Bubbling with anger

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I really, really wanted to like this race.

I’d been ill for a number of weeks with a reoccurring kidney infection. Being me, I like to stubbornly think I can beat these things. But sometimes, you really should just take the damn chemicals, rest up for a while, stop peeing blood, and get your life (aka training schedule) back on track.

As part of this getting back on track, I entered a five-kilometre fundraising bubble rush race, run by a popularly-supported local hospice. It sounded like a good-humoured, not-too-serious, family-friendly day out involving running through bubbles. I came with a mission to run 5 km continuously; it had been a long time since I had done so. I told myself that I wouldn’t be disappointed not to make it around the course, though – I was here to join in the fun. What could go wrong?

And people did bring their sense of humour to the race. It’s a shame, though, that people’s sense of humour is often pretty lame.

The experience reminded me of a recent new story which made the headlines: Lindsey Swift, a ‘plus-size’ runner, had an eloquent and truthful social media rant go viral after she was abused in the street. As soon as I started the run, I got a ‘calm down love, you’re no Usain Bolt…’ mumbled at me by an older man who I jogged past (at kidney-infection-peeing-blood speed, I might add).

As someone who works in health and fitness, I know how damaging comments against others’ physical activity can be. It’s a disheartening culture, but seemingly inevitable: if you’re outside exercising, you are a target of others’ attention. People often start running with the intention to improve their physical condition, and it can take a huge leap of confidence to start pounding the streets. So it’s off-putting to be reminded that you’re not in your own bubble when you exercise. It may even make people find excuses not to exercise. Physical health can suffer from this withdrawal: a vicious circle begins, kick-started from just a few comments.

Now, I admit that I am someone who thinks that the world has got far too PC. So perhaps I am hypocritical, and the Usain Bolt comment seems mild – perhaps funny, even. I am well aware that I am not a six-foot-five ripped black male. However, knowing that people are paying attention to me, at a time when I was already hobbling ungracefully around the course under a lot of pain, was hurtful. And the fact that the individual thought these comments appropriate at a family-friendly, fun-themed run is just a bit sad. It props up a culture which is accepting of verbal abuse and body-shaming.

But rather than get high and mighty, I tried to tell myself that it’s easy to get annoyed when you’re hot and bothered on a cross-country race course. I pretended not to hear him and jogged on.

The Bubble Rush is named so because there are bubble stations to jog through at regular intervals. By the time I had got to the third station, it was thigh-deep in white bubbles. The kids around me were up to their necks in bubbles and loving it. There was a photographer at the station, so I tried to look enthusiastic rather than pained, attempting a spurt of pace through and kicking the bubbles up like confetti. Even if just for myself, I was trying to get a defiant photo which made out that I was having fun.

And then came the second comment. This one was cruder, of a sexual nature (consider I’m exiting the bubble station covered in white bubbles and you may get the gist…). As I’ve come to expect by now, the offending caller directed his comment to me by rather impolitely identifying my hair colour. My dark mindset set in again, and for the rest of the race I resented even being there.

By the time I had finished, I was feeling not only crap about my own abilities, but also like the world was watching me. Yes, it was only two people out of two thousand. But it was also at a fundraising race that was full of families and children. If here is a setting for nasty comments, where isn’t?

I’d love to end this log on a high note, or simply with just a point. But the story ends there. I don’t confront the bullies. I don’t feel good about my current form. I go home, having been put off supporting a local hospice again because of two of their other supporters.

I absolutely agree with Lindsey – it’s sad that people don’t engage their brains before opening their mouths. Further, it’s tragic that people are put off their fitness goals by people being small-minded. And not that it makes it any better, but such attentions are not something that you only receive if you are a plus-size. There’s a lot of people out there who are just so insecure in themselves that they like to put others down.

But I guess if I am to retrospectively forge any kind of point or moral out of this, it’s just to ask people to think before they speak. If I do know anyone who thinks this is fun banter, consider how powerful your words are. You never know what someone is going through to be there, and whatever their pace or appearance or motives, they are doing something positive which does no one any harm. A throw-away comment doesn’t just make someone roll their eyes in the moment: it can effect their personal confidence, health and happiness (not to mention willingness to support certain causes!). Direct your critical energy towards something that actually deserves criticism.

But for now, I will brush myself off and tell myself it’s just words. Perhaps what doesn’t kill you just makes you run faster.

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Overcoming obstacles

The Major North obstacle race: March, 2016

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At the start line… just after the warm up…

My best friend is in the military. He does not speak fondly of ‘phys’ – so I find some of the pseudo-military fitness classes in fashion quite funny. From what I hear, the encouraging cries of by ‘well done, trooper!’ and ‘chin up, squadron!’ are as far from real military fitness as expecting a private shower afterwards.

However, it is entertaining. It was with this light-hearted attitude that I entered the British Military Fitness Major North race in March. Little did I know that I would leave with some serious homework to do. It was excellent, but a lot tougher than I expected: the kind of experience you don’t know why you’re putting yourself through, but find you’re still talking about obsessively three weeks later.

Now, I’ve lived in rural Scotland, so I do not mean it lightly when I say it was one of the more uncomfortable experiences of my life. I’ve trained in some pretty yuk conditions: I’ve been unable to feel my feet at the top of snowy munroes; I’ve slid on my backside down muddy hillsides ‘cause there’s no other territory to train for cross country; I’ve emigrated to a country where I can run comfortably run without gale force winds, sub-zero temperatures and thick drizzle getting interrupting play for six months of the year. I did not, however, make a habit of wading through Scottish rivers. I tended to run around them. If obstacle races had been on my agenda then, this was the obvious flaw in my training plan.

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“No mud, no glory!”

 

It was the cheesy military element to it which kept me going. There was the Marine Zone, which comprised of swamps, ice pools and deep stretches of muddy water, and other zones with similarly gimmicky names where people shot at you with water pistols, or had you dive over bales to throw potato ‘grenades’ at distant objects. It was wondering what they would throw at you next that kept me going when standing in a freezing puddle while a queue built up to dive over a floating log.

And afterwards, it was hard to tell the bruises from the mud. It would probably have been a better experience in a team. Having others to pull you out of swamps or push you in to ice puddles, saving you squeamishly teetering on the edge before someone in an ill-fitting military-surplus uniform pushes you in with the butt of a water pistol, would have added to the experience. But the atmosphere was conductive to making friends with strangers: when push comes to shove, not many people are going to leave you stuck in the mud.

Apart from a little bit of running between obstacles, it might not seem to have much in common with a triathlon. But there was a serious lesson to be learned.

Having watched the queue ahead of me plummet one by one into the first ice-lake, the jump itself wasn’t difficult. It was the second ice pool which was harder. Because I had completely forgotten – and was firmly reminded by the first pool – how much I hate open water.

As soon as I was up to my chest in water, I felt my lungs contract in panic. Water was in my face, and I started to hyperventilate. Panicking, I scrabbled around looking for some way of clawing myself out. Stumbling on to dry land, I sat down heavily to get some rhythm back in to my breathing. Those around me laughed and helped me up. It was part of the jovial atmosphere, but I knew I had to learn to control the panic rising better.

For the second pool, I concentrated on my breathing as I gingerly inched in. It didn’t particularly help, but at least I had recognised the state of panic I was going to feel, and was starting to formulate a plan.

I kept telling myself that despite the race stewards tough military exteriors, these people were ultimately there for everyone’s safety. Furthermore, the people just a few feet in front or behind me who had just helped me dislodge a leg from knee-deep mud were hardly going to have saved my shoes to let me drown. Second pool down: twenty-three to go.

For the third pool, I had my plan and was more composed. Rather than try to hold my face clear, I ducked right in and swam breast-stroke across. I concentrated on blowing lots of bubbles into the mud each time I exhaled. It was the first pool that I crossed without panicking: I grinned a big mud-toothed grin as I climbed out. By the end of the Marine Zone, I looked like a swamp monster, and had got into a nice panic-attack-free head space. I was almost looking forward to the puddles.

Being a geek, I afterwards read up on the effects of cold water shock on lung capacity, and other such topics that made me wish I had been a sports scientist. Understanding how the body copes under pressure definitely helps me mentally prepare for sports, and one of the recommended coping techniques for open water swimmers prone to panic was, reassuringly, breathing in through the nose and of through the mouth, blowing bubbles into the water until you get used to the temperature and pressure, and establish a rhythm. It also simply helped that there were multiple google results for this kind of panic – I’m not alone in being a triathlete who is terrified of open water, it seems.

But back to the passing out parade. Just as I started to be a pro at the ice pools, Marine Zone was over. It was back to running and jumping over things, which I can do with very little panic. Up and over one particularly fun five-metre wall, aided by ropes and more military surplus kids, and it was well done trooper, chin up squadron, have a beer on us.

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Hurrah!