Gender Bender

113th Boston Marathon April 20, 2009, Boston, MA Photo by: Lisa Coniglio Victah1111@aol.com 631-741-1865 www.photorun.NET

Kara rewrites the narrative. Wear pink and kick ass.

The topic of gender in sport has been on my mind in recent weeks, and I have a lot of thoughts on the issue.

  • I always pursue equality in my life, whether in running or in general. We’ve recently posted about it on the blog, and while I think we all want the same things from our beloved sport, I come from a different school of thought. However, the one thing we can universally agree on is this: men and women are wired differently.
  • A couple weeks ago, I was in Seattle watching the ECNL soccer playoffs. At the tournament, I saw a lot of girls, from all over the U.S., playing soccer. They are the very best players in the country, and they proved that on the field. They were fierce, competitive and, yes, feminine. Their uniforms fit their bodies because they were women’s uniforms cut for a woman’s body. But my husband’s teams looked a little different. Their shorts were longer, the tops boxier. So I asked, and I found out that his girls wear boys’ uniforms. Wait, why? “To even the playing field.” Wait, what? What’s wrong with wearing a woman’s uniform? I mean, as long as it’s not pink. Right? But why is pink the enemy?
  • Isn’t the great equalizer being able to embrace our differences and share the same power? Why do we have to measure ourselves against maleness to be equal, even in sport? Why can’t wearing a pink tutu in a race be empowering, if that’s what you love? I don’t need to be like a man to feel strong, capable or competitive. I don’t need to set aside my femininity in any area of my life — sport, career or relationships — I am a woman and I seek equality by embracing who I am, not by setting it aside.

Fierce competitors, but not genderless.

  • I don’t think the world of sports perpetuates a specific “girly” stereotype to attract women. From my vantage, women’s sports are intense, powerful and exciting. Did you watch the Women’s World Cup? Have you seen Kara Goucher compete?
  • Parents don’t sign up their daughters for softball so they can wear cute uniforms. They sign them up to play softball because their daughters want to play softball. If appearance were the motivator, they’d probably sign them up for pageants. My gut tells me that these girls want to play the sport and be allowed to be girls. We can’t deny that girls like Elsa, so why not let them wear Elsa and play the game they love? Girls playing sports doesn’t lessen what is means to be a girl, and it doesn’t lessen what it means to play sports.
  • Then there are race T-shirts. We complained until we got the right fit for our shirts, but we now complain if they’re pink? It seems inconsequential to me. Sexist sayings aside, I see nothing wrong with the women’s tees being different than the men’s at the same race.

I think you can absolutely love your sport while absolutely embracing who you are, and if that means wearing an asexual outfit, great. But if you want to rock a pink shirt and tutu, you’ll still be a badass in my eyes. — Amie

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What a Girl Wants

She doesn't need sparkles, she just needs a finish line.

She doesn’t need sparkles, she just needs a finish line.

If you had asked me about gender roles and differences before I had kids, I would have told you they were entirely the result of societal pressures and enforced norms. But now that I am the proud owner of two little girls, I realize, more than ever, that there is a big difference in the way boys and girls are wired.

They play differently, socialize differently and often act differently.

But while boys and girls are indeed different, there is one place where they are the same: the world of sports. The way they play them, the way they learn them, the way they love them.

Sure, women’s soccer looks a bit different from men’s soccer, but the main difference is simply that there are men on the field in one example, and women on the field in the other example.

This isn’t to say that society doesn’t have an influence on gender. I’ve become more aware (and frankly, enraged) about how society perpetuates these gender differences, especially as it relates to sport.

Recently, a series of photos of a girls’ softball team has been exploding all over the Internet. In the photos, the juxtaposition of the girls in Princess Elsa dresses wearing eye-black on the infield dirt has made a lot of people smile.

The mother/photographer who dreamed up this “Frozen”-themed softball team says, “Little girls that are in beautiful sparkly dresses are okay to look a little tough and look a little mean.”

The problem isn’t the dresses themselves. In fact, in another context, those dresses are great and fun and even empowering. But when you add them to a softball game, it makes it all about appearance and less about the game and the experience.

Sports are not about LOOKING a certain way. Sports are about DOING. About PLAYING. About SPORTSMANSHIP and TEAMWORK.

We don’t need to make sports “pretty” or “girly” or “feminine” to “help” women enjoy them.

The power of sports goes beyond that. We all rally behind a team because it makes us feel like something bigger. We participate in sports long beyond our peak athletic years because it still makes us feel strong and capable. And these things are universal and genderless.

So this year, when yet again, I saw that my Hyde Park Blast race shirt had a different design (in pink, no less) than my husband’s, I felt angry, stereotyped and offended. I’m sure no one meant to disrespect me (or the scores of other disappointed women runners) with these shirts, but, nonetheless, that is how I felt. And the Blast is certainly not alone in its unintentional sexism.

We’ve written time and time and time again on this blog about the struggle to empower female athletes, and unfortunately, that balance has not yet been found.

Ignoring the inherent differences in the genders does each a disservice, but we need to find a better way to welcome both men and women into the sporting arena.

Yes, it is possible to be feminine and strong.

Yes, it is possible to love dresses and softball.

Yes, it is possible to love the color pink and the way it feels to run a race.

However, making sport about these differences also does the sports themselves a disservice. Rather than get our daughters excited to wear an Elsa dress for a photoshoot or a tutu to run a 5K, why don’t we teach them to love the game? To love to run? To explore their physical limits in an empowering way that works the same way for men?

I dream of a world where my daughters can line up for a race and be treated like equals to their male counterparts. A place where they can run on the riverfront without fear of catcalls. A time when they can turn on the TV on any given day and see strong female athletes competing in and talking about the sports they love.

We’ve come a long way in our acceptance of female athletes. Shoot, when my mom played high school basketball, it had a completely different set of rules than the men’s game. And when I ran my first track meet, I did so in a pair of men’s spikes because women’s spikes did not yet exist. But we’ve still got a long ways to go.

Things are better. The fact that people are making attempts to find ways to get women excited about sports is encouraging, but often, they’re missing the mark. Women and girls don’t need different colored shirts, tutus at their races or sparkles at their softball games. They simply need enthusiasm, encouragement and acceptance in the same way that boys and men learn to love sports.

Let’s do better. — Aidz

The Heat is On

My face burns with the fires of a thousand suns. I can smell the hot tar from newly paved road as it melts onto my shoes. Each gust of wind feels like the puff of air that comes out when you open an oven. Sweat pours out of every pore in my body, desperate for relief. And I’m only two miles into my afternoon run.

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According to the calendar, it’s mid-June, but according to the recent Cincinnati forecast, it’s more like we’re trapped in a defective sauna. And since my summer schedule has been exceptionally hectic, my only option for running has been to go around 3 p.m., in the hottest part of the day.

I have easy access to a gym and a treadmill, but let’s face it, I know I’m not going to enjoy myself in there, so begrudgingly, I’ve been soaking in the heat. At first, it was unbearable (and most likely, unsafe). But now, I find that while it’s still not as relaxing as going for a run in the crisp fall air, I actually don’t mind the overbearing heat and humidity. I guess I’m finding some kind of zen in the sweltering temperatures.

In a mere 30-minute run, I feel like I’ve completely exerted myself. I probably haven’t run that fast or that far, but as I come inside to the blissfully cool air conditioning, I feel satisfyingly exhausted and depleted.

I thought I was just being desperate, but I might actually be training kinda smart. As it turns out, your body does quite a few amazing things to help you acclimate to exercise in the heat. And since I’m preparing for a notoriously hot race (the Bix), these fresh-from-the-oven training runs may do me more good than I originally thought.

Or at least that’s what I’m hoping. Right now, I’ve been swapping my regularly scheduled tempo runs for “heat work.” It’s less of a conscious decision and more based on my inability to maintain any kind of speed in the heat, but I’m going to stop beating myself up about it and try to reframe it as a positive thing. You know, like altitude training.

And I’d encourage you to do the same thing. If you’re slated for sweltering summer races this year, get out in the heat and get yourself acclimated. The body can do some pretty amazing things. — Aidz

 

Video Gait Analysis

Have you ever really watched yourself run? The answer is probably no. Maybe you’ve seen a short clip taken with a loved one’s cell phone as you breezed by during a marathon. Or perhaps you’ve picked out your tiny self on the finish line cam at a race. And, let’s be real, you’ve probably sneakily watched your reflection in a storefront window or in the mirror at the gym. It turns out, you can learn a lot by really watching yourself run, especially when you also have a certified professional really watch you run and break down your form frame by frame in a process known as Video Gait Analysis.

The Process

I’ve been injured for so long (since October, kids!) and gone through months of physical therapy to attack problem after problem, many of which were the result of compensation for other issues. A few weeks ago when I began my latest round of PT, my physical therapist suggested I undergo Video Gait Analysis (VGA). It would allow them to see exactly how my injuries were affecting my running form and to pinpoint weaknesses to target in my therapy. In short: it could help me recover while becoming a stronger, more efficient runner. Zero downside.

I was told to wear my usual running shoes, shorts and a shirt that was a different color than my shorts. I hopped on the treadmill and put the speed at a “comfortable” pace. I warmed up for about five minutes before filming began, mostly to make sure I was running naturally and not “posing” for the camera. Chris, the physical therapist/VGA expert, set up the video camera and recorded me running for a couple minutes from each angle (back, front, left, right). All told, the recording process took about 20 minutes. And, because it was part of my rehab, my insurance paid the total cost. Score!

The very next PT session, my physical therapist began incorporating Chris’ preliminary VGA findings into my routine (more on that in a minute). About a week later, I received a fancy CD-ROM (yes, those are still a thing), complete with my VGA, screen shots, notes and exercises to do at home. Unfortunately, I couldn’t actually watch the video part of the Video Gait Analysis; it was PC-based software and I’m an Apple gal all the way. A few IT-related snafus later, I finally had my VGA, and I watched it with Adrea and Sara before our trip to the Madison Half Marathon.

What I Learned

VGA Knee Collapse

Screen shots of two of the biggest problems revealed in my VGA: knee collapse and hip drop.

VGA Hip Drop The results were not quite as ugly as I’d feared; frankly, I was a little afraid to see just how imperfect my running form is. A lot of things were good – arm swing, push off, posture, foot strike — but the laundry list of issues stems from a recurring culprit: weak glutes. In other words, I literally need to get my butt in gear. Here’s a quick recap of what my VGA revealed about my running form:

Issue: “Lateral trunk lean” ( i.e. leaning torso toward the weakened side; in my case, the left)
Solution: Strengthen hip abductors and glutes

Issue: Poor stability when landing
Solution: Improve single-leg balance

Issue: “Hip drop” on both sides (For example, when only the right leg is planted, it means the entire left side is “cantilevered” over the left hip. If the right hip muscles aren’t firing correctly, the pelvis and upper body tilt downward on the left side.)
Solution: Strengthen hip abductors and glutes Issue: Slow cadence Solution: Increase cadence to 180 steps per minute

Issue: Overstriding
Solution: Increase cadence and take smaller steps

Issue: Overpronation
Solution: Shoes with increased stability, custom orthotics and increase ankle strength

Issue: Knees “collapsing” when landing
Solution: Strengthen eccentric quads, hips, glutes and calves to improve stability

The unsolved mystery is whether all of these issues are the result of or the cause of my injuries. I’m guessing it’s a combination of both, but I sure wish I had a VGA of my running form from last summer so I could compare them.

The Aftermath

In the weeks following my VGA, my physical therapy has grown much more intense as I work to heal, strengthen and change my muscle memory. Squats of all shapes and sizes. Running and hopping on a trampoline and Bosu ball balance/strength exercises, all in front of a mirror so I can watch the angles of my knees, hips and ankles. It’s HARD, and I feel like I’ve had an actual workout when I’m done, not like I paid good money just to do a bunch of lame stretches.

Left: Major knee collapse Right: No knee collapse!

Left: Knee collapse
Right: No knee collapse!

As a result, I’ve incorporated changes to my running form. My cadence is back up in the 175-180 range — where it was pre-injury — and I’ve shortened my stride. My trunk lean and hip drop are decreasing as my strength increases. But the biggest change I’ve made is keeping my knees from collapsing, both when running and standing in general. When I first started concentrating on this, it felt like I was practically spread-eagle, even though at a glance, it is hardly noticeable. After about a month, it’s becoming a natural movement, and that minor adjustment also has helped limit my overpronation and improved my posture.

Upon my physical therapist’s recommendation, I also saw a podiatrist. My custom orthotics will be ready for pickup in a couple weeks, at which time, I’m going to get fitted for some new kicks at my friendly neighborhood running store to carry me through the rest of marathon training.

This whole experience — my injury, physical therapy and now VGA — has taught me a ton about my body and running and how everything is connected. I know I’ll never have “perfect” running form, but at least now I have the tools and the knowledge to keep striving — and striding — toward my own version of perfection. And hopefully that version includes far, far fewer injuries. — Mags

Post-Race Blues

sad1A close friend finished her first half marathon last weekend and confessed to me that while she didn’t love training and she wouldn’t call herself a running junkie, she was over the moon when she completed her race. Like the rest of us, she wore her medal all day, pored over her results and laughed at her race photos.

She woke up the next day and BAM! The joy was gone. It was quickly replaced by an overwhelming feeling of sadness. She considered wearing her medal to work, but even that didn’t help. What the heck was going on?

This sadness is real, and it happens all the time. Some have called it “achievement of goal depression,” but I just refer to it as my “post-race blues.” Here’s what I think happens, and some ways to battle through it next time.

The problem: You’ve been training for months to run your race. It’s over, and you just feel empty. You have a lot of time on your hands, and you’ve gone from 60 to zero and that’s hard. Here are some ways to transition:

  • The day after your race, have a meal with friends and share your race experiences. If they ran it too, even better! If not, they’ll still indulge you (even if they think you’re a little crazy when you show them your chafed arms and black toenails).
  • Schedule fun events and things to look forward to in the weeks following your race.
  • Sometimes signing up for another race helps a lot, but don’t feel guilty if you want a break from running.

The problem: You trained with a friend or a group, and you miss them. This is the hardest for me; seeing the same people week after week and then they’re essentially gone. Here are some ways to fill the void:

  • Schedule a happy hour, get together and celebrate.
  • Go for a social run. No watches, no pressure, just fun.
  • Sign up to do it all over again!

The problem: You didn’t achieve your goal, and you have unfinished business. Not everyone has a specific time goal when running a race, but most of us have something in mind. If you feel disappointed in your result, the post-race blues are amplified. Here are some ways to cope:

  • Review your race and what you learned, but don’t dwell on it too much. Every race is different, and you can always try again.
  • Take what you learned and turn it into success. Isn’t this where running mimics life? You didn’t fail if you learned something.

Goals are important. They’re what keep us focused and productive. When we achieve them, we feel great, and when they are behind us, we can feel purposeless. This feeling doesn’t last long if you stay positive, reflect aptly and start planning your next challenge. — Amie

I, Pacer

1195947_61860403Just as in marathon training itself, persistence paid off in my quest to become a marathon training pace group leader.

That’s right, friends. I have been officially selected as a pacer for summer marathon training with Chicago Endurance Sports.

It’s a volunteer gig (with a few small perks) that will require me to arise at ungodly early hours every Saturday for 20 weeks, but I couldn’t be more excited.

Before I found running, I spent most of my life playing team sports. Leadership came naturally to me, whether it was shouting how many outs and where the play was on the softball diamond or calling plays and rallying the team as the setter on the volleyball court. I’ve always been extremely vocal and team-oriented, and in fact, during my CES training last summer, I instinctively doled out cheers and high-fives to total strangers – sometimes to puzzled looks.

Through this blog, I share stories of my training and races, but it is also a forum to dispense advice while encouraging and inspiring others. Being able to connect with runners from around the world and help them – even if that help is just giving them a much-needed laugh — has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. And I have found that motivating and inspiring others to achieve their goals can be even better than achieving my own goals.

(Speaking of my own goals … becoming a pacer WAS one of my goals for 2015. Hooray!)

It will be a chance to forge new bonds with other runners, who happen to be some of the best people on the planet.

Spending my summer as a pacer will give me a new challenge to focus on as I continue to recover from injury. I have a job to do — run 10:00 miles for each and every long run — and lots of people will be counting on me to do just that.

And as I help others train for a fall marathon — whether they’re first-timers or aiming for a time goal — I know I will help myself in ways that go far beyond the race itself. — Mags

See Mom Run

There’s a quote that goes something like this: “Behind every great kid is a mom who’s pretty sure she’s screwing it up.” The author is unknown, probably because every mom could have written it. With Mother’s Day coming up on Sunday, I wanted to remind you — you, the hard working, tough-loving, race-running mom — you aren’t screwing it up.

On the contrary, I bet you are doing it exactly right. When you squeeze in your runs between work, managing the house, wiping noses, cooking dinner, rushing to school events and folding endless laundry, your kids are watching, they are learning, and they are benefiting.

Finishing the day with a clean slate

When I think about the real reasons I run, it’s not about my splits or race times, it’s about how it makes me feel. I once described running as that feeling you get when your whole house is clean and there’s nothing left to do. That split second when you put away that last stack of towels or unpack that last bag of groceries. You put your hands on your hips, you stand back, and you revel in your success. That’s running, for me. It’s a clean slate, if only for a moment, and I cherish that, especially as a mom, when there’s no real end in sight. It’s the gift you give yourself every day, and it’s the gift I want to pass on to my kids.

When my teenagers were small, and after I completed my first marathon, a friend bought me a book titled “See Mom Run.” It’s a sweet story about Penny, whose mother completes a marathon and gives her the medal since they worked together as a team to train. I’ve read that book thousands of times, and when I heard my 3-year-old reciting it the other day, I was brought to tears.

“Some day, I’m going to run like her,” he said in his sweet little toddler voice. It was almost too much for my sensitive heart.

Penny, from

Penny, from “See Mom Run”

One of my goals this year was to foster the love of running, which I assumed would mean I would have to push it onto my family. But that’s not the case at all. Kids want to do what we do, as parents. So, in reality, my goal is to continue loving running while letting go of the notion that I’m less of a mom because I carve out “me” time.

So put the guilt aside and throw on those running clothes. At some point in your crazy day, you’ll fit in your run and be a better person and parent for it. Your kids already know this because they are great — and you aren’t screwing anything up.

Happy Mother’s Day, Angels! — Amie