Heads up: I get personal in this post. I’ll be returning to your regularly scheduled dose of fit-feminist ranting, but first, I gotta get this off my chest.
A few weeks ago, I noticed that my husband was stressing out over his training for an upcoming half-Ironman. He had jumped right into it with little rest after the Marathon Bahamas, and he was having difficulty getting his training to the levels it should have been. We were talking about this, and I reminded him that all of this is supposed to be fun, that we aren’t professionals, and that we do this for the fun of it. When it stops being fun, I said, it’s a sign that we need to re-evaluate our priorities and the way we are doing things. He ended up taking my advice and dropping the half-Ironman down to an Olympic distance, the training for which has been a lot more manageable.
A couple of days ago, I found myself on the other side of this conversation. I had been training harder in all three disciplines, had taken up a new weight training program, had started even counting my calories in an attempt to lose some body fat, all of which I hoped would help make me a leaner, meaner racer. I managed to keep it all going for a couple of weeks before it came crashing down on me, and I found myself scarcely capable of more than laying on the couch in my pajamas, staring slack-jawed at whatever screen was in front of me.
“Remember what you told me,” he said, as he watched me enter my dinner into the calorie-counting app, “about how all of this is supposed to be fun?”
I was losing perspective, and in the process forgetting what it was that drew me to all of this in the first place. I was forgetting that I did all of this – that I lifted weights, that I ran, that I swam, that I experimented with making food – because I enjoyed it, because it made me feel good, because it was fun.
This all became clear on Saturday morning, when I was standing in the starting corral before the Suncoast Classic 10K. It had been a few months since I had raced, and it was slightly surreal to look around me and see a lot of familiar faces from my racing community. I didn’t really feel nervous, even though Brian said he wanted us to shoot for a PR because I knew I’d spent the past several days being totally lazy and eating all sorts of delicious processed garbage and generally doing everything you wouldn’t expect of an athlete in training. Instead, I just figured I’d run hard and see what happened.
Then the warning horn sounded and we were off. The morning was cold and drizzly – perfect conditions for running – and once I got free of some slower runners ahead of me, I fell into a rhythm that was just ahead of the goal pace. The cold air and water chilled my thighs and my face, and made me feel alive and excited to be running. I paid attention to the way my body felt, to each step and to each swing of my arm, to the other runners, to everyone and everything I saw around me. It was marvelous. At the halfway point, I said to myself, Yes! This is why you do this, because you love the way this feels, because it makes you feel so good, because it is so much fun to run like a kid in the rain. Don’t you ever, ever forget this.
We ended up not only getting our PR but also coming really close to breaking a long-standing goal, but you know, even if that hadn’t happened, I still would have felt good about the race anyway, if only because of that moment of clarity I had somewhere around mile three.
Since then, I’ve been doing some serious soul-untangling, trying to figure out how I had lost my athletic spark so quickly. It’s complicated and multifaceted, and I’m sure I haven’t been able to grasp everything that’s going on yet, but I will try to lay it out for you:
- I had underestimated just how discouraged I was by my inability to break four hours in the marathon. I had trained my ass off for that race and yet I was totally thwarted by something beyond my control: the heat, the sunshine, the lack of shade. (Of course, there is a part of me, the part of me that always second-guesses myself after a race, that says I’m just being a chump and that if I’d wanted it bad enough I could have had it.) I’m also frustrated by the difficulty I have with the marathon distance, as I feel like someone who can run the times I run at all other distances should be capable of much faster times.
- I sometimes still have a hard time with the fact that I don’t “look like a runner.” This, despite the fact that I have written about it extensively, that I know that “looking like a runner” is kind of a bullshit thing, and that recreational runners come in all shapes and sizes. During the 10k I caught glimpses of myself in the storefront windows and my only thought was, holy shit I look like a lumbering beast. This is also why I hate race photos. I feel pretty good about myself as a runner, as long as I don’t see what I look like when I run. I know that I can’t do anything about my height, but I figured I could do something about my body fat percentage….
- …which led me to start spending a lot of time lurking in online forums for fitness-minded women. Problem is, most of what I found was aimed at women who do fitness and figure competitions. These are women who are interested in leaning out and ensuring their muscles have good symmetry and basically crafting their bodies in what I consider to be a performance art of sorts. These are not goals I share, but it didn’t keep me from absorbing some of the things I was reading, and while some of that information was great, other bits of information was….well…let’s just say that I had a real moment of clarity when I realized I was reading an argument about whether it’s better to drink water before eating or during eating if you are trying to lose fat. But I realized I was definitely internalizing a lot of what I was reading and seeing: all of those lean, glistening bodies, that fat-shaming fitspo, the glorification of suffering and pain in the pursuit of physical perfection.
- I’d started tracking my food in an attempt to get a grasp on my nutrition, and while it was informative at first, I soon found myself thinking about food more than I cared to. I have no real history of disordered eating – aside from a few instances of stress-induced “bulimia” – but I could easily see how thinking about calories and macronutrients and targets and grams of protein and meal-timing and fasting and blah blah blah…I could see how all of that could spiral out of control very quickly.
- I had not really taken a break after the marathon. I let my legs heal and then I was back at work, getting in the pool and on my bike. Plus, I had bought a house and moved into it over the holiday break and I had not taken any time off from my job while doing this. I was basically running on fumes already when I decided that I was going to undertake my plan to become the Best Athlete Ever! In a way, I suppose I’m grateful that I was already so close to empty because it meant I crashed out a lot sooner than I would have had I been well-rested and fully energized. So I was basically running at an energy deficit, which was not only affecting my training but also my work (hello, mistake city!)
- I was taking myself waaay too seriously. I am a freaking hobby jogger who does triathlon during the summer for fun, and there is not a damn thing wrong with that. Sure, I would like to one day qualify for the Boston Marathon, but if that doesn’t happen, big deal. No one is really going to care but me, you know? It’s okay to do this stuff for fun.
There’s a common theme to all of these things, which is that I basically went against the principles I had developed over the past several years. I cared too much about what my body looked like, even though my body was doing more than I ever thought it was capable of doing. I willingly consumed media that made me feel like shit and contributed to bad mental habits. My motivation was no longer positive (fun, pleasure) and had instead become negative (fat loss, changing my body.)
In short, I was doing much of what I had railed against, even though I knew better. I guess I thought of it as an experiment of sorts, and that I was grounded enough in my body-positive principles that I could try different things – things that went against my principles – and still be okay. I don’t know if I think that’s the case anymore.
But you know, it goes to show just how fucking tricky all of this is, and how insidious it is, too, that even a lady like me, who spends a huge chunk of her time thinking about ways to make sports and fitness more of a positive and inclusive experience for all people, can find herself susceptible to this kind of damaging thinking. It’s everywhere – in the mass media we consume, in the fitness media we seek out, in the conversations we have, in the messages we implicitly absorb when listening to other people talk.
So yeah, this is where I’m at now, a bit humbled, a bit chastened, with a lighter RSS reader and a smaller selection of Facebook pages on my wall. But I’m also feeling more like myself again, more excited about running and training, more excited about everything, and that, my friends is, a pretty good way to feel.