Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Myths and a Long Trail

This weekend I watched Finding Traction, a film about Nikki Kimball's record-setting run of the Long Trail in Vermont,  Nikki came across as a fantastic person--passionate, competitive, and with plenty of interesting things to say.  She's someone who I would love to meet at a race or out on the trails someday.  The run depicted by the film was very impressive of course, and I'd imagine that Nikki's record will last for quite a while.  Two things about the film, however, bothered me enough to make me want to write something.  More accurately, one thing bothered me enough to want to write something, and while I'm at it, I might as well bring up the other...

First of all, I should explain a bit more about the subject of Finding Traction.  In part, it was a day-by-day account of Nikki's time on the Long Trail.  It was also, however, about Nikki's past experiences and in particular her experiences with sexism in the sports world and what she hoped to change about attitudes towards women in sport. I thought her message was excellent and I agreed completely with everything she said.

So while I came away feeling 90 percent positive about the film, the two issues I had with it were:

Issue 1:  A myth.

Near the middle of the film, at 24:18 in, there's a short clip showing a biologist named David Carrier.  He confidently states the oft-repeated line that as race distances get longer, the gap between men's and women's performance lessens, and that at distances such as 100 miles, the differences between males and females "more or less disappear."

The problem is, there's no factual basis for this claim.  It's a myth born out of just a few anecdotes involving women winning long races outright and some speculation, which turned out to be incorrect, extrapolating future female finish times from past improvements in women's records.  You can see the myth debunked in this paper, or, for a less dense explanation, you can see from an Ian Sharman blog post (making the same points as this paper) exactly how far the best men remain ahead of the best women at all distances.  Spoiler alert:  they remain far ahead.  In fact, as things currently stand, the performance gap actually increases at 100+ miles, though that's likely down to a relative lack of female participation in some of the longer events.  There are several reasons why a woman might win an ultramarathon outright, but, based on all the available facts, there's no reason to think that those reasons include a decrease in the performance gap at longer distances.

Why do I care so much if the film got one bit of factual information wrong?  Because I think this myth is extremely harmful to women's ultrarunning.  (Dredging up the myth in the middle of a film which takes aim at sexism in the ultrarunning world made it even worse.  I couldn't help yelling at the TV when I heard what Carrier was saying.)

Think this through:  if we subscribe to the belief that sex doesn't matter when the distances get up into the 100 mile range, then what happens when, back in the real world, the best women don't actually perform as well as the best men at 100 milers?  If we incorrectly believe that the worse performance had nothing to do with biology, then we're left to conclude that the worse performance had to stem from some other factor--a lack of training, a lack of effort on the day, poor nutrition strategy...i.e., something that the women could have fixed had they simply tried harder or used better tactics.  But in reality, nothing other than a few male hormones is going to lessen that performance gap when comparing the best to the best.  In terms of sporting performance, men are just heavily-doped women.  Acknowledging this is, in my view, the first step towards recognizing that the outcome of the women's portion of a race is just as noteworthy as the men's portion, regardless of whether the finishing times are slower on the women's side, because that acknowledgment allows us to recognize that the amount of talent, training, and effort on display is equal.

Issue 2:  A reminder.

In one scene of the film, Nikki discusses the poor treatment that women get in the ultrarunning press.  She mentions that when she won the UTMB, there was extensive media coverage the next day of the top men, going several places deep into the field, and then, as she puts it, a little blurb saying essentially "oh, and some women ran too."  This will no doubt be a familiar story to anyone who has ever read an issue of an ultrarunning magazine cover to cover; there's generally at least one race report taking the common format of a three-paragraph, blow-by-blow account of the progress of the men's race, followed by a terse sentence or two stating that "X took first for the women in 00:00, with Y coming in second in 00:23."  So I loved that Nikki made that point and that she made it well.

What struck me, though, is that there were two Long Trail speed records at issue in the film:  the men's record and the women's record.  Both record times were mentioned frequently and were an integral part of the drama.  However, while the film gave the name of the holder of the men's record, it never once named the holder of the women's record.  This may sound like a very minor gripe, and in a way it is.  On its own, it's not a particularly big deal.  But when juxtaposed with Nikki's observations about lopsided press coverage, it served as an unfortunate reminder that the attitudes towards women in sport, the attitudes which Nikki is doing an excellent job at trying to change, are maybe even more deeply ingrained than we realize.  There's a long, long way to go.  It's a good thing we're ultrarunners.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Changing Plans

Over the past few months, I've been dealing with a dilemma:  my two main goals for 2015 conflicted with each other.  One was to run the Appalachian Trail and try for the unsupported women's record, while the other was to try to improve my speed at the marathon to 50 mile distance.  Unfortunately 75ish days of plodding along with a backpack on the AT is not conducive to getting faster, not to mention the potential for a long recovery time afterwards where I might not be able to run properly.  After going back and forth on the issue for what seemed like ages, I finally came up with a plan:  to do the AT but to do it just after my summer goal race, when I'd need to take some time off proper training anyway, and to do it as comfortably as possible to minimize recovery time.

That sounded like the perfect solution...until my boss said no to the idea of unpaid leave, on the basis that the office is currently too understaffed to lose someone for that long.  Since I'm a person who likes to find a way to solve problems, the obvious course of action would have been to think about changing jobs, leaving a gap between the jobs as the time for the AT.  I'm not ready to do that though, for two reasons--one, I love my job, and two, with the doubts I had about whether or not to even do the AT, it's not worth it, at least not yet.  If I still want to do the AT in a few years and still haven't been able to get unpaid time off, maybe it will be time to think about other job options.

For now though, I'm happy to switch focus to the "getting faster" goal and try to get in another solid year of uninterrupted training.  I've never had a full year of uninterrupted training, let alone two--there have always been months off for Arrowhead training, climbing, illness, or injury.  My 2015 race calendar is looking pretty exciting so far:  I've got a half marathon in March, the Lake Sonoma 50 mile in April, the Quest for the Crest 50k in late May, and the White River 50 mile in late July.  After that my schedule is wide open; I just need to figure out what the best use of all that time is...

Friday, January 2, 2015


2014 has quite possibly been the best year of my life so I'm a bit loathe to see the year end.

Before this past year, it had been virtually impossible for any year to live up to the gold standard of the 2005-2006 school year:  during that year I lived in Leeds, a place which fit me so well that it still feels like home, I shared a house with a good friend and had many other good friends living nearby, and almost every day I took advantage of the perfect climbing and running that was on my doorstep.  Since then I've had many good things happen to me but no continuously excellent year like that one.

Until 2014.  All of the following happened over the past 12 months:

  • Divesh and I were able to spend the entire year in our new house in Georgia, free from weekly commuting, the long harsh Midwestern winter (mostly...), and the intense DIY period of the first few months after we bought the house
  • All but one of my races went well, with Arrowhead especially being one of the best races I've ever had
  • I was able to make longer visits to the UK and Duluth, keeping the visits to friends and family from being quite as rushed as they normally are (though I was admittedly still guilty of trying to pack too much in on several occasions)
  • Maria and I had a fantastic trip to the Balkans, which became one of my favorite places I've ever visited
  • My running fitness steadily progressed throughout the year, ending with a "growth spurt" of improvement just before JFK
and finally...

  • in the last two months of the year I've been on a sudden climbing upswing, thoroughly enjoying it and finally getting back to the level I was at before I quit climbing on any kind of regular basis back in 2009.  

The only real hitch to the year was a potentially serious Achilles/calf injury back in April, but with the help of a radiologist friend, I got on the path to rehab quickly and was only out for about 4 weeks.

I'll start 2015 remembering how lucky I've been the past 12 months and do what I can to continue everything that was good about 2014.

Divesh and I watched the last sunset of 2014 from the top of Coosa Bald, then camped and started off 2015 with a run on the Duncan Ridge Trail.  So far I'm liking this new year...