Women, Running, and Self-esteem

“When you finish your first ultra you are transformed from a weak person to a powerful one. There is nothing in life that feels insurmountable any longer, not once you’ve willingly wrestled with demons that big. When you know what you are capable of, you can take charge of your life. That’s what running ultras did for me, and this is how I choose to repay my debt.”

Shelley Viggiano, MTD Race Director

There is one book from my high school reading list that has stuck with me all these years. It is Fay Weldon’s The Life and Loves of a She-Devil. It’s an easy fictional read about an unhappy, oppressed housewife who embarks on a mission of revenge against her cheating husband, his mistress, and society in general.

This character’s meticulous and obsessive plans transform her from a large, strong, dark woman into a petite, delicate blonde. She essentially turns herself into her husband’s mistress, becomes the object of his affection, and thus extracts her shocking revenge.

It was an unlikely book for me to attach myself to. I was an obsessive reader in high school, but was never much into fiction. This was the only fiction book I kept around and read over and over again.

I identified closely with the main character. I also felt ugly, fat, and powerless. My father was extremely protective, so I felt oppressed. I wasn’t allowed friends or sleepovers or dances. I missed my prom and wasn’t allowed to wear shorts or skirts that cut above my knees. I was nice and smart, but awkward and friendless.

The transformation of Weldon’s character caught my attention. And I wondered if someday I might also live a different life. If I would ever be glamorous or pretty or happy.

Every time I read this book, I have a different perspective of it. At first I started by sympathizing with the main character, cheering her on and identifying with her frustrations. Then I became angrier in my youth and enjoyed it more as a story of revenge. I wished that the people in my life could also be punished, and wondered what I might do to them.

Now I’m reading it again as an ultra runner, and it seems silly. Like a lot of drama over nothing. Whereas before I never questioned why this character would want to physically transform into something more petite, I now cringe at the thought.

Her legs, once strong and long and muscular, withered into bony white sticks. I feel that she could have been a runner instead. Her darker skin would have allowed her more natural protection for longer runs in the sun. But she wanted to be fair. In the book, she shortens her height, thus killing what would have been an impressive stride. Her body was powerful and then she was helpless. She was strong and in the end she was weak.

I like Shelley’s quote at the top of this post because it explains that ultra running changes the way you think about yourself. In other words, it tweaks your self-esteem.

I suspect that the ultra experience is different for women. We are always so down on ourselves because of our bodies. We’re never happy. But ultra training challenges our concept of self.

I was told once that I’d never be a runner because I’d never have a runner’s body. It was the opinion of someone I respected, so I really believed them. Today, I still don’t have a runner’s body. Yet I know I’m a runner.

My thighs are thick and my hips are larger than most distance runners. My bum is rounder, and the more miles I run, the rounder it gets. It’s not going anywhere. I’m more short than tall. More packed than lean.

My training has made my lower body more muscular and defined, but not smaller. My calves and quads are hard, but not skinny. My boobs won’t shrink much either.

I don’t know what it’s like to run with less weight, but I know that I ran 102km last weekend with a big fat smile on my face and no injuries. So whatever my body is doing, it’s something efficient.

The truth is, if you are a woman and you have completed an ultra marathon, or even a marathon, you are in a very small, elite percentage of the general population. Your body has accomplished something athletic. It has done something extraordinary. So to turn around and criticize it for every dimple or pocket of fat is almost like being saved from a burning plane by a superhero only to tell him his cape doesn’t match his socks. Really… nobody cares about that.

Running has taught me to love my body. It does what I want it to, so in return I must lavish it with love and appreciation. Maybe I don’t always take the best race photos. But every angle and curve and dimension – I suspect they serve a purpose.

After all, I just ran an ultra. So all the moving parts must work well together.

And I feel beautiful.