Words Matter

“It’s just words, folks. It’s just words.” – Donald J. Trump
Presidential Debate Oct. 9, 2016

Despite the obvious first impression, this post isn’t particularly political, and it’s not about Donald Trump. This is a frighteningly personal post. Responses to the leaked video of Donald Trump’s claims about what his so-called celebrity allows him to get away with have prompted me to publicly share two incidents that – up until now – I’ve shared only with my closest friends. Read a bit more and you’ll see that this isn’t about one man or his campaign. This is about words – words spoken to me. They weren’t just words – they were words spoken by people in a professional position with the power to affect me. These were words that have resonated with me for decades. These were words that did and continue to affect me. If this were only about one man, one candidate, or only me, I would remain silent. Unfortunately, my story is commonplace. And because it’s too easy to assume that words only matter to those who are weak and powerless I’m writing this now.

Even before tonight’s debate I had decided to share my story, prompted by Jan Halper Hayes’ comments on BBC Newshour (BBC New Hour Oct. 8, 2016). “We have to put 50 percent of the responsibility on women because these women … giggle. These women don’t slap their hands and say don’t do that to me. … As women I tell them just ignore it. They think they’re being cute … and it is disgusting but the reality is we’re not going to change their thinking. If that’s embedded in them that’s how it is. … These are words. They’re not actions.”

Listening to this, my first reaction was anger. And then, shame – shame that I didn’t slap anyone’s hand and tell them not to do it to me or anyone else. Shame that I ignored it. In the first case, it seemed like such a small thing – an isolated incident; who would take the complaint seriously? In the second, I made a calculated decision: what would be the personal cost to me of reporting the behavior versus the likelihood that reporting it would prevent another woman from experiencing a similar offense? I was not physically assaulted. Thankfully, I was not groped or kissed or subjected to any other form of unwanted physical, sexual advance or assault.  It was just words. But with time I’ve learned how much words matter.

The first incident happened in graduate school. I was meeting with a professor in his office. He commented on my tan. It was near the end of the spring semester. I told him that in preparation for an upcoming beach trip with my family I’d been going to the tanning salon (it was the early 90’s and that was thought to be a healthy way to build up a base tan – go figure). He asked if it was an all-over tan.

I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume it was an innocent, careless question. Maybe it was. But I couldn’t escape the image of him picturing me naked and tanned, with and without tan lines. Even after this, I never suspected that he treated me differently in class or that he graded me differently than any other student. I also never again went to him for help outside of class.

The second incident happened more recently (though over a decade ago). I was a tenured associate professor and no one’s shrinking violet. I was traveling to a conference. A (senior) male colleague travelling from the same airport and on the same flight asked to store some toiletries in my checked luggage so that he would not have to check a bag. After checking in to the conference hotel he came by my room to retrieve his toiletries. At the time I was weighing a career move and – having previously asked him for advice – he offered to discuss this.

In the midst of talking about my career options, and completely out of the blue, he asked me “Would you be offended if I hit on you?” While I did not slap his hand, I also did not giggle. Instead I said the first thing that popped into my head: “Would you be offended if I laughed at you?” (as I said I’m no shrinking violet). He dropped it at that, but the awkward exchange hung in the air.

I hate to admit it, but it felt inappropriate for me to demand that he leave. I didn’t want to admit that what he said had shaken me. I wanted to pretend that every thing was okay, and professional, and that he hadn’t made me feel like his offer to provide career advice was just a ruse to get me into bed. When he left I wanted to tell someone, but the only people there were professional colleagues. The last thing I wanted to do was to add insult to injury by telling others that I’d been subjected to an unwanted sexual advance.

I was fortunate. I didn’t suffer any retribution after so inelegantly turning down this man’s advance. But as before, I found myself avoiding situations in which I might be alone with him. I was never again able to turn to him for help or advice. And I’m afraid that by ignoring it I’ve let down others who might not see saying ‘no’ as an option.

I’m grateful they were just words. But these words made my world smaller. They closed off access to people who should have been there for me as a teacher and mentor. They were words that in other circumstances and spoken to a less headstrong version of myself might have felt less like an unattractive offer and more like an ultimatum.

Don’t let anyone fool you. Words matter.

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Hitting Reset


When you’re a distance runner, you hear a lot of reasons why you shouldn’t run a marathon: training will take too much time, it will dominate your life, you won’t be able to go out with your friends anymore, you’ll ruin your knees (your feet, your hips …), it’s just crazy ….

Despite all of the reasons I’ve heard, I’ve never had anyone tell me that running a marathon will make me lazy – and yet (for me) that’s the dark underbelly of marathon training. I’ve not heard another endurance athlete admit to this, so I wonder if it’s just me. I can stick to a plan, put in the miles, show up on Marathon Morning, and get the job done.  And when I cross the finish line, I’m done. Not just for the day. Not just for the two or three weeks recommended for recovery. I’m done.

Since I was fighting injury for most of the lead-up to Boston Marathon and couldn’t train at full-capacity, I thought I’d come back from Boston more quickly than usual. I set some ambitious goals for 2015 – dialing back my distance to focus on half-marathons, working on my speed and endurance in an effort to break my PR from 1995. I followed Boston with a birthday trip to New York City, where I put in a shake-out run on tired legs through Central Park. And then I was done.

For the next few months I went through the motions in a half-assed way. In May I ran twice, and a few more times in June (motivated only by a Ragnar Relay and a determination not to let down my teammates). I had a triathlon in early August, but did precious little to prepare for it. I kept working with my strength trainer twice a week – and thank goodness for Juan continuing to challenge me in the gym – but that was the closest I came to consistency. (Unless you count the once or twice-monthly brewery runs that worked into my schedule; I have a nice collection of pint glasses to show for it.)


By late summer (with the triathlon looming large), I started to make noises about getting back into a routine. I talked with my running coach, we discussed plans, but when push came to shove I had no shortage of excuses to cut short or (more often) postpone my scheduled runs. Some were legitimate – an upper-respiratory infection, throwing out my back – but for the most part I had become accustomed to taking the easy way out.

Hitting ‘reset’ became a part of my so-called training vocabulary. Sick this week? That’s okay, I’ll hit reset next week.  Back hurts? Hit reset. A busy week at work? Hit reset. Just not feeling it? Hit reset.

I don’t know exactly when, but as fall turned into early winter I figured out that I wasn’t hitting reset. I was hitting the snooze button. I was warm and cozy and comfortable where I was. I’d put on some weight, lost strength and endurance and running was damn hard work. I was lying to myself exactly like I do every morning when the alarm goes off: I don’t need to get up yet, it won’t take that long to get ready, I can do it later, I’ve got plenty of time ….

On Thanksgiving (too out-of-shape to run the local Thanksgiving half-marathon that I’d told myself all year that I’d run) I ran a DIY Turkey Trot – 4 slow miles before Thanksgiving dinner. It wasn’t much, but it was a start. Through the end-of-semester craziness and giving finals, I squeezed in a few runs every week. During the holidays, I took advantage of the free time to add a few more weekly runs to my schedule.

As I rang in 2016, I signed up for two half-marathons and set some goals for the new year. At first every run was hard. I could barely remember it being any other way, but I kept running. I started working harder at the gym (admittedly this was more my trainer’s doing than mine). I started paying more attention to what I was eating and what food I had near me.


I can’t be trusted to gather up my gear before work (remember the lies I tell myself?), so I stocked my office with all the gear I need to head out for an afternoon run or put in another workout. Open my file cabinet and you’ll find two drawers stuffed full with running shoes, tights, an assortment of layers, head lamp, safety vest, swim suit, goggles – even a foam roller. I’d become good at taking advantage of ready-made excuses, but it’s awfully hard to convince myself that I can’t manage a short run when I have everything I need right there. I don’t hit all of my workouts – life and work can lay waste to my best plans – but when I miss one I reassess, rearrange, and move forward.

It’s been humbling making my slow way back to strength and fitness.  I can’t help but compare where I am now with last year when I was in the thick of training for Boston. It’s hard not to wonder what I might have accomplished if I’d not taken the better part of a year off, but I suppose there’s a lesson to be learned in that too.

I’ve been back at it for over two months. It’s taken almost that long to start feeling signs of progress and to be confident that I’ll stick with it. Even the hard runs are feeling good again, and it’s nice not taking it for granted. I’m not where I want to be (honestly, when have I ever been?), but at least I’ve found the right road.

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My beloved Paris

It’s taken a while for my feelings to settle enough to be able to write about this month’s Paris attacks. I’m not quite fully ready, but two years ago at this time I was in Paris, staying just a few blocks from the Bataclan nightclub. So, this seems like the right time to give it a try.

As many have pointed out, with so much death and destruction in our crazy world, it doesn’t seem right to focus on just one place. Why add my voice to the discussion about the victims in Paris, and not write about those in Beirut or Syria? My answer is simple: an attack on someplace or someone you know and love hits home and resonates more deeply. I do my best to make it to Paris to live and work for several weeks each year.  I stay in the 11th, where the Bataclan nightclub attacks took place. This is where I run, start my day off with coffee and croissant, stop in for a glass of wine after work, shop for groceries, go out for dinner, and go to sleep at night. The 11th is my Paris neighborhood, so these attacks hit too close to home.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the attacks, but I still can’t fathom what drives people to commit such atrocities. I see evidence of hate every day in both large and small ways: not just physical attacks by extremists on their enemies;  but words and actions that serve only to belittle or diminish others. I’m always struck by the selfishness behind this type of behavior.

It’s actually pretty easy to carry around anger and fear and hurt. It doesn’t feel good, but these feelings create their own energy and thrive without putting any thought or effort into sustaining them.

On the other hand, peace and forgiveness and compassion are fucking hard. I’m not talking about an attitude of ‘forgive and forget’ or ‘turn the other cheek.’ I can forgive while still taking concrete steps to protect myself from those who (due to intention or carelessness) will hurt me. For me getting to forgiveness has at times meant refusing to back down; other times it has meant walking away, even when that was almost unimaginably hard. Taking a clear look at someone (or something), recognizing their faults and choosing to forgive takes effort and vigilance, especially when the hurt is fresh.

Returning to my thoughts on Paris,  I refuse to think of it as a city reeling from senseless attacks. Some of the best moments of my life have been in Paris. I know I’ll make many more memories there in the coming years. I’ll walk the streets, and run along the river and canals, drink wine at cafes, buy crepes at sidewalk stands, smile at couples kissing along the Seine. No one will take this away from me.



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Musical Fartlek

It’s hard to convince an athlete to hold back. Suggest rest days or tapering, and you’re bound to get a cranky response. It took years of injuries to finally embrace rest as a critical part of my training. Still, it’s hard to keep from feeling guilty when I have a short or slow run (even when I’m doing exactly what my running coach has scheduled).

Over the last couple of months I’ve been adding more consistent running back into my schedule. My trainer has reminded every time we work out that there is a time and place for intensity. While I was training for the Boston marathon, I had to save most of my intensity for running. More recently we’ve turned our focus back to building up my strength, and with our strength-training sessions routinely lasting 75 minutes or more, all of my intensity has been in the gym.

My runs have been slow, and I’ve just begun to (gradually) build weekly mileage. This morning I went out for an 8-miler (my longest run since April!), adding in some hills and with no goal other than to find some street art and enjoy a small break in Atlanta’s hot weather. I was running by feel, trying to stay relaxed, not worrying at all about my pace.

I had a good playlist on my iPod, with nothing so fast as to tempt me to misbehave. But as is often the case, music influences my runs. Today I noticed how – even without a lot variation in the tempo of the music – each song was pushing me along in a different way. Some encouraged me to hold myself back settle into a relaxed pace. Other songs were more playful and reminded me to have some fun along the way.

My favorite song on this morning’s playlist (Sometime Around Midnight by The Airborne Toxic Event) starts off as a melancholy ballad, then builds in power and beautiful intensity. It came on at just the right time – that point in my run when I wanted to push myself – not exactly faster, just a little harder, paying more attention to my body and form and using my strength to power through. And then, with the next song, I was reminded to fall back into my easy pace.

Growing up I enjoyed running Fartleks (‘speed play’ in Swedish), but I’ve gotten away from them over the years. Today’s run encouraged me to put together a few new playlists that I can use to mix things up (even while being careful not too build to much too fast, and to save the real intensity for the gym), and challenge and entertain myself on some of my upcoming runs. If a Fartlek is fun, one where the pace and intervals are guided by music has to be even better.

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Being Present

I did some intervals last weekend on my run for the first time in months.  The last time I remember doing anything that remotely resembled speed work it was cold and raining. I could have used a little of that. Like a lot of days, I slept later than I should have given Atlanta’s August heat. As I moved around the house, getting out the door for my run, I was already thinking ahead to my afternoon’s activities and planning my day. Walking to the park my mind was on an argument from from the day before and some issues at work that have been taking up too much of my time and energy.

My  planned workout (200 meter intervals, with time to walk and jog in between each) shouldn’t have been much of a stretch, but about half-way through I bonked. I honestly didn’t think that was possible after running less than two miles and I tried to make sense of it. Then it hit me: I’d forgotten to eat – I’d had nothing since dinner 14 or more hours earlier. Getting ready to run (and even in the early part of my workout), my mind was a long way from the training I had scheduled for that morning.

‘Mindfulness’ has become a catch-phrase, but I’m more hippie than new-age and haven’t paid the movement more than passing attention. One of the things I enjoy most about running is that it gives me time to think, quiet time for my mind to wander, to work through whatever challenges I’m facing. That might be fine for some runs, those where the only purpose is to put in some miles without concern for how I’m running them. But on this run it became obvious how much being present – focusing on the job at hand – would benefit me.

I’ve been trying to put that into practice this week, but it’s easier said than done. My life is full of distractions, a lot (but certainly not all) of them of my own making. On today’s run I worked hard to stay centered. When my mind wandered to the run that I should have put in yesterday (but didn’t), I reminded myself that the chance was gone, there was no getting it back and no reason to dwell on it. I enjoyed some flat, shady spots on my route. When I went uphill, I did my best not to worry about the next (longer) one along the road. (I did allow myself the luxury of cursing the incline while I was pushing up it.) I focused on my form – which is in desperate need of my attention – and saw how small changes affected how I felt. My mind also wandered a lot, but I noticed it when it did. That’s progress of a sort, I suppose.

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Ready to Tri

When I see open water, I just want to get in and swim

When I see open water, I just want to get in and swim

Tomorrow I’ll be competing in my first triathlon in a year. I should be packing up my gear right now, but I’m having a hard time getting focused. It took me almost an hour to finish making my coffee this morning. There are nerves and excitement – mostly excitement.

I’ve never adequately prepared to be competitive in a triathlon (this year is no different), but I love the incentive to cross-train and to push myself to improve in something I wouldn’t have considered trying even a few years ago. When I started training for my first triathlon swimming the length of a 25-yard pool was an accomplishment. Now, I bring along my swim gear anytime I’ll be close to open water.

Tomorrow’s tri (the Acworth Women’s Sprint Tri) will be special because I’ll be sharing the experience with my friend Amanda (swimming in front of me – as usual – in the photo above) as she completes her first triathlon. I can’t say how much I’ve enjoyed sharing her progress over the past few months, and watching her embrace this challenge. We’re furiously texting back and forth today as we make last-minute preparations and plans. In a few hours we’ll be driving the course, picking up a few last-minute supplies, enjoying a carb-loaded dinner, then settling in for the night.

By this time tomorrow we’ll be celebrating her hard work and accomplishment. I can’t wait.

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Ocean Fun

Jekyll IslandFor as long as I can remember I’ve insisted I was born to live near the water. A tropical (or sub-tropical) beach would be ideal, but honestly I wouldn’t complain about a small shack on the river or a lake. As long as I could open my window, feel the fresh breeze and hear water lapping at the land I’d be content. When I have trouble sleeping, I often turn to a recording of a storm coming over a lake in the wilderness – very few things put me right to sleep, but this works more often than most things.

Despite this, I’ve never considered myself much of a swimmer, nor have I wanted to do much more on the water than paddle in a boat, or ride around while others water-ski. I spent years as a child taking swim lessons from a less-than-encouraging teacher, which is ultimately why I turned to running when I was young.

Last week at the beach I conquered a new challenge – swimming on my own in the ocean. Don’t get me wrong – I’ll get into the water and play in the waves. But I’ve never intentionally set out to swim away from the shore in the ocean, looking for water too deep to stand. I’m not completely crazy or without concern for my own safety – since I was swimming on my own in the open water I used my ‘safer swimmer’ float (a bright orange inflatable pouch that makes you visible to boats in the area and can keep you above water if you run into problems mid-swim).

The buoyancy of the salt water was phenomenal, though when I finally got to water deep enough to swim I was bounced around by waves that looked like ripples from shore, and had to keep myself calm in the face of fish leaping out of the water near my face. I reminded myself that I was in the ocean after all, and not in my neighborhood pool.

I fought some current, swallowed more than my fair-share of salt water, and had a glorious time swimming in the ocean. I realized that if I was worried about leaping fish, I’d come a long way from my fears of putting my face in the water and not seeing a clear black line on the bottom of the pool, or my fear of not making my way back to shore. I’m not an expert swimmer (and certainly not a fast or elegant swimmer), but I’ve developed confidence and have become a good swimmer – and stronger athlete – as a result. It doesn’t get much more fun than that.

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