Sunday, June 22, 2014

Bonfire of my vanities

Out for my long run on the Silver Strand yesterday, I was sharing the bikeway with the TriClub of San Diego, who was hosting a beginner triathlon. I'm thinking about registering for my first triathlon later this summer (stay tuned: "I'm thinking about" pretty much always means "I'm going to," in my universe), so I was paying close attention. Naturally, I enjoyed watching the athletes challenge themselves physically and mentally, fumbling around with their equipment, and celebrating as they crossed the finish line. But one woman in particular really stood out. She passed me on her bike, outfitted in helmet, cycling shoes, and - unlike most everyone else out there in tri-suits that provide at least a modicum of coverage - a bathing suit.

My first thought: "I wouldn't be caught dead." No, it wasn't a skimpy beach bikini. It was clearly an athletic suit, and I assume she was going to hop off of that bike and run the final leg of the triathlon in it, too. But it was a bathing suit, and her whole body was right out there on view while engaged in strenuous athletic endeavor. My second thought was a pang of jealousy at her comfort level with this. Now I don't know this person or anything about her or the accuracy of my perception of her comfort level. Maybe she's recently dropped a lot of weight, and feels amazing in her blue bathing suit. Maybe she struggles with body issues, and felt self-conscious and uncomfortable, but was challenging herself to overcome. Maybe her tri-suit was just in the laundry pile? Whatever the reason, she was rocking it, and I was impressed.

Like many, I've struggled most of my life with self-image. (I don't refer here to such serious conditions as an eating or body dysmorphic disorder. Just general feelings of shame and inadequacy for being a flawed and imperfect human. You know, the usual stuff.) Now almost forty, I do feel more comfortable in my own skin these days, and for this I give distance running a lot of credit. Not because it's transformed my body in any significant way. I can run marathons and swim in the open ocean, but I can't get rid of my cellulite. At my most fit and fast, parts of me have always jiggled, and I'm now certain that they always will. And then there's the permanent runner's tan. It's the worst. But because being an endurance athlete has, for me, required the letting go of a lot of vanity.

I'm not one of those cute runners in fashionable ensembles that smooth out the lumps and wick away the sweat. With enough discretionary income, I would definitely indulge in them; but for now I prefer to stick with the old grubby stuff and spend my limited "running money" on the related food, travel, and entry fees. So by the end of a run, my cheap cotton tank tops and I usually look something like this:


I have terrible runner hair. I like to keep my hair short, so it can't be pulled back into a neat and clean ponytail. But it's not so short that it just behaves during a run, either. No headband or army of bobby pins can contain it, and I always end up with a bit of a bird's nest up there:


Sometimes I do get that lovely runner's glisten ... but usually it's just my sunblock. And while in still life my arms are reasonably presentable, in real life, there is a lot of uncontrolled wiggle and waggle:


And then there's the issue of my legs and the short shorts. But if you think I'm posting a photo of that, then you've got another thing coming. That situation lies somewhere along the continuum from "athletic-looking woman in a running magazine" to "avert your eyes in horror." That's all you need to know.

As a professional, I'm pretty attentive to my clothes and grooming. But when it comes to running, I'm all about function over form. Although I'd be far more presentable in them, running capris make me hot and uncomfortable. Sometimes I've got salt rings on my t-shirt and frizzed out running hair, but I need to make a stop on my way home. Sorry everyone at Trader Joe's, because this is what's happening. Anyone who's ever seen me cross a finish line knows: it's not a pretty picture. But in that moment, there's no embarrassment. Because I just ran a marathon. Running has helped me to let go of a lot of hang-ups, to throw into the flames the things that don't serve me. Will I be riding a bike or running in a bathing suit any time soon? Probably not. But if I do, I hope that we can all see the beauty of the thunder in those thighs.

Monday, June 9, 2014

I spy with my little "I"

The neighborhood of University Heights
went all out, with some great signs
posted along the half-marathon route.
We're now a week out from the Rock 'n' Roll San Diego Marathon, held last Sunday here in my hometown. This was the 17th running of the original Rock 'n' Roll marathon, and although I've never raced it myself, I'm always out there on the course. I still consider it my "home race" since (with the exception of the parts that are run on the freeway) I've run every block of both the half and full marathon courses, and much of it runs through my own neighborhood. This year I printed the course map and did the half-marathon course in its entirety on Saturday as a training run, which was a fun way to preview the event, and see how the different parts of town were getting ready.

Having run marathons through many other U.S. cities, neighborhood streets lined with families bundled up at the ends of their driveways in the early morning clutching coffee cups and cheering for strangers, I don't think that San Diegans turn out on race morning to support the event the way they should. Running and road racing are so much a part of the culture here that maybe Rock 'n' Roll Sunday just no longer feels like a big deal to anyone anymore. Most people simply hole up to avoid the traffic delays, and wait for it to be over. But I enjoy being out there, seeing the runners taking in the scenery and experiencing our neighborhoods. I hope that me and my signs and my trusty cowbell have made at least a few people smile and pick up their pace a little through the years. And what I enjoy even more is being around town in the hours and days that follow, seeing all of the too-red faces and too-slow gaits, the telltale signs of tired but (hopefully) triumphant marathon warriors. It's fun to watch people strain to get up from their chairs at dinner, to see their knees wobble as they struggle to make it down stairs and step off of the curbs. I know this delicious agony, and it gets me excited to feel it again for myself.

I really loved the race t-shirt design
this year. Sort of wish I had one.
The participant t-shirts this year were especially cool. I loved the design, and am officially jealous of everyone who has one. And since they're bright red, they're easy to spot. This weekend, it seemed that all those race t-shirts must have made it through the laundry cycle, because they were everywhere.

One of the unsung joys of running is spotting someone in a t-shirt from a race that you ran, too. (The further away and longer ago it was, the better. There's nothing more cool than having another runner sidle up with a "Hey, I ran Chicago in '05, too!") I know there are plenty of distance runners who don't care to race, but I think there's power and beauty in seeing oneself in others, and that the experience of racing together is just another way that runners connect. With the other participants, with the cities where they run, and with the experience of being a runner. There are hundreds or thousands (or tens of thousands) of people out there who huddled in trash bags during that cold and rainy start with you, who conquered that same monster hill, who celebrated in that same beer garden. You might not have known them, but they were with you. Ups and downs, highs and lows: we're all in this together.