Half marathon: Not quite a hot mess, but a humid fizzle

Tracy in dark pink running tank, blue cap, and sunglasses, wearing race bib uber 38046; Anita in short sleeved red v-neck t-shirt, sunglasses atop her head; inflatable MEC Race Series arch in the background.

Tracy and Anita in front of the start/finish arch pre-race, Pottersburg Park, London, Ontario.

Anita’s Take on the MEC Series Race #3 Half Marathon

This race was different. Unlike the Niagara Half Marathon, or the Florida Keys Half Marathon, or others, this time it was just Tracy and I doing a London-based race.  In the past a handful of us would make the fun trek to a different city to race.  We’ve avoided London simply because it’s a bit dull racing on the same path you train on week after week, but this race was different because the route took us along parts of the path that we’d never been on.  There were also some pre-race emotions thrown in as this was the last race that Tracy and I would run together for a couple of years owing to our forthcoming consecutive sabbatical leaves.

We went into the race with good spirits. For this one we’d tried a completely different training approach with a coach. Our weekday runs consisted mostly of speed work, which we found challenging at first but eventually we enjoyed conquering the quick, fast workouts that depended on keeping track of our pace. The weekend runs were not as long as we typically would map out for ourselves.  Nevertheless, we both felt that our bodies had responded well to the new training approach. We aimed to shave a couple of minutes off our personal best time.

The race itself was a low key affair, with smaller crowds than the other races we’d done but just as well organized.  Bagels, bananas, gum drops, Clif bars, hot chocolate, coffee and water were available before and after the race. Not too many spectators cheering us on but the route volunteers were terrific. We thought the heat and humidity wouldn’t be a problem once we realized that much of the race route was shady. And it was a lovely route with lots of greenery!  A bit of flooding too but the organizers had built a bridge over the worse part, plus they warned us about the water with an early morning email.

And now to the punchline: it wasn’t the best race for us…yes, we finished, with a respectable time, but…We felt good for the first third of the race. We held on during the second third. Sometime during the last third (around the 16K mark) the struggle started. Hoping it would pass, I didn’t let Tracy know I wasn’t feeling great until the last 3 km or so. And it wasn’t an injury or ache – it was just a ‘not feeling great’ feeling. Like maybe this feeling might progress to feeling like I need to puke.

It crept up silently because we felt like we were doing well with our pacing the whole time. We were also good to ourselves by taking a few longer breaks during that last bit. Was it the humidity? Maybe (but we’ve run in much worse). During our after race de-briefing I said to Tracy: “I never felt the runner’s high. I didn’t feel the happiness on that run.” After some thought, she agreed. Although we’re pleased that we finished in good time, the joy of running eluded us that day.

Tracy’s Take on the MEC Series Race #3 Half Marathon

Despite that we rarely do local races and have never done a local half, Anita and I were both pumped for our local half marathon last Saturday. It would be our last event together for two years. We’d been working with a coach leading up to it and were feeling good about our speed work. As Anita said, we like to travel, so the whole thing lacked the “glam factor” of some of our previous events. And because it was local, we didn’t even think to book off the night before to go out for Italian food (a pre-race tradition whenever we’re at an out of town event).

We were both in a bit of a tizzy that morning trying to decide what to wear. Shorts or capris? Short sleeves or long? I made a good last minute decision to go with shorts and a tank top.

There was a small and friendly crowd at the race site, with ample refreshments for pre- and post-race. The massage therapy students from Fanshawe College had their tables set up under a canopy for post-race massages. It was clear and sunny, but a good portion of the path was shady and we thought we’d be okay.

And at the beginning, we were keeping a fantastic pace, right on target for our simple strategy. Basically, we divided the race into three parts. The first 7K was for finding our rhythm and keeping a steady pace. The second 7K we focused on staying present with the task and maintaining a good even pace. And finally, in the last 7K we wanted to pick it up just a bit, particularly towards the end, laying it out in the last 800m or so.

Like Anita just said, we faltered in the last few kilometres. There’s a part of our long runs that we call Death Valley because it’s a hot stretch with no trees. The turnaround for the out and back for this race was just about half a kilometre or so past Death Valley. And by then it was pretty hot and humid. So no sooner had we passed through DV than we hit the turnaround and had to do it over again.

For me this was the turning point. I started to feel overheated. Subsequent water stations I knew I needed water and Nuun (though I had never trained with Nuun before, I had to drink it for the electrolytes).  We had kept up reasonably well with two other women who were running just ahead of us at a similar pace. They stayed steady steady with no walk breaks. We were taking 30 seconds every ten minutes, consistently for most of the race until the last 3 or 4 km when we started walking a bit longer.

I tried to maintain my energy with some energy balls we had made with Linda–oats and chocolate and coconut mixed with syrup and other goodies. But it was hard to chew and tough to swallow. I really needed my shot blocks, which I hadn’t had time to buy. I forgot I had a Vega gel in my belt, so that went uneaten (truthfully, I don’t know if I’d have been able to hold it down).

Most times when Anita and I run together we prop each other up. If one is struggling the other is able to encourage. But this time we both felt our energy get sucked away around the same time. After the race we both confessed that we felt like we were going to puke. I had a definite feeling of wooziness with more than 5K left to go.

I hauled out all the mantras I had, focusing on “fast feet” (which was a lie!) and “perpetual forward motion.” MEC has good signage, with lots of motivational sayings along the way (all of which elude me now).

When we crossed that finish line, later than we’d hoped to, my legs felt stiff and unsteady. I grabbed water and a half a banana. We both made our way over to the massage tables. Anita’s upper body was all seized up around her neck and shoulders.  My calves and hamstrings felt hard and tight, so much so that even a relatively gentle massage made me wince. My feet ached. This was not my usual post-race feeling. I was drained.

After our massages we walked slowly up the hill to the car. Having told ourselves earlier that we would treat this as a usual weekend run, we tried not to feel disappointed in our performance. Anita was disappointed that we didn’t get a medal for finishing. But we took a couple of post-race selfies anyway. It may not have been our best event, but we made the best of it.

And as a usual weekend goes, we treated ourselves to breakfast (or in Anita’s case, lunch) at Billy’s.

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Tracy (left) and Anita (right) post-race in the parking lot, looking reasonably cheerful.

The future is foxy!

We’ve written before about our friend Rachel’s new cycling team. See Another win for inclusive sport: Introducing Foxy Moxy Racing.

Now things are really getting under way. Rachel’s been sharing the following pitch on Facebook and Instagram and I thought I’d share it here too.

Good luck Rachel! We’re cheering for you.

 

Hi there! I’m Rachel. I race bikes. This year, I co-founded a team, Foxy Moxy Racing, with the vision of promoting radically inclusive sport for trans and gender non-conforming people (gnc). That means showing people that trans/gnc people exist, and helping build a community for current and potential trans/gnc athletes. Sport is a human right. That’s in the Olympic Charter as the very first of the Principles of Olympism. But trans and gender non-conforming people have struggled to find a home in sport. I want to change that.

I’ve chosen to race this year as an openly trans woman, at some of the highest levels of women’s cycling in the US and Canada. I’m hoping you can help, though: racing bikes across the country (and across the continent) is really expensive. So I’m reaching out for help funding my summer of racing for trans and gender non-conforming inclusive sport.

I have a full race calendar planned. It started with the Pro/1/2 stage race, the Tour of the Southern Highlands. I was thrilled to win the Stage 2 circuit race. Here’s where I’ll be:

March: Sunshine Grand Prix (FL)

April: USA Crits Speed Week (SC, NC, GA)

May: Winston-Salem Classic (NC)

June: North Star Grand Prix stage race (MN)

June: Canadian Elite Road Nationals (ON, Canada)

July: Intelligentsia Cup (IL)

August: Crossroads Classic (NC)

September: Gateway Cup (MO)

I’m seeking funding to help with travel and race fees. This schedule will cost over $1500 in race fees alone. I live in Charleston, SC, and I drive everywhere to keep costs down. Every little bit you can contribute helps! Thank you!! #thefutureisfoxy

You can find me on Instagram: @mckinnonrachel

You can find Foxy Moxy on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/FoxyMoxyRacing/

Donate here.

Hi everyone! Today is launched a personal fundraising campaign to help with my season of racing for trans and gender non-conforming inclusive sport. Please consider helping me with this project: https://www.generosity.com/sports-fundraising/rachel-racing-for-trans-inclusive-sport This year, I co-founded a team, Foxy Moxy Racing, with the vision of promoting radically inclusive sport for trans and gender non-conforming people (gnc). That means showing people that trans/gnc people exist, and helping build a community for current and potential trans/gnc athletes. Sport is a human right. That's in the Olympic Charter as the very first of the Principles of Olympism. But trans and gender non-conforming people have struggled to find a home in sport. I want to change that. I've chosen to race this year as an openly trans woman, at some of the highest levels of women's cycling in the US and Canada. I'm hoping you can help, though: racing bikes across the country (and across the continent) is really expensive. So I'm reaching out for help funding my summer of racing for trans and gender non-conforming inclusive sport. I have a full race calendar planned. It started with the Pro/1/2 stage race, the Tour of the Southern Highlands. I was thrilled to win the Stage 2 circuit race. Here's where I'll be: March: Sunshine Grand Prix (FL) April: USA Crits Speed Week (SC, NC, GA) May: Winston-Salem Classic (NC) June: North Star Grand Prix stage race (MN) June: Canadian Elite Road Nationals (ON, Canada) July: Intelligentsia Cup (IL) August: Crossroads Classic (NC) September: Gateway Cup (MO) I'm seeking funding to help with travel and race fees. This schedule will cost over $1500 in race fees alone. I live in Charleston, SC, and I drive everywhere to keep costs down. Every little bit you can contribute helps! Thank you!! #thefutureisfoxy You can find Foxy Moxy on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/FoxyMoxyRacing/ #girlslikeus #transinclusivesport #inclusivesport #lgbtq #transvisibility #socialchange #transrightsnow #allbodies #allgenders #strongertogether #cycling #strava #outsport @podiumwear @lazersportusa @everymanespresso @performancesci @madalchemy

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Part 2: The Fight (Guest Post)

Last week, Rebecca Kukla wrote about her prep for her first officially sanctioned boxing match. See “Part 1: Getting ready for my first sanctioned boxing match.” That left lots of us on the edge of our seats, wondering what happened! Well here’s part two. Enjoy!

by Rebecca Kukla

Dan arrived the morning of the fight, which was a very good thing, as I wasn’t allowed to do any working out other than stretching that day and I was far too nervous and uncomfortable from dehydration to do anything else. We spent a few hours hanging out and catching up and trying to help me unwind. Finally, that afternoon, we headed over to Gleason’s for the big event.

I knew, vaguely, that the event was a benefit for something that had sounded benefit-worthy, and also – very unusually – that all the boxers that night would be women. I did not understand that it would be a gala, with piles of fancy food and pass-around amuse-bouches and free foofy drinks. The event was a benefit for Save a Sato, which rescues street dogs in Puerto Rico. This was a group I was very happy to be supporting, but it was heavily gendered as well, as animal rescue organizations tend to be. So the gendering of the space was complex: there were a few of us boxers roaming around nearly-naked, getting ready to be as violent as we were able; there were ever-growing crowds of high-society women in evening gowns and expensive jewelry; there were a handful of fully-clothed down-to-earth dog-type women from the foundation itself; and finally there were a small minority of men, most of whom worked for the gym or were trainers or partners.

I felt acutely self-conscious as well as overwhelmed by the noise and the party atmosphere, not to mention very hungry and thirsty. I was desperate for the weigh-in and the medical exam to be over with so that I could eat and drink (though I’d be on Powerade and energy bars, not champagne and shrimp-and-coconut toasts with sprigs of fennel). Dan and I claimed a small corner of the back of the gym with a well-worn little ring and a single chair, where I tried to hide and wait for my trainer, Delvin Tyler, to arrive from DC. I needed his advice, his reassurance, his help warming up, and his paperwork, without which I could not fight.

We claimed the space successfully, but hiding was impossible. Every time I started to warm up, photographers swarmed me and popped flashes in my face, intensifying my self-consciousness and my impostor syndrome. At one point I was pulled over for a photo session with my opponent in front of a sign reading ‘No Ordinary Girls’ – the official name of the event. Debbie proved to be a fast-talking firecracker with a heavy New York accent who weighed in at 97.5 pounds and was completely adorable. Another thing I hadn’t realized was that Debbie was fighting for the ‘home team,’ representing the charity and wearing its shirt. She was also at her home gym. This was not good as far as crowd and judge sympathy went. I was desperate for Delvin to show up.

But when he did, the whole thing became a comedy of errors. Debbie had been presented to us as having one fight behind her, a loss, but we found out last-minute that her actual record was 2-2; this was not a fight that Delvin would even have let me accept if he had known. I had the wrong boxer’s passbook – I need a masters’ book (since I am over 35), not a regular one. One of the glitches I can’t even put in this blog post as it was patched up under a seal of secrecy. Delvin’s coaching papers were nowhere to be found and the computer listed his status as expired even though he had renewed it in person just for this purpose. I had non-regulation body jewelry that I had to remove, including one gauged tragus piercing that no one could get off: not the doctor, trying a variety of tools, not Delvin or Dan, neither of Delvin’s two other boxers who had showed up to watch and support us, and not even any of the random pierced partygoers who I approached for help. Each of these roadblocks seemed like it was about to keep me out of the ring altogether, and I was near tears. The staff was infuriated with me for all the glitches. A passbook for me was jammed together with a bunch of sticking tape last minute, as was my ear.

Sonya "The Scholar" Lamonakis, punching in a boxing match. Opponent up against the ropes.

Sonya “The Scholar” Lamonakis, in the pink.

In a dramatic development, we found out that Delvin would not be allowed to officially coach me because of the paperwork snafu; instead I would be coached by Sonya ‘The Scholar’ Lamonakis, the 5’7”, 220-pound Harlem public school teacher who was the reigning Women’s Heavyweight Champion of the World. I shit you not. The new plan was for Delvin to sit behind her and pass messages to her that she could convey to me during the fight, but I wasn’t allowed to turn around and look at him or anyone else who wasn’t officially in my corner (who knew?). I thought that Sonya was just going to coach me as a mere formality, but as soon this arrangement was settled, she jumped in full-throttle. She grabbed the mitts and finished my warm-up with me, grudgingly telling Delvin through her irritation that I was ‘well trained’ (ha! score one Delvin and score one me). She also proved to be a dead-serious and deeply skilled advocate for me once I got in the ring. I am a little bit in love with her.

In yet another narrative twist, I found out just before getting into the ring that I could not use the 10-ounce gloves I had picked and trained with. As a geriatric fighter, I had to use the gym’s giant 16-ounce gloves that were basically pillows the size of my head. I was not used to them at all, they slowed me down, and I had no ability to judge what counted as an opening with them on. This also did not bode well.

The evening wore on and fell increasingly behind schedule. Strange events I could hardly process occurred, such as a flaming jump rope demonstration, an auction, and some sort of synchronized boxing show involving women in matching outfits. I hid in my corner. At long last I was weighed, examined, wrapped, head-geared, mouth-guarded, giant-gloved, and it was time to fight. Mine was the first bout.

the fight captured over webcam. Rebecca punching Debbie, Debbie back to the ropes.

The fight, captured over webcam.

Frankly, during the fight I was in an altered state of consciousness and I hardly remember it. It was a three-round bout. Almost everyone was screaming for Debbie, though I could hear my little team calling my name. I came out slower than I would have liked, overwhelmed by the giant gloves and the noise, but by the end of the round I felt like I was controlling the ring and had Debbie on the run. She punched more than I did, but her punches glanced off me, and mine felt more precise. Looking at the video now I realize it was an aggressive round but I couldn’t tell that at the time. I also couldn’t tell at all whether I was leading or losing. During the break, Sonya told me to be more aggressive, that I was more powerful and shouldn’t let her out or back off. I heard Delvin and Dan and my boxing friend Shannon shouting the same from behind me, though I couldn’t look at them. I obliged and gave it all I had in round two, and I dominated the round, chasing Debbie to the ropes repeatedly and plunging through her punches and going for her body. When I made it back to my corner, Sonya told me I had won round two, that round one was up for grabs, and that I needed round three to win. Unfortunately by round three I was mentally exhausted and somehow tied myself in knots over the double knowledge that a win was both within reach and by no means a given. I started thinking too hard and slowed down just when I shouldn’t have. The round was still close, but Debbie definitely had the edge.

In the end they called the fight for Debbie, although it was as close to a tie as could be. I strode across the ring to congratulate her, and apparently I looked so intense that her coach thought I was coming over to beat someone up and rushed out to stop me. But honestly, I was (and am) delighted to have nearly tied and won one round solidly against a fighter with so much more ring experience, and given the crowd an enjoyable fight. And I certainly did that! I have to say, tiny and middle-aged and intensely aggressive, Debbie and I were big crowd-pleasers.

RK6

Debbie’s coach trying to stop me from what he thought was my imminent attack post fight. I was actually coming over to congratulate her!

A lot of people from both sides seemed surprised that they had called the fight for Debbie; their sense was that I had won the first two rounds and lost the third. I am not sure if this is right. To me, the fight looks like a dead tie, and I really do understand that if it was a tie or even quite close, it made sense to call it for the person who represented the charity and the gym. Or maybe she won fair and square by a narrow margin. I am not sure and don’t care much; I held my own against a five-time fighter in a disorienting crowd after a chaotic day. I am intensely proud and happy with how I did. And she’s already asked for a rematch in November, and I intend to beat her unequivocally then!

I honestly don’t remember getting out of the ring or back to my corner, or who removed my gear. My son (who also boxes) called from Florida, where he’s spending his school vacation with his dad, to congratulate me and tell me what I’d done wrong – he’d watched on the live webcam. I felt fine and energized until about ten minutes after the fight ended, when I suddenly realized I was about to throw up and pass out. I lay down on the floor trying not to submit. Just then Debbie came over and we had a fantastic bond over how much fun we’d had and how close the match had been, and that pulled me back to consciousness.

Lying on the floor because I had to.

Lying on the floor because I had to.

RK3

Rebecca with her trainer Devlin, looking relaxed and happy post-fight.

Me and my wonderful trainer, Delvin Tyler, finally relaxing post-fight.

My little team lingered at the gym until everything was shutting down, and then headed out for (more) celebratory drinks. Over the course of the evening, as we had more alcohol, Delvin’s take on the fight progressed from “I think it was close to a tie, but you maybe should have won,” to “WE GOT ROBBED!!!” shouted loudly and repeatedly in a bar under the Brooklyn Bridge. I don’t think anyone got robbed. But I am so grateful for Delvin’s enthusiastic and generous support, not to mention his incredibly skillful training, which got me within ten months to the point where I could get in the ring against a fighter with a decade of experience and make it through with pride.

Post fight: Rebecca with her trainer, Delvin, and her partner, Dan. Dan in a white suit, knows how to dress for a boxing match.

Me, Delvin, and Dan post-fight. Dan knows how to dress for a boxing match!

On the train home the next morning at dawn, I noticed I had a small but dark bruise over my left eye. I don’t remember when I got it; I didn’t feel any of the punches that landed on me at all. I heal fast, and I was sad to notice that the bruise was gone three days later. It’s almost like none of it really happened.

Watch the fight here:

“Too Slow” for What?

slowisthenewfastLast night I was at a party and got to talking about running with a former runner. He said that he used to do 10K in about 30 minutes.  30 MINUTES!? My mind did the quick math — at his prime, he was more than twice as fast as I am.  If I can achieve my goal of a sub-65 minute 10K in 2014, I’ll be pretty darn thrilled.  Once again, the refrain ran in my head: “I’m so slow.” Nevermind that according to Wikipedia that fastest recorded times by elite women are between 30-32 minutes.

Sam always bugs me (or rather, interrogates me–in a friendly way, not with spotlights or anything like that) about my self-image as a “slow runner.” I’ve often cited this as my reason for hesitating to join a running group.

So it was kind of gratifying to read this article by running coach, Jeff Gaudette, who says I’m not alone:

When I first started working with age group and recreational runners in 2006, one of the biggest surprises to me was the amount of negative thinking and lack of self-confidence many runners exhibited. Almost every runner that joined the group introduced themselves to me by stating “I’m probably the slowest person you’ve ever coached” or “you probably don’t work with runners as slow as I am.”

It didn’t matter what their personal bests actually were, almost all conversations started in a similar manner.

Unfortunately, I’ve found that not much has changed in the last seven years. Many runners, both new and experienced, hesitate to join local running groups or participate in online communities. When asked why, most respond that they are embarrassed by how slow they are.

That’s strong–to feel embarrassed by how slow we are.  But it’s exactly how it feels. There is something like a feeling of shame that comes up when I think about being a slow poke.  I felt it when I was riding my bike with Sam and her friends–they were always waiting for me.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, of course–they’re seasoned riders. I was out on my second long-ish ride ever.  [ride report here in this post about suffering]

I think this is an important topic because it comes up in all sorts of areas where we track speed.  I felt the same thing when I started swimming with a group.  The feeling that I am slow — or too slow, to be precise — was so strong that the first time the coach suggested I train in the next fastest lane to the one I’d been training in I refused.

Gaudette makes a number of good points about the “I’m so slow” mindset. First off, it’s quite negative to the people who have it.  Very few people embrace it. Rather, they (like me) lament it and feel badly about it.  In some cases, it’s enough to dissuade them entirely.

Responding to this, I’ve seen a host of t-shirts and mugs and so on that say things like “No matter how slow you go, you’re still lapping everyone on the couch” and “There is no such thing as a slow runner. There are just runners and everyone else.”  I’m not totally convinced. It’s just a fact that some people are faster than others.

The question is: does this matter?

Having established that I’m not trying out for the Canadian Olympic team or anything like that, why should I care about how fast I am in comparison to other people?  So the idea of being “too slow” makes me wonder, “too slow for what?” I’ve written about participating even if you know you’re not going to win here.  And Sam has posted about age group medals here.

Of course, there are those naysayers who complain about the way age-group categories and more diverse participation has taken the mystique out of marathons. A New York Times headline asks: “Plodders have a place, but is it in a marathon?” The article reports that there is indeed a lot of judgment out there about slower runners. And that’s because there are lots of them:

Trends show that marathon finishers are getting slower and slower — and more prevalent — according to Running USA, a nonprofit organization that tracks trends in distance running. From 1980 to 2008, the number of marathon finishers in the United States increased to 425,000 from 143,000.

In 1980, the median finishing time for male runners in United States marathons was 3 hours 32 minutes 17 seconds, a pace of about eight minutes per mile. In 2008, the median finishing time was 4:16, a pace of 9:46. For women, that time in 1980 was 4:03:39. Last year, it was 4:43:32.

But back to Gaudette, who says that this fear of being slow plagues even faster runners:

Former professional runner Ryan Warrenburg recently discussed how he’s hesitant to call himself an “elite” runner. Ryan has run 13:43 for a 5k — I’d call that fast and worthy of elite status. Do you know where his time ranks him in the world? I don’t because it’s way outside the top 500 (sorry, Ryan).

One way around it is to do as, according to this article about “The Slowest Generation,” the younger generation does: thumb your nose at the whole idea that speed matters.

But instead of fighting back, the young increasingly are thumbing their nose at the very concept of racing. Among some, it simply isn’t cool, an idea hilariously illustrated in a 2007 YouTube Video called the Hipster Olympics. In those Games, contestants do anything to avoid crossing the finish line—drink beer, lounge in the grass, surf the Web.

Yet something remotely akin to that is happening. Perhaps the fastest-growing endurance event in the country, the Color Run, doesn’t time participants or post results. “Less about your 10-minute mile and more about having the time of your life, The Color Run is a five-kilometer, un-timed race,” says its website.

I think there is a happy medium between not caring about speed at all, and thinking that being among the average or slower runners is something to feel embarrassed about.  When I first started running, I really didn’t care about getting faster at all.  But now, I like to see increases in my average times as signs of progress.  I’m balancing increases in distance with increases in my various paces.  My slower runs aren’t quite as slow as they used to be. My faster intervals are stepping up compared to where they were a year ago.

In my swim training, over the 3 months of group training with a coach, I shaved 10 seconds from my 200 metre time. To me, that felt pretty good.  In fact, I felt great about it. Then one day we did a relay and I had other team members who are considerably faster.  For a moment, I allowed that to discount my accomplishment. But then one of them complained about her leg of the relay.  So yes, as Gaudette says, it’s all about your point of reference.

I like to keep my point of reference focused on me. I’m not too slow to do what I enjoy doing. And in fact, despite that I’m getting older, there’s still room for me to get faster and achieve new personal bests.

And as I said in my “Never Say Never” post, maybe I can lose the “I’m so slow” identity.  The best way for me to do that is to press myself on the question, “too slow for what?”  I remember last summer when I began running with a group. I thought for sure I would be the slowest in the pack.  I was shocked to discover I wasn’t. And did I judge anyone slower than me negatively for being slower?  Of course not.

If the worry that you’re “too slow” is holding you back from running with a group (or running at all), I recommend that you give it a try. Chances are very good that you won’t be alone at your pace.  And if you have any aspirations for running faster, training with a group is a good way to go.

Good luck meeting your 2014 goals!

Why Participate If I’m Not Going to Win?

Finish-LineThere better be reasons to participate if I’m not going to win, or I’d never have a reason to participate (given that my chances of winning are slim!).  I just finished reading a fascinating book called Iron War: Dave Scott, Mark Allen, and the Greatest Race Ever Run, by Matt Fitzgerald.  It’s about the Ironman rivalry between Dave Scott, the first athlete to really dominate the Ironman triathlon (with six first place finishes), and Mark Allen, the one who (after several tries and much effort), eventually dethroned Dave Scott and went on to garner six titles himself.

The Ironman is that endurance race that originated in Hawaii, in the late seventies, with twelve participants in the first year. It’s a 2.4 mile swim, followed by a 112 mile bike ride, and then a full marathon.  At its inception, it was just about completing the thing.  But when Dave Scott first took on the challenge in 1980, he wanted to turn it into a race.

Where finishing times in the first two years were over the eleven hour mark, Dave blasted the field, spending the entire race alone and taking first place in 9 hours, 24 minutes, and 33 seconds. The day he finished second to Mark Allen in 1989, he did the course in 8 hours, 10 minutes, and 13 seconds, just 58 seconds behind Allen.

Reading this book, you get into the mindset that winning is everything.  It’s not enough to complete the gruelling race. It’s not enough even to complete it well. It’s all about winning, breaking records, pushing as hard as you can so you can beat the other guy.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved the book and I got caught up in the drama.  I felt badly for those poor dudes who, behind these two, had to settle for battling it out for third or fourth place in the Iron Man race in Hawaii.  It was all very macho.

Not that women can’t or shouldn’t compete, of course. I’ve blogged about the competitive feminist here.  But, as I mentioned earlier this summer in this post, I’m a big fan of medals for everyone.

One topic that came up in Fitzgerald’s book and that I’ve heard in other circles as well (such as marathons), is whether the people who are aiming just to finish cheapen the race.  It is, after all, a race. The rules of the game say that if you’re racing you’re supposed to be trying to finish as fast as you can and, while you’re at it, trying to beat the other competitors.

Sam pointed out quite some time ago that she thinks of her earlier self as her only real competition. See her post about that.

She also shared how she felt when a very competitive team trounced her team in the recreational soccer league she plays for in her post “It’s Just a Game.”  The issue was that the team also played in a competitive league. They used the recreational league as practice.

Is there something wrong, unsportsmanlike (is there a gender neutral word for that?), with a team that is high-fiving, going for every goal they can, in a recreational league where they are clearly out-classing the other team?  Should a competitive team even be allowed to play in a rec league? Sam thinks yes to the first, no to the second question.

In events like triathlons and marathons and so forth there are often two classes of competitors — the professionals or elite athletes and the “age group” competitors.  But regardless of whether you’re pro or amateur, surely there is a place for people in the race who are not the ones who are going to win? Even Mark Allen didn’t win until his sixth attempt, for goodness sake!

So it doesn’t seem fair to say that the mere presence of those who don’t place cheapens an event.  What people claim, rather, is that people who are not even trying to win but are just trying to finish somehow take away from the overall achievement of those who finish well.

In the early days of the Ironman, it was routine to spend a fair bit of time walking through the marathon.  Remember, it began as a challenge to see if it could even be done, not to see how fast it could be done.  In the first Ironman competition in 1978, only one person finished the marathon in under 4 hours. The rest who finished took between 4 and 8.5 hours.

One of Dave Scott’s reasons for not retiring earlier and for continuing to go back to the Ironman was that he didn’t want his legacy to be of the man who dominated “back in the day” when it wasn’t competitive. As an aside, his second place finishing time of 8:10:13 against Mark Allen in 1989 has only ever been beaten five times since.

Since marathons have attracted wide participation, the average finishing time is longer than it has ever been.  Is that a bad thing?  I don’t see why it should be.  At the elite level, we can still see people testing the limits of what the human body can do, breaking records, etc.  And at the level of the everyday athlete, we’ve got more people testing the limits of what their body can do, pursuing personal bests, extending their endurance from 5K to 10K to half marathon to marathon.  Sounds all good to me.

I want to be a moderate here, and say that it’s possible to be super-impressed with the winners while also appreciating the effort of the finishers.  I was totally humbled in my mid-summer triathlon that became a duathlon  because so many women in the 60-65 age group beat my time by 20 minutes.  It gives me something to aim for (if I can shave 2 minutes a year off of my time…), people to be impressed by, but didn’t in the least take away from my sense that I’d accomplished something just by completing the task set out for me that morning (especially since it wasn’t what I signed up for!).

So why participate if not to win?   I can think of a few reasons:

1. It’s tons of fun.

2. It’s a training goal for participants at all levels.  I wouldn’t make it out for runs and swims and bike rides nearly as often if I didn’t have the next triathlon on my calendar.

3. There is something about race day that brings out the best performer in people even if they aren’t going to win or place. I know that I’ve amazed myself each time I’ve raced.

4. It’s empowering.

5. Lots of events raise money for worthy charities. So you can pursue your fitness goals and support good causes at the same time.  And there are lots to choose from. The Run for the Cure is not the only charity race even if they’re one of the loudest!

6. Finishing is something to feel good about. Look, when I started running, I couldn’t keep going for 2 minutes without needing a walk break. Now I can sustain over 20 minutes of running and I need just a minute or two of recovery walking before I can start up again.  On race day, I can even do better than that.

7.  It’s exciting to try new things. I never thought I’d get excited about triathlon. I just signed up on a lark at Sam’s urging.  But now I love it!  I love training for it and I am over-the-moon excited for September 15. Fingers crossed that the swim won’t get cancelled.

The Competitive Feminist: the Bad, the Ugly, and the Good

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Earlier this week, when Jennifer Lawrence accepted her (much-deserved) Golden Globe Award for her performance in Silver Linings Playbook, the first thing she said was, “This means I beat Meryl.” I cringed (not knowing at the time that this is, apparently, a reference to a line from the 1996 film The First Wives Club). I cringed because that’s not what you’re supposed to say.

You’re supposed to say something gracious and generous about the strong field of women with whom you were nominated. You’re supposed to say, “You like me, you really like me.” You’re not supposed to talk about winners and losers. Remember when, at the Academy Awards, they switched from “And the winner is…” to “And the Oscar goes to…”?

Some say competition runs counter to feminist ideals, making the very idea of competition “un-feminist.” In 1972, volume one of Ms. Magazine included an article by Letty Cottin Pogrebin entitled, “Competing with Women.” And in 1987, Valerie Miner and Helen Longino co-edited a collection of essays, Competition: A Feminist Taboo?  It opened with a re-print of the Pogrebin essay.

They suggest that feminists have had difficulty talking about competition—hence, the taboo—because it they consider it a key feature of the patriarchal social structure that feminists criticize.  The default assumption that competition is not just un-feminine (though it is that too), but actually un-feminist. Why? Well, it’s sometimes bad, and sometimes downright ugly.

Competition isn’t just suspect for being masculinist and patriarchal (and capitalist). It’s divisive and hierarchical. You can’t have winners without losers.  And aren’t winners superior to losers? The gold medalist stands at the top of the podium.  What about feminist solidarity? What about equality? How does a good feminist reconcile competition with that?

This unease with the idea of competition means that many women who consider themselves feminists are loathe to admit to their competitive tendencies. We compete with ourselves. We support our sisters. We hold hands as we cross the finish line.

And yet, feminist or not, don’t we all like to win?

A few months ago I played Scrabble with a friend who didn’t care about winning. She just played any old word, not striving to lay down all the tiles, land on triple word scores, or get the most out of blanks and Qs and Zs.  That’s not how I play Scrabble.  Where I come from, you play to win. You challenge words. You play by the rules. You do not, I repeat, do not under any circumstances leave an open triple.  I won that game. But I didn’t feel like a winner because we weren’t both competing.

If competition is bad because it is unfeminist and creates winners and losers, it can also be downright ugly.  Valerie Miner has an essay about competition among feminist writers called “Rumors from the Cauldron.”  The cauldron, that bubbling brew that cackling witches stir, cursing their enemies and wishing them ill.

She talks about the ugly side of competition:  envy, jealousy, resentment.  She talks about wanting to feel happy for our friends who succeed, but instead feeling envious of their success, wishing it were ours. And then we feel guilty for feeling that way.

I’ve been on both sides of the envy, and neither feels good.  If we care about our friends and know that our successes in some way hurt them, then it’s easy to feel hurt in turn (why aren’t they happy for us?), and also to then have to downplay our victories and successes.

When I was a PhD student in a stressful doctoral program in philosophy, my housemate and I used to take time out from our studies by playing backgammon. When we were learning the game together, we had a splendid time. It was loads of fun.  At certain point we turned a corner with it.

Instead of being a happy outlet from a difficult day, it became a complicated context of emotional management (what some might call co-dependence). The winner couldn’t just play her best, most strategic game and win. Instead, we started to try to gauge how the other was feeling.  Was the trouncing making her upset?  Would using the doubling cube just be an added cruelty? (We actually banned use of the doubling cube.)

Sometimes, the winner felt the need to apologize for winning. Sometimes the pending loser had to bow out, apologetically, because she’d had a rough enough day already, thank you very much. No one got to feel good.

Around that time I developed an aversion to competition. It wasn’t just about the backgammon. Competing was emotionally draining. If I won, I felt a mixture of joy and guilt. If I lost, I felt inferior and unworthy. I recognize that none of this is healthy and that it reveals at best that I was a bad sport, at worst that I needed lots of therapy.  But my competitive nature led me to take myself out of competition as much as I could. It just felt ugly.

All this, and I haven’t yet talked about sports. It’s become part of my public “narrative” about myself that I do not enjoy playing competitive sports. I’m more about yoga and running (for my own satisfaction) and resistance training for strength. And even when I run a race, I’m only going for a personal best, not actually trying to place.

Mostly, I have to confess, I don’t like competing in sports because of the combination of two factors: I’m not all that good at sports and I can be a poor loser. When I say I’m a poor loser, I mean I feel badly about myself when I lose, and I am apt to need at least a little bit of time before I can feel happy for she who beats me (unless I, like my Scrabble friend, wasn’t actually competing to begin with–then it’s okay because I wasn’t trying to beat her anyway).

And yet I recognize sports as perhaps the one domain where women can compete against one another in a healthy, socially acceptable way.  It’s the area where we don’t have to be nurturing and cooperative and concerned about how our opponents feel about our success.

I see it as a domain where we should be able to go for the win because we can (if we can). We can feel empowered at our own accomplishments while at the same time applauding the success of those who train harder or have done better in the genetic lottery than we have or both. We can set ourselves personal goals and, as Samantha says in her post about who she’s trying to beat, look at ourselves as our fiercest competition. We can admire champions.

Sports and athletics are where we can find the good in competition. Mariah Burton Nelson has a wonderful book, Embracing Victory: Life Lessons in Competition and Compassion, New Choices for Women, where she explores and develops, with much depth and eloquence, a feminist theory of victory in sports. It’s really about winning with grace and compassion, about developing your own criteria for success (and not necessarily shying away from winning as a goal), about attending to the process, about being willing to lose.

We need to give ourselves permission to compete. Lift the taboo.  And lighten up.

She cites a lovely quote from the tennis champion, Chris Evert:  “If you can react the same to winning and losing, that’s a big accomplishment.” I love how Evert shifts the idea of accomplishment away from “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” and towards the attitude with which you accept the outcome.

We don’t have to hold hands across the finish line. But we can go for the group hug when we all get there!

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