This week NPR covered Katherine Switzer, the first woman to compete in a marathon. In 1967– the same year I was born–Switzer entered the Boston Marathon and completed it in 4 hours 20 mins. A race organizer tried to run her off the road, claiming that she was not welcome, yelling at her to “get the hell out of his race.” Her boyfriend blocked him and she was able to finish without interruption. “I’m going to finish this race on my hands and knees if I have to, because nobody believes that I can do this,” she reportedly commented as she ran in a light snow.
Four decades later, it is hardly conceivable that a woman wouldn’t be given equal chances to compete. Although women compete in different categories then men, most men I know have told me that they’ve been passed many times by women in races on foot or bike. Fortunately, my male friends admire the women that do this and are not upset by what’s called in racing slang “being chicked.” Women (with more or less help from their partners) endure monthly pain, nine months of pregnancy Hell, diapers, juggling careers and motherhood; why wouldn’t we rock at endurance sports?
One of the nifty things about being in triathlons is that you have your age marked up on your legs and arms. I found myself neck and neck with a 25 yr. old cyclist and we exchanged some pleasantries and jokingly commented while passing each on hills. While running, I heard a little voice behind me saying, “I’m staying right behind you because you are keeping such a good pace and I feel like quitting about now.” After I choked on my spit laughing (I am NOT fast, and at that point pushing a 10 min pace with my bum ankle was a miracle), I turned and engaged her in conversation, noting that she was only 20 years old. That was a great boost to my psyche at that point (I ended up getting my PR for a 5k that day even though it was my first triathlon!), but I realized, “WE ARE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER.” Triathletes are full of respect and solidarity. That’s why I like doing triathlons.
However, if you leaf through a cycling magazine or a triathlon magazine, information for women is often marginal. I recently purchased a new bike and had a lot of trouble deciding whether to buy a “women” specific road bike or a unisex one. Since I am really not into pink or “girlie” colors, I was more interested in whether my physiology requires something different. It turns out that women’s bike are a little shorter in reach from seat to handlebars, but I opted for a unisex bike since I feel like I am pretty proportional and I could get more bang for my buck. I had a terrible time choosing what to wear my first triathlon as all my friends who had done them were male and just said, “Just run and bike in your swimsuit!” My body image wasn’t quite ready for that step, and although I could see that it would be really uncomfortable to ride in soggy bike shorts, I wanted a little padding. I finally opted for tri shorts, which dry really quickly and have very light padding. That was a great option, but I didn’t do so well on my choice of top that stuck to my wet skin when I tried to pull it on over my Tyr bikini top.
At my first tri, I made a chance encounter with an old friend from high school. Alisa was with a bunch of people wearing impressive flames on their uniforms; the HEAT club (Hawkeye Endurance Athletics Team). Her husband did an Ironman last year, and she was doing the run leg on a team as he had injured his IT band. She urged me to join the team. At first I was completely intimidated, but I realized how little information I had about triathlon training, and how well I work when I have friends to exercise with. Although I am still blown away at meetings when I hear how many hours the top people on the team are training (between 500-700 a month), I am inspired and really happy to say that the top three women are rivaling and even surpassing the men. I was even doing okay myself on the leader board before my ankle surgery, and I’m excited for the next challenge as I progress in my recovery. I’ve gotten so much help from Heat; they organize fun clinics on bike repair, swim technique, and other helpful topics. I don’t think I’ll be a major contributor to team medals until I get some more training and experience, but I am really glad to have their support. I recently suggested having a girl’s night to discuss things we might not want to talk about around guys, including chafing in spots you can’t even imagine, women’s gear and safety issues. I got an enthusiastic response and we are going to have our first women’s meeting next month.
Many people in HEAT would qualify as athletes in my book. None are professional or sponsored, but some have Masters records in swimming or were prize-winning high school and college athletes. Although I tend to think of athletes being like the folks on Wheaties boxes or pushing us to buy clothes at Kohl’s, a nurse at one of my pre-op visits described me as an athlete while conferring with the staff doctor. After I concluded she wasn’t talking about someone else, I almost guffawed. Then I realized I was wearing a t-shirt that said, “I tri like a girl” that my friend Dean gave me to celebrate my first tri, and that I really didn’t look very out of shape. There has been a shift in my mentality as I work out. I no longer exercise to lose weight. I train to get stronger, faster and better. Maybe that’s what being an athlete is about; being proud to tri like a girl, not being faster or the best.
Speaking of strong women, just a little shout out here to help out my friend Sue, who lost her mother last fall after a long battle with cancer. Hospice lightened her load, and she is raising money for the UI Hospice by running a half-marathon in May. You can help support this wonderful woman by going to this link and giving as little as $5 or more.