The other day someone I know referred to another runner as "Skeletor". They were not using this characterization as a compliment or referencing what Skeletor, He-man's arch nemesis, actually looks like:
They were using it to characterize a sickly, overly skinny, depleted, unhealthy look- much like a skeleton:
When this characterization was made and concerns voiced, I noticed an interesting and somewhat alarming emotion flicker across my consciousness: envy. For the briefest moment, I felt like being described that way (to my face) would be a compliment, a reflection of how hard I have been working in training. I immediately pulled myself up short. I wanted to slap myself around for even thinking such a thing. I had just finished up a killer good workout with 14 miles at marathon pace. During that run, I wasn't worrying that I should weigh less, I was powering along with strength, speed and levity. Why did that comment make feel self-conscious and envious? I knew I needed to seriously meditate on that question and not let an unhealthy attitude slide.
I have thought about it for several days now and have come to the conclusion that that thought comes from the crossroads where racing weight and body image collide. I have written about racing weight before, but I felt more thought was necessary because I am, in fact, at my "racing weight" (i.e. the weight at which I have run my fastest this year) and yet the comment still burrowed into my psyche.
Leading up to the Olympic Trials, I have been covering every detail, leaving nothing to chance and training like it is my job. I've been absolutely devoted to the pursuit of my goals, working harder than ever and also managing to not become neurotic or overzealous. I am on what Nathan calls the "no fun diet", which is not a diet to lose weight mind you, but a diet to optimize my training and negotiate the pitfalls of having many dietary special needs. The diet also encourages having the right fuel at the right time and ensures that I have enough but not too much. I am doing all the right things to make sure my body is healthy, happy and able to do the incredibly hard work it needs to.
The reality is, in order to lose any additional weight, I would have to be severely restrictive with my diet while trying to train at the highest and most intense level I have ever done. It would be unhealthy and I in turn, would become unhealthy and unable to do the work. Or get injured. Or get sick.
Running is a sport that prizes lightness and low body weight. It is not a sport that necessarily prizes positive body image or body confidence. The pursuit of race weight often takes on as much importance as the pursuit of the running goal itself. That is seriously out of whack. Getting to a certain weight won't inherently make you a better runner. In fact, racing weight should simply be a by product of hard training and a healthy diet. You have to fuel yourself to go fast, to do the work, to recover and make it to the start line healthy and ready to rumble. You shouldn't be trying to manipulate or dominating your body into doing something it doesn't want to, you should be cultivating it to encourage the growth and improvements. Being a "skeletor" is not something to be envied, it should be avoided at all costs. If you look unhealthy, it is likely that you are. I would never want to sabotage the efforts I make in training by depriving my body of the necessary fuel to hone it into the machine I want it to be.
The comment, in hindsight, made me realize that I was still sub-consciously using weight as a yard stick of which to measure my progress by. I incorrectly thought that because I am working so hard that naturally I would become lighter. I gave that standard way to much credit. It stopped me from using comparative workout times as my standard of progress or seeing that my routine dropping of running partners was a sign that I am fit. Because, I am fit. That is for sure.
I realized, upon reflection, that what needs work is my perspective, my body image and confidence. I have long struggled seeing myself "as a runner" since I have a completely different body type than your average female elite runner. According to a recent study, I am in fact 8 inches taller than my average competitor. I feel like Andre the giant lining up next to them. I should instead not compare myself to them. My hard work and dedication should instead fill me with confidence and empower me.
I made a decision through this whole meditation. I am throwing out the old paradigm. I am making a choice to stop judging myself by the wrong measure. As my sister said recently, "perhaps I need to start embracing my body as powerful (and capable) instead of always worrying about how much I weigh". Being strong and healthy and capable are the proper values, these are the yardsticks. Strong is the new skinny. That is, the thing to be valued, pursued and held up as the ultimate motivator.
My body is an amazing, powerful, strong machine and as I head into the last 23 days of training for the biggest racing stage of my life, I want to make sure I am doing everything to support that machine, continue to get stronger and faster, and to stay healthy. If anything, this whole conversation (in my head), has made me re-examine what my guiding values and beliefs are when it comes to my body and self-confidence and get my head on right. I love what my body can do. That is my yardstick. That is my value.