Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Everyone Wants To Be a Dirty Girl

In case you stumbled across this blog and are wondering what the heck this Dirty Girls thing is all about...

"Everyone Wants to Be a Dirty Girl"

Friday mornings are a bitter/sweet time for me. Bitter because I have to wake up first thing in the morning to run (I am, by nature, more of a shake-off-the-day runner), and also bitter because I have to have a strong cup of black coffee first in order to make it to the run. The "sweet" comes when I arrive at Gig Harbor's McCormick Forest and am enveloped into a swarm of my favorite local ladies, the Dirty Girls Trail Runners (aka the Dirty Girls). I work at Route 16 Running & Walking, a specialty running store where in addition to selling shoes we advise our customers on proper training and injury prevention. "Hit the trails," is one of our mantras, and each of us who works at Route 16 lives by what we preach. "But what about safety?" the women always ask. Especially after last fall, when four female joggers were attacked in the Puget Sound area, they have every right to be concerned. Thankfully, for women who chose not to run trails alone, we now have an easy solution to their question. "Come run with the Dirty Girls."

After the attacks, the gals that work at Route 16 (myself included) banded together to form a women's-only trail running group. There are no fees or dues for the Dirty Girls. We welcome all ability levels. Our only requirement? You have to be willing to get a little muddy and a lot wet. When we formed the group we figured we'd probably be it's only members. Gig Harbor is, after all, somewhat of a wealthier community, and the women around here dress up and turn out well-groomed. At last count there were close to sixty Dirty Girls running the trails at McCormick Forest. While we definitely have our fair share of hard-core ultra-runners, we also get trail-running virgins to turn out every week. Safety-in-numbers is what initially draws women to our merry pink pack. But it's the camaraderie that keeps them coming back for more (nor does it hurt when they discover that muddy legs are sexy). No matter your pace we make sure that you have a buddy to run with if you show up to run with the Dirty Girls. And if you're nervous about getting lost we offer you a whistle. It doesn't take but one or two trail runs for a woman to be a trail-running convert, and after a few months of running the steep hills at McCormick Forest a new Dirty Girl begins to reap the fitness benefits. Pamela Holt, a Dirty Girl who deserves a MOST IMPROVED award recently told me, "I love running trails because when I race roads it feels like I'm on vacation."

In addition to having a Facebook Page, we also have a Google Groups list serve that we use to find running partners on other days of the weeks. Everyone wins when women run together. Except the bad guys. We may be cute, but let me tell you, you'd want a Dirty Girl on your side in a fight. Well-developed from hill-running, our calf muscles are deadly. Plus, we'd kick mud in your eye if you tried to mess with one of our posse. Recently I was at a race watching a relay team of Dirty Girls. Standing at my side was my boss's six-year old son, Micah.
"Here come the Dirty Girls," I said to him, waving and clapping at my friends as they ran across the finish line together.

Micah tugged on my shirt.

"What's wrong?" I asked. He was frowning. 

Sighing, he said, "I wish there was a Dirty Boys."

Everyone wants to be a Dirty Girl. 

The Dirty Girls Do The Dirty Dash
Tony Seabolt Just Wants To Be A Dirty Girl

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

My Own Private Fourth

Yesterday was the Fourth of July.

Bang. Bang!

I am not a big fan of fireworks. I think this comes from some close calls with lightning in my youth. Or maybe someone shot a BB gun too close to my ear. Or maybe my ears are just extra sensitive. I can remember going to see firework displays with my parents... and hiding under our picnic blanket the entire time (moaning). Something about fireworks felt shady to me. Irresponsible. Out of control. What goes up must come down, right? The last thing I wanted was a burning explosive on my head.

When I was in the sixth grade we lived on the Mississippi Coast, a place that is anything but "regulated." Our grandparents had gotten a bunch of fireworks on the cheap the previous year and had given them to us as presents. Any other kid would have felt like they'd won the jackpot. Not me. We drove down to the beach to see the firework display, only to find that the locals were lined up on both sides for miles, shooting fireworks at each other. As we worked our way down to the main drag we heard a guy exclaim, "I haven't seen anything like this since 'Nam!"

I fled screaming back to our car.

Later this night my psychiatrist dad decided it was time for a little immersion therapy. He handed me a Roman candle. "Here," he said. "You'll be fine." (Note to parents everywhere: if there's a bargain to be had on fireworks you probably don't want them.) The Roman candle backfired, straight into my hand. Both my dad and I were very sad and sorry. Since then, I haven't held so much as a sparkler.

I'll never understood why we choose to glorify our "independence" with explosives. Right now, I know there are a whole bunch of military guys just back from Iraq (and some very anxious dogs) who agree with me. Yes, I am grateful that I live in a "free" country. But I'm not going to lie to you... it makes me uncomfortable that a lot of blood was shed for my freedom, and it makes me even more uncomfortable that we glorify this bloodshed with explosives.

So here's how I celebrated the Fourth this year. I went for a run at Millersylvania State Park.

It had been a while since I'd run at this park, since these days it's a good fifty minute drive from where I live. But since I was down in the area yesterday, I figured "why not?" For many years this park was my favorite place to run my long runs. There are lots of great loops here, and it's easy to use your car as an "aid station." The trails are soft, gentle, and wide. Some of the them traverse through a swamp via a boardwalk (y'all know how I feel about swamps, right?), and in late February the skunk cabbage start pushing their way up through the mud in one of the first telltale signs of spring. There's a lake and campground at Millersylvania, and always, in the summer, you smell woodsmoke and barbecue and picnics.

Once when I was working at the bank and training for a 50K, I called in sick to run twenty-six miles at Millersylvania. Once I ran here with my friend Angela French, one of only three women in the US to qualify for the Olympic Trails seven times (because she was struggling with tendinitis I was able to keep up with her for just this one day).

Since my injury last fall I've been focusing on consistency in my runs. Base work. Laying down long, slow miles. I feel "different" in my body on this run at Millersylvania, "different" in a good way. My stride is lighter and shorter and I'm using my upper body. The few rolling hills no longer feel so steep. I allow my mind to wander, and a couple of times I have to remind myself to "slow down."

Is it possible that I'm learning to let go? Is it possible that I'm actually learning?

It's a hot day, and when I finish the run I am dripping with sweat and salt. Though I stink my smell is reassuring to me. I smell like a runner. The lake is just a short walk from my car. I can hear children laughing and screaming, medicine to my boom-weary ears. Do I dare? I wander down to the beach, kick off my flip flops, and wade a short ways out. The water is cold but it's a hot day.  I strip down to my sports bra and running skirt, and make sure my car key is zipped in tight. Then I wade out to my hips. I stare at the water a moment, considering it's murky depths. Perhaps this is just a silly notion. I allow my mind to consider the practicalities of driving back sopping wet. I didn't bring a towel, after all.

But who needs a towel on a hot day? "Fuck it," I think, and dive in headfirst. Bang!

It's cold all-right, but within seconds I'm feeling elated. Within seconds I've crossed under the buoy, and am kicking out for the center of the lake. When I get to the middle I tread water and do some back flips to stretch out my spine. Surfacing, I contemplate the shore. This is the life. This is freedom. This is better than any fireworks display.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Shoes Too Small? Have a Cigarette.

Here's a scenario that plays out at Route 16 at least twenty times a week:

Customer X walks into the store. "My feet hurt," she says. "If I can't get this figured out I'm going to have to go under the knife."

I listen sympathetically and ask the right questions to clarify what's really going on. With feet alone, we see daily such injuries as plantar fasciitis, sprains, stress fractures, achilles tendonitis, Morton's neuroma, neuropathy, arthritis, and many, many more. Plus, you'd better believe that it's never just the feet. If the feet hurt, something else is wrong somewhere too. The very worst feet problems often begin in the head. Which is not to say they are imaginary. Keep reading.

Right before I tell my Customer X to remove her shoes, I have her stand up so that I can feel the length of the pair she is currently wearing. Nine times out of ten the shoe is either too short, too narrow, or both. "We may need to go up half a size," I suggest oh-so-delicately, secretly suspecting that we're talking about a full size-and-a-half. But I can't tell X this. Not if I don't want to get hit or spit on.

Her eyes narrow. Her lips purse. This is when I decide to humor X. I disappear into the stock room and retrieve the size in question.

"This is perfect!" she exclaims as I gently cram her foot into a hole that's sphincter tight. 

I appeal to X's reason. I demonstrate with my hands and forearm how the size of the foot when standing is different than the size of the foot when running. I explain that to fully absorb the impact of landing the feet need to be able to spread out all the way. "If your shoes are too short you lose your springs. And the impact is absorbed into the arch of the foot, up the calf, into the knees, and even into the spine. But the good news is that there's something you can do. You don't need surgery. You just need shoes that fit."

The really brave X's nod mournfully but say something like, "What you say makes sense and I'll try a bigger size but I'm not happy about it."

Most of the time they ask, "Is Miguel working today?"

I try not to take it personally when they request my boss. He is, after all, a guru (and a cute one too).

X looks so heartbreakingly hopeful when Miguel wheels his stool up to her. She is counting on him to make this right because that's what gurus do. "Tell me what's going on," he says, giving her his full attention (with those soulful brown eyes). 

X retells her story. Only this time she ends it with something like, "You guys suggested I go up half a size last time, and I did, and now I'm wondering if my shoes being too big is what caused all the problems in the first place." 

At this point, even though I know better, my stomach starts doing flip-flops. Do I need to call my attorney brother? Can a person be sued for selling too-roomy a shoe? Miguel feels the toe while X avoids making eye contact with me. She suspects--as do I--that I'm on the verge of being fired (and what will it matter then that my shoes fit right? I'll be too depressed to run).

Miguel informs X matter-of-factly that the glass slipper is, indeed, not a match. Cinderella has already left the ball. X doesn't question Miguel because of the whole guru thing, but now she's on the verge of tears. Here's where I get to rush in and play good cop. "Running & walking shoes aren't sized the way shoes are sized in a department store," I explain. "Everyone goes up at least half a size. I went from being a size nine to a size ten in less than a year." For good measure I tell her how much faster I'm running (though I leave out the part that I'm still part turtle).

The above scenario stems in part from the fact that women don't know how a shoe is supposed to feel. As women, we are trained from birth to be accommodating and to not make a fuss when uncomfortable. Shoes too small? Simply curl your toes. Do the sides hug your feet too tightly and pinch your baby toe? Women like hugs and we're sadly all too used to being pinched (just ask any woman who's ever had to ride standing on a commuter train).

The other day I went running with a dear friend (who would no doubt prefer to remain nameless now and forever more because that's just how she rolls). For the sake of this post I'll call my friend Owl since she is so very wise and since she flies when she runs. Like me, Owl has struggled with body image issues all of her life, even though she is stunningly beautiful, thin, and has a most excellent sense of style. Owl and I both realize that in theory we're fit and fabulous. But our hearts fail to make the leap of faith from theory to reality.

Owl and I talk about this on our run. "I know this is so lame," I begin, "but I've always felt that the less space I occupy the more powerful I am."

"It's not just a feeling," she retorts. "It's a fact. And by the way, they teach this kind of thing at  business school."

We run in silence for a few minutes, ruminating on the injustice of it all.

"You're so beautiful and thin," I tell Owl.

"You're so beautiful and thin," she quips back.

Neither of us feels consoled.

Even as as I write this I am in a bad mood because I'm "up" about five pounds (and can no longer attribute the problem to "too much salt"). I know this is pathetic. There are people starving all over the world who would kill to have my problems. But I will not lie to you. This extra weight weighs heavily upon my sense of well-being. I feel isolated. I feel less lovable. I feel punished. And so what if I brought it upon myself by consuming all that almond-butter in the name of emotional eating? Truth be told, I'd kind of like to hole up for a few weeks away from society until I'm a little thinner. I hate to say this, but I honestly feel like I'm more deserving of your attention when I'm a little bit littler. I know this is not rational thinking. Several of my closest friends and advisors are beautiful, curvy women. And I don't think they need to lose an ounce. I'm actually a little disappointed that Jennifer Hudson has lost so much weight. I thought she was pretty perfect before. But logical or not, I hold myself to a different (and unhealthy) standard.

I started this post as a rant. Why is it that so many women are willing to sacrifice their health and well-being for such a silly thing as a number? Why is it that sane and intelligent women would rather have foot surgery than buy a bigger shoe? To my way of thinking, you might as well have a cigarette and binge on powdered donuts while you're at it (and as an aside: if your shoes are too tight eventually you're going to be too injured to be active and then everything will expand). But as I'm writing this and thinking about my own struggles with body-image issues, I'm beginning to wonder if maybe a different approach is required on my part. What I thought was simply a vanity problem is in reality so much more. Feet are a part of a woman's femininity every bit as much as her hips, waist, and boobs. I might think I'm saying to Customer X, "You'll be so much more comfortable and healthy in shoes that fit right" but what she hears is "You're a giant and a freak and you're going to die a lonely old woman with foot fungus and it doesn't matter how smart you are, no one is going to care what you have to say six months from now if you give in and get a bigger pair of shoes."

So I guess we're not talking about a number after all. I guess we're not just talking about feet. Like weight, a woman's feet play into her sense of power and worth. I wonder it's easier for women to hear the news about shoe size from Miguel than it is for them to hear it from me. While Miguel is "other" (being a man), I am one of their own. Every woman in the world knows that no one judges a woman harsher than another woman.

Practically speaking, what's to be done about all of this?

If ever I'm to make peace with my own body, I need to be more patient and tolerant of my customer's relationship to her feet. I need to respect that for women, shoe size is emotional and social. Perhaps it would be better if I discreetly appeared with the right size and blacked out the number at the time of purchase? An idea comes to me. We must petition the shoe companies and beg them to consider vanity sizing. I mean, look how well this has worked in the fashion world. I'm WAY more likely to drop 150 dollars on a pair of size 29 seven jeans than a size 30 (or 31). With vanity shoe-sizing, everyone would win. The moguls at Nike and Asics would get fat (phat?) on their riches. And women everywhere would get to keep their pride and health. On a more global level, we must teach our children that getting the right-sized shoe is just as important as brushing one's teeth or eating broccoli.

I could go on and on about feet but I'll sign off for now. I wouldn't want you to think I have a foot fetish.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

It doesn't really hurt. Right?

Yesterday I ran with Leah, one of the original Dirty Girls and one of the coolest people I know. Leah hails from Arkansas and has the accent to prove it. She's been known to say things like "Girl, you need to turn that frown upside down" and "Don't make me go bloggy on you now."  We refer to her as our hot Dirty Girl. She's got a gorgeous mane of honey-brown hair and major curves that make men salivate and girls drool with envy. Not that she knows this about herself.

Leah being hot
While Leah may not "get" how beautiful she is what she does know about herself is that she's "tough." Name a major life trauma and Leah's probably been through it. As running partners, Leah and I are a good match, both in ability and in outlook. Though both of us would be considered extremely fit by most people, we both struggle to see ourselves as "real" athletes. Following Leah's workout regimine, we were going to run five miles with three "three-minute" hill repeats. Being without a race goal for the moment (I've got one now), I was quite happy to latch on to someone else's game plan. Except that the night before our run I'd been cautioned by Coach Miguel to wait a bit longer on the hill workouts.

"I'm not ready?" I pouted.

"No." He shook his head firmly. "But almost. If you run forty this week, followed by thirty next week then we can talk about getting you on a tempo training plan."

 Chastened, I nodded, all the while tracing the scar on my neck--an ever-present reminder that pushing your limits can come with an all-too-hefty (and visible) price.
Coach Miggy being stern
I waited until we were at the trailhead before breaking the news to Leah.

Stretching her calf muscles, she said, "So we're really going to do this?"

"Um..." I cleared my throat. "You are. I'm not. My coach says I have to wait."

"What?" Leah looked stricken.

I rushed to assure her. "It's okay. I'll just do an extra loop while you do the workout."

"It's not that," she said, hesitating. "It's just... My shins have been kind of sore."

I raised an eyebrow. "Oh really?"

"It's hasn't been too bad," Leah protested. "I've been able to run, and I took it pretty easy last week."

I clucked my tongue. "Riiight. By easy do you meant that super-hard hill workout last Thursday? Or the trail run on Friday with the switchback from hell? Or maybe the near-vertical 12k you ran on Saturday?"

"But I took it slow!" she protested. "And really... it's not bothering me that much. I'm sure I can just push through it. I'm on a schedule. I'm training for my first marathon!"
February, 2010.

I was at a bouldering gym in Portland with Genevieve, the sister of my then-boyfriend Adam. Though Adam and I were still dating at that time, he'd just left town to go find himself in the desert of Utah. In the process he would find someone else (which was ultimately the best thing that ever happened to me, but timing-wise it was a real blow since it coincided with a major life/health crisis). While I knew at a soul-level that Adam and I were "on the rocks" (no climbing-pun intended) on the surface I desperately needed to believe that Adam and I were okay. Because if we weren't okay this meant I was going to have to confront all the emotions I'd yet to face about my recent divorce. And if I confronted those emotions I most-definitely was NOT going to be okay. Not by a long shot.

Me being not-okay
Prior to dating Adam I hadn't climbed in over a decade. After four near misses in the mountains I'd come to believe that when it came to climbing I was unable to put safety before glory. I wanted too badly to impress my climbing partners. I wanted too badly to impress myself. For the sake of my pride, I came very close to paying with my life. And I got scared. Really scared. Scared enough to quit cold turkey. But when Adam took me bouldering, I remembered the pure joy that climbing brought me, and by gosh, maybe if I limited myself to climbing inside at a bouldering gym... (this, my friends, is what addicts called "bargaining") And just like that I was climbing again.

A word about Adam's sister, Gen. The girl is a spider trapped inside a woman's body. Her long and lanky limbs grip miniscule hand and foot holds with all the tenacity of octopus tentacles. Not that I wanted to admit that she was better than me back then. Because that would be akin to admitting that I had limits. And if I had limits that would mean that I was not invincible. And if I was not invincible, well, who knew all the ways in which life might hurt me. So though I was sore and tired that day at the bouldering gym (I'd just helped Gen switch apartments and had lifted a lot of boxes), I was determined to put on a good show. I had people to impress. An ego to stroke. And my body wasn't bothering me that much. 

When you boulder you climb unroped. True, you're never more than twenty feet off the ground. From the ground twenty feet doesn't look like much. From the top, however, when you have to figure out a way back down a wall without falling, those blue gym mats resemble an abyss. Gen and I hadn't been climbing for very long when I got stuck. Adrenaline surged through my body. Though I'd fallen plenty of times before, I sensed that my body was too tired and sore to withstand the impact today. With Gen's coaching and gentle reassurance, I eased my way down, barely breathing until I stepped onto the mat.

My entire body ached with fatigue. I craved the comfort of my bed. But I told myself I needed to push through the pain. Because I had a goal, by golly. Gen went off to work on another bouldering project, one that I'd failed repeatedly to master. Telling myself I didn't want to interrupt her concentration (in actuality I did not want to suffer the indignation of seeing Gen succeed where I had failed--I know... by now you don't want to be my friend anymore, right?) I picked a much easier route to climb, one that should have been a cinch. An ego booster. Definitely not the kind of thing you'd need a spotter for.

The final move before the top required me to lunge upwards. I went for it, and for a split second my fingers grazed the hold. I started to relax. Then something happened and I fell, and because I was tired, and because I did not expect to fall I wasn't prepared. I landed hard on my neck and back. All the wind went out of me. Tears came unbidden to my eyes. The pain was frightening. Severe muscle spasms prevented me from sitting up. Shit. 

Gen was at my side within seconds. "You okay?"

"Give me a second," I gasped, simple conversation beyond my grasp. What had I just done?

With Gen's help, I was eventually able to roll over onto my stomach. Slowly, we got me to standing. Looking neither to the right, left, up, nor down I stumbled out of the gym, my heart heavy with the knowledge that it would be a long while before I would climb again.

Now you might think I would have gone to the emergency room at this point. You might think I would have, at the very least, scheduled an appointment with a doctor. But no. I ignored my injury. I ignored the hurt. I ignored the night spasms in my neck and shoulder that kept me from sleeping. I pushed through the every day functions that were becoming more difficult by the hour. I would stack books when eating so that I could have my plate more at chin level. My stomach became a safe place for Advil. It was during this time that Adam found himself in the desert and skipped town for good.

Broke and broken, unsure what to do next, and reeling with delayed divorce emotions, I moved back home with my parents to recoup my losses. The pain persisted and worsened and spread to my shoulder and arm. Still, I told myself it wasn't a big deal. "These things heal." Finally, when I started to lose all feeling on the left side of my body, I  reluctantly scheduled a doctor's appointment. "I'm sure it's nothing," I told him. He scheduled an MRI for the very next morning. 

The verdict? I'd shattered the disc between C4 and C5, and only surgery would help. I needed a disc replacement, and I needed it immediately if I had any hope of getting the feeling back.
The scar on my neck is about three inches in length. Though it sits in a crease it has not healed in a neat line. The week after surgery my body had an allergic reaction to the stitches and tried to spit them out. It's been about ten months now since that time. Sometimes my scar itches, and sometimes it burns. Sometimes it feels like it's crawling. Every time I see a photograph the first thing I notice is my scar. The other day I a photographer friend of mine said he could photoshop it out of a recent race picture. For a moment, I was tempted. Then I felt my scar. Was it my imagination or was it pulsing with anger?

I thanked my photographer friend but shook my head. "No, I need to remember."

August 5th, 2010. The day of my surgery. An anterior disc replacement is no walk in the park. To avoid cutting the muscles in the back of your neck the surgeons slit your throat and go in through the front. But as scared as I was of the procedure, what scared me more was the thought that I'd never be able to run again. When I woke up in the recovery room to the sound of my own screaming, all I could think about was how much I'd sacrificed for the sake of my pride. "Please let me be able to run trails again," I prayed, all the while vowing to quit climbing for good if only I could run (this too, is called bargaining).

Five weeks after my surgery I turned to Boss Miguel for coaching advice. Though I'd been running for twenty years I'd never worked with a coach before. And even before my neck injury I'd been riding an injury train when it came to running. This time however, I was determined to do things the right way. I'd had enough of being hurt. Miguel forewarned me at the beginning, "Your greatest challenge is going to be learning how to be patient."

By late September I was able to jog (a word most runners abhor). In early October we started the Dirty Girls Trail Runs. Being a leaders of this group became a Buddhist exercise in letting go of pride. Since my fall in February I'd hardly been able to exercise. I had no muscles. No endurance. Even if I had the mental will to push it there was no way I could keep up with the rest of the runners. Now I was the one running at the back of the pack.

In late January of this current year I was finally starting to feel fit again. "Can I start adding tempo runs?" I asked Coach Miguel.

"No can do, Chica. You're nowhere near ready."

This stung. I was doing everything right. I was following Miguel's coaching to a T. So what was the problem?

"There is no problem," he said. "You just need more time on your feet. Remember what I said about being patient?"

Umm... No?

We had the same conversation again at the end of April. I was now running twenty-five miles a week consistently. "Tempo?" I asked, ever so hopefully.

No tempo.

This time Miguel challenged me to run three weeks in a row adding on an additional long run each week. Which I did.

Still no tempo.

More miles. More long runs.

Still. No. Tempo.

"Hmm," I thought to myself last week when Leah invited me to join her for hill repeats. Hadn't I heard Miguel say on multiple occasions that hill-work is speed-work in disguise? Which brings us up to date with the conversation I had with Miguel the night before my planned hill workout with Leah. Guess what? There IS no cheating Coach Miguel's system. You stick to the plan, Stan, or you get off the bus. But I trust Miguel. He's the strongest runner I know, and he doesn't get hurt. Though I'm not doing speed work of any kind, this it the first time in my life that I have been able to run so consistently injury free. That counts for a lot in my book. And so I listen in spite of myself.

From my neck injury and from working at Route 16, I've learned a lot about women and pain this last year. Women don't understand pain. We grossly underestimate the seriousness of our hurts. We even think we are supposed to hurt. And so we tell ourselves that what we are experiencing is not actually pain, but merely discomfort. We tell ourselves this lie so often that we become unable to differentiate between the two. You better believe that when a woman comes into the shop saying something like "it doesn't really hurt" chances are she's got a MAJOR injury that needs immediate medical attention

Here's a paradox that I've come to believe: Our greatest strengths and our fatal flaws are one and the same. 

And now, back to Leah.  Leah is tough. Leah knows how to push it. Mentally, she's unbreakable. She's pushed through the toughest stuff that life dishes out, and she'll do it again if she has to. She knows she can push through anything. But should she? No. When it comes to running Leah's toughness is the thing that will sabotage her training. It's so damn counter-intuitive, this notion that by slowing down and taking it easy we will get stronger and faster when it comes to running. But it's also true. I've seen it firsthand. I've seen it in myself. I am pleased to tell you that Leah listened to her body. She didn't do the hill work-out. She took it easy on our trail run. And afterwards she drove directly to Route 16 for a good strong dose of Miguel's tough love. You can probably guess that Miguel nixed the hill repeats and speed work. "This is your first marathon," he reminded her. "Your goal is to simply lay down the miles."

As for me... I will run forty miles this week, and next week I will run thirty (barring discomfort of course). And I hope to God that Miguel really means it when he says that I can start a tempo program after reaching this goal. But if he says I need more time I will take more time. Because I have learned that pushing it doesn't pay. It's patience that gets you get the jackpot. It's patience that gets you to the starting line. Thank you Coach!
We were patient. And we won!
Miguel following his own advice and finishing strong yet healthy

Saturday, June 4, 2011

"Is it safe to run trails alone if you're a woman?"

This is one of the questions I am frequently asked by our female customers at Route 16. I wish I had a good answer. It's a question I ask myself all the time. Back in college, I worked at Mt. Rainier National Park for four wonderful summers. I frequently hiked the trails by myself. Did I feel at ease? Not always. I'd hear "things" in the brush. Thumps and animal noises. Whomps. Screeches. At least three times I happened upon mother bear and her cubs. I've had two encounters with cougars, and on a couple of occasions I had that prickly, back-of-the-neck sensation of being followed by an unseen cat. But the hazards back then, at least in my mind, were the "objective" kind. And truth be told, those animal encounters were pretty dang cool. Thrilling even.

1996 was the last summer that I worked at the park. I stayed all season, then flew to Colorado to go on a hiking/camping trip with a girl friend. A few days into the trip I called my mom from a pay-phone to check in. "Did you know a woman named Sheila Kearns?" she asked.

My stomach sank. Yes. Yes, I knew Sheila. Why?

Sheila and I had worked together at Mt. Rainier. She'd worked at the front desk at the Paradise Inn. In her early forties, she was quiet but kind, and also an avid hiker. I wondered about Shelia sometimes. She had the bearing of a person who was trying to leave her past behind. At the end of the summer season at Mt. Rainier Sheila transferred down to the Inn at Longmire to work for the winter. Four days after I left the park, she went for a walk after dinner one night. When she failed to return a massive search was launched. There was some speculation that she'd been attacked by a cougar and dragged off into the woods. I was chilled to the core when I got off the phone with my mom. So chilled that I asked my friend if we could leave our beautiful yet isolated campsite and move to a more populated place. I didn't know what to think, but for the rest of the trip I couldn't stop thinking about Sheila.

Five months later the manager of the Inn at Longmire called to ask if I would come wait tables for them over Valentines Day Weekend. I agreed. I needed the cash. It was a decently busy weekend, and I didn't have much time for anything besides work, but my third and final morning I awoke to sunshine and didn't have to be at work until lunch. So I went on a run. I ran across the Nisqually River, back to an old campground, which was no longer operating due to the danger of flooding. It was a beautiful and peaceful place. You could see the remnants of old floods: piles of jumbled boulders and areas where the land had been packed-down by the weight of the water. Though there was snow all around, it was a sunny and unseasonably warm day. I passed a couple of people, and then it was just me and the trees and my thoughts.

I don't know how much time passed before my mood changed to terror, but it did. Something suddenly felt very off to me. I felt isolated. Alone. Alone as if I had stepped into another dimension alone. The sunlight filtering through the trees now felt menacing. At a near sprint, I turned back. My stomach hurt with dread and I didn't stop sprinting until I made it back to my cabin.

One month later Sheila's body was found melting out of the snow. She was found back in the old campground where I'd been running. She'd been stabbed multiple times. Do places hold memories? Was that what I'd felt on my run? The memory of what had happened to Sheila? Had I perhaps smelled something "off", unbeknownst to my conscious mind? Was Sheila present with me that day? Was I being warned? Or, knowing that she'd gone missing the previous fall was I simply predisposed to fear?

I don't know.

In July of that same year (1998) a twenty-four-year-old woman named Amy Wroe Betchel went missing on a run in Lander, Wyoming. She was out checking on the course for an upcoming race that her gym was planning. Her case remains unsolved to this day. I could relate to Amy. We were the same age and she was living the "mountain-town" life, a lifestyle I loved, understood, and wanted for myself. How could she have disappeared without a trace? Because I saw parallels between our lives I began to feel that if she could "disappear" then so could I. Bad things happened to women who ran alone, which meant that something bad could happen to me. 

By now I suspect that some of you, in reading this, are vowing to never run alone again. But I don't think that's the answer. At least, I hope that it's not. Stay with me a few moments longer.

For a long time after Sheila's death and Amy's disappearance I couldn't run trails alone without feeling terrified. I still went places by myself but I had rule. If I were in the mountains, I would only run above tree-line where I could see everything coming my way. I only ran alone on bright sunny days with lots of people around. I carried my pepper spray in hand with the top cocked. I was always on the alert and never relaxed into a run, since I was constantly ready for a fight or flight. My stomach usually hurt on these runs, and I would feel prickly sensations in my arms and legs. It sucked. Eventually I quit running trails by myself. And this sucked too. I felt that I had been robbed of something that was crucial to the well-being of my soul.

I take it very personally every time I hear about an attack on a female runner. One of the reasons we formed the Dirty Girls was so that women in this community (including myself) could run trails freely without fear. Safety in numbers and all that. Because of Dirty Girls I am never in want for running partners. But sometimes I do run trails alone. For I have come to believe that you also let the bad guys win if you let fear keep you from doing something you love. Every time I set out alone it's with the awareness that I am taking a risk, a risk that could perhaps have fatal and gruesome consequences. But I also believe that I am taking an even bigger risk by not running trails alone. For in letting fear dictate your actions you allow bitterness to seep in to your soul. Bitterness is poison. Bitterness is its own kind gruesome death.

Is it safe to run trails alone if you're a woman. No. It's not. But then, a lot of things we do aren't "safe." We drive cars. We drink to much wine and eat too much ice-cream. We keep ourselves so busy that we don't have time to feel our emotions. We forget to take care of ourselves.

Here's what I do know. Nothing makes me feel more connected to the earth, God, and my self than negotiating a twisty wild trail. I love it when you lose yourself to the sound of your breath and the rhythm of a run so much so that you don't even have to think about where to put your feet because your body intuitively knows. You have become part-animal/part-spirit. If this is not transcendence, than I don't know what is. So I take my pepper spray. I don't run with headphones. I stay alert. I accept the risk and pray that I may never know it's consequences. And on the days when the risk feels too great (which, for me, is most of the time) I run with other women. I run with the Dirty Girls.

Is it safe to run trails alone if you're a woman?

You tell me.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Miggy Mystique

Here are a few things I didn't know about myself when I started working at Route 16:

1) I did not know I was walking around with a shattered disc in my neck that would require major surgery and a throat-slitting
2) I did not know I had a lump in my Thyroid that was wreaking havoc on my immune system
3) I did not know that I did not know a whit about running (in spite of running for twenty years)
4) I did not know if I was ever going to feel "okay" again.

Here's what I did know:

1) I was broke
2) I was depressed
3) I was exhausted--mentally, physically, and spiritually
4) My entire left side was going numb, the pain in my shoulder was excruciating, and I wasn't sleeping at night

I'd just been through the most difficult year of my life, the kind of year that sounds like Lifetime TV at it's worst when you try to explain it to other people. The kind of year in which people clutch their chest and say things like "I'll pray for you." Let me just add that I will remain ever-grateful for both the sentiment and the prayers and really, there's no need to quit praying just yet. Pray for world peace. Pray for the human condition. Pray for me to get another book deal sometime soon so I can move out of my folk's house and get a cat (preferably a Rex since I have allergies).

When I suggested to Miguel that maybe I should come work for him, I didn't actually want a job. The words came out of my mouth on their own volition, and I was too embarrassed to tell Miguel that I'd been momentarily possessed and that what I really wanted was to be sedated, preferably in a bed with crisp white sheets and IV drip feeding me food, fluids, and SSRI's. Actually, until I started working at Route 16 I wasn't sure if Miguel had even hired me. During our initial conversation he muttered something about "it being an interesting time for the store" and "going through official channels" and that "we'd be in touch." (Did this mean that he'd be in touch with me? Or that I should get in touch with him?)  Miguel makes perfect sense--to Miguel. The rest of us nod and act like we understand what he's saying because we all want so badly to please him. I call this the "Miggy Mystique."While Miguel's official title may be "Specialty Running Store Owner" he's also equal parts psychologist, life coach, and medicine man. First-time Route 16 customers come to the shop thinking they are simply getting a new pair of shoes. They leave with hope, health referrals, and a whole new outlook on life.

Perhaps Miguel's greatest gift is his keen ability to sense what you most need from him. Though I didn't know this when I started working at Route 16, what I needed most (when I thought I couldn't possibly work) was stability, routine, a sense that I could make a difference, and most importantly, a home.

Coming back to Gig Harbor a year ago to regroup, recover, and relaunch, I had skepticism about my potential to have a social life here. After all, what did a suddenly single, broke, and broken girl like me have in common with the folks of this wealthy, family-oriented community? I began to believe that I was going to become one of those eccentric women who live in cabins in the woods and make tinctures for the local deer population. Maybe I'd learn to read Tarot Cards. 

But it turns out, in fact, that I have a great deal in common with the folks of Gig Harbor. I have a great deal in common with folks everywhere. If there's one thing I've learned this past year (besides the intricacies of feet) it's that what unites us the most is our suffering (followed closely by laughter). We all suffer. It's the most "human" thing that we do. Yes, my suffering made me vulnerable. But my vulnerability made me open. My openness made me perceptive, and my perception enabled me to intuit the needs of my coworkers and customers. My coworkers and customers, in turn, intuited my rawness. And they loved me for it nonetheless (except for maybe Joe... who still thinks I'm a little too "over the top")

It turns out that Miguel really did give me a job. He also gave me a home at Route 16. Stop by anytime for shoes, GU, or cognitive behavioral therapy. We offer all three, and so much more. Welcome.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The District Track Meet: Rain, Wet, Cold. Totally Kick-Ass

Megan Sawyer is my next door neighbor. She is thirteen-years old. At a very early age she was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes. By the age of four she was giving herself her own shots. She asked to do this, and her parents, knowing how important it was to give her some ownership over her disease, allowed her to do so. Megan calls herself "a normal teen." She loves sports,  her friends, her cat, puppy, and family. She makes beautiful jewelry, and sometimes she helps organize walks to raise money for diabetes. She is smart, funny, kind, and beautiful in every sense of the word.

Megan being Beautiful

Her grandparents, Tony and Joy, have become my adopted grandparents. We met over a desperate stray cat named Leo (now living with the Sawyers... no longer desperate and quite a self-satisfied fatty). Last night I got an email from Tony asking me about Megan's Middle School District Track meet, which I was at on behalf of Route 16 and also because I knew there was going to be some major running drama and being a writer and a girl I love drama. Yup.

Last week, Megan and her mama Vanessa stopped by Route 16 to see if Boss Miguel had any running tips for Megan for the District Meet. Megan is a sprinter, and it turns out, a damn good one. But she'd never been able to beat a schoolmate of hers named Troye. Both of these two girls were poised to win the 100 meter sprint. Win, lose, or draw, it was going to be a close race. From behind the counter I watched Megan listening to Miguel. He talked to her about race-day preparation. Warming up. Nutrition. Adjusting the starting block. Power. Megan didn't say much. But you could tell she was taking in every word that he said. You could see the hunger in her eyes. The fire. In a lot of ways Miguel and Megan are kindred spirits. They both endured childhood hardships, Megan with her diabetes, and Miguel... well, we'll get to him in a later post but let me assure you right now his story is a great one with lots of agony, suffering, and hardship.

Race day arrived, cold and wet. There was nearly an hour delay before the first event. The kids shivered in their shorts and singlets, their muscles visibly tight and cold.

I saw Megan a couple of times before her race. I asked her to point out Troye. Now I'm sure Troye is a lovely girl (and I believe that she and Megan are good friends), but I couldn't help it, when no one was looking I narrowed my eyes at her, even though I am supposed to be a grown up who sets a good example for teens.

"Don't worry about winning," I told Megan. "You just worry about running your own best race. It's okay to feel nervous. You WANT to feel nervous. The adrenaline will help you run faster."

Megan nodded and smiled. Her face was pure excitement.

I was the nervous one.

I took my place at the sidelines to watch. Megan was practically bouncing up and down, so eager was she to be running. The starter fired his gun. The sprinters exploded off the blocks. I screamed as hard as I could, fully believing that my voice possessed a magical power that would somehow help Megan to run even faster.

And they're off!

It was a close race, with some serious see-sawing, and from where I was standing I couldn't see which girl actually crossed the finish line first. Then Megan turned towards the crowd and I caught her eye. I shrugged my shoulders in a question, and raised first two fingers, then one. Tentative. Hopeful.

She raised one finger. You could tell she was trying not to grin. Now it was my turn to jump up and down. She'd done it. She'd won the race. She'd won first place at Districts. She'd outrun a very worthy competitor. Most importantly, she'd beaten her expectations of herself.

I saw her mama afterwards and we debriefed the race, both of us stupid proud. Vanessa told me that Troye's time was a little slower than usual. Was this why Megan had won? she wondered. And was Troye okay? (being the kindhearted person that she is, Vanessa was worried about Megan's friend).

Here's what I think happened. It is my belief that when it comes to running, early suffering gives you a competitive advantage. You know how to endure. You already have experience with beating the odds. I know what I saw before the race even started. Megan listened to every word Miguel said. She prepared. Even before she took her place on the starting block, Megan was acting like she'd already won the race. The actual running of it was merely a detail. I think it was her confidence and excitement that psyched Troye out. Never doubt for a second that running is a mental game.

Proud Mama and Papa (talking to Tony and Joy after the finish)

Here's what Tony wrote in his letter to me:

"Maybe you can tell me something. Megan was obviously running at a higher level that day. Do you think that this was because she decided to open the throttle wider or was it in response to some coaching detail from Miguel or you?  I think it's interesting with people of this age to know 1. Did they listen? 2. Did they listen and understand and 3. Did they listen and apply?" 

Hope this answers your questions, Tony!

Here's one other thing I'd like to add. Obviously, winning is exciting (and not something I know a whole lot about). But the great thing about running is that even if you finish dead last in a race (which I have) you're way ahead of the game. You win by stepping over the starting line. The rest is gravy. 

Friday, May 20, 2011

Centerfold: A Muddy Man for Every Dirty Girl

Yes, Dirty Girls are all about "girl power" and such, but we recognize that not all boys have cooties all the time. Here are a few of our favorite "Muddy Men."

The Route 16 Gang
They are fast and fun and can be spotted at Green/Gold Mountain and Route 16. Very difficult to catch.
James Varner, Director of Rainshadow Running (sporting a sports bra for fashion and fun)
Check out "It's Never Sane With James" in the June Trail Runner Magazine!

John Pearch, Director of the Capitol Peak Mega Fat Ass and 50K/50 Miler
John may be a little confusing sometimes (such as in the above picture) but he sure knows how to put on a great race... and after party. 
Herb Reeves, leader of the Oly Trail Runners
Herb is a stud in every sense. He is a survivor of open heart surgery and he's bounced his way back to running multiple 50k's, 50 milers, and even some 100 milers. Even better, he once won "Best Legs" in the highly coveted "Trail-y Awards."
Luis Galeana? Or the Pied Piper?
Yes Ladies, it's true: Luis Galeana is currently SINGLE! Now hurry and snatch him up before someone else beats ya to the punch!
Tony Seabolt, Dirty Girl Mascot and Leader of NarrowsBridge Running Club
Tony, a self-proclaimed "Billy Goat." If there are no trails he'll simply make you one. 
Miguel Galeana, the other Dirty Girl mascot and owner of Route 16 Running & Walking

Here is Boss Miguel Galeana, living the dream and loving every second of it! What Muddy Man wouldn't want to be surrounded on all sides by Dirty Girls?

Reason Number Bajillion and Ten to Run Trails

Reason Number Bajillion and Ten to Run Trails (spoken by our very own Dirty Girl Pamela Holt--she's the one in purple):

"I like training and running on trails because when I race on the road it feels like I'm on vacation."

I, for one, am all for vacation!

Pam is an extra special Dirty Girl, and if there was a word for "Most Improved" or "Miss Congeniality" she just might win. She thinks she's not fast enough. Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight. Today, as we crested the mountainous switchback, I gasped for breath and prayed that some of the Dirty Girls were taking their sweet time so that I could cough out a lung or two. Nope. And right behind me, like less than ten feet, was Pam.

She impresses me. She impresses all of us. And she's just so dang nice. She has this cool way of pulling you aside when she wants to tell you something, and she speaks to you in this low, serious voice, and no matter what she has to say (like maybe she's simply telling you that you need to tie your shoe) you feel like you're being told something extra special and important.

That's her gift. She makes everyone feel special and important.

I, for one, am grateful for Pamela Holt, Most Improved and Miss Congeniality, all rolled into one beautiful, talented, speedy Dirty Girl.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

I Have Something Shameful to Tell You

I have something shameful to tell you. In middle school and in high school I wanted to be a cheerleader. But I was kind of a goth. Or at least I think I was a goth. I went to tighty-whitey high school in Birmingham, Alabama and I'm not sure if we knew what goths actually were. We didn't know what a lot of things were... such as the real world, for example, and poverty. But I wore a lot of black and black eyeliner and kept my bangs over my eyes (possibly one of the reasons I was so awkward was that I couldn't actually see through my hair). I figured it was better to be weird than nerdy. I figured looking "deep" might make me "deep." I had a lot to learn.

My dear friend Louise Parsons (a Dirty Girl at heart but not a runner... at least not yet) recalls that "When you showed up to Mountain Brook High in the tenth grade you were the strangest thing we had ever seen." She kept a wide berth for a couple of years but by senior year we were best friends. She decided I was "interesting." For a long time "interesting" was all I had going for me.

Though I knew it would only make me look all the more pathetic, not once but THREE times I tried out for the cheerleading squad. I like to think I had one near miss (the year only thirteen girls tried out).

A few years ago I was watching "Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team,"and when I learned there was an age cut-off I was stricken with sadness. Because I realized that some dreams really do pass us by, and that I would never be a cheerleader (Dallas Cowboys or otherwise).

Recently (like this morning) I realized that I've finally made peace with the ghost of my cheerleading-that-never-came-to-pass past. Because now I am a Dirty Girl, and Dirty Girls... we kind of look like cheerleaders.

It's all about the skirt, now ain't it!!!

And in a way, I do kind of feel like a cheerleader... the cheerleader of the Dirty Girls. I'm not fast, and I have to work really hard to be a middle of the pack runner but if there's one thing I'm good at it's bringing other people together and getting them to love trail running (even on the days when I secretly hate it).

Now that's something to cheer about, no?

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Dirty Girls Do the Tacoma City Marathon Relay

My book came out a couple of weeks ago, and a lot of people asked me on release day how it felt to be a famous author. Being a famous author is cool and everything, though I am still broke and living with the folks for a bit, and also no one seems to realize that I'm famous.

But the truth is, on release day (May 3, 2011) I was still basking in the glow of one of the greatest running days of my life, the Tacoma City Marathon Relay, a race I really, quite frankly, didn't want to run. But my dear friend Wenche (pronounced Vaanka... she is Norwegian) has a way of twisting my arm, and also she promised to give me the easiest/most scenic leg.

Also she said she'd pay.

Take note folks: apparently I can be bought. 

The Dirty Bakers Dozen
Here we are pre-run, a pretty pink force, two Dirty Girl Relay Teams... and then some!

Where the Girls Are
 Here we are at the finish wearing the cool sunglasses that Dirty Girl Beth Glander was kind enough to provide. We are professionals after all and must look the part.
Big Mama
 This is Wenche, the viking goddess who twisted my arm into running this race. She is starting a program at a local homeless shelter to get the homeless running and racing. Let me know if you're interested in helping out and I'll send you her way.
Dirty Girl Mascots? Or Dirty Girl Wannabes?
 What can I say? Everyone wants to hang out with the Dirty Girls, including the winner of the half-marathon, Miguel Galeana (who is also my boss), and the second place winner of the Marathon, Edwin Vega (who is not my boss), who would have won the race, if a little puking episode hadn't held him up at mile 24.

Big Mama the Viking Hauls It In
 Wenche ran the final leg. She caught and passed the competition with viking flair. She is a killer. To her left (the super-model) is Kris Tebb, also a Dirty Girl.
We Won. Did you hear me? WE WON!!! (no I'm not competitive)
 There was drama at the finish line. A team of upstarts initially "won" first place for the all womens relay. But they weren't Dirty Girls, and after a very serious investigation, we emerged triumphant. Okay, I should mention here that I have NEVER EVER won anything for running before, and I am not in any way a competitive runner but damn...I ain't gonna lie.... It felt good to be in first place!

What's on your left there, Leah?
 We had a couple of Dirty Girl Mobiles to help with the logistics...
"Are the cops coming?"
Here's where I'll be cute and clever: you want to know how it feels to finally have a book come out after, oh, I dunno, seven long years? See the picture below? Nuff said.

Crossing the Finish Line Together

Sunday, May 15, 2011

My Very First Dirty Girls Post

Tonight I talked to DJ, who lives way too far away to bear. Dj is a little hurt by me right now because I didn't give her enough attention in the acknowledgements of my book. She got a mention (good, right?) but felt like she was deserving of "full-paragraph status." (My brother David, my friend Louise, and my Uncle Harry all got paragraphs). I explained to DJ that she very much was and is a full-paragraph status friend (she was actually there for the very first plotting session of my book) and to make up for the neglect I'm writing my very first blog post ever about her.

Note to my readers: I use the words "very" and "really" shamelessly.

DJ and I met at at bank. We both worked at the bank. We were both bank misfits in that we are creative types, and banks really aren't creative places (though I do believe that having money allows for creativity as it allows you to buy things like computers and paper, and in the case of DJ, yarn by the crate). I knew the moment we met that we were destined to be best friends. DJ remembers seeing me for the first time and thinking I was a "very pretty girl with a very unladylike walk."

DJ is one of the smallest and most adorable people you will ever meet.

She has bright blue eyes that twinkle with an impish gleam. Yes, I really just said that. She likes to say things like "If you can't say anything nice come sit by me." When she gets mad or upset she gets so physically hot that she emanates heat like one of those fake logs (though she is neither fake nor a log). Sometimes she sticks her foot in her mouth, like the time when I was crying and on the verge of divorce and she suggested that I might feel less self absorbed if I would just get out and volunteer. I was really pissed at her for this. But she was also right.

She knits and bakes and has a baby. She climbs mountains and cooks collard greens.

And she's one of the most beautiful runners you will ever meet. She makes it look effortless. She trained for about a month and ran her first 50K... and finished in the top fourth of the pack. Running with DJ makes you feel like you're a kid. She is pure joy when she runs. She reminds you that running is play. She reminds you that you're very out of shape because it's so dang hard to keep up with her.

I was so jealous after she ran her first 50K. I told her so.

"Why?" she asked.

"Because I could never do that," I said.

"Yes you can," she retorted. "Yes you can."

Several months later we misread a map and our fourteen-mile trail run became a twenty-four miler. It was a long painful day. It was one of the best days of my life. Because of that day I entered and ran the Baker Lake 50K. Because of DJ I did something I never believed I could do.

DJ lives in California now. Often when I'm running I get a sharp pang of missing her. I miss her cherry almond biscotti as well. She's the essence of a Dirty Girl, tough yet feminine, passionate and playful. You'd want her by your side in a fight.

Let's raise our glasses to DJ.