Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Women's Running And Transgender Athletes

I'm going to drop a little trigger warning here and note that this post discusses transgender athletes, and some might find it offensive, even though it's not my intent to cause anyone harm. 


There's an image an author once described of a clean stretch of sand, no footprints, with the caption, "Do I dare?" Do I dare rock the boat, risk rejection, put myself out there, disrupt the sand or snow? Do I make tracks? I've been thinking about this post for a long time, years actually, but every time I go to write it, it's overwhelming. Where do I even begin? 

When I first started running, I had this naive idea that maybe eventually women could run as fast as men. I was a young teenager and occasionally beat the boys, but as I improved, I realized that a woman winning a race outright wasn't as simple as her training and working hard. 

When I set the record at the Pikes Peak Ascent (clean), my time placed me just slightly outside of the top 15 men that year. After being blocked by an arrogant guy on the trail for a short stretch early in the race, specifically because I am a woman -- actually a 16-year-old girl at the time -- I finished not too far behind Scott Elliott, who later went on to win the race something like eight times. We are both still listed in the top 20 all-time bests. If you look at the all-time records, the top woman's time is 2:24:58, while the man listed as 20th on the list ran 2:09:28. This is not unlike the comparison between men and women using flat marathon times. There is a gap between what the best men and the best women can run. On a side note, the woman who is listed as the second-fastest at Pikes was given a little slap on the wrist for using a fertility drug a few years earlier because she was trying to get pregnant at the time, and drug testing was implemented for the mountain race a year after the women's record of 2:24:58 was set. 

Over the years, it became more apparent to me that men have an advantage. There will always be "Yeah but," exceptions, a woman winning a race outright, especially in longer distances, for example, but generally speaking a man will almost always run faster than a woman, even if their training is basically the same. It bothers me that this is so, but it just is. Some characteristics that people don't often address when discussing the difference between men and women are lung, leg, and heart size. In addition to having more muscle mass and longer legs, in general, men's oxygen consumption is higher due to both bigger hearts and bigger lungs. And, of course, there is testosterone to consider. According to Healthline, by adulthood, a normal, healthy man will have a testosterone level of at least 300 nanograms per deciliter as compared to an adult woman whose normal range will be between 8-60 nanograms per deciliter. This article does a good job of going into the biological advantages men have over women and how testosterone plays a role. I'm sure readers can figure out where I'm going here, and I should note that in this post, I'm only addressing running, not other sports in which there are even more concerning issues when athletes with great physiological differences participate. 

Author Kathleen Megan mentioned the division transgender sports has caused among women's advocates. I'll add that the division is quite apparent in the general public, too. In one article, Kathleen quotes Donna Lopiano, sports consultant associated with the Women's Sports Foundation:

I don’t know of a woman athlete who doesn’t want trans girls to be treated fairly,” said Donna Lopiano, who led the Women’s Sports Foundation for 15 years and now runs a Shelton-based consulting firm that works with clients on Title IX and other sports management issues. “But the cost of treating her fairly should not come at the cost of discriminating against a biologically-female-at birth woman.

This is basically my stance. People are so concerned about not offending anyone in the LGBTQ community that many shut down and don't say anything. I did for years. Others who think that there should be a different way to approach trans athletes in competition are often discounted or attacked. Anyone who's not fully supporting trans women competing against the gender they identify with is called transphobic or worse. After recently saying that I donate to the ACLU because they support racial equality, I'm rethinking where I will put my money after one of their lawyers lied, posted questionable tweets, and also suggested on Twitter that trans women are biological women. In the linked article, Glenn Greenwald notes:

ACLU lawyer Chase Strangio decided to spew this extremely grave accusation about J.K. Rowling and Abigail Shrier, both of whom oppose the inclusion of trans girls in female sports: 

As I’ve written before, I’m not in agreement with those who advocate this absolute ban. I’m open to a scientific consensus that develops hormonal and other medicinal protocols for how trans girls and women can fairly compete with CIS women in sporting competitions. But that does not entitle you — especially as an ACLU lawyer — to just go around casually branding people as “closely aligned to white supremacists” who have never remotely demonstrated any such affinity, just because you feel like it, because you crave the power to destroy your adversaries, or are too slothful to engage their actual views.

Saying shitty lies about women aside, Strangio's take on biology is not accurate either. Kevin Beck will always get to the point more creatively than I, but I’ll press on here. 

There is a biological component when it comes to gender identity, but that isn't the same as addressing an individual's biological sex. I'm not suggesting that one should call those who identify as women anything other than what they prefer, but when it comes to competition, I would like to see fairness. I see quite a few people quoting an open-access neuroscience article from 2019 that states, "gender is multi-dimensional" without fully understanding what this means. It's complicated, no doubt, but, when it comes to biology and neurology, there is a distinction between sex and gender. In very general scientific terms, sex is based solely on biological factors including chromosomes (DNA) and gonads (testes or ovaries). Gender is far more complex and is based on how an individual identifies, how genes are expressed (epigenetics), and how the brain is influenced in the long- and short-term by experience and epigenetics. In short, one (sex) is determined by biology while the other (gender) is influenced to a degree by biology. There's a big distinction there, and gender identification is not the same as an individual being born with a specific kind of genetically determined advantage like a runner with exceptionally long Achilles tendons

Examining testosterone or the biological influence on gender reinforces the fact that transgender athletes who identify as female have an advantage, one that lasts over a year after hormone therapy has been implemented. Hormone therapy does not address other characteristics like lung size, leg length, and oxygen consumption. Recently, three young girls filed a lawsuit in Connecticut in an effort to block transgender athletes from competing in girls sports. One can imagine how difficult it must be for these youngsters to come forward with their concerns, simply asking for a fair chance in their sport.
From the Associated Press article, attorney Christina Holcomb states:
 “Forcing girls to be spectators in their own sports is completely at odds with Title IX, a federal law designed to create equal opportunities for women in education and athletics,” attorney Christiana Holcomb said. "Connecticut’s policy violates that law and reverses nearly 50 years of advances for women.”

When it comes to transgender athletes, what I would love to see is a solution, one that's fair to both biological females and those who identify as female. I think there's a way to do this, but I don't know if it will ever happen, partly because there's not a whole lot of excess money in running and also because most people take a win-at-all-costs approach to life, meaning few people want to have a civil conversation if you disagree with them. I find it shocking that many who claim to want inclusivity are so militant when it comes to others holding a different opinion. 

Some ideas that have been presented include:

  • Let it be a fucking free-for-all with everyone competing against each other with no divisions at all between the sexes. This wouldn't be fair, especially to biological women, and I don’t think it's really what most people want, though, oddly enough, this seems to be a goal of some.  
  • I think I saw this on the Ultrarunner Podcast Twitter feed at one point, though I could be mistaken, but the idea would be to compete as your sex; identify as your gender. As much as I agree here, this might not seem fair to trans women or trans men, for that matter. Unfortunately, trans men are so often left out of the conversation when it comes to competition in sports.
  • Measure testosterone levels, and make sure that trans women are competing with levels of hormones that are considered normal for female athletes. I also agree with this, but it seems like a tricky task in terms of privacy and implementation of testing. Also, this doesn't address physical characteristics that give transgender women an edge (see above).
  • Compete as how you identify but rank and award money in three or even four separate categories. For example, transgender women would compete against other women but would be scored separately and awarded equal pay for placement. This is actually my suggestion, but, again, it's unlikely when it would take money and effort to make these kinds of changes in sports.  

I honestly think that most people in the running community would like to see a solution that is fair to everyone. The problem is that bringing up transgender athletes is kind of like bringing up religion or politics. Few people are willing to see anyone else's point of view, and if you express even the slightest dissatisfaction with having transgender athletes compete against girls and women, be ready for some harsh criticism. 

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Words Matter

I'm in the process of moving things over here: https://chaoswithggirl.substack.com/p/words-matter

Earlier today, I saw that Oiselle posted the following on Twitter:

When we separate the athlete from the person, we are essentially saying, “You need to sacrifice your mental well-being to achieve success in the sports world.” This is not okay.

Since I had basically just written the opposite regarding separating the person from the athlete, I read the post several times before thinking, "What the fuck?" When I clicked on the link to the article Oiselle had referenced, I quickly realized that there was an error in wording. The bigger message is something I absolutely agree with and endorse, that of being open and willing to talk about mental health, and Karelle Edwards did a lovely job of sharing her story and encouraging others to do so as well. After all, according to a well-researched article published in 2019, "elite athletes experience broadly comparable rates of mental ill-health relative to the general population in relation to anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, and sleep disorders." There's no reason anyone in sports should be ashamed to come forward when close to 35% of elite athletes will suffer some form of mental health issue. It's critical that people in general, but athletes in particular, move away from any negative stigma associated with mental illness. 

The wording in the Oiselle post and article is an issue, though, and this is unfortunate because, as I said, the larger message is a very good one. I don't fault the author, really. Her overall concepts are spot-on; I fault those who published the article and then spread a potentially harmful message on social media. The Twitter post is misleading. The author's sentiments are actually fairly clear despite the error of suggesting "you can't separate the athlete from the person." Not only can you separate the athlete from the person, you absolutely should. What the author seems to mean is that one should take a holistic approach when dealing with athletes. Being allowed to show emotion, be emotional, show vulnerability, and support others in need is a healthy approach both on and off the athletic field. Integrating being human with the experience of being an athlete is not the same as being enmeshed with your emotions or tangled in your identity as an athlete, though. It's very, very important to be able to make the distinction, and Oiselle did not. 

To a degree, forming a positive "athletic identity" can be beneficial, but when it goes too far and an individual can't separate himself from that role, the label becomes problematic. A sport is an activity a person does, not who she is. In 1918, the journal of Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health published a study that suggested that adapting to retirement is more difficult for elite athletes than for the general public. When elite athletes are no longer competing at a high level, they may struggle to find a sense of purpose in their lives, especially if they haven't allowed for growth in other areas or if they are too wrapped up in their identity of being an athlete. When it comes to athletes, Malcom Lemmons cautions, "What they did in sports should never become who they are. And this goes for every athlete, currently playing or retired. Your ability as an athlete and the success you used to have should never overshadow your other abilities as a person." 

When I speak of the emotional, physical, mental, and even spiritual bodies of a person, I'm not moving into woo territory. This is just a more well-rounded look at the individual as a whole. My first college coach used to ask, "Are you physically tired, or do you feel like you don't want to do the workout?" Physically tired meant my legs were sore, I didn't sleep well, or I was drained and lacking energy. Emotionally tired could present as physical symptoms, but, in that case, we took a "warm up and see" tactic. If, after a warm-up jog, I was still fatigued, it was time for an easy day or a day of rest. If my body felt better, I could jump in the workout. The best thing about my coach was that he always looked at us as individuals first, athletes second. If you nurture the person, the positive results should spill out in all areas of life, including athletics. 

I don't want to take away from Edwards' necessary and heartfelt message of getting help and being free to open up about mental health issues; I just hope that everyone can be more aware of how much words matter. The idea that a person be allowed to be who she is in everything she does is a good one. The problem is Oiselle wording the social media post in a way that suggests merging identities, which can be very unhealthy and doesn’t appear to be what the author means anyway. A little caution on social media can go a hell of a long way. 

Monday, February 1, 2021

Journalistic Integrity Part II

I'm not sure when newsletters went from publications containing actual written content to very short blurbs with a bunch of links to other people's work. There are certain bloggers I follow who post a lot of links in their content, and I generally like their posts. Bloggers usually don't try to pass their content off as articles or newsletters, though. Also, many in the blogosphere are often witty, thoughtful, and more interesting than many paid writers these days, myself excluded, though sometimes even I can squeeze out an ounce of wit. I just find it odd to see anyone marketing a newsletter as such when it's really nothing more than a short directory. Someone who does an excellent job of putting out an actual newsletter is Mario Fraioli with his The Morning Shakeout. I look forward to reading it each week because it's informative, tactful, and insightful. It should come as no surprise to anyone who regularly reads my musings that another writer I follow is Kevin Beck, specifically his blog Beck of The Pack. In addition to the brilliant writing, the content he puts out is also informative, honest, and hard-hitting. Oh, and it's often humorous, too. 

The truth is, I don't keep up with running news very much unless someone points me in a specific direction. I follow a few runners on social media and admire and am a huge fan of various individuals and groups in the running community, but I'm rarely up on the latest scoop until after the fact. Since I subscribed to Mario's newsletter, however, I'm a little bit more in the know than I was. 

While I'm all over true-crime podcasts, I'll admit that I find it difficult to listen to running podcasts for a variety of reasons, even though there are some good ones and a few great ones in an ocean of choices. I recently stumbled upon Ali on the Run and was pleasantly surprised that the episode I listened to kept my attention and made me think that I would like to hear more. Ali has a great speaking voice, and she's a fan of peanut M&Ms; what's not to love? Despite her up-with-people and everything's rosy outer appearance, Ali tackles challenging, even heated topics and difficult subject matter, including her own struggles with Crohn’s disease, in a surprisingly upbeat, thoughtful manner. It's a nice contrast to my own often somber tone, though I'd like to think my cheese review blog is a lot less serious. 

I bring up content by individuals I admire because sometimes I read an article related to running and think, "Holy shit! Is anyone else taking this the same way I am?"  I mentioned an article by Martin Fritz Huber that didn't sit well with me before, so I wasn't all that surprised to see that others took his more recent write-up (and not his first) on Tracksmith as unnecessarily unkind, sort of like giving a bad Yelp review for takeout during a pandemic when the restaurant you ordered from served an excellent meal but you imagine the whole experience would have been better if there had been a sprig of parsley on top. If you look at his previous articles that mention Tracksmith, it starts to look more like a writer with a personal grudge than an unbiased journalist. Some might find the Outside and Tracksmith partnership strange bedfellows after reading Huber's not so subtle jabs, a little nipping at the hand that provides nourishment.

From calling trail runners "lazy parasites" to avoiding payment due to writers to complaints by customers of unauthorized renewals and charges to the really big oopsie on Twitter to the other big oopsie regarding Laz Lake, Outside Magazine isn't coming off as above board and politically correct as they pretend to be. None of this affects me directly, but I cringe knowing I gave anyone associated with the magazine my time for an interview, especially someone who referenced an individual as somewhat of an expert in the area of eating disorders when she's not. As a result, Outside gave out bits and pieces of misinformation about eating disorders and implied having one makes athletes less mentally tough but didn't go on to explain the incredible success and determination of one of the other women referenced in the article who suffered from an eating disorder. Please note that I'm not suggesting any ridiculous ideas that suffering from a serious illness gives you an edge. I'm just pointing out that the article didn't do a very good job of explaining that an individual can be both mentally tough and struggle with an eating disorder. 

Opinion is continually posted as fact these days, though. My participation was before I knew how much the magazine had fallen from the time Jon Krakauer was a major contributor. Had I known how the final piece would read, I would have politely declined any reference to my name. Maybe I shouldn't be so judgmental since quite a few people find it's not a very fun place to work. This is just one of several publications making wrong steps in journalism, though. And sure, Outside isn't exactly a running magazine, but the publication sure covers a lot of running-related material. 

What shocked me was learning about Kamilah Journet’s experience both before and after her interview by Outside for the more recent Tracksmith article. Ali and Kamilah did a great job of being fair and keeping everything in perspective. I'll take a chapter from their book and hold my tongue since I wasn't involved, however, like Ali, I encourage everyone to read Kamilah's thoughts on Instagram. After doing a little research, I come back to my more recent post about a portion of the running community actually being rather exclusive, despite claims of being the opposite. If you're not among the few popular voices, you can easily get shut down, and even if you're easily liked and admired, it doesn't prevent criticism or subtle digs. I had to ask a few people to read another Outside article to make sure I wasn't being overly sensitive about it, but you can judge for yourself whether or not Huber, whose style might just be naturally condescending, is really doing Mary Cain any favors. Mary, who has a degree in business administration and a paid position as a community manager at Tracksmith, landed a role similar to Carrie Tollefson at Rebok at the end of her running career, only nobody said shit about that. At the moment, Mary is very sensibly and carefully returning to the sport she loves post-surgery  

It's also an interesting take by Huber to ponder how things would have gone if Mary had still been abused at NOP but had run well, implying that if you're running well, the abuse still isn't OK but young women will put up with it to get results. The problem with this kind of thinking is that many times, maybe even more often than not, a young athlete puts trust in a coach. Mary is 24 now, still young, and quite a few athletes who haven't trained under very many coaches before don't immediately recognize abuse for what it is. There are noted instances of partners in physically abusive relationships normalizing the violence as a coping strategy, so you can imagine how anyone might do the same in an emotionally abusive situation. It's not unlike someone stepping into an unhealthy relationship for the first time. There's a sense that something's not right, but it's overwhelming and confusing in the moment to sort through all that's happening. In Mary's case, she opened up about feeling alone and mentioned that she didn't receive support when she finally gathered enough courage and strength to talk about what was happening. She had already addressed why she and others in a position like hers stay or even want to go back to abusive situations. As Cain told The New York Times, "because when we let people emotionally break us, we crave their approval more than anything." 

The call is coming from inside the house!   

Outside isn't the only publication getting some pushback. Not that long ago, Fast Women took aim at a rather popular piece by the New York Times, for good reason; the opinion piece wasn't well researched. The New York Times had also just praised Salazar and NOP a few years earlier in an article discussing Mary, the teen prodigy. This article now has a disclaimer at the beginning. In general, this recent article in Runner's World among the best of the exceptions, the media have treated Mary awfully, relentlessly discussing her in every which way, even when she was a teenager. More often than not, outlets that address Mary's role in the running community or her past abuse at Nike -- I'm not saying alleged abuse because too many people have corroborated her claims -- insist on bringing up a possible comeback. Ups and downs happen in running. It's to be expected. The pressure on her to run a certain way seems oppressive, and I'm only watching from the sidelines. I remember when I was in college, all the times I was injured or sick and the articles in local papers that came out about my future. It was exhausting because I worried that I might not be able to get back to my top form. What many seem to be missing is Mary's new position of being an advocate and mentor. People can't seem to separate her from her running. 

Kara Goucher recently wrote a heartfelt post on Instagram about her worsening knee injury. It's not uncommon for top athletes to face injuries. Look at the world of football, boxing, gymnastics, and basketball. Aging and retired athletes often face tremendous and chronic pain. Athletics is demanding on the body, especially at the elite level. Training, competing, and always pushing beyond what's normal take a toll on the body. Sport is also emotionally and mentally challenging. Lorraine Moller cautioned against hanging on to your past identity when it's no longer working or useful, and you're being pulled or called to do something else. I wish I were better at letting go in my own life. It's also important for those observing to do the same. Continually focusing on Mary's next race or how fit she is or what times she's running doesn't fully allow her to be the spokesperson she has become. 

Whether or not she runs or competes is irrelevant. She has a message, an important one, and she should be heard no matter how fast she is or was or will be on the track. What some of us would rather see is that she be allowed to progress in her new role and eventually get to a point where she can do what she loves without pain, without pressure, and maybe even enjoy running again the way she used to before things got so difficult for her. With the right kind of support, and it sounds like that's what she's receiving at Tracksmith, maybe she can get there, and maybe we can allow her to.