After more than three years of not doing anything “official,” I signed up for a 5K and ran it last weekend. And it was a blast. A few of my running group did it too. None of us went in with big dreams and all of us had a fun time.
Considering that my last event was the Around the Bay 30K back in 2019 (see my overly optimistic report of that ill-fated day here — it was ill-fated because the next day I had a back injury and shortly after that I had achilles issues and basically I didn’t run much again for about nine months), the 5K felt like an odd choice. Not because there is anything wrong with 5K, but because it isn’t a distance that I needed to train for since I run more than that regularly (our Sunday minimum is usually around 7.5 and we often do more than that). I’ve never done an event that I haven’t had to train for.
I also had difficulty deciding what my goal should be. I really haven’t gotten back on track with any regular routine since the ATB in 2019, and when I go out I go out for fun, not for fast results. So I decided that my goal would be to come in under 40 minutes. That might seem like an unchallenging goal to some, but I wanted something that I could actually meet. Indeed, a friend who hasn’t run since she was in her thirties literally laughed at me when I stated that goal, as if it was ridiculously easy.
On race day I felt good. It was a gorgeous autumn day and we met just over 1K from the start line and ran there as a little warm-up. Unlike events in the past, I didn’t need to concern myself with whether I could make the distance. I decided I would stick to my usual 10-1 intervals that I do every Sunday.
In the end, most of my group broke away from me within the first 500m, with one falling into place a little bit behind. I didn’t end up wanting to walk for the one-minute walking intervals, and I was pacing reasonably well all things considered. My chip-time was 35:19 and I felt strong–only mildly regretting that I hadn’t pushed just a little bit harder to come in under 35 minutes. In any case, it gave me a new goal for my sixtieth birthday, which is to try to shave a few minutes off of my 5K time and perhaps even complete it in 30:00. It was also a fun time for the group, all of whom were smiling at the end, as you can see in our photo.
If there is a moral to this story, it’s that going back to something I used to do, and keeping my expectations very low, can actually feel really good. Have you returned to something that you’d set aside? If so, I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments.
It’s a little bit late for a happy new year post but: Happy New Year. I am not one for resolutions, but I do absolutely love the exhilarating feeling of a fresh page. And that’s what the first week of a new year always feels like to me.
Even more than the first week after a birthday, there is a special sense of hope and optimism that I only experience once a year at the very beginning. So I’m kind of in that state of receptivity at the moment, excited to discover what the year may bring.
I ushered in the new year on a peaceful note, on my mat in a dimly lit yin yoga class that started at 11 p.m. and ended shortly after midnight when the thunderous sounds of “happy new year” fire works filtered into the silence of the studio to mark the end of class, the end of 2018, and the beginning of our new blank page. My good friend, Tara, was on the mat beside me, and we tilted our gazes towards each other and mouthed the words “happy new year.” Other friends–Jan, Jenn, and Kyle–had chosen a similarly quiet transition into 2019. It felt perfect.
By the time Tara, Jan and I ventured out into the night, the rain, which had been coming down with fury when we got to the studio just after ten, had stalled to a very light drizzle. It was an unseasonably mild evening and we walked back to Tara’s feeling light and happy, passing a few revelers on the way.
The next morning I lay in my bed deliberating whether to turn back over and go to sleep again, or to get out the door for a training run. Thinking on my fresh page, I reasoned that it would be better to start it with follow-through than with skipping. I’m a big believer in establishing good habits, and even though technically there is nothing dramatically different about January 1st, symbolically it sets a tone.
I reviewed my scheduled workout from the plan Linda sent me (I’m working with her again for my Around the Bay 30K training), checked the weather (a temperate 1 degree C), and got myself organized for an 8K run with hill repeats.
About ten steps into my run I knew for absolute certain that I’d made the right choice. I felt light, strong, and relaxed. I told myself I could shorten the distance if I wanted, but the 8K rolled out with ease. Even the hill repeats, which are never simple and which I’ve not done in ages, felt good. With just over a kilometre to go, my friend Pete, whom I’ve never run with, caught up to me at the tail end of his run. We ran alongside each other for about a kilometre and caught up about our respective new year’s eves. It felt like a nice bonus to have some unexpected, easy companionship for that last bit.
It was, all in all, the perfect start to my new year. I’m doing the 219 workouts in 2019 thing this year, focusing on running, yoga, and weight training. So far, I ran on the 1st, went to yoga on the 2nd, and have a weight training session later today. I’m feeling good about Around the Bay.
Life is not all workouts, of course. But if the workouts are any indication of how 2019 is going to feel, then “bring it on,” I say, because so far I’ve felt strong, relaxed, energized, and self-nurturing.
May 2019 be a year of amazing discovery and adventure for all of us!
How are you feeling about the fresh page that has presented itself this week?
It’s Christmas Day and I’m in Haliburton, Ontario this year. Though it started off very cold (about -15 C), it warmed up to -3 C a couple of days ago and that temperature held steady, with a little bit of light and beautiful snow, yesterday.
That meant good conditions, temperature-wise anyway, for running. I’ve been sort of off track with it, just dabbling since the half marathon in October. And then with China at the beginning of December and re-entry into the Easter Time zone after that, coupled with a huge end-of-term scramble, my running just didn’t come together.
Until last weekend when I went out with the Running Room Around the Bay training group for their Sunday long run. Anita and I have committed to do Around the Bay 30K on March 31st, and though it seemed really far in the future when we signed up, it’s a mere three months and a week away now. And 30K is a long way. So it’s imperative that I adopt a consistent training plan about now and stick with it.
It amazes me always how quickly I can go from “oh wow, I’m off track completely!” to “hey, back on track and feeling good.” This time the transformation took exactly three outings. There was the Sunday with the RR, then a couple of days ago, another Sunday run up here on my favourite cottage road in the world (shortened from 10K to 9K because of icy uneven ground–the Yak Trax took care of the slipperiness but not the unevenness), and then, because the weather was so perfect on Christmas Eve, another 5K yesterday.
Here I am on my Sunday run a couple of days ago:
And lo and behold — I feel back on track. I’ve been communicating with my coach, Linda. I took a breather from her training plans for a couple of months, but we’re working together again and she sent me a new plan on the weekend and it kicks me into gear in a couple of days.
I realize that winter running can range from amazing , when it’s crisp and clear and not too cold and the pavement is not treacherous, to freezing and icy and windy and unpleasant. But right now, with the conditions we’ve had in recent days, it’s feeling do-able.
The prospect of Around the Bay should keep me on task. And working with Linda, combined with the camaraderie of Anita and the RR Sunday run club group that’s training for the race, will be fun and motivating.
One of my favourite things about winter running is the post-run bath. Up here in Haliburton it’s even better because of the clawfoot tub.
All the best for a great Christmas today if you’re celebrating Christmas, and just generally for an awesome day regardless!
1. When I first realized I was doing it, that evening – I was running ten kilometres and would finish squarely in front of the building where I lived – I should have had the right music. I had my running mix singing through earbuds and in a perfect world I would have been hearing something triumphant, David Bowie’s “Heroes” or one of Bruce Springsteen’s anthems, or even something embarrassingly dramatic like the Rocky theme. What I had instead was Patti Smith’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “The Changing of the Guards”. It’s a great cover and I suggest you listen to it, but it doesn’t have the exuberant finality the moment at first seemed to require. “The Changing of the Guards” is a gorgeous, allusive song filled with fragments of enchanted landscapes: banners flying over fields and witches holding flowers and a town of merchants and thieves. It doesn’t really add up to victory and personal best, and that is why, in the end, it was the right song for the moment.
2. The moment was a long time coming. I am not an athlete. I inhaled the Cartesian mind/body dualism long before I had words for it. I knew from earliest childhood that I was a mind (or rather, an avid reader who was good at school, which seemed like the same thing) and therefore I could not be a body as well. I was no good at anything involving dexterity because I am severely left-handed, with poor vision in one eye and a vexing inability to locate objects in space, which I now understand as the proprioceptive equivalent of dyslexia. Ergo, I was no good at throwing or catching; ergo, I wasn’t athletic because I equated athleticism with gym class. I regarded people who were athletic in this sense with a mix of envy and mild fear, like the hearty fun-in-the-sun jocks of high school and summer camp. Later I learned about feminism and cultural critiques of normativity, and somewhere in there I learned the term “body fascism”, which I applied liberally (if inwardly) to anyone I didn’t particularly like who seemed to
be in great physical shape. (It didn’t occur to me that there might be something like “mind fascism” and that I might be doing it). So when I turned into a runner at 52, I was heading into terrain that I had never claimed as my own.
3. I don’t mean to tell this as an uplifting story. If the months when I started running were to be released as a biopic or an Oprah appearance or an Eat-Pray-Love narrative, it would be unsatisfying. There are no aha moments, and no inspiring struggles against odds. I started running for a few reasons: because I was getting really tired of yoga; because I had heard there was a runner’s high or a zone of exaltation and I wanted to get into it; because my life was swelling up with midlife stressors that wouldn’t go away and I’ve always believed that if you can’t do anything else, you can always do something new. And this was new.
4. So several evenings a week I went outside and started to run, and then when I started to feel pretty bad I ran a bit more, and when I felt worse I stopped. I had no training or learn-to-run program, and my only accessories were an MP3 player and a Strava app, which quantified and fixed my runs as little maps and nuggets of data. I was gratified that my first few runs weren’t disastrous, that I could keep asking myself “what happens if I keep going a bit more … and a bit more … and a bit more… can I do another ten steps? Yes I can. Another? Yes”. It occurred to me that if I just kept doing ten more steps, I might never stop. I might run forever. And the more I ran, the more I was drawn to the idea of never stopping.
5. Obviously I didn’t run forever. But one of the reasons I continue to run is to get to that place where it feels like I could run right off the top of the earth, a sort of disciplined wildness that had been within me all along, until my pounding heart and the trees sliding past called it out of me.
6. Before this descends in Women Who Run With the Wolves, I’m going to loop back to Patti Smith and the gorgeousness of “The Changing of the Guards”. I live and run in the eastern part of central Edmonton, midtownish, neither hip urban centre nor suburb. It was built between the 1930s and 1960s and is not especially beautiful. Rows of houses are interspersed with walkup apartments and utilitarian throwbacks to the days when people congregated in the neighbourhood – community league halls, schools, churches, mini-strip malls, now mainly underused. At the peak of midday it’s not full of people,
and by 9.00 on a summer weeknight, it’s very quiet. The streets are wide, the sunset is lit up faintly by the refineries to the east and the elms and conifers are dropping shadows around me. I know – something in the air or the light – that I’m up north and high above sea level. I pass fellow travelers I recognize from previous runs: the orange tabby with half a tail, the lone kid in the spray park, the taco truck parked behind the curling rink, but as it gets later these sightings trail off until it’s just me and a hundred different forms of dying light. No one will ever spin a fable about east-central Edmonton but running transforms it into a strange and marvelous world to inhabit, as vivid to me as Dylan’s images.
7. Is this feminism? Because I am a woman, does everything I do with strength and power become feminist? I don’t know. Certainly not everything in my life is done this way, which makes running important to me. Whatever else I do, I will always be the woman who ran ten kilometres for the first time when she was 52, and who could imagine herself never stopping, running right off the surface of the earth.
I ran the Ottawa Race Weekend Scotiabank Half-Marathon last Sunday. And as happens to countless other athletes in the minutes, hours and days following a race, game or competition, I was asked: “How’d it go?”
“How’d it go?” such a simple little question on the surface and, assuming the question is well-intentioned (not always the case, but we’ll leave that for another blog), something asked out of genuine interest in the participant’s assessment of what happened during the event. The answer, however, is tricky because whether you like it or not, you have to reflect on what your performance means to you (in relation to one or more indicators, be it an objective metric like time, score or ranking or a subjective perception, like effort, satisfaction or fun) and then, you have to decide what you are going to say about it to others. Sometimes, these two steps flow smoothly from one to the other – usually when you meet or exceed whatever expectations you had. Other times there is no clear answer because it depends on how you want to characterize what happened. Glass half-empty or glass half-full? This latest half-marathon was just such a situation. Through the prism of three possible answers to the question, here is how I worked through what I thought of my race and what I would say about it.
Answer number 1: “I ran a 1:44.21.” Answering with a race time is a typical, quick response. I thought about just saying this multiple times. Before the race, I had indicated to some of my running friends that I hoped to run a sub-1:45. For anyone who does a sport that is measured against the clock, you know there are thresholds imbued with a certain aura. A sub-1:45 half-marathon is one of them, because it translates into a sub-5:00 min/km pace, a kind of badge of honour among older racers like me (I’m 48) who still remember when they could run really fast without nearly as much effort.
In the world of amateur running, competition is a relative concept. I do not try to compete with elite runners or even category winners. Even in my 45-49 category, the fastest women run times that are beyond my reach. My objectives are calibrated to what I think I can achieve – on a good day, when things go well, taking into account the reality that running is an activity I love but which can command only a limited amount of my time in comparison to that which is taken up by my family, my friends, my colleagues and students, my academic career, my community etc.
Against this backdrop, it would be tempting to say, just be happy you can run, just go out there and have fun, who cares about the time? Well, umm, I do. I have been racing in some form or another my entire life: cross-country, middle distance track, 5 & 10k road races, marathons, triathlons, Masters swim meets and open-water swims. As I have joked to many people over the years: you can take an athlete out of competition, but you cannot take competition out of an athlete. Age, injuries, family and work responsibilities, none of that can ever dim the desire to perform and to achieve goals. Of course, this applies to other areas of life too, but sport remains a particularly fertile ground for setting measurable targets. But a time never tells the whole story and this was especially true for my half-marathon this year.
Answer number 2: “It went really well until about 16k, when I got a massive calf cramp. I kept going but the cramp never went away completely. I finished ok, but not as well as I could have.”
The bane of the older athlete’s existence is the way the body can break down in ways it never has before. Sometimes, we see it coming, sometimes it hits without warning. Going into Sunday’s race, I was worried about lingering issues with my hamstrings, which have become quite vulnerable (running plus a desk job is terrible for hamstrings).
In 2015, my first half-marathon after more than 10 years (and 3 kids) away from road racing, I ran a personal best time of 1:39.53, but I paid for it dearly when in the weeks following the race I started to notice sharp pain in my left hamstring when I ran at faster tempos. I foolishly did not heed these early warning signs and ended up with a hamstring tear (there was never a precise cause identified and it took months to diagnose, but I knew something was not right by the fall of 2015). It took 18 months to recover, during which I could do little running and it nearly drove me crazy! I ran the 2017 half-marathon but I was much more careful and much slower (1:46.32).
In preparing for this year’s race, my left hamstring was fine, but my right hamstring had occasionally bothered me in training. When I woke up on race day, however, I felt great. It was a cool overcast morning and I could sense in my bones that the conditions for racing would be near perfect – the times were going to be fast this year. Nevertheless, I started the race cautiously, watching my pacing, making sure I was not going out too fast. At about 15k, I looked down at my watch: a 4:51 km/min, not lightning speed, but a good solid pace. I said to myself: “No need to push, your first half of the race was strong, all you need to do is stick on this pace and you’re golden.” Hubris, I suppose. 500 m later, my calf seized up in a cramp so intense I had to stop running. More than the pain, I felt the utter shock of surprise: how can this be? I have never had a calf cramp in my life! In an instant, I knew my fast time was history.
But the injury, though significant, was still only part of the story.
Answer number 3: “I had so much fun out there: the atmosphere was amazing. I just love being part of this race!”
If you have ever run in a mass race, you will know that while running in the crowd of runners, you are part of something larger than yourself. Even if people are actually running at variable speeds, you are part of a continuous flow that carries you along, if not physically, at least psychologically. Until you stop.
When I had my calf cramp, I was stopped for all of about 20-30 seconds as I tried to stretch it out. Nevertheless, I watched what seemed like thousands of runners whizz past me. I will admit it was dispiriting. Then I had another surprise. A runner stopped at my side for a few moments. He said: “You ok? Try rolling your foot more to take the pressure off the calf. And here, take this. Good luck!” He handed me a packaged electrolyte “gummy bar” and was gone. I did not have time to note his name or bib number. But I will forever be grateful to him for altering the course of the race for me. Not for the calf muscle – even the gummy bar could not eliminate the pain and awkward gait I would have to manage for the next 5 km – but for the change in attitude his gesture prompted in me.
Though I do a lot of sports, I will always be first and foremost a runner. Running is one of the few spaces in my busy life that remains completely mine and allows me to reconnect with that fleet-footed 10 year-old I once was, who ran out of pure joy without a care in the world. Now, she said to me : “Hey, this cramp may slow you down, but you don’t have to let it ruin your fun.” So I started up again, resolved to enjoy every single minute. I smiled at every funny sign I saw (my favourite: “Enjoy this quiet time away from the kids!”), I clapped in appreciation at the bands playing on the roadside, I high-fived every kid who held out his or her hand, and I blew kisses to the throngs of spectators who lined the final kilometres of the course. Most important, I did not once look at my watch. When I crossed the line at 1:44.50 (gun time, not chip time), I was pleasantly surprised.
Three answers, all factually accurate, all different perspectives on the same race. So what’s the takeaway? Each of them is an important part of why I continue to race.
First, performance metrics, like time, when kept in reasonable bounds, give me something to strive for and provide a focus for training. I may not have had my best time this year, but I was encouraged and pleased with the first 2/3 of the race. At the finish line, my first thought was : I am not done; there is room for improvement yet. I can run faster!
Second, injuries happen, especially as we age. The calf strain was a reminder not to take the body for granted, but I was also heartened by how well my hamstrings have held up. I realized that with proper care and training, it is possible to rebuild and recover.
Finally, attitude is everything. Clearly, finishing the half-marathon with a smile is small potatoes in comparison with other more important matters. But it was a reminder to me of the transformative power of choosing to be positive in the face of adversity.
So how’d it go? “It was fast, it was tough and it was fun! And I can’t wait till next year!”
Bio: An avid runner and swimmer who also enjoys cycling, cross-country skiing, and yoga, Jennifer is a married mother of three and a professor in the Civil Law Section of the Faculty of Law of the University of Ottawa.
(This post is a conversation between Cate and Tracy).
Cate: So we’ve been talking about this story that’s circulating about a town in Texas that’s hosting a 0.5K race, complete with a beer at the start line and donuts halfway through. Now, here’s the thing. This is supposed to be playful — their site presents the “race” this way:
The um, “Run” will start at River Road Park, just across from the Dodging Duck. Conveniently, the Duck has offered all participants a free pint of beer before the start of the race, so get there early. Yay beer!
The um, “Race”, will then head down the River Road Park walkway, underneath the Main Street Bridge where you will finish in a blaze of glory.
We will then head to the Cibolo Creek Brewery to relive the experience, brag to our friends, take selfies to post on social media “I DID IT!!! I’M A FINISHER!! LOOK AT ME!!!” Conveniently, CCB has offered all participants a free pint of beer at the end of the race. Yay beer!
Now, sure this sounds fun and everything, and I get why it sold out. It’s just a fun send up of “real” races But for some reason, hearing a story on CBC about this irritated me. I’ve been thinking about why — and I know this makes me sound totally churlish — and I think it’s because it buys into the trope that everyone “secretly hates” exercise.
One headline about it was “this town is hosting a 0.5k race because running sucks.” I think I’m kind of sensitive about the shade I sometimes get about working out a lot from people who don’t — the implication that I’m some kind of masochist or showing off my virtue or a “fitness-aholic.”
Did it bug you?
Tracy: Yes, it bugged me too! My first encounter with this story was in a link to an article entitled “This town is hosting a 0.5K race for people who hate running,” but when you click through appears to be the same article as the one Cate just linked to (with one with “…because running sucks”). My reaction right away was, “FFS why don’t they just find a different activity?”
I said that before I read the article. A closer read: it’s about fun. It’s for charity. It’ll “afford you the opportunity to experience a winner’s finish without even breaking a sweat.” Because we want that finish line experience even though, according to the article, we all know that “running blows.”
So why did it annoy me? Like Cate, I just don’t buy into that narrative. If you think running blows, then don’t run.
But then what’s wrong with all the other stuff? I often find myself on the wrong side of fun-promotion (I get irritated when people talk about goat yoga, for example). Why begrudge people that “finish line feeling”? And the charity aspect, raising money for Blessings in a Backpack, a charity that feeds children in need on weekends. Or the “VIP” option where you can skip the 0.5K altogether and get an even bigger medal. I have no objection to play, but I think the whole thing pushed my philosophical buttons.
Cate, I want to hear more about your negative reaction. It’s comforting that I’m not alone.
Cate: I think I feel like you do. On one hand, I get that it’s a playful thing, and if they were trying to get attention, it worked — it’s a tiny event in a small town in Texas and they got media coverage in Newsweek, the Washington Post, a national CBC show — and they sold out. So from a marketing point of view — and from a fundraising perspective — it was a huge success. And it’s the inversion of the normal race that got them that attention. And I’m sure it was a fun event — who doesn’t love a good doughnut?
But I agree with you that there’s something at the centre of it that niggles me — something about the notion that you can skip right over the actual experience of training and running to enjoy “being a finisher.”
Partly this bugs me because of the implication that the only enjoyable part of running is crossing the finish line — like it’s all hell but at least you get to brag about it. It’s part of this whole narrative that if physical things are hard, they are inherently miserable. That’s not my experience. I thrive on hard, long, windy bike rides or tough runs, and find something deeply satisfying — and yes, enjoyable — to truly work my body to its fullest. It’s me at my most human, and I’d never want to skip over that.
And when I dig underneath, my reaction is about this bigger notion that life is about collecting experiences and knocking them off the list, not about being truly present in the moment of things. It’s the same reason the concept of bucket lists bothers me. I travel a lot, and I keep a running tally of how many countries have been to, but it’s not about collecting them — it’s about savouring the mystery and the privilege of being able to see such a profoundly amazing and diverse world.
Tracy:There is a thought experiment in philosophy called “The Experience Machine.” It lets you program in any experience and if you’re hooked up to the machine you experience 100% indecipherable from reality. The question is: would you choose to spend the rest of your life hooked up to the machine (you can’t go in and out — one decision, yes or no?)? The “right answer” for most people is “no, I wouldn’t.”
Why not? Because, so the argument goes, we value more than experience. We value actual achievement. It’s not enough to be convinced I won a Pulitzer. The experience only has value if I did earn a Pulitzer. This event purports to “afford you the opportunity to experience a winner’s finish without even breaking a sweat.” I understand that it’s just a small variation on the argument against finishers’ medals (that they’re not really “earned” and medals should be reserved for the top 3). But somehow having the experience of finishing a race without actually finishing takes it one step too far. When I get a finishers medal I am under no illusions: I have not placed 1-3. But I DID finish. And I earned that much, at least. But this… nope. There is no accomplishment.
Now maybe this view just means I’m so steeped in a cultural narrative about merit and desert that I need to take a step back and lighten up. But there is a further thing that I think is potentially lost when we make light of running (or any activity) by offering a no-benefit option. It’s not just about accomplishment. It’s also about making light of the real issue of inactivity and sedentary lifestyles that carry with them actual health consequences.
This race, apparently, even has a smoking zone. And beer. Everything in me just wants to scream “no, no, no, no, no.” I’ll take the Colour Run over this any day (and I’m not keen on the Colour Run either — for myself. Its very existence doesn’t bother me but it’s not my kind of event).
There are lots of other great ways, fun ways, to earn money for charity. Right, Cate? We brainstormed a bunch at the Guelph book launch the other day, remember?
Cate: Yup! Go bowling, have a silent auction, make art, have a disco-themed gala, invite an inspiring speaker, organize a cabaret, have a rock paper scissors contest, a thumb wrestling championship, euchre tournament, three-legged race — the world is stuffed with experiences you can fully inhabit. You don’t have to mock one of the things that’s an actual goal for a lot of people trying to become healthier.
The other day Sam and I were reflecting on how for some reason our feminism has gone from “rage-y” and ranty to reasonable and moderate. Maybe it’s because we are both university administrators, so we can’t afford to be rage-y and ranty at work (for the most part…), at least not overtly so, if we want to get stuff done. But it’s spilled over into the blog. I can’t remember the last time I unleashed some good old feminist rage about something.
Her playlist was a collaborative effort among friends on social media. She put the call out for feminist tunes for cranking and feeling that surge of strength and solidarity. And the suggestions started rolling in, and rolling in, and rolling in. I shared her call on my timeline and again, more ideas. In the end, she put together an amazing and varied 13.5 hour playlist. I highly recommend it.
Not all the tunes are good for running, though many are. I tapped into it when constructing a new playlist for the upcoming season (I say “upcoming” because here it is spring in name only). As I said the last time I shared a playlist, it’s really idiosyncratic to me. I don’t measure beats per minute. I start off a bit slower and pick up the pace. But I’ve not yet test run it and it’s possible that I will need to double click on my ear bud chord a few times if a tune comes on that is not well-suited to where I’m at in my run. It will take a bit of tweaking for order and adequacy.
Feel free to follow it, suggest additions, or register suggestions and complaints (not promising to honor all of them, since my main goal is to make a playlist that works for me. I have tried it out at personal training twice this week, and it’s great for that. Paul (my trainer) complained (in jest) that he didn’t feel represented. I take that as a good sign that it’s hitting at least one feminist mark. And when my friend Alison showed up at the tail end of my session, she remarked that the music was fantastic.
Haruki Murakami is a contemporary novelist, famous for his blending of America crime noir conventions and Japanese culture. My first Murakami read was The WindUp Bird Chronicle, which I highly recommend for anyone interested detective fiction and/or the legacy of WW II in Japan. But the work by Murakami that captured my heart was not a novel, but a memoir titled What I Talk About When I Talk about Running.
I came back to running at age 50 with all the enthusiasm that anyone setting out after years of double-shifting full-time work and childcare brings to her new hobby. Which is to say, a lot. Reading about running is almost as much fun as running itself, with hearing about other people’s running following close behind. Murakami’s prose reads like running shoes hitting the pavement, carefully measured in its pacing, but also graceful, poetic.
Murakami claims, “I am no great runner, by any means. I’m at an ordinary—or perhaps more like mediocre—level. But that’s not the point” (10). To be an ordinary runner is a wonderful freedom. I run and race for myself and have only my hard-earned, middle-aged personal best times to show for my efforts, times which will soon slip away from me as I approach my sixties. “I’ll be happy if running and I can grow old together,” Murakami writes (172). I take perverse pleasure in thinking of myself as racing toward the grave.
But running, for me, isn’t about simply enjoying exercise in middle age. I train for races, and I spend a lot of time thinking about them. “Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits; that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life,” says Murakami (83). Pushing myself, physically, reminds me to push myself in other areas of my life, especially those where I might feel insecure. Indeed, the mind games I play when heading to a finish line are the same games I play when dealing with difficult situations at work. Avoiding negative self-talk, keeping in mind that the pain is temporary: these strategies help me keep moving forward.
Where Murakami and I part ways is in the company we keep while running. Murakami likes to run alone, and I like to run with other people. I particularly like to run with women friends. On our runs, we can process the challenges we face at work and in our personal lives. Kinship grows as the miles pass, as well as the confidence that we’ve got each other’s backs. When I run down the street with my friends, I feel secure in my pod. And I am proud of the company I keep.
Recently, I was introduced to the work of Victoria Pitts-Taylor, author of The Brain’s Body. Pitts-Taylor is interested in the social brain, furthering the work of feminist materialism, which “explores biology as both agentic and entangled with social meanings and cultural practices” (19). The chapter that got me thinking about women running together is titled “Neurobiology and the Queerness of Kinship.” Here, Pitts-Taylor examines how scientists talk about the role oxytocin plays in forming bonds between mammals. Most commonly associated with mother-infant bonding, oxytocin, Pitts-Taylor reveals, appears in a wider range of bodies than science tends to examine: “Across species of mammals, varieties of social arrangements may reflect different underlying patterns of oxytocin receptors and related circuitry” (105). It is the bonding activity, rather than genetics, which establish kinship ties fueled by oxytocin, Pitts-Taylor argues: “Being biologically related does not have to mean genetically related; it can mean having a biological investment in another, in the form of an intercorporeal tie to another, that is the product of interaction, intimacy, or companionship” (117).
Back to running. Running, various studies show, produces oxytocin.[i] My theory, based only on subjective experience, is that the production of oxytocin in a group already primed by social context to value friendship and community contributes to a feeling of kinship among the bodies that run together. My sense that I belong to a pack or a pod when I run with women may, in fact, reflect a mammalian truth rather than my propensity, as an English professor, to think metaphorically. I like to think of my running friends as my “other” family; it may be that science proves me right in claiming kinship with them.
Murakami, Haruki. What I Talk About When I Talk about Running (2008). Trans. Philip Gabriel. Anchor, 2013.
Pitts-Taylor, Victoria. The brain’s body: neuroscience and corporeal politics. Duke University Press, 2016.
[i] Trynke, R. de Jong, Rohit Menon, Anna Bludau, Thomas Grund, Verena Biermeier, Stefanie M. Klampfl, Benjamin Jurek, Oliver J. Bosch, Juliane Helhammer, Inga D. Neumann, “Salivary oxytocin concentrations in response to running, sexual self-stimulation, breastfeeding and the TSST: The Regensburg Oxytocin Challenge (ROC) study,” Psychoneuroendocrinology, Volume 62, December 2015, 381-388
Alison Conway is a Professor of English, and Gender and Women’s Studies, at UBC, Okanagan. Her favorite workout is running the streets and trails of Kelowna BC.
A few weeks ago I got into a mutual motivation session on social media with my friend, Serene. I posted something about getting out for a run at lunch time. Serene said, “Go, Tracy, go!” That was enough to kick me into gear. When I got back I posted a series of pics with the status line: “Photo evidence that if Serene says go, I go.”
Serene then felt obligated to go to the gym later that day for her workout (I think she said, “OK now I have to drag my ass to the gym.” And she did.
We kept it light and fun, with me coming back with “Serene, now tell me to get going on grading those papers. You seem to be effective at getting me to do stuff I don’t really want to do.” Academics really, really struggle with grading papers. Ask any of us. It’s hands down the worst part of teaching. Further evidence of it’s bottom ranking was Serene’s comment, “Anyone who thinks that working out is the hardest thing to make themselves do has never met grading.”
Too true. Indeed, in addition to Serene’s prompting, I think I went running that day at least in part to avoid grading.
So what happened there? What happened was a little exchange on social media got Serene and me out the door to do our things. She reported back later: “Update: definitely one of those days where your workout sucks no matter what you do, but I did it!”
I find friends are really great motivators, and it’s awesome when the motivation is mutual. After I posted earlier this week about my pull-ups, I had a few people message me to say that my post motivated them to give them another whirl. This is another example of the way we can motivate each other. I see you, my friend, do something awesome and it makes me think that maybe, just maybe, I can do that awesome thing too.
Another way: workout dates with friends. Sunday morning long runs with Anita and Julie were the mainstay of my running training for the longest time (until Anita went to the UK for a year and Julie started suffering with foot troubles and has had to turn to spinning for a bit — waiting!). Knowing we had a commitment to meet up with one another was mutually motivating for all concerned. It also got us through the tough runs, when things became difficult and we wanted to quit. We’re always less likely to quit when we’ve got friends counting on us.
And lately, I’ve been meeting up with friends at the early hot yoga class on Saturday mornings. I love activity dates so much.
Do you and your friends engage in mutual motivation? How?
On Saturday, I ran my third half-marathon, the Potomac River Run. Both of the other times I trained for a half-marathon, I was incredibly disciplined about training, driven largely by a fear of collapsing half-way through the course. I had all sorts of rituals: not only an elaborate weekly schedule of four to five runs, but much fussing over the details of my playlist, purchasing new shoes, collecting up the perfect set of snacks, planning out my water breaks, and so forth.
This time was different. Partly it was because for the first time I was not going to be running with my wonderful friends, FFI bloggers Tracy and Anita, so I didn’t have our shared enthusiasm and peer pressure keeping me on track. Two of the four in the group of us who planned to run this race together dropped out. My remaining racing buddy, Joseph, while a dear friend, was a man in his 20s who can run twice as fast as me while drunk and with a giant sea turtle strapped to his back. Partly it was because this year I am commuting between New York and Washington, DC every single week and taking a full graduate course load on top of my full-time academic job, and still training in two other sports, which in New York involves commuting to my boxing gym an hour and fifteen minutes in each direction almost every day. Something had to give. I was overwhelmed.
I ended up doing something like two thirds of my planned runs, and many of those I cut short or did at a slower pace than I planned because I was just exhausted or out of time or both. A couple of weeks I skipped altogether, because of travel, family illnesses and who knows what.
Long story short, by the time race day came, I had given up on any hope of a PR. I felt totally unprepared, and my trial 21K two weeks earlier had been my worst time ever. All was chaos. I forgot my running belt in New York. I woke up the morning of the race and realized I had no snacks to bring, and had done nothing to update my tired playlist since my last race. I had no idea where the course was. Indeed, we got lost three separate times on our way to the race. I wrongly thought that the race ended in the middle of DC, so I left all my things in my boyfriend’s car and planned to take the metro home at the end, but once we arrived we found out the course was actually an out-and-back. We were stranded in the chilly forest with no coats, and we had no way of getting home from the wilds of Maryland where we had been dropped off.
When I looked at the course, my heart sunk further. The promotional materials had promised a totally flat, fast course. I had assumed it would be a smooth running path along the river. One glance showed me that the course was actually a rough, uneven trail, and that the organizers’ conception of ‘completely flat’ was significantly different from mine. Mentally, I adjusted my finishing time up yet farther. We found out there were no bathrooms and no mile markers on the course. We had no water and no snacks. We started to joke about leaving and getting brunch instead. The colder we got, the less joke-y our jokes became.
Finally the race began, and I took off at what I thought was a light slow jog, trying to warm up slowly, as is my practice. After half a mile, my app informed me that I was pacing slightly faster than what was supposed to be my target pace – the pace I had long since given up hope of achieving anyhow. I was surprised and assumed GPS error. But no, after a mile I was still at that same pace. I considered slowing down on purpose so as not to burn out, but really it felt like I was just jogging comfortably. I couldn’t see any benefit to slowing down. I decided that I’d just keep up that pace as long as it was comfortable. I wouldn’t speed up, and I’d slow down or take a walk break if I needed to. I assumed I would need to, since I was pacing just around 9 minutes a mile, which is quite fast, for me. (I have very very little legs!)
I kept running, and I never felt the need to slow down. Water stations came and went, and I felt no need for them. There were some small hills, but they didn’t make me want to break stride. I made it to the halfway mark in just moments under an hour, and decided it was time to re-up my expectations. I had long wanted to finish a half-marathon in under two hours, and I was on track to do it! So I decided to just stay on pace and not slow down or walk unless I really needed to. And I didn’t. My pace was weirdly consistent, mile after mile. I made it through the whole race without a water or a walk break of any kind, and cruised through the finish line just seconds under 2:00, giving me a PR and meeting a goal that had felt totally unreachable a week before.
As I sat with my friend at the finish line, the overly enthusiastic guy with the microphone whose job it is to keep everyone ‘amped’ called out, “And Rebecca Kukla wins a prize!” I was baffled. I went up and asked, “Why, what did I win?” “YOU WIN A HAT!” he bellowed into the mic. “Um, that’s great, but why did I win a hat? What for?” “BECAUSE YOU’RE AWESOME,” he roared back. “Thanks!” I said. “But seriously, I don’t understand what I did that’s awesome. What did I win?” “YOU WIN A HAT!” he yelled back happily. I gave up and took the hat, which I dearly needed, since as I noted we were cold. The next day I found out that I had won second in my age group! I still don’t quite understand how that’s possible, but I did! It was a good day to be a woman in my 40s! I never expected to win any kind of prize for running, especially not yesterday.
What’s the moral of the story? I think just that bodies can surprise you. Who knows why they do what they do. All our neurotic efforts to discipline them and make them predictable are built on an underlying morass of chaos and contingency. I woke up the next morning, post-race, and felt great. I was in the gym boxing by 10 am. I have no idea why that all went so well. But goodness, there’s no better feeling than your body suddenly becoming dramatically more powerful and able than you had any right to expect!
Rebecca Kukla is Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University, and also a graduate student in urban geography at CUNY-Hunter College. She is a competitive boxer and powerlifter, a dedicated bike commuter, and a runner of wildly varying enthusiasm. She lives in Washington, DC with a passel of excellent human and non-human animals.