits and bib shorts…Screen Shot 2015-09-06 at 8.29.46 AM

Weekends with Womack

Crossing a threshold in sports—one woman’s watery accomplishment

This summer I’ve been regaling blog readers with tales of my re-acquaintance with kayaking. One of the things that I love about kayaking is that it’s an activity you can do without much instruction, for whatever length of time you want, at whatever pace you want. It also gets you outside, on the water, moving along under your own power. Kayaking in any body of water at all makes me feel a little bit like I used to when I was 10 years old, riding my bike around my neighborhood; I felt liberated, autonomous, the open road (or water) wide open for my exploration.

All this is true.  BUT: when you start to do some sport, you quickly find out that in order to progress to the next level of activity, you have to pass some thresholds. Passing them may require special training, mastery of techniques, strength, speed, stamina, etc. And of course gear.

I talked a little about this in my blog post last week comparing cycling and kayaking. Both sports have a fairly low threshold for beginners—that is, you can do it without a lot of technical know-how. Basketball and tennis, on the other hand (at least in my experience), require some specific skills in order to play a game. I never learned how to do a lay-up so my basketball career never got off the ground…

We all know this—different sports have different-shaped learning curves, and the effort it takes to get to the next point on the curve (the next level of play or participation) varies a lot. As an athlete, being aware of 1) what the learning curve for your activity is, and 2) how much effort it’s going to take to meet your goals for that sport are both pretty important. I’ve learned, for example, that bike racing (road races and crits) for ME would require a level of training that’s just not feasible or desirable for me. However, fun road rides are both feasible and desirable. Competitive squash is also within my reach, given my available time and fitness and skill levels.

Over time, we all readjust our sports and activity goals, often because of time limitations and changing physical constraints, but also because we want to have new or different experiences. One thing I’ve noticed is an increasing desire to experience nature—in the woods or on the water—whenever possible.   Hence the renewed interest in sea kayaking.

This summer, after a long hiatus from it, I’ve been out on rivers and lakes and even saltwater estuaries in recreational and sea kayaks, and it’s been sublime. But one big goal has remained: kayaking in the ocean. That’s where the sports threshold issue reemerges.

In order to kayak safely in the ocean, with waves, currents, tides and changing weather, you need a bunch of skills. Some of them are technical—you need to be able to read, understand, interpret and plan trips based on tide charts, information about currents and the coastal geography of the area and weather forecasts. You also need some paddling skills for maneuvering the boat, like bracing and edging.

And of course you need to be able to get back in the boat if you happen to turn over in deep waters.

rescueThere are two kinds of rescues you learn in sea kayaking—the assisted rescue and the self rescue. The assisted one is where you get back in your boat (from deep water) with some help from a person in another boat. Turns out this isn’t very hard—with good instruction, everyone can do this using one or other of the many techniques available. But the self rescue seems more daunting—you have to get yourself back in the cockpit of your boat while treading water in the ocean, maybe in high seas.

Again, there are a couple of different techniques for self rescue, and I’d done one of them a long time ago. But I had been avoiding trying it again, out of sheer fear of failure. After all, the last time I did this was 15 years ago, and I’m older and feel less confident of my strength and abilities.

But if I want to kayak in the ocean (and do cool kayak trips with my friend Janet), I HAVE TO DO THIS.

So last Wednesday, Janet and I headed to Rockport, Massachusetts, to kayak in the ocean. This place looks exactly the way you might imagine new England coastal towns might look. That is, like this:

rockportThe outfitters wouldn’t let us take out ocean kayaks without demonstrating experience in rescues, but since Janet can do a self rescue in no time flat, and I can do an assisted one, they let us head out to sea. So off we went, picnic lunches stowed in dry bags and bilge pump and paddle float strapped to the decks.

There was some hazy fog along the rocky coast, so we stayed reasonably close to shore, avoiding the many outcroppings of rocks. The lobster fishermen were also trolling in the shallower waters, checking and resetting their lines, so we had to be vigilant. Actually, I’m pretty sure they’re used to kayakers and are adept at not colliding into them, but better to give them wide berth. After all, they’re working.

It was exhilarating and also a bit scary paddling in waves and deep water along a hazy, foggy, rocky coastline. I knew the chances of turning over were slim, and I knew I could get back in the boat with Janet’s assistance. Still, that vague uneasiness lurked in the background. Sigh.

We pulled into a beach for lunch, and some women obliged us with a photo.

Screen Shot 2015-08-30 at 11.04.07 AMAt that point I decided to face my fear and do what I had been avoiding for weeks: time to practice the self rescue.

I told Janet I wanted to try the scramble self rescue (also called the cowboy rescue, but Janet prefers the former name). It looks like this.

Yeah, right.

Having no other excuses for delays (all the lunch had been eaten and beach pictures taken), we took the boats out into the bay, where the water was deep enough but the waters were calmer. Janet did her self rescue first—nothin’ to it. Here she is, smiling astride her kayak.

Screen Shot 2015-08-30 at 11.06.13 AMNow it was my turn. The moment of truth. ACK. Well, the only way through it is to do it. Here I go—over into the water.

solo1We cheated a little—Janet actually emptied the water from my boat and turned it over. This prepped me for hauling myself back in. I tried getting on from the back, which didn’t work at all. But then I approached the boat from the side, and then centered my chest over the back of the boat. Like so.

solo2Then I had to inch (and I do mean inch) myself onto the back deck, pulling myself, kicking my legs, all the time keeping low and making sure my legs stayed in the water. Janet was coaching me from her boat the whole time, which was a huge help. She also documented it for posterity. Here I am, posing for a photo and pondering how to get myself back in the cockpit, which at the moment, seems very very far away.

solo3Then comes another hard part—sitting up without tipping the boat over. Again, you have to keep your legs in the water to act as stabilizers. Here I am, so close to the cockpit, but with a final challenge before me—move butt over seat back and into cockpit.


Well, who knows how this happened, but it did. Here I am, marveling at my inexplicable but undeniable return to the cockpit of my boat, celebrating with a swig of water.

solo5And then a funny thing happened. When we set back out into deeper ocean to explore the nearby south coast, I felt… great. More confident, more at ease, more able to enjoy the waves, the open water. Oh boy. I had crossed a threshold.

It’s important to note that kayakers have to practice these rescue and other techniques in a variety of conditions (say, in rougher seas and in open water) to be really confident and adept. But with this accomplishment I was on my way.

So readers, what sorts of sports and activity thresholds have you crossed? What thresholds are you looking at now? I’d love to hear more about your experiences.

Weekends with Womack

Cycling and Kayaking– The Case for Them as Companion Sports

Last Tuesday, I was delighted to be able to meet up with Fit is a Feminist Issue Co-Founder Samantha, who was visiting in my area. We had lunch, caught up on all manner of news (domestic and professional), and then proceeded to the nearest kayak rental place to take out a double kayak on the Charles River. Sam told me she had never kayaked before, so wanted to try it. I have a season pass, so the rental was free. Suhweet…

While out on the water, we talked a good bit about the ways kayaking is or is not like other sports that we do. (For philosophers who read this blog, you know the deal: when in doubt, try to categorize and make distinctions). Sam has a lot of experience with rowing and is also the proud owner of a new canoe but she said she’d never been in a kayak before. In the course of leisurely discussion, we both came up with these features that kayaking and cycling have in common (which in fact make them both appealing).

  1. Both kayaking and cycling are relatively easy to do as a complete beginner.

Cycling does generally require some instruction, but once you have the basics, you’re good to go. For kayaking, you just have to get into the boat and move the paddle, and you’re kayaking. The main point here is that you don’t need to know very much about either sport in order to do it.

  1. Kayaking and cycling are endurance sports—if you pace yourself, you can (eventually) go all day long.

People use bikes and kayaks to go long distances, and both lend themselves to getting into a groove, just moving through space/water/wind. My kayak instructor Spencer talks about finding his rhythm and settling into that for a long paddle, and how satisfying that is. Cycling is the same way—turning the cranks and rolling down a country road can be a positively meditative activity.

  1. Both kayaking and cycling afford you the opportunity to spend absolutely all your discretionary income on gear. Or not.

Bikes and kayaks can be had for cheap. You can buy a used kayak at the end of the season from a rental place for a few hundred dollars. OR you can buy this Kevlar beauty for about $4500:


Of course, don’t get me started on bike prices. Yes, you can buy a decent (if heavy) used commuter bike for $100–$200. And then there’s the $12K Pinarello Dogma 2, with Campy record groupo:


And of course there is ample opportunity for accessorizing in both sports. My friend Janet, who has taken to kayaking like a fish to water, already owns (at least count) 4 different sizes of dry bag for stowing stuff in the kayak. And she’s shopping around for her own boat, although has not yet taken the plunge. I’m holding off purchasing a boat until at least next season.

  1. In both kayaking and cycling, there’s a lot of variation in both speed and technique between beginning/recreational participants and competitive/hardcore ones.

Samantha and I were talking about this while tooling around the Charles River in our double kayak—cycling for fun on a bike path is a very different experience from a group road ride. Similarly, taking a kayak out on a lake for an hour quite different from a 6-day ocean kayak touring trip (in the actual ocean). In each case, doing the latter requires conditioning, skill, fancier equipment and experience. As a kayaker, I’m still on the cusp of being able to paddle safely and comfortably in the ocean; I’m still working on learning solo rescue (getting myself back in my boat after turning it over and going in the water). Janet’s got that down pat already, and is planning on taking a rolling class this winter.

As a road rider, you have to have a bunch of bike handling skills, including knowing how to paceline. Also, you have to develop enough fitness and strength and stamina to hang in for the length of the ride. In short, both cycling and kayaking offer opportunities for a wide variety of sport participation.

  1. You can kayak and cycle from childhood throughout your whole life.

This is something I love about both activities—I can do them at whatever pace, intensity and duration I choose, in whatever outdoor venue, in whatever weather I can manage (this is where more gear helps—see number 3 above), and at whatever level I am feeling up to at the time. Not all sports are like this.

  1. Both kayaking and cycling are lovely ways to put the power, coordination and efficiency of your body in motion—wherever you live, whenever you want. Yay!

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fitness · Weekends with Womack

On inspiration and irritation: some thoughts inspired by Sat with Nat

Reading Natalie’s post on Saturday about the negative side of “being an inspiration” gave me pause. I have to admit, I’m very impressionable when it comes to finding others inspiring, especially when they a) do things I’m scared to do or don’t feel competent to do; or b) do things I would like to do, and from a standpoint that in some way feels similar to mine (e.g. perception of similar age, fitness level, economic position, body type, etc.). The former makes me think, “wow, here’s another human doing this scary thing! Maybe I can do it too.” The latter makes me think, “oh—this person is like me (in some way or other), so maybe I can do that thing too”. I’m always on the lookout for inspiration-pumps, as I know that I work better in the world with external encouragements or influences.

One other important way that other people inspire me: they open up for my consideration activities that I might not have found interesting or worthwhile. Tracy, for instance, has inspired me to try running, which I’ve always thought I hated. Actually, I never really put in any real effort at it, but reading about her training processes and progress, I thought, “hey—maybe I could do this too and like it”. And Natalie’s posts about running and liking it also make me think, “Huh– here’s yet another human who seems to like running. Maybe this is a thing…”

But I get what Natalie’s saying—there’s a way in which “being an inspiration” can have the following subtext: X is an inspiration because X did this thing that no one would ever believe that X, or people like X, could do.

And that definitely seems condescending and irritating.

The Fit Fatties facebook group has loads of posts in which members relate stories about being in the middle of running (or jumping, yoga-ing, cycling, triathlon-ing, dancing, paddling, walking, throwing, or any number of physical activities), only to have someone (usually a stranger) interrupt their fun to blurt out accolades of how inspiring said Fit Fatty is. It’s usually followed by gushing encouragement or praise—“you go girl!” “Good for you—keep it up!” At which point the aforementioned Fit Fatty in question reports feeling angry, frustrated, sad, offended, and upset. This has certainly happened to me (on a bike, in a kayak, on skis, while tap dancing), and it’s very annoying at best and undermining at worst.

As someone who teaches and loves philosophy, I hope to inspire some of my students to read, write, think, calculate and question more in their own lives. I even get subversive pleasure (the best kind!) from being someone with a lot of knowledge of logic and mathematics while at the same time being female. And yes, this fact is surprising to some students. I know some of them are thinking, “how can she know how to do that and be a girl at the same time?” Just stand back and watch me prove that theorem, kiddos…

But the upshot is that it’s okay with me to stand as a role model, an inspiration, a success story to them if it helps them shift their notion of what an intellectual/philosopher/logician is so to include folks who look like me.

But in the physical arena, I don’t always feel as confident or sanguine about my identity as an athlete to be able to tolerate fitspo cheering, praise, encouragement, etc. Being an athlete is a part of my identity and has been my whole life from early in my childhood. However, for a lot of reasons, that identity feels more vulnerable than say, my identity as an intellectual. Talking about vulnerability in identity feels, well, uncomfortable. No duh.

However, I think it’s worth noting this potential distinction—which aspects of our identity we are more comfortable with under conditions of being cited as “an inspiration”, and which aspects provoke us. Let me be clear– I’m not saying that this lets everyone else off the hook with respect to condescending “you can do it!” kibitzing comments. It’s flat-out annoying, and people should learn to be more sensitive or put a sock in it.  Especially if they’re not sure what (if any) comments some occasion calls for– this is probably good advice in general, by the way.

It’s probably useful to know where we are tender and where we are tougher. And we have some choices – we can protect the tender parts, or we can try to toughen up those parts. We have the right to do either or both. In the meantime, I’m going to think more on this, as Natalie has inspired me… J


Weekends with Womack

Fit is a Feminist Issue: the Sunday Boo-Boo edition

Some of you who read this blog often may know that I write a regular Sunday column, called Weekends with Womack. But this week, my column appeared on Saturday instead.



I hit the wrong button (publish instead of preview), and sent it out on its way to the cyber-feminist-fitness community. And I couldn’t figure out how to get it back.


So in honor of my mistake, here are some pics of bike-related boo-boos. To err is human, but please don’t ride with these.

A (somewhat) common mistake is a bike constructed with the front fork facing backwards. Here’s what it SHOULD look like:


In this picture, however, the front fork was installed backwards. This is not good.


By the way, most of the pictures come from this website; many of them are only funny to serious bike geeks, but check it out and see what you think.

This bike is fine, except that the handlebars were installed upside down. This means you can’t really use the brakes. Uh, oh.


Someone brought this bike into a bike shop, complaining about how the brakes didn’t work. The mechanic had to explain gently that wedged between the brake levers was a suboptimal storage place for the giant kryptonite lock.


Sometimes people accidentally put their helmets on backwards; I’ve seen this in nature, and it’s well documented online. There’s this guy:


This picture below is actually from a website that is supposed to explain proper helmet use. Unfortunately, what the site says is that her helmet is improperly adjusted.   If by that they mean “the parents totally put the kid’s helmet on backwards”, then I guess that’s right.


In case you were wondering, here’s a diagram illustrating both correct and incorrect helmet configurations.


Yes—in the real world, errors abound. But it doesn’t mean we can’t have fun with them, too.


See y’all next week!