My epiphany came in the mountains of Colorado, right in the heart of the White River and San Isabel National Forests. I was halfway through a six-day stage race called TransRockies that would run us from Buena Vista, Colorado to Beaver Creek: 120 miles and 20,000 feet of elevation gain in six days. That week I climbed a vertical personal record, reaching altitudes of more than 12,500 feet. I felt amazing.
I was standing at the top of a long climb waiting for my husband Shacky to catch up when I realized: I was getting stronger (not weaker) as the days progressed. The elevation, the terrain, and the climbs were no longer obstacles that I had to overcome, but a jungle gym I was lucky to play through. I was no less an extension of the wilderness than a weathered Douglas fir or a soaring red-tailed hawk. The memories of my office cubicle were a past life, a pre-existence before my actual trail-birth that day.
Essentially, I took up ultrarunning as an excuse to be in the wilderness. Fewer people question your sanity when you say you’re “training” for hours on end instead of admitting what you’re actually doing: frolicking like a child ignoring her dinner call.-Vanessa Runs
Daughters of Distance delves into the mythical history of the wild woman archetype. Mother Nature, the author points out, is a woman. The parallels between women and nature are everywhere. Cycles, seasons, the power to grow life.
Vanessa Runs explores everything related to being a woman in the wilderness. She explores the unique problems and joys that being a woman brings to the sport. There are chapters on tears, mommy guilt, and the dangers of being a woman running alone.
Throughout, she draws on the experiences of a multitude of women with sometimes polar differences of opinion. This is probably what I love most about this book. When talking about the term “chicked” (a man being passed by a woman) she has managed to find a wide array of opinions on the topic. Some women find the term to be a compliment, some find it degrading. She also has men weigh in on this (and every other) topic. The answer seems to be that there is no right answer. What is your own perception? I guess I have “chicked” a lot of men, but out on the trail, particularly during an event, the gender of the other runner makes no difference to me. I’m happy to pass anybody!
In a section titled In Defense of Teen Girls, the author delves into society’s disrespect for the passionate obsessiveness of teen girls. She recalls: As a young girl at my church, I picked up on insinuations that the passions of young women could easily turn into dangerous or unhealthy addictions, so repression was important. Girls obsess over horses (I did), books (I did) and the outdoors (yep, me too). Her message is clear. We need to nurture this, not repress it. Girls aren’t a joke, they are future women, and what they are is what the world will be. Repression, ultimately, is the real danger.
She quotes feminist playwright Eve Ensler: I think the whole world has essentially been brought up not to be a girl. How do we bring up boys? What does it mean to be a boy? To be a boy really means not to be a girl. To be a man means not to be a girl. To be a woman means not to be a girl. To be strong means not to be a girl. To be a leader means not to be a girl. I actually think that being a girl is so powerful that we’ve had to train everyone not to be that.
How do you insult a boy? “You throw like a girl.” My husband is a big fan of women’s softball, and I can tell you that throwing like a girl is something everybody should aspire to.
I think the most important thing about this book is the question: What are we teaching our children? From insulting our own bodies in front of our children, to telling our sons not to cry, we create a perception that’s unfair to ourselves and our children. On the section about crying, several men talk about how they become emotional during events and break down crying on the trail, or at the finish line in front of everyone. They aren’t ashamed and they aren’t judged. Can anyone question their toughness? If we could just all be human instead of allocating certain emotions and traits by gender, I think we’d all have a lot more fun.
On the more nuts and bolts side of things, Vanessa goes deep into the women’s specific issues that we face. What if you’re on your period during an ultra? What if you’re pregnant? Training with an infant in tow? Breastfeeding? Going through menopause? Each of these topics is addressed in depth, with real-life solutions and a lot of input from women who have dealt with them.
Another subject covered in depth is how endurance sports affects relationships. Not only how to deal when only one partner in a relationship runs, but what if one partner crews? What about a couple that is in fierce competition with one another? This section made me very happy that my husband also runs, and that we are both happy to run together or apart, without worrying unreasonably about one another.
At any level, the sport can seem very obsessive from the outside. How could anybody go out and run alone for that many hours? That’s not healthy, normal or sane… is it? Co-workers, family and friends might think you’re crazy if they aren’t involved in anything quite as all-consuming as endurance sports. Why train so hard when you know you won’t win? They probably won’t get it. Personally I’ve given up trying to explain. I just shrug and smile, like “I know, I’m crazy, right?”
These are some, but not all, of the joys and problems unique to our sport. Everyone should read this book. If you are a woman, it will make you feel proud and understood. If you are a man, well, same thing. There are a few stories of insufferably horrible men, but don’t let this stop you from enjoying this book, since Vanessa tells as many stories of bullying, insufferable women.
So wear your nice clothes, even if you’re running alone. Wear your makeup to an ultra, if that’s what you like to do. Wear a skirt! Nurture others without shame. Women are good at that! Cheer each other on no matter what pace, body type or age. And listen to Vanessa when she says, “get in the pictures”! How many times have you looked back at a picture and thought, “I looked good back then! I thought I was fat! Or old!” You’ll look back on current pictures in the same way, so don’t be afraid of the camera. Don’t be absent in the pictures of your life.
What feels right for you? What brings you joy? Embrace that part of you with pride and make that your life.
The author tells the story of La Loba (The She-Wolf) from Dr. Clarissa Pinkola’s book, Women who Run with the Wolves:
La Loba lives among the rotten granite slopes in Tarahumara Indian territory and her job is to collect bones. Over mountains and along dry riverbeds she searches and searches, until she has pieced together a full wolf skeleton. She then sits by the fire and thinks about what song to sing. When she is certain she has the right song, she stands over the dry bones and raises her voice.
The bones begin to flesh out and grow fur. La Loba sings some more and the creature begins to to breathe. Finally, she sings so deeply that the desert floor shakes and the wild animal leaps up and runs down the canyon. As Clarissa tells it, “somewhere in its running, whether by the speed of its running or by splashing its way into a river, or by way of a ray of sunlight or moonlight hitting it right in the side, the wolf is suddenly transformed into a laughing woman who runs free toward the horizon.”
All women begin as a bundle of bones lost somewhere in the desert. A few of us-the lucky ones- will live to howl the songs of our souls from the depths of our wild, wild hearts.
I am one of the lucky ones. Daughters of Distance reminds me why I love my solitary days in the wilderness. It articulates that which is hard to explain, that as I run along some singletrack, among scrub oak or pine or barren hilltops, my heart feels that it is right, that this is where I belong.
Daughters of Distance, by Vanessa Runs (ISBN: 978-1508875123) is available at Amazon.com for $19.99