Monday, September 24, 2012

Running From My Inner Pyramid Girl

One Saturday evening in Bordeaux last May, we arrived at the Grand Théatre early for a chamber music recital. The weather was balmy, and we joined the crowd sitting on the steps of the sumptuous building to admire the crowds strolling across the marble terrazzo of the Place de la Comédie, periodically parted by one of Bordeaux's clever street-level trams.
Here's the plaza -- sadly, I didn't have a camera the evening of our concert.

Suddenly, we heard a clamour of instruments and voices making a distinctly folk-sounding music, and heads gradually began to turn in the direction of  Rue St. Catherine. We watched a small troupe, mainly young people led by a few adults, parade to a spot right in front of the stairs, a spot guaranteed for maximum attention. Then the young people, all clad in white, began unrolling long green sashes and wrapping them around their waists, chattering excitedly all the while. The crowd, meanwhile, grew increasingly curious and attentive, especially when the 5 biggest teens got onto their hands and knees on the limestone pavement. Next, 4 climbed into position above those, then a layer of 3 climbed up, then 2, and then finally -- and the crowd was quite quiet by this point -- a little girl, perhaps 7, donned an equestrian helmet to protect her noggin, and climbed her way, shoulder by shoulder, with two tall young men spotting her from behind, to stand at the very top of the human pyramid.

From this brave height, not surprisingly, she drew a burst of applause, and soon after, the pyramid disassembled itself, the sashes were rolled away, and the troupe off to the accompaniment of its own lively folk music. We told our Bordeaux friends about this the next day at a lovely lunch in their back yard, and they speculated that it might have been a Basque celebration. For me, though, the strongest association was from my own distant past.

These Graces don't seem to mind the height either. Read on to see if I shared their casual approach to altitude.

For I was that little girl, although when I climbed to the top of a pyramid for our annual school gym display there were no spotters, and I certainly wasn't provided with an equestrian helmet for safety. Our pyramid was built from everyone in a class of 30, and it went another layer or two higher, and I was terrified. And Edited to Add, because several commented on my bravery -- I did not volunteer for this, nor was I given a choice. I was sent to the top because I was the smallest in my class (small for my age AND a year younger than my classmates -- not a promising combo). 

But then, I was often terrified or at least uncomfortably afraid of ridicule through most of my gym classes all through elementary school. In retrospect, it's obvious that I was fit enough as a child, in that my siblings and I walked a mile to school and back daily.  We swam daily in the summer at the local Kiwanis pool, moving smoothly through the various levels of lessons. Once we acquired bikes, tough for my parents to afford but finally purchased when I was 12 or so, we clocked some impressive trips across town, even occasionally some big adventures across city boundaries. Gym classes, though, were run by a tyrant who had a past as a gymnastics coach, and some of the balancing tricks he taught, or those dependent on speed, strength, and dexterity, were beyond my confidence at the time. By the last year at that school, I was finally able to manage some of the boxhorse vaulting, the springboard tricks, the various rolls and handsprings. But for years before that, a year younger than my classmates, and considerably smaller than them, I tried everything I could think of to avoid my turn.

There was no hiding, though, when it came to mounting to the top of that pyramid. My size made me the only one for the job, and there in front of all the parents seated on the sidelines, I had to ignore my ka-thumping heart and urge my shaking legs to step up, and up, and up. Any hesitation, and Mr. Strain was guaranteed to prod me verbally, while angling for a laugh from the crowd at my expense.

So, mesmerized by the camaraderie of the (Basque?) troupe in Bordeaux, gathered up in the crowd's pleased admiration, I was buoyed, somehow, to watch a little girl's fierce concentration. Perhaps I might have looked like that, so many years ago. Perhaps I might have fooled the audience into thinking I was brave and proud as well. Perhaps no one knew how much one teacher's ridiculously narrow standards of fitness and athleticism might threaten one small child's enjoyment of movement and play.

For Mr. Strain set the pattern, and although I still enjoyed playing scrub baseball in the back lane with my siblings, and although I stuck it out, not always on the bench, for Grade 8 basketball, I quickly learned to think of myself as not particularly athletic, even as I would happily walk or bike for miles and miles or swim in pools, lakes, the ocean.

It took a while to lay his legacy to rest, and I made sure that my daughters and my son had a rich variety of physical activities to challenge themselves in. Our family hikes and bikes and paddles and runs; we practise yoga and Pilates and play soccer and swim. And every once in a while, someone calls me an athlete because I run half marathons twice a year. I deny it, of course. My standard of athleticism was set, long ago, to exclude me. But secretly -- oh yes, I embrace my inner athlete!

This little anecdote and my reflections on it are intended as an introduction to my new tab, above.

Under the heading "Running Over 50," I say this:
 Apparently, many potential readers come to this blog looking for writing about Running Over 50.
I seldom write specific posts about my running, but yes, I'm definitely over 50 (60 next year, in fact). And yes, I run. I ran my first Half Marathon when I was well over 50, and so far in my 50s, I've run a total of 7. My first took 2 hours and 12 minutes, and by the 4th, I'd got within a minute or two of breaking 2 hours. Couldn't do it, though, until last fall's Diva on the Run at Jericho Beach, when my much faster and much younger sister ran with me, pacing me to a gasp-inducing and triumphant 1:55 (cue the Rocky score!! or should that be Chariots of Fire?).

I'm not sure I'll ever be able to beat that time -- after all, I'm not getting any younger, right? But I did a pretty decent sub-2 Half Marathon in February (the Vancouver First Half) and then I ran a 42:14 8K for the Harry's Spring Run-Off in Vancouver. Mostly, I do the organized runs to get together with my sisters and to pop a bit of discipline into my running by having a goal to aim at.

Recently, I've been trying to listen to the tenderness in my left shin and the tightness in my left hip. My twice-weekly Pilates helps mitigate against my muscles' tendency to contract, but my schedule falls apart in the summer. In fact, I hadn't been to a Pilates class since June, but I started again the second week of September. What I've been doing instead is yoga, and I think I'll mix it up this fall -- one Pilates class a week instead of two, with yoga at least once, perhaps more.

As for the running, I try to fit in 2 or 3 runs during the week; recently those have been 5 miles each. Then Saturday mornings, I like to do a long run, at least 90 minutes, more if I'm planning on a Half. At the moment, for example, I've got my long run up to 20Km (12.5 miles), and will be adding 1 or 2Kms each week.  If you're curious, you can follow my running progress on the Daily Miles widget in the right column of this blog.

And can I admit here that I sometimes dare to think about doing a full marathon someday? Every time I start thinking it might be possible, I seem to bump into some injury or other, but maybe . . .

What about you? What's your running story? Or your personal fitness narrative, more generally? How have you maintained or challenged the exercise patterns laid down in your childhood? How do you challenge social expectations for a woman of a certain age? Always interested here -- do tell!
And if you have any questions for an amateur runner, waaaay over 50, send them to me, fsproutATgmailDOTcom, and I'll try my best to answer them.


  1. Oooh! I loved reading this post about your past and your relationship with your inner athlete. Thankfully my two years of mandatory PE in high school were of a kindly and gentler sort as I was no athlete. I muddled my way through badminton and gymnastics units and did okay enough with running and yoga and kickball.

    1. There was very little kind or gentle in my elementary gym classes -- I developed many, many strategies to hide and duck my turn! Now, I'm thrilled to be active, to keep myself moving, and blow off some stress, just enjoying being in my body generally.

  2. So many sins were committed in those years in the name of fitness; I like to think phys ed teachers are more enlightened now. And you were a brave girl, ma.

    I was a runner, now I walk. To me it's vital as we age to find some form-any form-of movement we enjoy doing regularly. I see with the elders I know, "Move It or Lose It" is really true.

    1. Seriously, there was no bravery involved -- only coercion and ridicule.
      When I'm no longer a runner, I will still enjoy walking, God willing. It's all my mom takes pride in now, and it seems to sustain her.

  3. How many of us were traumatized by the gym classes of youthful school days? I know I was. I hike, I swim, I do Pilates, etc, but I do not consider myself athletic. At all. I ran for a few years, but my neck gave me grief and I stopped, preferring now to walk briskly and engage in other forms of exercise.

    How brave you were to climb to the top. I can imagine the thuds of your heart. And I am so impressed by your running accomplishments - never mind the time, just that you DO it!

    1. See my reply to Duchesse. Seriously, it wasn't brave -- if I had been brave I would have somehow confronted the bully!

  4. Wow, just wonderful how brave you were/are.
    My gym classes pale by comparison and I applaud how strong you have kept your body.

  5. Great memory and story. You are looking good over 50. Very strong. I completely agree about challenging assumptions for any woman and their age. I was always a book worm and the traditional sports did just not do it for me and it did not help being small. I hated netball and hockey - the school sport of my generation. Same as you though I have done other things especially walking and could easily hit a lakeland hill without any training and feel fine. When I hit my late 30s I was inspired by a trekking trip where the women heading for 60 were so much fitter than I was and had done amazing things, climbing, biking, caving and so much more. So I thought now is the time to find my inner athlete as you describe it- I entered a half marathon never having run more than 3 miles 3 months before and completed it. Slow and steady but very proud. I really believe we are all so much more capable than we think and have been told. I also feel strongly that we should support each other and find inspiration. So you have set the challenge - can I do a half under 2 hours? I would love to do so. I am going to find one to enter now. WIll be watching this space for other comments.

    1. It's great to be able to overturn old assumptions that held us back, isn't it?
      That said, I wouldn't recommend running for everyone -- and I'd never try a Half myself without training regularly beforehand -- you must have some powerful natural ability!

  6. I admire and envy your running. That you can do it, and that you do do it.

    This is intensified by the fact that I hate to run. It hurts. Always has. Apparently natively muscular calves are the problem - prone to shin splints. I know, stretch, but it never helped.

    I walk. I take yoga classes. That will just have to do.

    1. I have the same problem with overly muscular calves that seem to tighten everything up. Stretching through Pilates and yoga is a big help, but it perhaps also helps that I laid down the running groundwork long ago, building up incrementally.

      But walking and yoga is a great combination -- everyone has to find what works and what satisfies, right?

  7. Running hurts, always has. I tell myself that my back lacks the built in shock-absorption that most people have, due to the fusion, but it is possible that with proper training it might have been different. I admire that you run, that you can run. I admire your determination.

    As for me I've learned I love cross-fit, although I don't do the running portion. I row instead. I love to row, I love to lift weights and do squats and push-ups and all that stuff. Who knew. I go to yoga. I am learning to use my body in ways I never knew I could.

    1. I've read that you've been really switching it up exercise-wise. I suspect I may do something like this when my lifestyle changes with retirement -- I'd especially like to do more paddling. I really don't get out enough, yet the kayak's right out the door and I can be in the water in five minutes. . .

  8. Thanks for addressing the issue of women not feeling they are athletes. I never played on a team and never stuck to an exercise routine, yet my siblings and I would ride our bikes or walk everywhere in the summer. I swam at our pool, and have skied for 43 years. Six months into my 50th year, I happened upon hot vinyasa yoga. I loved and dreaded it. In many ways, it came along at the right time for me both mentally and physically. Almost two years later and I've stuck with it. I even miss yoga if I don't have a three times a week practice. Keep running, Mater, you are inspiring all of us.


    1. Stacy, I'm so pleased you get what I'm talking about here. I know running's not for everyone, but I would urge all of us to keep looking for the sport or fitness activity that feels good, offering a challenge we can meet and giving some endorphins back. It sounds as if you've had a lifetime enjoying a rich variety of activities -- and discovering something new that you love after 50 -- fabulously inspiring! Thank you!


I'd love to hear your response to my post. Agree, disagree, even go off on a tangent, I love to know you're out there, readers. Let's chat, shall we? I apologize, though, for the temporary necessity of the Word Verification -- spam comments have been tiresomely numerous lately, and I'm hoping to break that pattern.

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