Yesterday, I was at a triathlon in Madeira Beach, cheering on my husband, who has recently taken up triathlons in an attempt to slow the osteoarthritis that is eroding his knee. On Saturday, we ran in a 5K in Clearwater Beach, just because it’s fun and we wanted to.
At both events, I was struck by how many people of all different ages and shapes and sizes and abilities turn out for what is essentially a celebration of the physical. It made me think about how far apart the actual events are from non-racers’ perceptions of what happens at a racing event. For instance, I was speaking to my sister, who is taking up jogging in an attempt to lose baby weight, and I suggested that maybe she consider taking part in one of the events in her area. The hesitance in her voice was palpable, even across 2,000 miles worth of cell phone radiation waves. She told me that she’s not that competitive and she doesn’t know if it’s for her. It reminded me of other ladies I’ve known who, despite running several times a week, said they didn’t want to race because the idea of competing makes them too nervous.
The idea seems to be that the only people who compete are Olympic hopefuls with single-digit body fat who would just as soon run you over as look at you, and that anyone who is anything less than the Perfect Athlete should not even bother.
Certainly there are a lot of athletes who do fit that stereotype, and usually they are the ones who end up leading the races and winning them. But most of us will never run a six-minute mile or compete in an Ironman. Most of us just enjoy the very act of swimming, biking or running, and racing gives us an opportunity to share that passion with other like-minded individuals.
And this is the thing – you go out to any race on any given weekend, and for every aspiring Olympic athlete, you will see a dozen people who look just like the men and women you see every day. You’ll even see people who some might call “fat,” which is always very amazing and inspiring to me, especially considering the amount of fat-hatred in our society. I mean, to get out in public and to run and get all red-faced and sweaty and intense is a pretty impressive show of determination, especially considering the cruel ways some people treat the heavier members of our society.
But it also really calls the idea of what it means to be “healthy” and “athletic” into question. In our society, we definitely have this predefined idea of what these words mean. It usually involves a slender build with some muscle tone (how much varies depending on the gender of the athlete). One thing that does not come to mind for most of us are people whose bodies are thick or have fat on them.
Yet it becomes very difficult to watch a woman whose body is an exaggerated pear shape as she finishes a triathlon and to think that she is not healthy or not in shape or not athletic. Because if she was unhealthy or out of shape or unathletic, would she have been able to swim a half-mile, bike 15 miles AND run a 5K? She is, by definition, an athlete! Yet she has the kind of body that, were she just walking around on the street, would probably inspire concern-trolling from random passersby.
It makes me think about watching a friend of mine as she completed her first ever ultramarathon. Now, my friend is an accomplished marathoner who has qualified for and run Boston three times. She’s got the expected build of a fast marathoner – super skinny, almost birdlike. Yet as I waited for her to come up and out of the woods at the end of her 50-mile trail race, I heard a woman barking encouragement. That woman, who was much heavier than my friend, came charging up the trail, practically dragging my friend along behind her.
Turns out the woman was an experienced ultramarathoner who traveled with her husband around the country to take part in races like this one. (And in case you don’t know, an ultramarathon is anything over 26.2 miles – usually 50K or 50 miles or even 100 miles. And yes, they are crazy races, and the people who run them are often, as my stepmother politely says, “different.”) Again, to look at her, many people would say she was overweight and need to lose weight to be healthy. But then you’ve got to wonder how many of her body-critics would be able to run 50 miles in 10 hours? I’m gonna go out on a limb and say NONE.
My point – and I do have one – is that racing gives you the opportunity to see everyday athletes in action. Our definition of “athlete” is very much limited to the elite and the professional, which means we don’t often see the people who run or who ride bikes long-distance or who play basketball with friends or who swim laps at the community pool, and it means our ideas of what it means to have an athletic body becomes that much narrower. But when you see what people of all body shapes and ages and abilities are capable of doing, you start to understand just how limited that perception is, and how desperately in need of expansion our ideas of what it means to be ‘athletic’ are.