Hear Them Roar – Women of the 2012 Olympics

Four years. One thousand, four hundred and sixty days.

That’s a long time to wait. A long time to work towards redemption.

Image Courtesy of Sports Illustrated

At the age of 12, Dana Vollmer was the youngest swimmer at the 2000 Olympic Trials. She didn’t make the team but four years later, at just 16, she helped the U.S. team win an Olympic gold medal in the 800m relay – while battling a congenital heart condition that required her to carry a defibrillator to every practice and meet in which she swam. Coming into the 2008 Olympic Trials, where she was scheduled to swim four events, the talented twenty-one-year-old was expected to be a major force.

But she didn’t make the Olympic team – not in a single event. In two of them, she didn’t even make it to the trial finals.

After such crushing disappointment, Dana didn’t know if she ever wanted to swim again. For many athletes, the Olympics are the single greatest measure of their talent. Ahead of Dana stretched fifteen hundred days of grueling work and little payoff. Athletic training isn’t cute, no matter which gender you are. It is gritty and monotonous and agonizing. It goes on day after sweaty day, with plenty of setbacks. Progress, when it comes, is incremental.

Sometime during the bleakness of 2008, Dana decided to keep training. For four long years, she got into the pool every day. And last Sunday, she became the first woman in the world to swim the 100m butterfly in under 56 seconds, earning not just an Olympic gold medal but a world record, and a place in history.

Sixteen years. Five thousand, eight hundred and forty days.

That’s a long time to labor. A long time to maintain an elite edge.

Image courtesy of People.com

Kim Rhode had just turned seventeen when she competed in her first Olympics in 1996, in the sport of double-trap shooting. When she won the gold, she became the youngest female to do so in the history of Olympic shooting. In the next several Olympics, spanning a dozen years, she won a bronze, another gold, and a silver. Kim’s sport isn’t one that people tune in to watch on TV (although they should – it’s a treat, watching her shoot with laser precision). Before this week, few people knew her name. Nobody would have recognized her on the street.

Kim had to make plenty of adjustments along the way. After her sport was eliminated from the Games, she switched to skeet shooting. In 2008, the shotgun she’d used for eighteen years was stolen from her truck. Shooter’s guns are like an extension of their arm and trying to adjust to a new one, Kim said, was like “a swimmer going from the backstroke to diving.” But adjust she did, while shooting 500-1000 rounds daily, seven days a week.

And when she won another gold medal this week, Kim became the first American in history – male or female, in any event – to medal in five consecutive Olympic games.

Forty years. Fourteen thousand, six hundred days.

That’s a long time to hope. A long time to yearn for a place at the table.

Image courtesy of The Washington Times

Saudi Arabia entered its first Olympics in 1972 with an all-male team and in the four decades since, the country has never allowed women to compete. This year, after months of intense pressure by the International Olympic Committee, which threatened to ban Saudi Arabia (and Qatar and Brunei) altogether if they didn’t let women on their teams, those nations scrambled to find some female athletes.

Saudi Arabia came up with two teenagers, Sarah Attar, a runner who attends college in America, and Wojdan Shaherkani, a judo wrestler. These women have no shot at Olympic wins – their scores and times aren’t nearly good enough to even qualify them for the Games (they were given a special dispensation by the IOC). And they’re still an agonizingly long way from equality. They marched at the back of the pack during Friday’s opening ceremonies. Their clothing is regulated and their movements are monitored. Their very inclusion is largely a “saving face” move by Saudi Arabian authorities.

Still, they have taken a tiny but important step forward for their gender, in a country where women still suffer appalling indignities. They are quiet pioneers, giving a face to millions of their sisters who still have no voice. One desperately hopes that these two modest, veiled women are that “cloud the size of a man’s hand” that Elijah saw in a barren desert, the promise of a deluge of progress to come.

These Games are chock-a-block full of strong, beautiful women.

Like Allison Schmitt, the effervescent swimmer who has brought such cheer to the entire U.S. team, including her more famous buddy Michael Phelps. A fierce competitor, she’s already earned four medals this week. After swimming a blazing relay anchor leg on Wednesday that brought her another gold medal, she sounded adorably like Buddy the Elf. “I think this is the biggest smile I’ve ever had in my life, and that’s saying a lot, because I love smiling.”

Or the astonishing British heptathlete (in seven! track & field events) Jessica Ennis, one of only ten women in history who have high-jumped a full foot above their own height. She hurdles. She jumps. She throws. She runs. Two years ago, running the 60 meter hurdles in an international meet, she actually beat a chagrined Lolo Jones – the U.S. champ whose only event is the hurdles. Jessica has pushed through fractures in her foot and inflamed muscles, and she’s filled her walls with medals and trophies and awards. Her 2012 Olympic quest begins on Friday.

And of course the glorious Gabby Douglas, who last night led the women’s gymnastics competition from beginning to end, becoming the first black woman to win the gold all-around medal. In a sport where frayed nerves usually cause even the most confident athletes to stumble, she sailed through every rotation with terrific skill and pizzazz.

Women athletes often don’t get as much attention as their male counterparts, who are stronger and faster. But they train just as hard, and their stories are just as extraordinary. They have earned their place in history. My gorgeous sisters inspire me and make me proud.

I am woman. They smile, as bright as the stadium lights. Hear the crowd roar.

Photo courtesy of Bleacherreport.net

A Lying Liar

I am, quite possibly, the worst liar in the whole wide world.

Last week, we did a little quiz with a couples group from our church, and one of the questions was something like, “What’s one thing you appreciate about your spouse?” and my husband answered, “She’s always honest.” And it’s true. We’ve been married for almost 22 years, and he knows: I just don’t lie.

I even suck at telling benign fibs, like pulling someone’s leg with a joke, or planning a surprise party. If I even try to fool my husband about something, I turn into a giggling eight-year-old.

In fact, there’s only one area of my life where I fling all honesty to the wind. When it comes to exercising, I lie to myself like a politician with a fishing story. It’s the only way I can get my butt out the door. Continue reading

Ultramarathon Man (or) Super Freak

Dean Karnazes is a complete freak of nature, and I don’t think he’d mind me telling you so; I do it with the utmost respect. Before I talk about him, though, let me give you a little personal context.

My siblings and I are very tall and we look like we should be in good physical condition, capable of handling all sorts of rigors. In reality, we bruise like fruit, have no stamina, and get listless and crabby when our blood sugar plunges. Various ones of us have been known to cap off a strenuous afternoon at Disneyland by collapsing onto a bed, pasty-faced and trembling, for the remainder of our vacation. (Sadly, this is not a lie.) Our daintiness is a source of great irritation to our partners, each of whom has a fantastic, ox-like hardiness that calls to mind pioneer stock of the 19th century. My brothers and I, by contrast, would never have survived in an earlier era. We are barely making it in this one.

When we were kids, our coach-Dad tried valiantly to mold us into world-class track athletes, but we were just too puny. Running has remained my exercise of choice, into adulthood, but the most I have ever been able to eke out, with peak conditioning, were a few 10K’s. I have friends who regularly run full marathons, and I find their abilities profoundly confusing. (Also, their tendency to use words like “fun” to describe running long distances. I have been running for 30 years now. I don’t believe I have hit the “fun” part yet.)

Given my own physical frailty, you will understand why I am absolutely befuddled by the humanoid that is Dean Karnazes.

I learned of Karnazes when I bought and read his book Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-night Runner. His writing is solid enough, but you don’t read books like this for the writing. You read books like this to blow your own mind by what some human beings are capable of. Human beings who are not, you know, YOU.

Karnazes grew up in California, where he ran track throughout his school years but quit when he was in high school. Fifteen years later, on the night of his 30th birthday, Karnazes, a businessman who was married to a doctor, had a sort of mid-life-crisis moment. That night, he put on some old yard sneakers and took off, through the streets of San Francisco, and ran, off and on—all night. He loved it, despite the blisters and the shin splints and the strained muscles, and decided he would take up running again. But Dean Karnazes tends not to do things normally.

Did you, like me, think that the pinnacle of athletic endurance was perhaps an Ironman Triathlon? Guess again. Back in 1974, a man named Gordy Ainsleigh entered his horse in the Western States Trail Ride, a 100-mile equestrian race through the Sierra Nevadas. When Gordy’s horse went lame just before the race, ‘ole Gordy decided (as any sane person would) to run the entire course himself. Sans horse. On foot.

Almost twenty-four hours after starting out, Gordy revealed himself to be an extra-terrestrial being from a highly-advanced species finished the race. And a beast called “ultradistance running” was born.

By the time Dean Karnazes had his Come-to-Running birthday experience, Gordy’s little caper had evolved into the annual Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, a race that incorporates a total elevation change of a staggering 38,000 feet. (Lest you breeze on past that figure, let me give you this by comparison: the peak of Mt. Hood, which is the highest point in my mountainous home state, is just over 11,000 feet. Try to imagine running up and down for 3 1/2 times that height, in one race.) In order to even qualify to enter the Western States, you have to have previously run fifty miles straight in less than nine hours.

Look, I would love to dwell on how insane this all is, but I have bigger fish to fry. Because two years after he started running again, Karnazes completed that 100-Mile Run in twenty-one hours – and decided that it wasn’t enough.

A year later, he ran the Badwater Ultramarathon, a 135-mile race across Death Valley, where the asphalt temperature can reach 200 degrees. An hour into the race, his first pair of shoes melted off. Thirty miles in, he started vomiting. By the 42-mile mark, which he reached at 1:00am, the air temperature was 112 degrees. After 72 miles, Karnazes passed out and was hauled off the course. But the following summer he was back, and that year he successfully completed the Badwater race.

During the next seven years, while holding down a day job, Karnazes did the following:

Scaled Yosemite’s Half Dome.
Swam across the San Francisco Bay.
Did triathlons, adventure races, and 24-hour mountainbike rides.
Surfed, snowboarded, windsurfed, and climbed mountains.
Oh, and continued to run ultramarathons, to the tune of almost one a month.

I know, this is starting to sound ridiculous, ludicrous, and fictional. Just wait, it gets better.

In 2002, Karnazes realized that no one had ever run a marathon at the South Pole. You know, as in Antarctica, the coldest place on the Planet (officially, at -128.6 degrees.) I don’t know about you, but if I learned that no one had ever run a marathon at the South Pole, I don’t think my reaction would be: “Well, this simply will not do.” But then again, I’m not Dean Karnazes.

Yes, our intrepid athlete went to Antarctica, and yes, he ran 26.2 miles in the snow there. He celebrated by stripping naked and doing a quick loop around a barber pole that’s planted at the exact center of the South Pole, so he could say he’d run naked “around the world.”

This might be a good place to talk about Karnazes’ mental state. Clearly, he has some “drive” issues, to say the least. Here’s what he says about it:

The average obsessive-compulsive takes seven years to get help. The average runner covers 10,920 miles in that time. Whether my affliction was clinical is anyone’s guess; I never did submit to testing. Some seek the comfort of their therapist’s office, other head for the corner pub and dive into a pint, but I choose running as my therapy. It was the best source of renewal there was. I couldn’t recall a single time that I felt worse after a run than before. What drug could compete? As Lily Tomlin said, “Exercise is for people who can’t handle drugs and alcohol.”

That doesn’t fully satisfy my curiosity about his psyche, but it will have to do.

As for his physical biomechanics, the reasons he can do things that most of us couldn’t do no matter how hard we trained…who knows? Evidently doctors have determined that Karnazes’ body somehow reduces lactic acid as he exercises, which is contrary to normal physiology; but that is all the medical information I could find. Obviously he is made of different stuff than the rest of us. He doesn’t stretch before running. He says he’s never had an overuse injury. His resting pulse is 40. And so on.

Your guess is as good as mine, folks.

Anyway, in the last decade, Karnazes has completed a 199-mile Relay Race (normally run by teams of 12 men), single-handedly, six times. He has run 350 miles, without stopping, in less than 81 hours. He has run on a treadmill for 24 hours straight (the thought of which makes me want to poke my own eyes out with a sharp stick.) And in 2006, he ran 50 marathons, in all 50 states, on 50 consecutive days.

It bears repeating: 50 marathons. 50 states. 50 days.

He is also president of his own company, a motivational speaker, and a media darling. In his spare time, he keeps an active blog.

His book, Ultramarathon Man, is utterly fascinating, especially to a runner (can I still call myself that, after all this?) Karnazes discusses some of his feats in great detail, and he writes in depth about his training and diet. For example: he eats while running, consuming 28,000 calories during a typical endurance run. He actually has a post on his blog where he explains, very sincerely, how to order a pizza and have it delivered to you while you’re running. With a side of cheesecake, if you’re so inclined.

I have always loved learning about people who push themselves to do unbelievable things. It’s beyond inspiring, and it lifts me a little out of my daily drudgery; it lets me know that I’m capable of more than I dream. Reminds me that maybe I can manage another mile or two, metaphorically or literally.

Which is nice and all. But I don’t believe I’ll go running with Dean Karnazes anytime soon.