Me and Dory just keep swimming

By Marthafitat55

You may know about Dory, the little blue fish with the positive attitude from animated Pixar film Finding Nemo. Despite the challenges she faces with her short-term memory, Dory focuses on moving forward. “Just keep swimming,” she says, and off she goes.

Not a picture of my pool, but close enough. Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

I wrote last month about the universal design aspects of our new recreation centre, and since then, I’ve been going to the pool three times a week, channeling my inner Dory. Unlike Dory though, I have been taking notes about some of the things I’ve learned so far.

My usual routine before the pool opened was to get two weight training sessions in a week, and complementing that effort with some floor work at home and trail walking a couple of times a week. My walking partner had to take a break around the same time I got introduced to the new pool.

My first two times in the pool I managed six laps each time. Almost a month later, I get in 10 to 12 laps a session depending on the time I have and whether or not I want to spend some time in the therapy pool playing with the currents. The main thing though is I have picked up my endurance and my speed.

I’m really enjoying it for several reasons. It’s a great way to kick off my day and I get it done by 8 so I am washed, dressed, and ready to work by 9 a.m. I work from home so it’s a good feeling to be at the office by the start of business.

It’s something I can do with my family. My husband and I both have busy work lives; swimming is a place where we engage in idle chatter helping us leave our work preccupations at the door.

I also find it very relaxing. There’s a very meditative feeling to swimming laps, where you go up to the deep end of the pool and then flip back to swim to the shallow end. The repetition is soothing and you don’t have to think hard about the motion.

When I am lifting weights, I am super conscious about my form, ensuring I am in the right position to lift or squat. I’m hyper-focused, in fact, on what my hips and knees are saying, given their previous injury experiences.

In the pool, my biggest risk is running into people. I wear high-level prescription glasses but don’t use them in the pool. As a result, I only see blobs, and sometimes it could just be a trick of the light, while at other times, it could be a person. So far I have avoided any collisions with either people or walls.

The biggest benefit I have found is how helpful the buoyancy of the water has been to my hips and knees. Unlike the trail walking, with its uneven pitch and occasionally slippery gravel (and in winter, sheets of ice), there is no stress placed on my knees or hips in the pool.

In fact, going swimming the day after my weight training has helped ease the tension and stress different muscles feel after a new workout or exercise variation. Swimming helps me get moving more quickly and it has noticeably improved the fluidity of my lifting.

Overall swimming has given me a new appreciation of how our bodies work differently on land and in water. I’m aware of the resistance water can give you against a current in the same way running or walking uphill forces your lungs to work harder. Most importantly, it’s lots of fun and, for me at least, easy to fit into my schedule.

I’m glad I have found a fun activity that complements my weight training instead of working against it. How about you, dear readers? What kinds of activities are you employing to add interest and variety to your fitness goals and objectives? What are some things you have learned from mixing up your fitness tools?

— Martha lives in St. John’s and enjoys weight training, trail walking, and swimming.

Why I won’t be running a marathon anytime soon (guest post)

by Alison Conway

alison

Image description: this color photo shows Alison Conway, a tall blond woman dressed in running tights and long sleeves with neon pink shoes and race bib number 3519, coming through the finishing arch (a red inflated archway that says “Running Room” and “Start/Finish” at the end of the Sarnia Half Marathon. She is flanked by two other runners, also in black tights and long sleeves. On the pavement in front of them is painted the blue and white symbol for wheelchair accessible parking. It’s a grey cloudy day and people look cold.

I took up running after a hiatus of almost thirty years when I turned 50 in 2015. In my early twenties I suffered bad knees and the physio who treated them directed me to the pool. Three decades later I thought I’d try a 5 km running clinic and see how the knees held up. Two years later, I’m logging and loving the miles.

Since Nov. 8th, running has taken on a different significance. Now I start my runs full of rage and despair over what’s happening in America, full of fear that the same will happen here if either Kevin O’Leary or Kellie Leitch (two of the top three Conservative Party leadership contenders, according to the National Post 2/3/17) gains ascendency in Canadian politics. Guilt plagues me. I am running when I should be volunteering or protesting. I spend money on race registrations that would be better spent on larger monthly contributions to the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. Clearly I have been living with my head in the sand since I didn’t see Trump coming. Now I must atone.

But self-laceration is too easy and familiar. I couId spend the next four years in my head, spinning. Instead, I must sit down and make some hard choices. And one of my choices is to set a limit to how much time I spend running. I’ve been encouraged by friends to take on a marathon. I admire those in my running group who have overcome serious obstacles in their lives to achieve this goal, as well as those who use marathons to raise money for charity. I admire our coach, who is an advocate for at-risk youth and mental health services. But at this moment, whatever benefits I could list under “self care” when thinking about a marathon take a back seat to those I list under “other care.”

The challenge we face now is that each day asks us to make decisions about how much news we will consume, what contribution we will make, what action we will take. The marathon we are all running is the one that involves making these choices deliberately and mindfully, day in, day out, week in, week out, for the foreseeable future. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, panicked, frozen. We all have to pace ourselves.  It seems like a good time to ask hard questions of “self care,” to see how far it extends itself to helping those more at risk than ourselves.

We can be more deliberate about yoking our fitness goals to our political commitments.  I volunteer for Start2Finish, a reading and running group for at-risk children, and I practice the power pose with little girls every week. “Sweat is great!” is a common refrain; “Just keep running!” is another.  There are other programs aimed directly at fostering confidence in girls through running and we can all help to nurture young women by giving them our full attention as volunteers.

In our exercise communities, we can find ways to build relationships and trust with those who do not belong to our particular constituency—in my case, academia—in the hopes of enabling dialogue when so much divisiveness characterizes public speech. I talk too much, but lately I’ve been trying to listen better, to choose my words more carefully when I respond to ideas I consider ill-informed. I am finding out about the community work others are involved in, their sense of local politics and what’s at stake in mapping the future of the city we live in.  Now it’s time to take what I’ve learned to city hall, to become an engaged citizen rather than a passive observer. The old chestnut, “Act local, think global,” has taken on new, concrete significance since I decided to focus my attention on doing the next right thing.

What I can’t do is try to run away from the whole sorry mess we’re in, or turn my back on those who need my help and support right now. We need to run toward resistance, not away from it.  Maybe one day, for me, resistance will involve training for a marathon. But right now I have more urgent tasks requiring my attention.

Alison Conway is an English professor at Western University.  Her favorite workout is running the roads and trails of London, ON.

Fitness and the Pomodoro Technique

tomato kitchen timerAnyone who knows me is aware that my favorite “productivity”/time management thing in the world is The Pomodoro Technique.

It’s a simple and profound way of getting things done in small, do-able increments of time called, not surprisingly given the technique’s name, “pomodoros.”

I started using it years ago, when the only thing on their now-snazzy website was a bit of info and a downloadable free pdf that explained how it works.  It’s all about parsing out uninterrupted time for your projects. I needed (and need) it because I am a world-class procrastinator, especially when it comes to writing.

Being such an accomplished procrastinator means that when deadlines approach (and there always seem to be deadlines looming), I take to weeping and hyperventilating. Add winter to that, which I know came late and so we’ve gotten off easy but it’s wicked cold now and we’re about to get a bunch of snow, and all I want to do is hibernate.

Here’s how the pomodoro technique works (the fitness activity angle is coming, I promise). Pick a task–let’s say you have a paper due on February 1st that you’ve known about for almost two years and you can’t push the deadline anymore than you already have (it was actually due December 1st). You set your timer — that’s where the technique gets it’s name from, those kitchen timers that look like tomatoes, and “pomodoro” is Italian for tomato–for 25 minutes. That’s the length of a pomodoro. It’s so do-able. Who doesn’t have 25 minutes? C’mon, sure you do!

So you set it for 25 minutes and during the whole time the timer is counting down your 25 minutes you keep working on your task, uninterrupted. If someone wants to interrupt you, you tell them to come back after 25 minutes. Because after that first pomodoro, you get a little 5 minute timed break to do whatever you want. And then you do another pomodoro. And another 5 minutes. And two more pomodoros. By the end of four in a row, you can take a longer, 15 minute break. But you don’t have to do four in a row. Sometimes one is good enough, depending on the task.

I’m not giving away any secret that they only tell you if you pay money. Their website outlines the basics of how to get started with the technique.

You can be amazingly productive in these 25 minute chunks. I’ve written whole articles and book chapters using this method. In fact, I used something similar, called “the unschedule,” which divides work time into 30 minute chunks and puts a limit of no more than 5 hours a day on your project, to write an entire book (and revise it from beginning to end too).

I know you’re all smart and savvy feminists, so by now you are probably seeing the fitness angle in all of this. It came to me when I was running with friends the other day and complaining about how I’m not getting enough running into my week. “Maybe,” I said, “if I just zip downstairs (to the exercise room in my condo because, yay, I got to move in finally after 4 months of temporarily having to live elsewhere) and spend 25 minutes (=one pomodoro) on the treadmill at some point during the week, that will be just the thing.”

Because (see above) who doesn’t have 25 minutes to do something? It’s in keeping with my whole “do less” approach.

One of the biggest reasons people don’t get their workouts in, or don’t start any sort of workout program in the first place, is purported lack of time. But the idea behind the pomodoro is that giving some activity or task our sustained attention for 25 minutes can make a world of difference.

It’s not just about being productive at work, though it’s really great for that too. There are even apps that will count down your pomodoros for you.  I use this one.

And don’t think you need to read the book or the pdf to get started. The amazing simplicity of the technique is that it distills down to just what I explained. I starting using it five minutes after I read about it and never had to read that pdf to make it work for me. But you can buy the book in hardcover or as an e-book too.

If you’re struggling to find time to get a workout in, try scaling back to a pomodoro or two.  Let us know how it goes. Or if you have some other tips for fitness time management/productivity, please share about them in the comments.

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.

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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.

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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:

Life Happens, Plans Change, and That’s Okay

Change of Plans Plan A Plan BI’ve done something uncharacteristic of me this summer: I signed up for two Olympic distance triathlons and then I withdrew.  Yep, Tracy of the “if I said I’d do it I’m doing it” mantra has bailed on Gravenhurst in July and Bracebridge in August.  Following my own gut feeling and my doctor’s gentle advice, I had to face up the facts: I just do not have it in me to train for these events.

Changes in my life of late have left me physically and emotionally depleted.  Renald moved away from London to pursue his dream of retiring on our sail boat. That’s great for him, and I’m in theory quite supportive of it because he’s 9 years older than I am and he’s worked really hard for many, many years.  Liveaboard cruising requires good health and physical energy.  Waiting at least five years until I can even think about retiring with him just seems ill-advised.  No one can know what five years out will bring.

So we bought a condo, sold most of our rental properties, purchased a St. Francis 50 catamaran (our dream boat, truly), and in May Renald went down to George Town, Bahamas and sailed the boat up to Annapolis, which is where I am as I write this post. It’s the starting point for my only extended summer vacation (just under two short weeks) and we’re heading up the coast towards Long Island Sound and Martha’s Vineyard and Newport in a few days. But for most of the summer (and the next few years) we will be a part and that is a huge change that is taking some adjustment. So there’s that.

Then there is the new job. As of July 1st I’m officially going to be the Associate Dean (Academic) in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities. I’m on vacation at the moment. My first day in the office is July 6th. I’ve had a few different administrative roles at the University so far, including serving as Chair of Women’s Studies and Feminist Research from 2007-2011 and most recently as Graduate Chair in Philosophy.

I admit that I enjoy admin work. It makes me feel as if I’m making a contribution to the University. And I like that it enables me to work with lots of others who care about making a contribution because usually those people have values that extend beyond caring only about themselves. I can respect that and it resonates with me. And at the same time starting a new job with a lot more responsibility is stressful.

And the book is due at the publisher on July 31st. A book contract with a good press that’s enthusiastic about your project is the most exciting and wonderful thing in the life of any writer. And as the deadline inches closer, my stress over it increases. It’s not that I don’t think we’re going to finish. I’m at the stage in the writing process where I feel as if every word I write is shit. This is normal. It’s as inevitable as the five (or is it four) stages of grief.
As if moving, starting to live apart from my partner, and beginning a new position at the University one month before our book is due at the publisher aren’t enough, I’ve also been feeling exhausted much of the time and sleeping badly. This got so bad that my coach recommended I get some blood work to see if anything was up.

Now, part of this is I think because I planned my spring events badly, doing too much too soon with not enough time in between events. I did the Around the Bay 30K on March 29th after a winter of training with a group. And then just 5 weeks later I ran my first marathon at the Mississauga Marathon on May 3rd. I survived ATB well enough even though I didn’t love it. But with the rest and recovery, I actually didn’t have enough time to feel super ready for the marathon.

I know that everyone says they don’t feel ready and it’s a normal thing to feel jitters before trying something new. But I still believe that, in fact, I wasn’t adequately prepared. I would have had a much better day if I’d down-graded to the half. I contemplated it and my coach even recommended it at one point (because I sounded so tentative and she said that’s not a great head-space to take into a new distance).

The marathon wiped me right out. Not just on race day. Not just for a week after. Or even two weeks. No, for a solid month after the marathon I felt exhausted. Getting out of bed for early morning swims, which used to be a routine thing that I enjoyed, became impossible. Even short runs challenged me.

And the bike? Forget it. My fear of the bike intensified and I looked upon it with dread. That may be a different issue altogether (see my recent thoughts on the bike here), but it factors into the result: I wasn’t doing the triathlon training required to prep myself for an Olympic distance in Gravenhurst in mid-July.

I got excited about the Niagara Women’s Half Marathon and had a fabulous time. But overall, I’m not feeling motivated to train for Olympic distance triathlon this year. The energy isn’t there and the desire has left me.

So when despite the bloodwork coming back all fine my doctor recommended that I ease up this summer so as not to let the stress of these big changes wear me down further by forcing myself to do activities that feel more depleting than energizing right now, I decided to follow her advice.

It’s been difficult for me to feel 100% okay about this since it makes me feel like a quitter in some ways, and I hate that feeling. But at the same time, I’m trying to learn a gentler approach.  I’m an advocate of doing less (see “On Doing Less”) but usually with the hidden motive of getting more done in the long run.  This summer, it’s about doing less, period. Not to ultimately achieve more, not to rest so I can throw myself back into things with a vengeance. No. This summer it’s about easing up because that’s what I need to do. Drop the big races, let up on training, get back to yoga, sleep more, all those good things.

The funny thing is that as soon as I decided to do that, my energy bounced back a bit. I got out for a track workout with the triathlon club last week and have also been doing 3K as fast as possible, since that is the distance of the run portion of the Kincardine Women’s Triathlon on July 11th.

Far from thinking about the KWT with dread, I’m really excited about it.  That is not how I was feeling about Gravenhurst and Bracebridge, both of which are exciting races in beautiful locations.

My new summer goal is as modest as they come: work on getting my 10K as close to 60 minutes as possible.  Other than that, I want to enjoy myself with the swim training, workout with weights, and get to the yoga studio at least once a week. I’ve got the hybrid bike out for commuting, and it’s a pleasant ride on the bike path from my condo to campus.

But this week, I’m on the sailboat. I’ve got my running shoes and my resistance bands, but I’m not forcing anything.  I’m sure that’s not the most inspiring attitude. Those who are into The Grind will be disappointed. I’ve had some grief for expressing this whole “doing less” idea because lots of people think they already do less and need to push themselves to do more. That may be. But if my spring is any indication, sometimes more can turn into too much. And when that happens, there’s nothing wrong with re-grouping and making some changes.

Why Athletic Challenges are Not Like Childbirth (Guest Post)

Before having experienced natural childbirth (by which I mean, childbirth without any pain medication), I thought that it could be compared, at least in terms of pain, to extreme athletic challenges. In fact, I even wrote a blog post about how, prior to giving birth, I thought that I could draw on my experience as an athlete and train for it.

But was I ever wrong.

As I explained, soon into my own labour I realized that all of my training (or better, “training”) was in vain. It became painfully clear to me that one cannot physically train (as an athlete would) for what one faces during labour.

That is why I was struck, this week, by a comment that Sir Bradley Wiggins – the 2012 Tour de France winner and London 2012 gold medalist – made after breaking the world hour distance record in cycling, a challenge that some consider to be one of the oldest and most difficult. Wiggins stated that his win is “the closest [he] will come to knowing what it’s like to have a baby.”

I do not want to deny the obvious: namely, that in breaking this record, Wiggins experienced a great deal of pain. Nor do I want to deny that this pain was extreme and extremely unpleasant for him. But what I do want to question is the similarity or closeness between what he experienced and what childbirth is like for many women (after all, how many women give birth in an hour?). I also want to question the claim that in having experienced the pain that he did that he came close to knowing what it is like to “have a baby” (by which I take him to be referring to the experience of childbirth).

Here’s where I think the crucial differences lie, and it is not where one might initially think.

The differences I have in mind are not primarily in the degree or even necessarily in the kind of pain at issue in these two types of experiences (although I do think that there are important differences there). Rather, I think that the key differences are psychological in nature and have to do with bodily agency, control, and the ability to prepare oneself (or in the case of childbirth, the inability to do so).

Let me explain.

In training for a cycling challenge (or almost any athletic challenge), one can do precisely that, namely train. In this case, one can get on one’s bike everyday, ride the course (or a similar course), and improve one’s endurance and time. One can train the precise muscles one will be using and one can train as hard and as much as one likes. Crucially, one can for the most part create in advance the very conditions of the challenge.

One knows what to expect and most importantly (although this is not what any athlete wants to consider), even on race day, should something not go according to plan or should one get injured or sick, one can pull out of the race mid-course or not even compete to begin with.

Labour and childbirth are not like that.

Very little is within one’s control, very few things can be done to prepare oneself for the kind and degree of pain, and crucially, if one decides that one wants to stop once things have gotten started, this is not an option. Even if one wants to forego a natural childbirth mid-labour, in many cases, that is not possible (depending on how far along one has progressed). This is because there are certain points past which an epidural cannot be administered, since it would not have time to kick in before the birth.

So in the one case, one has trained the precise muscles, one knows almost exactly what to expect, and one has control over one’s body; in the other case, none of these conditions hold.

The main psychological difference here is tied to the difference in agency, or better, lack thereof. In the case of an athletic challenge, one can set the cadence, push oneself further, or pull back if one has crossed the threshold of pain that’s just too much. Basically, one can turn on, off, or up the energy.

In labour and childbirth, however, this is often not the case.

For many, there is a sense in which there is almost a complete lack of agency, a sense in which one’s body is in control and is calling the shots and one’s will almost entirely vanishes. So whereas one can amp it up or turn it down in biking, one can do no such thing in childbirth.

This psychological difference between the two activities and the lack of control that many women experience in childbirth, makes me question Wiggins’ claim that in breaking the world hour distance record, he has come close to what it is like to have a baby. It is also telling that Wiggins’ wife – the mother of their children – did not respond to his comment. It is my hunch that she was not even asked.

Around the Bay Countdown

around the bay race logo -- around the bay road race with 30K in a red maple leaf in the lower left cornerThank you to everyone who commented not too long ago on my post “Hitting the Winter Running Wall.” Your comments all made me feel supported and actually kind of badass.

Betty and Jessica both said I was tough.  Steph said she was in awe. Caitlin said she was impressed. And a whole bunch of people offered suggestions (like existentialangst’s suggestion that maybe runners in Saskatchewan, on the prairies, could help me dress for the cold) and tons of encouragement (“it’s almost over” and “stick with it”) and commiseration (“I’m right there with you” and “winter running is so hard”).

The result: I stuck with my plan last week and got out there on Wednesday night and Thursday night — both with windchills in the high minus 20-range — and again for my long run on Sunday. And it all felt great.  If it hadn’t been for the support and for my public declaration that I would stick to my plans and attend all clinic runs last week, I would not have stepped out the door on Wednesday night or Thursday night.

I also have some incentive: I signed up for the Around the Bay 30K and it’s less than one month from now, on March 29th.

The Around the Bay Road Race is steeped in history. It is the oldest race in North America. Yes, it’s older than Boston by a few years:

Hamilton’s Around the Bay Road Race is the oldest on the continent, first run in 1894, three years before the Boston Marathon. Rich in tradition, it has been won by the best from around the world, including Boston Marathon winners and Olympic gold medallists. Become part of the continuing tradition by running this challenging course around Hamilton’s natural harbour!

The race director came to talk to the clinic last week (another reason I went out at all — and I was still reserving judgment about going for the run, but once you’re there, and everyone else is going, and it’s only 6K anyway, and you dressed for it, and the blog post…).

He told us some of the race’s venerable history. Canadians just love a thing that distinguishes us among Americans. It’s like that when you’re north of the most powerful country in the world, ten times your population. So of course he told us this:

In the early 1900’s, Jack Caffery and William Sherring battled it out and won two “Bay” races each. Caffery went on to stun the Americans at the Boston Marathon in 1900, by being the first Canadian to win Boston.

To add insult to injury, Hamilton’s William Sherring and Fred Hughson placed second and third, behind Caffery, making it a Canadian sweep. Caffery rubbed it in even further by coming back the next year 1901, to win Boston again.

Not to be outdone by Caffery, William Sherring went on to win the 1906 Olympic Marathon in Athens, Greece, making him a Canadian hero.

Tommy Longboat

That same year, Tommy Longboat, an Onondaga from Six Nations near Caledonia, won the “Bay” race and the next year in 1907, surprised everyone by winning the Boston Marathon. Hamilton’s James Duffy also went on to win the 1914 Boston Marathon, after two Consecutive Bay wins.

So that’s the race history. It’s also supposed to be a tough race. They say if you can do ATB, you are ready for any marathon.  I’m afraid to ask why exactly, but it has to do with hills. The race has some rolling hills, but it also traditionally has a super tough steep hill in the last 5K.

But not this year. Road work has forced a detour. So the hill that breaks more hearts than Heartbreak Hill will not be on this year’s course. That fact has divided the pack: 50% are relieved as all hell (those are my people) and 50% feel ripped off that they’re not getting the full challenge (who are you people?).

It’s just a few weeks  until the race. I started training specifically for this event with a Running Room group back in November. It’s a long commitment, but doing a clinic that culminates in a particular event is the best way for me to make it through the winter without bailing.

My training schedule got interrupted by that blasted knee injury (if you care, you can read about it in my post “Re-Connecting with Chi Running: Chi Marathon Training”), which coincided with snow, frigid temperatures, and the dreaded “wind chill factor, and then a vacation where it was a lot easier to kayak than to run.

So far I’ve maxed out at 26K.  I scaled it back a bit about a month ago, but I’m ready to test things again on Sunday. Last week I stayed cautious. I chose fartlek over hill repeats on Wednesday because my physiotherapist recommended against hills (confession: he also recommended against speed work but what’s wrong with a few fartleks? It’s Swedish for speed play, not speed work).

Come Sunday, I opted for 15K with Anita and our friend Julie instead of the 28K everyone else was doing. Anita signed up for the ABT two-person relay (15K each). Julie and I were lamenting that we had not. And now it’s too late because the relay is all filled up.  So we’re doing 30K whatever else happens!

With those training runs last week I experienced no difficulties with the knee (I am touching wood right now).  So this week I went back out for the speed play last night.  I need to try squeezing in a 6K today but I’m not sure that will happen.  And on Sunday I may just take a very, very slow 28K with the group.  My actual plan was for 20K, but if I feel okay and am not having any knee pain, I’m going to do 8 more.

The end of winter is kind of in sight. Not that it’s really warmer. We had some reprieve yesterday where it actually went above zero, but as I sit here all cozy in my bed with my laptop right now, it’s -17C outside and Environment Canada says the mercury is only creeping up to -11C today, but there’s a windchill of -25C for this morning. Yes, it’s as cold as it sounds.

But it’s March. And usually by the end of March the snow has all melted. Sometimes on St. Patrick’s Day the students have massive parties outside where people who have painted themselves green stagger around in “kiss me, I’m Irish” t-shirts and drinking green beer and getting arrested.  That’s always a good sign of the end of winter too.

And I’ve gone and done something so brazen that I can hardly believe it myself: on May 3rd I’m doing my first full marathon. So it’s not as if I can just let up on my training once the Around the Bay race is over. I need to keep it up, even add mileage, so I don’t crash and burn when I do the Mississauga Marathon.

I am Canadian and I will tough it out for the rest of this brutal winter! Winter training does have its perks. I’ve met new people and really bonded with them, the way people do in times of adversity. I’m a stronger runner than I’ve ever been, despite the difficulties I’ve had with the IT band and the knee.  Taking this time for myself each week has also been good for my mental health because when I am out there running, I don’t worry about any of the day to day bullshit — the crushing workload, the unpacked boxes, the extra furniture piled up in our condo that I haven’t had a chance to get rid of yet, the bins of motorcycle gear that I’m supposed to put on kijiji to sell for the spring riding season, etc.

If you have a race coming up early this spring that you’ve been training for all winter, yay for you!  Enjoy! And if you’re doing Around the Bay, see you there!