Stalled, then restarted.

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A frustrating aspect of both grad school and endurance training is that you experience highs and lows – periods of intense motion, followed by periods of stasis. After finishing my dissertation prospectus and applying for a bunch of grants, I ran out of gas on both fronts. I’d pushed too hard, too fast trying to get myself to be ABD, and after I managed to hand everything in I tried to start writing my first chapter and diving back into endurance training without giving myself time to recover. 

Big mistake.

My engine sputtered and died in spectacular fashion. I’d write five pages. Read it over. Scrap it. Try again and become angry at myself for not being able to follow through with my goal of finishing a chapter by the start of June. I’d plan to catch up on a run and spend the whole day on my couch, either trying to chip away at this interminable chapter or watching Netflix in a futile attempt to cheer myself up. I felt – on both fronts – paralyzed, sick, unhappy, but the more I worked or thought about work, the worse I felt.

So, how to dig myself out of this funk?

At the end of last year, I was lucky enough to have been accepted to an academic conference in San Antonio. As the trip came up, I wasn’t worried about the paper I’d have to give, and I was actually pretty excited. I knew I was prepared; it was a paper I’d written as part of my exams, so I knew the topic backwards, forwards, inside-out and upside-down. I went to the conference planning to see as much as possible – to attend as many panels as I could, to talk to as many people as possible, to really dig back in. I took the chance to leave my computer – my dissertation, really – behind in the hotel room and connect with people. In this spirit, I attended what was probably the key to my return to true motivation – a “super session” with a number of feminist scholars. Sitting in a room of women doing the sort of work I aspire to and talking and tweeting with those women re-lit my spark. I could do this work. I have the skills – what was I doing feeling inadequate?While I was there, I also ran around the city in the early morning. No tourists, no watch, no phone. Just me and the city – alone together. It took a few days, but when I got back from the conference, I dove immediately back into both my scholarship and my fitness routine, feeling like a new woman.

The moral here, as I see it, is that seeing yourself as part of a living, breathing community and taking some time to unplug from the process of writing the dissertation, which can seem so daunting and terrifying, and to ditch the running watch and enjoy a run for once.

Back on the path, then. Hoping it lasts.

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Princesses, Divas, and Gender Essentialism in Races for Women

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I recently came across an article on Facebook discussing a race for women in Florida, the Divas Half Marathon and 5K. In an article for the Cultist blog at the Miami New Times, B. Caplan highlights the problematic prize package given to winners of age group awards in the race. Caplan writes:

There are 14 different age groups for competition. (Pity the race official who dares ask a diva her age!) First place in each group will win Botox. Second gets laser hair removal. Third place gets laser teeth whitening…While the youngest age group, 14 and under, is not eligible for any of the cosmetic procedures, the next age group up — children between 15 and 19 — are able to win the teeth whitening and laser hair removal.

This part stopped me short. Cosmetic procedures as race prizes? Who thought that was a good idea?

Obviously, the problem here isn’t that this is a race for women only. Many, many races for women alone exist, such as the Nike Women’s Marathon and Half Marathon in San Francisco, the Dirty Girl Adventure Race Series (which I ran in 2012), and the Disney Princess Half Marathon. What each of these races purports to do is to celebrate women runners, a group that, until about thirty years ago, was restricted from long-distance running in the Olympics due to a lingering belief that women were incapable of such physical effort without harming themselves.* These races tell women: “Hey, it’s awesome that you’re a woman who likes to run or who wants to try running for the first time! Come and celebrate that with us!” These races are generally inclusive of all fitness levels and offer a safer entry-level for women who’ve never participated in such an event before. “See yourself in a new way!” these races seem to say, “You can have fun doing athletic activities as a woman!” The trend, to me, seems inherently positive, as it seeks to get more women involved in running as a sport and to make the experience of running social and fun.

Despite this positive intention, issues with these races arise on two fronts. First, compared to many other races of similar distance, these races are often ludicrously expensive. Like gimmick races**, such as the Color Run or one of the many obstacle races so popular right now, these races usually double (or sometimes triple!) the regular cost of participation. For example, the Divas 5K is $65. Local 5Ks, with less bells, whistles, and aggressive branding, tend to run around $25 at the high end, even as they donate the majority of their profits to charity. Similarly, registration fees for the Nike Women’s Marathon are $200, where the fees for the last big-city marathon I ran were $95. These costs, keep in mind, don’t include travel, lodging and, sometimes, food at the race’s after-party. With the women’s races, you’re paying more for the “women’s race” label and the various trappings that come along with it (the cost of those diamond necklace finishers’ medals has to come from somewhere!).  If you have the money to run such a race, that’s excellent, but the fact is that the costs are a rather high barrier to entry for what claims to be an inclusive race.

Second and perhaps more importantly, these races often over-emphasize a particularly feminized image of womanhood as they seek to attract more participants. In an attempt to claim running for women, the pendulum of marketing for these races often swings too far in favor of a stereotypically feminine runner, rather than seeking a nuanced vision of its female participants. The branding on many of these races leans toward hyper-femininity: princesses, divas, feather boas, tiaras, pink EVERYTHING, diamond necklaces instead of racing medals. Obviously, these different aspects aren’t present at every race, but many of the more prominent women’s races feature some imagery, prizes, or promotion that conform to such an image. This isn’t to say that women who enjoy these aspects of races are wrong, by any stretch. The problem is, that by emphasizing this one particular type of womanhood, these races conform to an essentialized image of who women are and can be, ignoring the differences among women and their experiences of womanhood. What about women who hate pink? Why not emphasize women warriors alongside princesses? Why are feather boas a thing?*** While the races might, in theory, challenge the idea that women are too weak to run long distances by highlighting the power and strength of some of their competitors, many of these races reinforce stereotypes and objectified versions of womanhood, rather than challenging them, as they could.

The prizes for the Divas Half Marathon and 5K only highlight this problem. Offering cosmetic procedures as a prize for an athletic event that celebrates women’s physical abilities seems to contradict the goal of women revising their visions of themselves and their capabilities beyond existing cultural stereotypes on athleticism, particularly because these prizes are being offered to the second youngest age group winners.

Is it asking too much to have these races ditch their hyperfeminized visions of women in favor of a more inclusive view of womanhood? Would races attract less participants with less of an emphasis on traditional images of femininity? I suspect not, given the popularity of races like the Tough Mudder and the Warrior Dash, which are gender-neutral but feature marketing images of strong, not stereotypically feminine, women. The Warrior Dash, for example, features a women’s finisher shirt with a Valkyrie (I want this shirt. Very badly). Seeking greater inclusion shouldn’t be difficult, so while I laud such races for opening running to many women who would not participate otherwise, I want to emphasize that these races have some significant room for improvement.

Why can’t Valkyries, divas, and princesses run together?

Brunhilde!

Brunhilde wouldn’t mind hanging out with princesses and divas. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

*One widespread belief, discussed in this New York Times article, suggests that a women’s uterus would fall out if she were to participate in long distance running!

**I don’t use this term as a condemnation. I’ve done a few – the Color Run and the Dirty Girl 5K – and they were ridiculously fun. They simply cost more than the average race.

***They are itchy, ugly, all around terrible, and I hate them.

In which I wax poetic about endurance running and the PhD…and set a goal

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I just finished my PhD written exams yesterday, which may have been one of the more difficult things I’ve done in my life (I won’t know if I’ve passed until next week, and oral exams are on the 21st). There were points where I couldn’t remember simple words because my brain was so taxed (I couldn’t think of the word “reinforce” at one point, which is both hilarious and massively depressing) and where I had to talk myself into writing just another page or reading through just one more sentence. The thing is, though, that now that it’s finished, it feels amazing to know that I managed to complete the written part of the exam without quitting and managed to produce exam answers that I’m not completely embarrassed about. Although, again, I won’t have feedback on them until next week, so my opinions could easily change between now and then.

I know I’m not the first to make the analogy, but this process really brought home to me how going through the process of getting the doctorate is an endurance sport; the psychological aspects of the exam process are similar to those that get you through the marathon. There were points during both where I was too tired to keep going, where I knew I could quit, where I convinced myself that I couldn’t finish but didn’t stop. In both, you push through your fatigue, your pain, because you know that you’ve put the work in to finish and finish strong. I was talking to a colleague last week about how the preparation for the exam is like training for a marathon – the hours of intellectual and/or physical training, proper nutrition, good sleep, rest days. I also suspect that – were I not an endurance runner – I wouldn’t have had the psychological reserves to finish the written exam. The feeling at the end of each was similar: physical, emotional, and mental fatigue mixed with pride for having accomplished something challenging.

Today, I’m completely wiped out, but I also had this thought: I need to do an Ironman before I finish my dissertation.

I know, I know. It’s a crazy idea. But don’t throw me in an asylum just yet.

I’ve run three marathons, something like eight half marathons (I’d have to go dig through the medals and count them at this point), and completed a duathlon (run + bike + run). I have my fourth marathon in March, and I was planning to do a triathlon next summer. I want to continue to challenge myself physically in the same way the dissertation is going to challenge me intellectually. The Ironman is the next logical step.

The Ironman is one of the toughest endurance events in the world, and consists of a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike, and a 26.2 mile run. The only other events that tax their participants as much are the 100+ mile trail races out in the desert or in the mountains like Badwater and Western States.

I’ve always been intrigued by triathlons. My dad used to do them when he was my age,* and as a little kid, I always thought it was neat. I’d never been an athlete**, however, so doing anything on the scale of a triathlon was completely beyond me. After I finished my first marathon in 2011, I knew that I wanted to eventually get into triathlons and that, at some point, I’d shoot for the Ironman.

So what does this mean?

I have two and a half years before I finish my dissertation, if all goes to plan, so I have two and a half years to prepare for an Ironman. I’m thinking that the Summer before my last year of grad school will probably be the ideal time to do it, since I’ll be going on the nationwide job-market, which will consume a good deal of time and money as I’m trying to finish my diss. So race plan for the next few years might look like this (since I want to run a 50K at some point as well):

2014

  • Spring marathon – Virginia Creeper marathon (while writing/completing dissertation prospectus)
  • Summer/fall half Ironman
  • Fall/winter 50K – Possibly the Bigfoot 50K?

2015

  • Spring marathon – Possibly Buffalo?
  • Summer/fall Ironman
  • Winter 50K

2016

  • Spring marathon (while finishing/defending dissertation)
  • Graduate (if all goes to plan!)

I’d also sprinkle some 5Ks and half marathons in there as well, but this is a schedule that might actually be doable, if I get myself in gear and stay focused. I’d be fine with pushing the Ironman to the following summer, but I’d worry about having to move for work and all the chaos that could result. Well. What’s grad school without a challenge?

*He actually used to do kayak triathlons, which replace the swim with a kayaking level, which, in my opinion is much more fun than swimming.

**which is a nice way of saying I was a lazy kid/teenager who would have rather cut off an arm than run a mile.