The Interval After Dark, 9/6/17

Look at those ripped arms, people.  Mandy Plante takes a handoff at the 2013 Zilker Relays (photo courtesy Kreutz Photography.)    

Sam is out this week.  Rumour has it that he’s over in London arranging for another Wenger Out banner to be flown over Emirates Stadium.

And by After Dark, I mean it’s late on Wednesday and I’m just starting this after my kids got to bed.  I’m on my second beer – Oregon’s best IPA Vicious Mosquito.  So you’ve been warned.


Here in Austin, it is Zilker Relays week and the unofficial start of the Austin racing season is upon us. Friday’s 4 person/10 mile relay is an Austin tradition as much for the running as for the Tacodeli grub and the post-race beer party.

Important facts, in order of importance:

  • The beer sponsor is local brewery Strangeland.   I recommend their IPA.  The porter is good, too, but even though we’re looking at relatively mild Zilker Relays weather, it’s still not Porter weather.
  • The Staylyns are the after-party band.  They list their influences as Jack White, KT Tunstall and Dave Grohl.  That is setting the bar mighty, mighty high.
  • The course is going to be the same 2.5 mile(ish) 3 pronged out & back that has been well received the past few years.  Work on your turns, everybody!

This Week’s Main Feature

In addition to having a guest editor this week, I’ve also invited a guest writer to contribute.  If you don’t know Catherine Barrera (and if you have a dog and spend time on the Town Lake Trail, you probably do), she is a runner, wife, mother, and hoppy beer enthusiast.  She’s also an extraordinary author and all-around raconteur.  I asked her to write something about about running and Austin for the blog.  Here’s the result:

Jog Bra Feminism

My daughter leaves for college in a few weeks. She’s planning on majoring in Gender Studies. She supports everything feminist, having grown audacious and loud about it since she got back from the Women’s March in D.C. this last January. She is, as they say, “woke”. It makes me smile thinking about her advocating for access to birth control, a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body, equal pay. And yet, I feel the nagging urge to warn her, that, indeed, women working together for institutional change is a beautiful thing. But please watch your back, honey, girls can be dangerous.

******

When Elena was in primary school, I crapped on her dreams. I’m not proud of it, but it happened. She was obsessed with the High School Musical trilogy. She memorized the songs and the choreographed dance moves, adopted the characters’ costumes into her own wardrobe, cried at the end of each film when Gabriela and Troy were able to work things out. From my perspective, the movies were a big fat pile of falsity about how girls can “have it all”. For those not in the know, Gabriela is the lead female character. She’s the new girl in town, and, no surprise here, she is beautiful—just the “right sort of ethnic” for contemporary standards. Easing her transition to her new school is the fact that she some kind of STEM genius. On the romantic front, she quickly lands the biggest stud in school, a boy named Troy, who happens to be captain of the basketball team, a great singer, and prematurely in touch with his adolescent feelings. As the movies unfold, we are witness to high school’s array of challenges, but everything always turns out okay for Gabriela and Troy, because they are supported and adored by a huge gaggle of friends. (Fade in soundtrack: “We’re All in This Together”)

Me to Elena, “You know this isn’t realistic. At all.”

Elena to me, “What? The fact that a girl can be good at science and get a guy like Troy?”

Me to Elena, “No, silly. The fact that there’s a pretty girl with intellectual and artistic talent who’s dating a guy like Troy AND that she still has any girl friends at all. They’d turn on her in a second. Girls allow other girls to be smart or pretty or talented, but they can’t be all of those things at once. It’s girl code. The other girls would descend on her like a swarm of angry wasps.”

Like I said, I’m not proud I said it. But I still hold that it’s true. When female friendships are “good”, they deliver a spiritual high, offering us inspiration, camaraderie and honesty that touch our heart strings like nothing else can. But when they are “bad”, they are very, very bad.

My daughter is not perfect. She would be the first to admit she’s “socially awkward”, and that this can be misconstrued by others as being unconcerned, disconnected and sometimes self-absorbed. This is an uncomfortable truth she is continuously trying to right, with varying results. One thing is for sure, however, and that is, she wants good things for her girlfriends. She wants them to get into the best colleges, to work at NASA, to fall in love, and to be elected homecoming queen. She wants them to be happy and fulfilled. She really does. Of all the things my daughter is, it is this trait that I am most proud of.

Except that it leaves her vulnerable. It doesn’t matter how often she gets slighted, she always seems surprised that so-and-so stopped talking to her, either because of that test score, or because of that boy she’s started dating. None of this is new, I get that. I’ve seen Mean Girls a few dozen times by now. What I argue here is that the face of “meanness” among girls is wearing a new kind of ideological makeup in 2017. Specifically, you can almost get away with dissing your own sister, as long as you label yourself a feminist. This new wave of younger feminists attend the marches (which is awesome), and wear the verbiage (which is sorta awesome, except that places like Nordstrom are now spilling over with all kinds of feminist message tees for $40 a pop). However, as soon as any one of them gets something the others of them want—a college acceptance letter, a hunky boyfriend, a new set of friends– bammo, off to war they go, texting and posting and shaming and glaring (which is not awesome in any imaginable way). Institutionally, the “feminism brand” is riding a wave among Elena’s peers; in social reality, it seems to be providing a new kind of air cover for the same old “mean girl” emotional violence.

******

Why am I talking about my daughter’s teenage travails and faux feminism in a running blog? Because my lifetime spent in athletic pursuits have shown me that real feminism – genuine, supportive kinship among women – can and does exist. And I wish she could know what that feels like. Elena hates sports. She tried when she was younger, but it never really worked for her. I tell myself that maybe I should have forced her to pursue something, so she could know first-hand the beauty of what I’ve experienced.

Running in Austin, with “Carmen’s group”, made me wonder if maybe High School Musical was on to something after all, maybe there was still space in our culture for women to want other women to do well (gasp!). Maybe you didn’t hear me: where women want other women to do well. As I’ve put in print before, running with Carmen’s group changed my life. I don’t race anymore, but the imprint remains, etched on my soul.

To run in Carmen’s group is to commit to racing. You might sign up as a jogger, but you soon get converted into a racer. Tuesdays and Saturdays take your breath away: you look at the prescribed workout before you head to the track, and you think to yourself, “No way I can do that! That’s impossible! At that pace?” And then you go out there and somehow, you get it done, your body punished and quivering at the end, but your spirit is elated. That is, you surrender to the competitiveness, you let go of your inhibitions and you chase the unimaginable. If you want to cut those three seconds off your mile split, you can’t give any less.

As it turns out, it’s nearly impossible to cut those three seconds off if you don’t have a teammate breathing down your back, huffing and puffing to keep up with you, or worse, pass you. You feel the fire of their glare bearing down on you, and you suddenly want to beat that person more than anything in this world. In your mind, it’s just the two of you alone on the track, everyone else fades away. Pat, pat, pat go your shoes, keeping steady, as if your life depends on it. You hate this person with exaggerated feeling right now, and yet you also love this person like you couldn’t exist without him or her. You want to win, but either way, the test has been exhilarating. Remembering those moments still gives me goosebumps—the confluence of dedication, physical exertion, emotional stamina and human will.

There was a brief, very special period during my mid 40’s when I got to run with more than a dozen superfast women in town. At first, I was scared to see all the “Top 10 Women Finishers” showing up around me at the track. 

But the pang only lasted for a second. Everyone was nice. We blended together, talking about races where we’d seen each other, about jobs, about kids, what part of town we were from. No one made an effort to “best” anyone else with a list of PRs, no one was marking her territory with snarls or snide comments. Curiously, there was room for all of us, as Carmen gave us our directives. I don’t remember where the men were that day— perhaps training for something other than a 5k. But on this occasion, it was just us girls, running 1ks and 800s and 400s until our lungs felt like they were full of burning coals. There were a couple women who were stronger at this kind of workout, so they led the rest of us, a swarm of bees circling round and round the track, close together and tightly knit, competitive yet supportive. Of course, there were other people out at the track that dayassorted running groups, high school athletes, lakeside recreationists—and this is what gives that evening special focus for me.

People paused to watch us. (ed – it’s true.  I trucked along behind this group and got to take in all the awed expressions from onlookers)

It’s not like we were superstars, oh dear, no. But we were a pack of women working together, harmoniously, even in our pain. One woman running her guts out is admirable; a pack of women doing so is powerful, inspirational, beautiful. I imagined we were a herd of stallions thundering across the frontier, our muscles gleaming in the sun, eyes focused and intent, nostrils flaring at the final sprint.

I don’t know where I finished in the pack that day—somewhere towards the back, I imagine. And that’s part of the beauty of the story. It was one of the most powerful workouts of my life. It made me feel strong and empowered and hopeful—I knew on that day I would be able to tackle this 5k, that the times I once imagined were unthinkable were actually within my reach. Mostly, though, I felt happy, looking around me at these speedy women, all of us pushed to our limits, slapping hands, patting backs, smiling out of mutual respect. That was the day we became a unit. We filled the next few months with grueling workouts, but also with stories of weak bladders, intestinal weaknesses, changing menstrual patterns, relationship sagas, and bargain sites for running shoes. No one cheered louder for us during training intervals or local races than the other gals in our group, screaming encouragement with a passion that might have suggested we’d known each other since birth, rather than two months ago. We picked each other up spiritually when a workout was subpar; we jumped into a huddle of embraces when a job had been well done.

There was one Chuy’s 5k where I was determined to break 19:00. Bob “Wish” Wischnia wrote about it, which is funny, because it was just me, Cath, trying to race against my own head. It turns out there were half a dozen others from Carmen’s group who shared the same goal. On that morning, as we gathered at the start line, jittery, anxious for the thrill of the competition, it dawned on me that we were happy to see each other. We all ran nearly the same pace—a victory for one of us might be viewed as a loss for another. But not us, I thought to myself proudly, letting the others familiar breathing patterns and quirky pre-race rituals calm my nerves. A few other women who were in our general age range, but not from Carmen’s group, approached our circle, revealing that they, too, were aiming for the very same feat. “Good luck,” said one of them, smiling at me. I smiled back. Each of us wanted to break 19:00, and that desired objective we wanted ourselves, we wanted for all the others. When the gun went off, we communicated in breathless gasps, “Go ahead,” or “What’s the pace?” without expending ourselves, working back and forth together as we settled in, an army set loose in battle. Halfway through the race, we split up, some going ahead, some falling behind, but I never lost the feeling that we were somehow still linked, attached in this unspeakable way, a thin string connecting us together. That string was the common experience we’d accrued specifically as women, where society asks us to keep up that perfect dance, forever alternating between competing and nurturing. I finished in 18:38, by the way. In large part, I thank my girls for that.

We parted soon after—people got injured or divorced or remarried, they took on new jobs, had babies, or moved away. We saw each other less frequently, though the Town Lake Trail has provided us with plenty of surprise encounters for catching up and reminiscing. No matter how much time has gone by, I’m always glad to run into these gals. Generally, we start by chatting about running, but soon segue into the larger life questions, listening intently to each other’s answers, genuinely interested in how the other is faring. Really wanting good things for each other, a life where our physical and intellectual strengths are highlighted and applauded, and our hearts are full and warm. I don’t know if the women of whom I write here remember either the workout I related above, or that Chuy’s 5k. But I’m pretty sure they know the bond I’m talking about. Naysayers might argue these events are only significant to me because I accomplished my physical goals. I say, that in a culture where High School Musical creator Kenny Ortega rises to fame by making up a character like Gabriela, precisely because of how improbable she is, running with my gal pals in Carmen’s group gave me the platform for transcending that place where fiction is used to distract us from our culture’s flaws. On the one hand, running is not a team sportmy finishing time is attributable to me and only me. On the other hand, there is a powerful force at work when I do my best running; namely, hearing my girls pounding the pavement all around me, feeling the constant push and pull of our desire to win, guided by the weight of our cumulative strength, spurring on us in an almost supernatural way.

Even if Elena never runs a race or wins a match or hits a PR, one of my greatest hopes is that she gets the chance to experience that idyllic mesh of competitive spirit and nurturing heart, where girls work together to do the things they couldn’t get done alone.


Thanks Catherine for sharing.  I always appreciate Cath’s insights, whether it is about the state of the world, feminism, running psychology or just how to discreetly poop while out on a run.

Racing News

In racing news, the New Haven Road Race on Labor Day also hosted the USATF 20k Championship.  As the epic picture above shows, it was a hotly contested race on the men’s side.  Galen Rupp nudged Leonard Korir for the win.  Jordan Hasay won the women’s race.

Other running news of note

Stringbean breaks the Appalachian Trail FKT.  My favorite part of this article is that almost every ultra-runner mentioned has a nickname.  Please send in your suggestions for Sam’s ultra-runner nickname to samlab@gmail.com or comment on the Facebook page.  Sam will publish his favorites after he gets back from Sky Island.  Don’t send in any for me – I’m not an ultra-runner.  I’m off to create a random ultra-runner name generator for Facebook. (HT to Sam Labrie)

Great article on the Pyongyang Marathon in North Korea.  I ran the Yangon Half-Marathon in Myanmar soon after sanctions were lifted and travel there was allowed.  The crowd support and energy was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.  At 6am, the streets were lined with people, many of whom went bonkers as I approached.  I was able to pass a member of the Myanmar national team and got passed by a kid who can’t have been older than twelve and was wearing only socks on his feet.  The race organizers were even kind enough to put up the tape for me to break at the finish line even though I was nowhere near the lead.  I’m not going to recommend that anyone go to North Korea to run, but I do think it is worth traveling to a race to some place where an event like this has a different relationship with the citizens of the location than we’re used to.

Fantastic Reddit AMA with Dr. Mark Cucuzzella, a running and medical expert.  He’s actually bona fide.  A lot of good information in here for what ails ya.

Huge news for trail runners.  An anti-body shot to prevent Lyme disease is only 2-3 years out.  Honestly, I probably should have led the post with this one.  Anyone wishing for a more detailed explanation, please contact Armadillo Running’s resident biology PhD, Sam Labrie.

Saving the best for last, this guy was attacked by a hawk while out on a run.  I’ve been attacked by some hawk-sized horseflies, but those things don’t have talons.  Wear a hat next time!