Obstacles in our minds
She laughs at this now. Her eyes turn down and away as she shakes her head, almost embarrassed: Oh, not that story again.
We are in high school. It's a late summer afternoon. My sister, Ryan, is sitting across from me at Friendly's, the all-American diner famous to Northeasterners, and the place is filled with teenagers eating french fries and sipping Fribbles. What I order doesn't matter; I'm undisciplined. What matters is that Ryan has a long run that afternoon, maybe even an interval workout; it's a crucial day of cross country training. So when the waitress comes and stands next to our table, pen poised over paper, I am anticipating many words from across the booth: salad, rice, bread, fish, water.
I am not anticipating Ryan saying, "I'll have a large order of the onion rings." But that's exactly what she says. And then she snaps shut the menu and extends it to the waitress as if absolutely nothing else interests her. Just the onion rings. I don't need to verbalize my question because my tilted head and open mouth ask it for me. She leans forward. "I need to practice running with a cramp," she tells me. "I must prepare for the unexpected."
Oh, the things we do for love.
April 16 will mark the 116th running of the Boston Marathon. More significantly, it's the 40th anniversary of the race officially being open to women. As we're now aware, 1972 wasn't just a good year for female runners; it was a good year for female athletes, thanks to the enactment of a law that would eventually become known as Title IX.
But well before Title IX took root, folks in Beantown had conceded that -- after 76 years of all-male marathons -- maybe, just maybe, long-distance running wasn't too grueling for women. That it ever might have been perceived that way seems almost laughable to me. Because when I was growing up, running never seemed too strenuous for my sister. Quite the opposite, actually. Sometimes it seemed the sport wasn't strenuous enough. How else do you explain downing fried onion rings in hopes of cramping during a workout?
And yet somehow distance running is one of many sports once thought too taxing for women. This summer in London, we'll see the Olympic debut of women's boxing, previously assumed to be too violent. Last year, the International Olympic Committee announced that women's ski jumping would premiere at the 2014 Sochi Games, after a concerted lobbying effort. It wasn't all that long ago -- 2005, as a matter of fact -- when the president of the International Ski Federation, Gian Franco Kasper, told NPR that ski jumping "seems not to be appropriate for the ladies from a medical point of view," which sounds like something one might read in a medical journal ... from the 1800s.
I've run with my sister hundreds of times. We've run along the paved streets of our hometown in upstate New York; up and down the rolling hills of the golf course behind Dartmouth College, where she competed; on treadmills next to one another during a snowy winter day; and, most recently, through the spiderweb of dirt paths near the home she recently bought outside of Boston. But I am no match for Ryan. She loves running; I love having run.
It has always been that way. When I think back to high school (my sister is exactly 14 months older than I am), one scene exists in my mind like a framed photograph: Ryan turning the corner onto our street, her long legs propelling her toward our driveway, her back stiff and shoulders pinned, as if someone is encouraging her to consider posture over form. In my mind, her chest never heaves, even though she has just zoomed along the streets of our neighborhood like Ms. Pac Man. As with most runners, Ryan is the product of discipline and will. Nothing more. Or, rather, nothing less.
Which is why I'm bewildered when women are restricted from sports for safety reasons, as if life itself isn't more dangerous than any controlled competition. While sports are executed with the body, they are very much a pursuit of the mind. And I've never thought those mental qualities -- discipline, will, focus -- particular to one gender.
When I played basketball at the University of Colorado, the cross country program was arguably the nation's best. The mile-high altitude attracted the top prep runners, athletes who, like my sister, understood the value in training at a disadvantage. Colorado consistently won NCAA titles and produced multiple Olympians, many of whom were no doubt inspired by a runner who made Boulder his home. At the base of the road winding up toward CU's athletic facilities is a bronze statue of Frank Shorter, frozen in mid-stride, his USA singlet pinned to his chest. Shorter, a Yale grad, won gold in the marathon at the 1972 Munich Games, helping to spark a running boom in the States.
But the image of that statue is burned in my memory for more personal reasons, because each time I passed it, I thought of my sister. Ryan was miserable her junior year at Dartmouth. The Big Green had an excellent cross country and track program, but even in that environment, her times were slipping. We would talk on the phone, and she'd share the details of some brutal workout -- mile repeats, with "rest" being one briskly jogged lap -- her voice filled with disappointment. She couldn't solve the puzzle: The harder she trained, the worse the results. I had never seen her gasping for air, even after finishing a cross country race at a 5:20-mile pace. But half a country away, I could picture her doubled over on the track, wobbly and frustrated.
Team doctors diagnosed her with severe anemia a few months later. Iron deficiency is cruel even if your daily exercise only includes walking up the stairs for work. When you're a Division I runner, the condition feels a little like pulling a sled uphill; you can't figure out why everyone is blowing past you.
So Ryan began taking iron. She allowed the mineral to seep back into her blood stream, and by her senior year, it was as if someone had unhooked the sled. The final race of her career was at the 2002 NCAA outdoor track and field championships, where she finished in the top 10 in the 10,000 meters, qualifying her as an All-American. She did this on a hot, humid Louisiana evening when the sun was so bright, fans were forced to sit on their programs for protection from the scorching metal bleachers.
Of course, Ryan had prepared for excessive heat. Growing up, she pushed through our front door into oppressive humidity on more summer afternoons than I can remember. And whether she knows it or not, she taught me to anticipate obstacles before they appear. I spent one summer brushing my teeth with my off hand after bungling a breakaway left-handed layup during a spring AAU practice. Another time, I bought a strength gripper, which I would squeeze while watching TV, hoping that defenders would have a harder time stripping me of the ball.
In sports, so many obstacles occur naturally: a heat wave on race day, an iron deficiency, a cramp on the final mile. Athletes who've prepared, both mind and body, skillfully navigate the potholes in the road. But too often, the biggest obstacles are man-made, such as excluding women from marathons and ski jumping.
Life creates its own obstacles; then people invent larger ones.
Seems kind of silly, doesn't it?