Seeing the Trees AND the Forest
It has been observed, by those close to me, that when faced with a problem, I head straight to the details. Instead of looking at the big picture, the end game, the overall goal, I get lost in the details: what will it look like, what needs to be done now, is it possible right now, how many possible ways are there to do this? To me, details are the journey, the path of existence. What I decide to do right now and how I do it, the attitude I choose and the things I chose to pay attention to...these things drive the way my day goes.
I have had my share of pre race anxiety. Sleepless nights, worrisome thoughts about reaching goals, being good enough, worthy of my chosen profession and even fear of failure. This is the stuff of high-performance sport. I don't miss those days--much. I would be lying if I said I didn't miss those exciting days a little. I never wanted to let anxiety derail me. I always wanted to rise above it, work with it, use it to lift me to higher level. And the way I did that was to hammer into the details. I made sure I did everything right. Before a race, I made sure I trained as best I could. I ate, slept, practiced my sport psychology, got massage and physio, organized my gear. Details were the only way I could break something so vast, so desired, into a manageable project that I had the power to execute.
My Mantra - while I was a full time professional athlete - could be summed up like this:
If you are going to try and be the best you better do everything you can to succeed.
There are so many details to take care of when training and racing, travelling and eating well. Every day you are given a hundred opportunities to practice doing everything right, and with that a hundred opportunities to choose success. This is not perfectionism, but healthy striving and personal agency.
The thing with doing everything right and taking care of all the details is that it is very proactive and very conscious. You develop practices and set yourself up to succeed and that’s all you can do. Even if you fall short of your goals the disappointment is only temporary because inside you know you did your best.
The opposite is self-sabotage: cutting corners intentionally or unconsciously, overlooking the small details and thereby creating small chinks, openings to fail.
If you succeed, the happiness is also only temporary because the outcome was not luck or chance but your actions. Joy is the practice.
Confidence is not the winning, but the daily practice of learning and perfecting skills, of making yourself capable.
Run For Joy
Strong Like Strong
Who is a Tomboy? (A repost from 2007)
When I was a child I was called a tomboy. I remember processing it as a compliment, not a taunt, and took it as praise for being athletic, a fast runner, interested more in the outdoors than talking about dolls and boys. I was naturally athletic and I loved competition. I ran and played soccer and basketball at school. I sailed all summer, loved camping, hiking, rock climbing and back country skiing: anything that tested my physical limits. I took pride in being brave and fearless and tough. As the third and youngest child in an active family, I no doubt got positive feedback for having an independent attitude, and early success in sports only served to encourage my athletic interests. I had boys that were good friends, and all through high school had more boys that were ‘chums’ than boyfriends.
As a child, I felt happy identifying as a ‘tomboy’, and during my adolescence, I believe my athletic abilities were both a shield, and gave me inner strength to weather the high school scene. As I became a young woman, however, I gradually came to wonder how the boyish label fit with being a girl: I also liked nice clothes and shoes and had heartbreaking crushes on countless boys. I home permed my hair (with disastrous results) in grade 12, experimented with make-up, and stared at fashion magazines, all the while training for the Provincial Track and Field Championships.
By the time I had reached University and my first women’s studies classes, I had outgrown the tomboy label and was a bona fide elite athlete, starring as a distance runner at University and going on to travel the world competing on national teams. At 23, I knew I wanted to be an Olympian and carve out a career as a professional athlete. I had forgotten all about the word tomboy, until I got to that inevitable crossroads in early adult life, where I had moved away from home and was trying to figure out who I was and what I wanted from my life.
Over the next few years as I became aware of the forces of sexism in our culture, and the unequal opportunities for men and women, it slowly dawned on me that tomboy was a strange sort of expression to apply to girls. Why would we label an active girl to be ‘sort of’ male? It seemed a little confusing to me, as the messages that I saw around me, mainly through the media, seemed to suggest that being a girl and a woman, had a lot more to do with choosing the right eye shadow and preparing for the perfect dream wedding. Tomboy seemed to be a good thing when I was little; now that I was growing up into a woman, what was I?
For a while in my late twenties I lived in Paris, racing as a professional triathlete on a French women’s triathlon team, but still mainly training with, and hanging out with male athletes, as female professional triathletes were pretty scarce. While I loved the adventure of being in Europe, nothing could have felt more glaringly odd to me as a young woman than being a female athlete in the city of fashion and fragrance. I looked around at the billboards displaying airbrushed photographs of nude women without muscles, wrinkles or body hair. I knew that no amount of cream would melt fat or cellulite. I decided that someone was delusional, and it wasn’t me.
Like a lot of women born after the start of the feminist movement I had learned to be wary of media images of beauty, and had learned to be a critical reader and observer of popular culture. Nevertheless it was hard to be an athlete and a young woman and to never, ever see myself reflected in those popular images around me. I didn’t know what to think for many years. I felt so strongly that I needed to reject the ‘girly girl’ image that seemed so false (and dangerous, as I noticed eating disorders, low self esteem and disempowerment) that in a very concrete way, I was rejecting the ‘buy in’ to the culture of beauty that I felt was so demeaning to women because it refused to celebrate who women really were, only what they looked like. In rejecting female stereotypes, I did in turn embrace a lot of characteristics that are part of the gender roles of males. And that is the essence of being a tomboy by most definitions.
From a pure etymology angle, tomboy is a word with an interesting history. At first a derogatory word to describe women who dressed like men way back in 1590, it gradually came to mean, as fashions changed and most women started to wear trousers, a women who acted more like a man than a woman, and by the time I was 10, it was considered 'cute' to be called a tomboy.
Or did it only serve, for a while, to give me permission to be less like a stereotypical girl? One has to wonder, why should a girl or a woman who is athletic, sporty, strong, confident, competitive, competent, brave and smart be compared to a boy?
Women, like me, who are athletic and who like to wear mascara off the playing field, are just that: women who like sports among a whole host of other passions. I also like reading and writing and cooking and looking after my kids. As I reflect on my youth, I see that being called a tomboy was more confusing than helpful to me as it created a barrier to people (and myself included) seeing who I truly was. It would have been so much easier as a kid if I could have just been able to accept who I was as an active girl without having to deal with trying to decipher what being a tomboy meant.
Now that I am forty and balancing my athletic career with raising my two young children, my athleticism and accomplishments are embraced and respected. I am honoured to give talks to women who are beginning a journey to fitness and I enjoy giving back to the community that supports me by being a role model for kids, talking to them in gymnasiums and racing them around soccer fields. Nobody calls me a tomboy anymore and I see many young women who are fearlessly choosing to be athletes. Girls can play hockey, soccer and golf, though still not with the same opportunities as men. The balance is far from equal--there are far greater professional opportunities for male athletes than female, but girls just don’t need to be called tomboys anymore. And when the word disappears from common use and into the history of the language, that will be a good day.
What I envision is a possibility that girls and women can transcend the whole issue of what their position is in relation to traditional power. Instead of responding to the term, I would like to see girls embrace a reality for themselves and one that embraces the whole of their radiant natures.
I have a seven year old girl. She has girl friends that I care about. I want these girls to grow up happy to be who they are. If they want to play with Barbie, then they should be happy about that need to explore. Barbie is an invitation to conversations about why every single Barbie has such crazy long legs, no muscles, such a tiny waist and big breasts, but I still think that if they want to play with dolls that’s just fine. And if my daughter feels like running, skipping or mastering a skateboard, I would like to think that she feels free and happy about that too, and I would hope she doesn't feel that she’s a little bit of a ‘different’ girl and tomboyish because she exhibits such daring and strength.
Last month, I sat on a small chair at a classroom table with my daughter and her grade 2 teacher. The three of us were in the classroom discussing friendships among a group of girls in the class. Her teacher, mentioned that my daughter might like to find other friends who were into sports. ‘You’re sort of a tomboy; maybe there are some other girls in the class who share your interests,” suggested her teacher.
My daughter paused before answering, glanced at me, then looked at her teacher and stated. “I don’t really like that word, tomboy, as it means that I am sort of like a boy, and I’m not. I’m a girl and I like sports and running and stuff. I’m a sporty girl. The word, tomboy doesn’t exist for me.”
My heart did one of those mother bursts: I felt such respect and love that she could reflect on her teacher’s use of words so well. I was surprised that our conversations about what it means to be a girl in this world had created this kind of awareness in her. I admired too, the way her teacher took the comments. She sat up straighter and opened her eyes in that sort of ‘aha!’ way that people get when they look at something through a different lens for the first time. This is a woman with a daughter too, a girl who is passionate about soccer. “I never thought about it like that”, she said. “I can see how you wouldn’t want to be compared to a boy like that.”
Having a career in sports has been a rewarding life path for me. I have travelled the world, had experiences in different cultures, and have met interesting people: all these have enriched my life. I have overcome obstacles and challenges. I have learned how to live with extremely stressful environments and people. I have learned how to stay balanced and in the moment while dealing with the highs and the lows that sport inevitably brings. The knowledge gained from a lifetime of athletic experiences helped me through childbirth and has made me a better parent and partner. After doing three Ironman triathlons and giving birth twice, I am not afraid of anything physically challenging or stressful. By staying true to my dreams, I feel that I have transcended my early tomboy label, and found true joy in my career path.
Run For Joy
It's Not About the Marathon
In 2007, when I turned 40, I ran the New York City marathon as a celebration of my life in sport. I had been racing since I was sixteen, and I felt that I was ready to step back from high performance. I had two small children and had started coaching and my priorities had shifted. It was one of my last big pro races. I was so fortunate to receive an invite to run in the elite female master’s field, which meant we were given a thirty minute head start on the men’s field. It also meant that, after about twelve miles in, the women had spread out, and I ran a large part of the race solo. This was simply extraordinary, to be running through the empty streets of New York City in the early morning.
Unequivocally, running that race was one of the highlights of my career. Not only because it is really one of the most iconic and famous marathons, but because of a collection of memories I took home. I met and spoke with Paula Radcliffe, for starters. The marathon world record holder (until 2019), she came with her tiny baby, and her husband. She went on to win, placing 17th overall, in 2:23.
On the morning of the race, we were bussed out to Staten Island, where the elites were held in another location than the rest of the runners. About half an hour before my start, a black Suburban with tinted windows pulled into the warm up zone. I thought it was a security vehicle and I was right. After a few minutes quite a few young male athletes started to emerge from the car; it was like a whole track team of distance runners had arrived. I didn’t see him, but this was Lance Armstrong’s pace group. He had won his 7th Tour de France in 2005, had retired from cycling, and had decided to give marathons a try. He ran 2:59 in 2006, so I guess he was there to improve on that. I never did see Armstrong, as my race was about to start and he had to wait in his car, for obvious reasons, for the men’s start.
We were lined up on the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, and then we were off, I was off, on an adventure in a lifetime of running adventures, to run through five boroughs of New York City.
Somewhere in the late stages of the race, the elite men caught me. I knew they were coming as I could hear vehicles approaching from behind and the crowds cheering as well. The overtake was impressive, and I’ll never forget it. First a lead car with marathon officials hanging out of windows, then another press car, and then a police escort motorcade, at least five motorcycles in a ‘V’ formation, and then the lead male sprinted past and was gone. After that several of the pro men ran by, silently, serious, all focused on a finish line that probably couldn’t come soon enough.
During the last two miles, which wound through Central Park, I was overcome with an intense feeling of joy and gratitude for what my body had done, and for the path I had passionately followed for over 20 years. I had completed many of my previous marathons in an uncomfortable exhausted struggle, both spent and cramping, having blown up at twenty odd miles. They were grim finishes, full of the desire to be done with it all, for the pain to be over, willing my aching body to the line. It was a different story at this race. I was tired but still doing ok. Maybe I had finally nailed my nutrition, or maybe I had simply started slower and paced it better, but I spent the last ten minutes of the race smiling inside, to no one but myself. Those minutes remain some of the happiest moments of my running story.
The Top Five
One aspect of self awareness, is the ability to be open minded. That is, to know when our perspective of a situation is based on our opinion or point of view, and to understand that there may be other ways to thinking about things. I was recently offering some advice to a friend who is pondering running the Finlayson Arm 50k. My perspective came from my opinions about training, preparation and execution of such an event and was focussed on what practices and habits will be required for success. Another friend of his simply said "Drink a bunch of beers the night before and SEND IT!".
There have been times in my coaching life that I feel like the 'Lucy' from the Peanuts cartoon, dispensing advice for 5 cents. Obviously my advice to runners always come from the perspective of what I have learned over many years. What follows then, are the most common themes of running advice I have dispensed over the years, distilled into five tips.
1. Develop positive habits.
Have the courage to know when your habits are creating the same mistakes over and over, and cultivate the courage to change these. Good habits work for you, and easily become the norm for your workouts.
Take care of basic details: prep logistics and being organized with gear and time.
Find and embrace opportunities to succeed. You get better at this the more you practice it.
Weather the ups and downs of training and racing. Be no nonsense about that one. Life goes up and down. It just does.
Do not entertain a change of heart when having a tough day or after a tough race. Allow time to emotionally recover from disappointment. Reflect and move on.
2. Reflect honestly.
Review your races. Improve what you can and give yourself credit for what you did well.
Refine what didn’t go so well. Be honest with yourself, without judgement.
3. Take care of yourself and surround yourself with a healthy community of friends.
Eat well, sleep well, and take care of your body and health. It’s quite simple.
Surround yourself with likeminded positive people who lift you up. Put yourself in environments that support your dreams and passions. (Such as the Island Series and other events). In other words, spend your time well.
4. Listen to others.
You never know what you may learn but be discerning as well. From what you learn, custom build the program and lifestyle that works for you.
5. Find a greater purpose.
Give back when you can. Share the joy of your process and your achievement and celebrate others’ successes. Find opportunities to give back and accept opportunities to give back when they come. Thank the volunteers.
Run For Joy!
Writing about the art of moving well and the lived experience of a life in sport.