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.

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15 responses

  1. I love this post! I have never run a marathon, but I still agree with you. My body is really far from the accepted beauty standard, so I’m supposed to hate it, and I do at times hate it, I’ve plotted against it even, but when I’m running I can’t help think how, oh HOW, can it be right to hate my body when it can do this!

  2. Thank you for this post!! I definetly do not have a runners body- I am a middle aged runner who started at age 45 and year later completed my first Ultra- it may not have been pretty but I did! Here’s to the girls with the curves!!

  3. Hey Vanessa. I liked what you wrote a lot. That is wonderful that you feel beautiful. People put too much emphasis on the “Hollywood Beautiful People” and not enough emphasis on who we are on the inside. You have accomplished more than most people have and you feel good about yourself. I think the fact that you think you feel beautiful and comfortable with who you are also puts you in a very small, elite percentage of the general population. Cheers.

  4. Great post, I am also in the don’t have a runner’s body and even thou I have always loved it, I have always been told am not good at it so don’t bother. At age forty, 3 years ago I realized I don’t have to be good at it I just want to do it, do it I am and having a ball. Congrats on a great weekend.

  5. You’re a hottie Vanessa. Don’t let anyone tell you different.

    I spent years as an aspiring bodybuilder. I kind of compare that group of folks to women with respect to how much they care about how they look. I used to obsess about how everything on my body looked, because that’s what bodybuilding is all about…making your muscles look good. But since bodybuilding is also a competitive sport, no progress in my muscle growth was ever good enough for me. I always needed more.

    I eventually realized, and what I tell my female friends all the time, is that that the best way to hate yourself is to care about what your body looks like. You’ll never be good enough for yourself if you do that. On the other hand, if you make a healthy and happy lifestyle your goal, I think you can be happy with the way you look. I don’t have nearly the muscles I used to, but the ones that I do have I’m proud of because they are useful. You should be proud of your muscles too. They carried you for 60K this last weekend. There isn’t a supermodel in the world who can say that about their legs.

  6. Such a great post, Vanessa! More than anything I think confidence is sexy! It wasn’t until I let go of what other people thought of me and realized they were pushing their own issues onto me and I was letting them, that I realized how freeing that experience would be.

  7. Vanessa, you have a way of putting into words the things that everyone feels in some way or another. When I fell in love with the game of basketball, I was short, chubby and white. But I made the most of what I had and accomplished what I set out to do.
    And posts like this inspire people to do the same. Keep it up.

  8. good on ya, vanessa. it is the scourge of our society to have magazines that put vapid, useless, spaghetti armed socialites on the cover… rising them to the level of goddess, when people like me, with stretch marks and saggy boobs and a flabby ass, are the really powerful people – people brought alive through physical activity, women who know their power because they use their bodies powerfully. this body lost 120 pounds. this body has birthed 2 children. this body carries wood, wields a pitchfork, swings a hammer, runs for hours, grows food from unforgiving soil. this body loves her husband’s body. and it may not be much for everyone else to look at, but it is God’s house, the one He made especially for me to inhabit. it HAS to be good enough because it IS good enough.

  9. Hi Vanessa, as a female blessed with a generous helping of hips, thighs and butt that I inherited from my mother I have had trouble loving all of myself over the years. I am now early thirties and finally starting to make real progress with myself. Seeing the cellulite and stretch marks as just another part of me and not something to hate. I have a strong, healthy body and although I have never been a runner (my knees couldn’t take it) I am now discovering barefoot running. I know that it will be a long slow process but I hope one day I will be able to run well enough to join one of my town’s annual fun runs. I think you are one of the most inspirational people I know of today and I am grateful to be able to read you posts. Thanks.

  10. I just found your blog looking for “vegan runner” because I’m changing my eating habits as I train for my first marathon. Thank you for this post. With the proliferation of blogs and posts that complain and “worry” about times and pacing and marathon-training weight gain, there are few that say “hey, I am strong and amazing and wonderful because I DID IT.” So thank you. I am SO excited to read more of your blog!

  11. I think I left a comment, but it seemed to have disappeared so here goes again..
    I’m training for my first marathon, and wanted to say “THANK YOU.” With the proliferation of women’s running blogs that obsess about time, pace and whether or not the runs are squeezed in, not to mention the ones that wag a finger and warn about “marathon training weight gain,” it’s amazing and refreshing to read a post that says “I am amazing because I did this.” That calmly states, “my body is wonderful, if imperfect, and I am strong and beautiful.” So I just had to thank you for this – it’s nice to hear and I can relate so much to that feeling of accomplishment.
    Also, I found your blog looking for “vegan running” and am therefore very excited and interested to read more :)

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