On January 22, 2019, my old knees were put to rest, and in their place, new knees were born of a surgeon’s hands. He smoothed the rough and road-worn bone surfaces, so misshapen by arthritis that almost any activity caused pain, and put in two brand new joints. In the past weeks, I knew I was coming to the bitter end. I would try to go out and enjoy Nordic skiing, but my poor old knees would seize up like an ancient Buick, and I would finish the adventure in tears, feeling like a rusty old automobile carcass being towed into the junkyard.
I have nursed them along with shots of viscous fluid and cortisone injections, I have rubbed them with creams made of CBD oil, spearmint, lavender, and coconut, I have eaten anti-inflammatories as if they were my reason for living, and I have practiced my yoga religiously. I was afraid the crackling noise of my bone-on-bone knees would disrupt a yoga class and maybe make people sick, so I have opted to practice at home. These knees have served me so well over the forty-three years I have been an active athlete, bearing up so well under the punishing training weeks during my years as a professional runner. I think they deserve a proper memorial.
Thank you dear knees for the trail running adventures that took me high up into the mountains, and for teaching me that being in Nature was just the perfect medicine for all those years of holding so much and feeling that I couldn’t let a single thing slip, or make one mistake. In my thirty eight years of competitive running, the lessons about running as a somatic teacher for much that causes suffering have been translated into being more present as a mother, and in my work as a therapist.
In 1976, as an eighteen year-old member of Sierra College’s first women’s cross-country team, I wanted to win, and I did, but it was mostly luck, not so much pacing and fitness. The gun would go off, and I would run as hard as I could, looking back every few seconds to see how close my nearest rival was. I ran “not to lose,” as opposed to running knowing I had the training and steadiness of mind to win, and I had yet to learn the difference. I was incapable of evaluating my ability and my effort without infusing it with judgment, and had not yet learned the art of being pragmatic without being dramatic, hurling myself to the track in tears when someone beat me in a workout. Every wise competitive runner knows that racing the workouts is a sign of being completely submissive to an egoic need to be number one all the time, rather than running the workouts to attain a level of fitness and focusing attention inward to how one’s own body is responding to the test.
I had a very long way to go in every aspect. I needed to learn how to set realistic goals for myself, and to be kind to myself as I worked towards them instead of allowing my inner critic prevail, which was perhaps the biggest challenge, and one that I would meet over and over and over again on my path towards becoming a well-rounded athlete. My “Inner Cruella” was always ready with criticism about my body, her voice nattering away in my head as I pulled on my racing briefs that I didn’t have the right body to be an elite runner, and that I could never be thin enough, fast enough, or smart enough. Many women suffered as I did with weight, eating disorders, and body issues because of our perfectionism and relentless drive to do whatever it took to be the best. The skinnier we were, the better the coaches seemed to like it, some even weighed their female athletes daily along with routine body fat tests using calipers, and praising them for being ten percent or less. I remember one young woman who was so anorexic that she shattered both hips finishing a collegiate cross-country race.
Cruella was also with me at every workout letting me know how I had failed to run the mile repeats fast enough, or how I’d allowed another woman on my team to lead which meant I was not as good as she was. She shadowed me during races when I’d begin to feel myself tying up and slowing down, “See? I told you. You’re just not one of them.” It took years of patient self-mothering to cultivate a more powerful and encouraging voice that I could access when things were not going as planned in a race, particularly a marathon where there are so many ups and downs and many opportunities to choose to listen to Inner Cruella, or to silence her and focus myself on my perceived effort and evaluate whether I could do something different to feel better, or whether to relax and accept how things were in that moment, and affirm for myself that I was doing my best. I always laid it all out and held nothing back in races. One can do no more than that, so how does it serve to criticize that effort?
As women’s racing became more popular, I was fortunate enough to be given opportunities to run all over the country in races with other great female athletes, and to have been part of teams sponsored by forward thinking companies like Nike, Brooks, and Moving Comfort, whose support meant that I could travel and race without draining my bank account further than it usually was. I found myself among women I never thought I would meet in person or stand on the same starting line with, and was so honored to be a part of a movement where women showed their emotional, physical, and psychological stamina as athletes, not to mention tenacity and grace in overcoming barriers.
I remember being pushed in races by men who didn’t want to be passed by a woman. I remember being called a fucking bitch when I passed a man in a race, and being run off the shoulders of roads by male drivers who thought they would teach me a thing or two about where they thought I belonged. I always wondered whether they would have felt supremely powerful and satisfied had they actually hit and killed me: “There! Taught her a lesson about running on the road where only I should have a right to be!”
I remember being fearful of running alone in parks and encountering men whose daily routines included waiting for female runners and masturbating in the middle of the trail. I had numerous encounters with men who cat-called, and made obscene gestures, invading my inner and outer worlds with their sexually predatory and deviant behaviors. I remember almost being killed by an ex-boyfriend while out on a run with the all-male cross-country team I was part of, escaping only by reminding him that if he killed me, he would lose his teaching job. There was no punishment for him, and I feared for my life every time I went out for a run. I was angry that he had taken away my freedom and my innate feeling of safety in Nature, something I looked forward to and enjoyed more than anything.
But the memories that far outshine the darker ones, are the many miles run with my female friends, where we comforted one another, laughed together, figured out child care together so that we could train. When I lived in Alaska, and was training to qualify for the inaugural Women’s Olympic Marathon Trials in May of 1984, my friends and I would watch each other’s children while we went running. I ran in weather so cold, that the ice build-up on my eyelashes made it difficult to keep my eyes open, and in the short days of winter when the daylight barely made it past a glimmer.
The qualifying marathon was the Fiesta Bowl Marathon in Scottsdale, Arizona in early December of 1983, and we traveled from Alaska, where I had been running in temperatures often far below zero, to the desert, where the sun shone and the temperatures were in the 70’s. My daughter was almost two, and traveled along with my husband and me. My friend Carol, a training friend from Seattle where I had gone periodically to train and race and be out of Alaska, was planning to use that marathon as her qualifier too, so we decided to run it together. We needed to run 2:51:16 in order to make the cut to race in the Olympic Trials the following May. We ran through the rolling hills of the desert and kept right on pace until the last few miles, where we both began to feel the fatigue. I had developed blisters on both feet, which were getting progressively worse. She would check her watch, and I would ask, “How are we doing?” hoping she wouldn’t tell me we needed to pick up the pace, because I had nothing left. “We’re fine,” she said. “But we can’t slow down.”
We both finished in 2:49:56. I limped through the chute, blood oozing through both shoes, towards my husband and my daughter who looked at my bloody, blistered feet and asked, “Did you run too far in that marathon Mommy?” The fact that I had qualified for the Trials made headlines in the Anchorage newspapers, and suddenly, I was being cast as Alaska’s hope for the summer Olympics. Joan Benoit’s time at the Trials was 2:31:04; mine was 2:49:56. I was not even close to being a hopeful for the U.S. team for the 1984 Olympic Marathon, but I found myself lapping up all the attention, my fame in Alaska and among the running community giving me something I could feel really proud of.
Becoming a mother had changed my life as it does for most women, but becoming pregnant was a dream come true for me. Becoming a mother opened up a dimension of myself where I was not so focused on myself and feeding the negative, self-defeating thoughts. Suddenly, there was no time to care about what others thought, or whether I looked fat in my running shorts. It was a relief not to be so self-absorbed in that way, but being serious athlete requires self-absorption as well; it’s just different in the sense that it felt more like my job. I was running for Nike, and I felt responsible to perform well, and to be disciplined about training.
The 1984 Women’s Olympic Trials was held in Olympia, Washington, and I was among the many who had great aspirations. Mine tended to be unrealistic, and my expectations so crushing, that my anxiety would inevitably sabotage my oxygen supply. There were many lessons to be learned about remaining grounded rather than allowing errant and destructive thoughts invade my mind, which never seemed to stop churning. I noticed the races where I was completely relaxed, and made a choice to encourage others, or to smile at the crowd, and how much better that felt that getting lost in my negative thoughts. I learned to appreciate the journey of training, and not just be fixated on one race performance, which helped me be less reactive to race performances that had not turned out the way I had anticipated.
It was unheard of or certainly not spoken about often for female runners to have children. The prevailing notion back in 1980’s was that if you wanted to be a national or world-class runner, you had to focus only on running. Pregnancy was thought to be a career-ending decision. I think I could name just a handful of women who had children and had participated in the 1984 Olympic Trials. In 1988, I brought my six-month old son to the Women’s Olympic Marathon Trials, which were held in Pittsburgh. I was still nursing.
Ingrid Kristiansen, the marathon world record holder had a baby, and within a very short period of time, ran a world record for ten kilometers. Suddenly, it was all the rage to have babies and be a world-class runner!
There were all female marathons and shorter races popping up all over the country and the world during the eighties and nineties, including Ekiden relays with teams from many countries where the political circumstances often prevented women from competing, but were opportunities to close the dissonance between what we thought about people from other countries and how they really were. I never dreamed of being part of World Championship teams representing the United States, or being invited to compete in races, or finishing in times I had thought were unattainable.
I recall one eight-kilometer race in Washington D.C. that Nike put on just for women. The Nike Women’s 8km entry list had every U.S. record holder in every distance including cross-country. Among the entrants was Joan Samuelson whose times in almost every distance were among the top five in the world. I had been really sick the week before, and doubted my ability to be at my best, and when the gun went off, I found myself clinging to the tail end of the lead pack, knowing there was no way I could hold that pace. I went through the first mile in 4:55 and the leaders were at least ten seconds in front. With one kilometer to go, I found myself running neck and neck with Joan, and wondering what in the heck she was doing back in the pack with me. We fought it out until the finish and she outkicked me. She turned around in the finish chute and thanked me for helping her push hard, which stunned me. I thought it was the other way around, and thanked her. Turns out she was pregnant, and was not running at her best! She could have won or at least been in the top three, but she never made excuses; one of the reasons I admired her. If pressed, she would tell you if something was interfering with her racing, but even when reporters wanted to linger on the subject of infirmities, she would shift the focus to how well her competitors had done. I wanted to practice her grace in my own life and career as an athlete, and made it a point to catch myself when I was allowing my shame over a race performance to manifest in excuses or self-pity. I was deliriously happy having run 26:08 for the distance, which is just a shade under five miles.
And, so, here I am, almost sixty-one. After years of training weeks exceeding a hundred miles, many marathons, a few trail ultra’s, and hundreds of other races where lessons were learned in the quiet and safe space of my heart, the final one was a gentle voice telling me to let go.
Interestingly, the last race for me was on the same dirt road where I first fell to my knees, gasping for air, and breaking into sobs that echoed off the granite walls of the mountains that had embraced me since childhood. Running became my source of comfort and strength, no longer a mandated exercise I was told to do. Running was a way to understand and resolve trauma; running was a way to get to know myself and to welcome my orphan self to shine in her own way.
The 2018 Squaw Valley Mountain Run, a 3.6-mile race with an elevation gain of 2,000 feet was my last race, and I remembered myself trotting along the same road so long ago. I heard myself breathe the same breath, and saw the same wizened grandmother juniper trees watching me as I passed. Surrender does not come easily, and the death of an identity is frightening, but allowing the death of that which does not serve is a lesson that presents itself in each moment. The death of an idea or image of oneself is probably the most terrifying, at least for me. I had been known as an athlete, good enough to compete with the best women in my sport, and I had become attached to that source of recognition. Letting go and not being attached to any particular identity or persona is a huge challenge, but it’s also so sweet and simple not to have an identity at all, and to carry on as just one little cell in the vast body of Nature.