The Rebel Females of Ultramarathons

I was a bit of a rebel growing up. I liked being a girl, but I was not always accepting of societal conventions. I grew up in a fairly small town and I never really felt like I fit in. I wanted to be bold, daring, and did not relish the role of being the good, quiet, compliant female. I wanted to see the world, explore, experience life, warts and all, from an early age. I had a yearning to see what else was out there. I decided to graduate early from high school so I get just get on with my life already. I wrote my college entrance essays about ground-breaking women like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. In my adolescence I learned that girls were still expected to be “nice”, “polite”, “undemanding”. It was important to be a “good girl” in the traditional sense: Pretty and attractive and friendly but somewhat asexual. None of it felt right to me. I had a wild and reckless side to me. I felt like I could not be who I was expected to be.  I often felt badly about myself, because I didn’t know why I couldn’t just conform.

I looked for socially acceptable ways to burn off my energy. While other girls played volleyball or were cheerleaders, I took up weight lifting. While I started off with the little cutesy weights, I ended up eventually benching 155 pounds and squating 200 pounds. I loved it. I felt powerful and strong, and sexy. I was often the only girl in the gym. I worked out with guys who pushed me hard and never told that girls couldn’t lift heavy weights.I had always felt like I had big legs and I hated them. Eventually I realized that I might as well make them really big and strong.

Channeling my inner Madonna with the bleach blonde hair as a young 20 something.

Channeling my inner Madonna with the bleach blonde hair as a young 20 something.

As life went on, I settled down in marriage and parenthood. I was the Military Officer’s Wife who could just not be the proper officer’s wife. I didn’t do teas. I wanted to spend my time at the gym. I started to get the itch again. I had to expand my experiences and try new things. For a variety of reasons, I started running just days after Riley was born. Suddenly, I had a new avenue to express myself and experience life. When we got stationed in Colorado, I felt like I had died and gone to heaven. I discovered trail and ultrarunning and felt rejuvenated. I met Cathy, a complete badass female, who had run may 100 mile races, stage races, done the Eco Challenge, etc., and she opened my eyes to new possibilities. She was the first female ultrarunner I had ever met. I knew there were more out there, but they were a rare species in a sport highly dominated by men. She trained with male running partners because that is all that had been available to her.

It never bothered me that ultras were a male-dominated sport. I like men very much and enjoy their company. However, there is really something unique about being able to see other women doing something that really pushes boundaries in an unconventional setting. Cathy, like me, was different. She has always chosen to live a life that is a little outside of the box. I love that about her. We could run together, tell stories, laugh, spit, swear, stop to pee and feel 100% comfortable. However, Cathy lived far away. our chances to run together were few and far between. Her inspiration stayed with me, though. She showed me that I could do anything I wanted to do.

Over the next few years, I took a break from ultras while my life went through some major changes. My first husband and I split. Steve and I met. We had Peyton. I was caring for two young children instead of one. He works long hours. Running ultras was just not in the equation for me for a while. Then, suddenly, it was. I ran a few 50s, a 100k, a couple of 100 milers. Steve and I continued running together, but I also started meeting other women who ran ultras. I was so happy to meet other ultrarunners who looked like me. Women who wanted to experience big challenges and push themselves. But they are also runners who have similar life experiences simply because we are women. I love my female friends and really enjoy sharing miles and time with them on the trails. There is comfort in that familiarity of experiences.

Nevertheless, ultrarunning is still a sport dominated by men. Women make up a much larger percentage of road runners. In some shorter road races, the number of women now exceeds the number of men. But for ultras, particularly the 100 mile variety, the number of women is still very low.

This opinion piece came out in recently:

In it, the three very well-known and well-respected female ultrarunners talk about why they think we have fewer women competing in ultras. A big theory that they float is that women don’t feel comfortable getting dirty for long periods of time.

In Ellie Greenwood’s earlier post, the 27%, she also wonders why more women don’t compete in ultras.

I really believe that the fact that we don’t have an equal number of female participants has nothing to do with not wanting to get dirty and everything to do with the demands of working and raising children. Most of the women runners I know can find time to train for a half-marathon or even a marathon. But finding time to commit to longer distances seems impossible. Women tend to feel guilty for pretty much every choice they make in life, but we really feel guilty for taking time away from our kids. We feel like we are not entitled to time to ourselves. We are not being good mothers if we have our own needs and goals in life. I am certainly no different. I waited until my kids were at a sweet spot in their ages, where they could stay home alone but they were not completely over scheduled by their own activities. I only train for a couple of long races per year, but I find time. I make it work because I need to for my own mental health.

With Lisa, who means the world to me.

The other reason why I believe more women are not running ultras is because the thought of being out alone on the trails for a long time seems scary to women. I would argue that being out alone on a trail is far safer than running through many city streets, but I can understand the fear of the unknown: creepy people in the middle of nowhere, animals, getting lost, getting hurt outside of cell phone range. Women have been conditioned their whole lives to be careful, to fear what “could” happen, while men have always been taught to be bold and unafraid.

But this is where ultramarathons hold a great deal of appeal to me. I LIKE the fact that I am in the minority in the sport. It appeals to that rebellious part of my brain. I am a happily married 46-year-old mom who still harbors that bit of a wild child. I love my husband and my kids and I go to bed at 9 pm every night. My life sounds like a snooze fest to most people. But, I do things that other people are afraid too take on. I love the thrill of doing something that most other people perceive as nuts, crazy or risky (for the record, I think running 50s-100s is none of those things). Go ahead though, and call me crazy. I consider it a compliment.

Steve calls this my going to battle look.

Here is part of why ultrarunning appeals to my inner rebel: I get to run around in the woods. I get dirty and sometimes bloody. I get to run with and compete against the boys AND the girls and no one thinks anything of it. I do not have any idea what I look like, nor do I care what I look like when on the trail. Running has nothing to do with my size or shape. It is all about how I feel and perform. I can spit, blow snot, swear, pee, etc., and no one gives it a second’s thought. When you realize that less than 1% of the population has finished a 100 mile race, just entering one feels subversive. When you realize that only about 20% of that 1% is female, well, it feels almost revolutionary.

With Kathy, who finished her first ultramarathon! So proud of her!

I love my female ultrarunning friends. I also love the fact that it feels like we are part of a small, special sacred tribe. We are housewives. We are doctors. We are scientists. We are writers. We are teachers. We are single. We are married. We are partnered. We are moms. We are child-free. We are all expressing that little bit of rebellion within ourselves. We are tackling things that we did not think was possible. We are taking our passions to an extreme. It is exhilarating and thrilling and scary all at the same time. If more women want to join us, we will welcome them with open arms.


Body image and parenting

This week, we enjoyed some lovely spring like weather. For the first time since last summer, I took my shirt off during a run.

The cool thing about my scar is that from a distance it makes me look like I have an ab. I don’t. I also have a little pooch beneath my belly button where my stomach is soft and squishy 🙂 I had to take quite a while off from doing abs and lifting weight after my surgery. I have lost muscle mass and tone. Frankly, doing abs and having a rock hard stomach/body is not my priority at the moment. I feel like things are “good enough” and if someone doesn’t want to see my cut up torso, they can just look the other way!

Let’s talk about body image again. To my friends: are there any of you out there who did not beat yourself as an adolescent over what you perceived your physical shortcomings to be? I know I did, as I have discussed here before. I know that as I have grown up and aged, I realized that my body as a teenager was never perfect, but it was pretty darned good. As I have gotten older, things have started to wrinkle, droop, sag, etc. Right now my hair is thinning and turning gray due to chemo. I have made peace with my body and it’s various imperfections that I never had during my younger years. Yes, there are things I wouldn’t mind changing but I know at this point, certain things are not going to change for the better no matter what I do (unless I resort to surgery and that is not going to happen). It was a long process to get to where I am today, but I have a very healthy relationship with food and my physique. 

     As a parent, my policy has been not to engage in fat talk around my kids. I talk about healthful eating and exercise for both physical and emotional well being. Still, kids get bombarded by images and negative body talk from other sources. How do we as parents combat these harmful influences? 

    I would love to hear from women (and men) out there. Tell me about your body image as a teen. Were you hard on yourself? Have you made peace with your imperfections? If so, how do you think you achieved that sense of peace? Are you happier with your body as an adult than you were as a teen? If so, why? If not, why not? If you have kids, how do you try to encourage a healthy body image? Talk to me about your body image, how it has changed over time and how it influences how you parent.

First chemo cycle done and my changing body

I have finished my first cycle of chemotherapy and am about ready to start my second cycle. A cycle for me is three weeks of chemo and then a week off. I have noticed several side effects already.

     First of all, the exhaustion is just overwhelming. I have never been so tired in my whole life. I would love nothing more than to just lie in bed all day, every day, but that just is not in my personality. 

     Secondly, I get nauseous. I have not thrown up yet, but I often feel queasy. Thirdly, I have had digestive problems. One week this sent me to the ER to get straightened out. Fourth, I can tell my immune systems is working over time, because I have gotten sick with a respiratory bug for the first time in a few years. Not a huge deal right now, but I hope the cough, sore throat and stuffy nose do not evolve into something that might threaten my treatment plan. My blood levels are still in the normal range, but they have dropped already from where they started. The oncologist said not to be surprised if we have to alter my chemo schedule at some point.

     Fifth, my skin is very dry. This is common and not a serious problem, although sometimes the itching makes drives me a little batty.

     Sixth, while I have not yet noticed hair thinning on my head, I have noticed that I rarely have to shave my legs and underarms these days. I used to shave every day and now I could get by probably once per week. I am sure this is affecting the hair on my head, but I have so much that I have not yet noticed.

     Seventh, I think the chemo is messing up my menstrual cycles. I have not gotten a period since before I started chemo. This is also a normal side effect, but unlike many women who wish to be rid of their periods, I want to hang onto mine for as long as possible. I hope my cycles come back after the chemo is over and that I am not being permanently pushed into an early menopause. I have come to find a certain comfort in the routine of my body’s cycles, and I know that there is a protective effect for bone health that goes away when a woman goes into menopause.

     Finally, I get muscle cramps. This is not the end of the world, but it definitely limits some of my physical activity. I asked the doctor about this side effect at my appointment this week, and he thinks the chemo is affecting my glycogen stores. My electrolytes are still in the normal range, so he thinks my glycogen is being depleted. 

    My doctor asked if I had noticed any changes in my body. Well, yes, of course. I have not really gained weight, but the insult of major abdominal surgery followed by the start of chemo has resulted in a new softness to my body that was not there before. I used to routinely run 70-100 mile weeks depending on what I was training for, and lift weights 3-4 times per week. Now the longest run I have done is a half marathon. I couldn’t lift anything over 10 lbs for six weeks following surgery and now I find I am so exhausted that I may get a run in but I have trouble following that up with weights. Furthermore, my port makes a lot of upper body exercises uncomfortable or downright painful.

     I have always had a conflicted relationship with my body. When I was young, I could never have a low enough body fat level. My thighs were too big. My stomach was not flat enough. I was horribly cruel in my own self assessment. 

     When I got pregnant for the first time at age 28, allowing myself to grow large and round was mentally difficult. I had worked in the fitness industry and spent a lot of time in front of people in front or a mirror. Giving birth to a baby girl changed something in my brain. I remember having an epiphany one day and telling myself, “you don’t have the right to screw up your daughter with body image issues.” 

     It was around this time that I had become a runner. I ran my first marathon, the Mississippi gulf coast marathon, when Riley was 11 months old. I was so incredibly proud of myself when I crossed that finish line. I went on to run the Mardi Gras marathon seven weeks later. I was hooked. More and more races followed, and I started to appreciate my body more for what it could do than what it looked like. Getting away from that gym mirror and being outside to challenge myself was liberating and helped me to over come a lot of my body image issues.

     This past summer, I finished my first 100 mile race at the Vermont 100. Running that far is definitely not something you do for health purposes. It is hard on the body. I remember the morning after the race, prior to going to the awards ceremony, looking at my bloated belly and swollen feet and ankles. I absolutely did not care what I looked like. The puffiness somehow became a badge of honor. I wondered how in the hell I could have ever been so cruel to my body when my body was capable of doing such amazing things. 

     That feeling has carried me through until now. I look at my abdomen that looks like a jigsaw puzzle. I have a scar from having an open appendectomy years ago. I have a scar from my breasts to my navel from when half my pancreas and spleen were removed. I have a large lump and scar in my chest from my port. So far my body has not failed me. Yes, I have been invaded by an alien life form (cancer), and it has beaten me down a bit, but it has not defeated me.

     I know the changes I see in my body over these next few months of chemo will not be positive ones. I hope I can continue to be in awe of what my body can do, rather than what it looks like. Prior to my surgery, I thought running 100 miles was hard. Little did I realize, it was just the warm up for what was to come. I hope as time goes on, that I can continue to be kind to myself. Getting my diagnosis, and going through what I have already gone through has made me realize that the people who love me will never care about the size of my biceps, the flatness of my stomach, the girth of my thighs. I know they, and I, just want more time together. We need more time.