I competed in my last race of the triathlon season in Siesta Key this weekend, which is sort of a pre-birthday tradition for Brian and me, as this race is awesome and it is always held around our birthdays. It was a great race, with the exception of a minor freakout I experienced before the swim when I saw the carcass of a jellyfish the size of a dinner plate that had washed ashore overnight. (Um, yikes.) Despite the freakout, I swam hard and fairly well, then I got to race on my new tri bike (with the clipless pedals! More about that on another post), and I finished up with a strong 5K on the beach.
I was in the home stretch of my 5K when Brian, who had finished about ten minutes earlier, joined me on the course to help motivate me. I was on track to hit a 24-minute 5K, and I was feeling pretty tired by that time and I was trying to ignore the monster blister that had erupted on the instep of my right foot because I had stupidly gone without socks. Basically I was tits-deep in my pain tunnel, and I was focused on little more than getting my ass over the finish line as quickly as possible.
I was so focused, in fact, that it barely registered on my radar when, about a hundred yards from the finish line, a male spectator yelled, “Don’t let that lady beat you, man!”
A few seconds later, I heard Brian yell back, “That was a really dumb thing to say, man, that was really dumb.” That was when I realized the man had aimed his comment at Brian, which meant “that lady” was me.
I was the lady Brian was supposed to really need to beat! Never mind that Brian had actually already finished, or that even if we had been running together, the age- and gender-segregated wave starts would have meant that one of us would be several minutes slower than the other. It really was a dumb thing to say.
Later, after I crossed the finish line and had the gaping wound in my foot bandaged up (note to self: SOCKS 4-EVA) I thanked Brian for saying something to the guy, and he told me that he’d actually heard the guy say the exact same thing when he came across the finish line for the first time, but he was too out of breath to say anything that time.
We talked about it some more, mainly about how annoying it is when guys who don’t race act like it’s some huge insult to masculinity when a guy who does race gets passed by a woman, and we vented our annoyance at each other a little bit, and then we moved on to eating some delicious barbeque while dissecting the particulars of our individual races.
The funny thing is that I knew pretty quickly that I wanted to write about this for the blog, because it’s just begging for some gender analysis, but the truth is that I’ve already written a post that looked seriously at the guy’s attempt at heckling us and I chose to delete it, because I keep coming back to the fact that Brian already summed up my feelings on the matter: that it was a really dumb thing to say.
And this isn’t just for that guy, but for anyone who says something similar, whether it’s Lance Armstrong writing in the foreword to Chrissie Wellington’s book that every elite male racer’s worst nightmare is getting “chicked” (not serious injury or death, mind you, but getting passed by a woman, I mean are you kidding me with that?) or the guy who starts pedaling harder when he notices a female cyclist who might overtake him, even if he has to pedal beyond his abilities to do so. (I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve read or heard about this happening, by the way.)
There’s nothing wrong with competing against someone you perceive of as a worthy adversary, and in fact, that’s half the fun of sport. The problem is that for these guys, we women are not worthy adversaries. Beating us isn’t about the joy of competition or the pleasure of sport. It’s about protecting their egos and fending off the shame they feel is certain to follow if they find out that they are not automatically better at a sport just because they are guys. It makes me feel more than a little sad when I think about it, because it feels like a desperate and fearful mindset.
I know for a fact that there’s another way to approach cross-gender competition that is fostered by a spirit of egalitarianism and respect. I don’t have to look much further than my own household to see this is true.
Brian had told me about his own run during the race, and how he started at about the same time as a 66-year-old woman. He noticed that she was wearing one of those USAT national championship tops, so he figured she would be good, but even so he was surprised when she took off and left him in her dust.
He eventually caught up to her, and when he passed her, he complimented her and told her she was looking strong. In the minutes between the time she left him and the time he caught her, he didn’t think about how awful and embarrassing it was to be outrun by a gray-haired woman who was fourteen years his senior. Instead he thought about what a badass she was. I imagine that his respect for her as an athlete made the moment when he did finally catch her all the sweeter.