Monday, April 02, 2012

Labeling myself

Shadowing a coyote on the Bella Vista Trail
Recovery is predictably going slow for me this week. I am experiencing some late-season burnout, which is funny because this is early season for most everyone else in North America. Beat is already talking about plans for next winter and I can't even wrap my head around it, so I've stayed uncomfortably in denial. The truth is, when I think about racing hard or grueling epics next winter, it makes me want to withdraw from UTMB and spend my whole summer laying on the beach, writing a novel, and drinking iced coffee. For me to survive UTMB I am really going to have to be "on" during what is typically a tough season for me, the hot summer. Beat is good at being "on" all of the time; he's generally either at full throttle or zero, which is how he recovers. I am not good at zero, so I spent this week taking it easy on mellow runs and rides. I really need to get outside most every day for my mental health and productivity. But I admit even the five-mile runs have been taxing. I am coming around, though.

Feeling like a slug brought me back to this ad I encountered a couple weeks ago. It's an somewhat outdated (2010?) campaign from Pearl Izumi to sell shoes to road runners, but it's controversial message sparked a debate around a few runner blogs on the InterWebs recently:

Usually I have almost no reaction to advertising. It's a shallow form of communication that I don't connect with at all, but for some reason I had a strongly negative reaction to this ad. I should have just chuckled, "Oh, ha ha, slow losers, Pearl Izumi doesn't want you." Instead, I felt like I was back in seventh grade wearing the new Guess jeans I just bought with my babysitting money and having a group of more stylish girls accuse me of sewing the label on a fake pair of jeans. It was an interesting knee-jerk reaction to this ad, actually. Why did I think Pearl Izumi was bullying me? For starters, I don't even run marathons. In fact, it's actually one of my goals to get through life without running an official road marathon. But if I ever did run a marathon, it would probably be in a non-serious manner, on a lark, and I probably would "mosey" across the finish line because there's no way my hips and knees would stand for 26 miles of pavement pounding. So why was I so offended? Why did I care?

I think it comes down to my seventh-grade Guess jeans incident, and the mistake of trying to wear labels. I've proudly flown my cyclist flag ever since I managed to ride a borrowed mountain bike all the way to the top of Salt Lake City's Mill Creek Canyon and back without tipping over or walking the bike (full disclosure: all pavement.) But I've been reluctant to wear the label of "runner." I've been serious about the sport of trail running for 18 months now, I'm building up a decent resume on Ultrasignup, and I'm currently preparing to at least participate in one of the more prestigious ultramarathons in the world, UTMB. During my stay at the Windy Gap checkpoint in the White Mountains 100, I was telling my friend Dea about the Susitna 100 and my plans for UTMB when she said, "Oh, so are you more of a runner now?" I shook my head. "No, I'm still a more of a cyclist. I'm definitely not a runner." I laughed at what I thought was a great joke, but Dea just looked confused.

Why won't I call myself a runner? Maybe because I don't want the "real runners" to point and laugh at me. It's middle-school silly, and yet I'm insecure about it all the same. Even in my "on foot" pursuits, my end goal isn't running for the sake of running, but to efficiently traverse large swaths of "real" terrain — mountains and deserts, streams and snow. Ultimately I'd love to have the fitness, skill, and strength to take on long wilderness trails, such as the Pacific Crest Trail, or even trail-less traverses such as Alaska's Brooks Range, in a fast and efficient manner. This effectively makes me a "hiker," and yet I enjoy going out and running as fast as I can in my local, hilly 50K races (full disclosure: not all that fast.) I also spend more time riding bicycles than I do running, even when training for 100-mile ultramarathons. So what am I? A part-time-running cyclist? A fast hiker who likes to use wheels? A mountain biker who occasionally leaves the bike at home?

In coming up with a label for myself, I listed some of my strengths:

1. I am good at plodding along for hours, days, even weeks on end.
2. I am good at adapting to my surroundings and making use of what's available in changing environments.
3. I am good at being self-sufficient.
4. I am patient.
5. I am stubborn.
6. I basically have one speed but I can hold it almost indefinitely.
7. I am great at carrying extra weight. My Iditarod bike weighed 70-plus pounds, my Tour Divide bike 50-60. I can pack 10 extra pounds without blinking an eye and generally do on even the smallest training runs. My indifference to extra weight has made me an incurable packrat.
8. I can thrive in a wide range of weather conditions.
9. My body seems willing to slavishly follow the unreasonable demands of my mind.
10. I am strong.

When I compile these all together, I picture this:


A mule. I'm totally a mule. Not in the drug-ferrying sense, but in the beast-of-burden, combo runner-cyclist, stubborn-as-all-get-out sense. And yes, I totally used Photoshop to make a mash-up of a mule riding a Rocky Mountain Element. It only took 15 minutes, but it does serve as an example of what happens to my creative productivity when I am not spending enough quality time outside. I hope to get out for another five-mile jog (and I purposely use the word jog) this afternoon to spark better work productivity this evening ...

Proud to be a Jogger. And an Animal. I am Mule. 

But really, if you had to place a label, how would you define yourself? It's not an easy question to answer.

32 comments:

  1. I found those ads really offensive. Shouldn't they be encouraging health and fitness? I guess people should just sit on the couch rather than presume to breathe the air of "real runners".

    I don't label myself at all, mostly because I do so many things, none of them very well. I'm mostly okay with that.

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  2. I think I was a husky in a previous life. Running and being outside make me the "Tongue flapping in the wind and jumping up and down with excitement" kinda happy.

    I believe that so much in life is determined by attitude and I've made the best of a lot of crap in my life, so here's my label: I'm HAPPY.

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  3. Anonymous3:47 PM

    I avoid Nike products at all costs, but I have to admit I have always liked the slogan, "Just do it". Should I sign up for that race? Should I get my lazy a** off the couch and go for a run? Should I hike up a mountain today? Just do it.

    And yes, if you knew anything about me, you'd be impressed I am actually saying anything kind about Nike.

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  4. Having worked at pearl in the mid-aughts, I'm pretty sure that those ads were a combination of (1) trying to spark controversy (an thus get some free advertising) and (2) grew out of the company's inferiority complex around its running product, which only came into existence 2002-ish. They were trying to punch above their weight, essentially.

    And, yes, those ads are EXTREMELY annoying.

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  5. that ad also badly hit me because i'm exactly that person who always arrived beyond cut off time in any races. but then, oh well, sorry to disappoint them. =)

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  6. I struggle with labeling myself, too. I started my blog "Cyclin' Missy" when I was in a hot cycling streak. I still love cycling, but I have since rekindled to my long-time love of running with an even greater passion. But if I just say I'm a runner, that leaves out so many of the things that I do. Sometimes I just say that I'm an endurance athlete. But then some people disagree with the "athlete" label because I'm not necessarily competitive.

    Oh, well. I figure that those who really care about me know who I am without needing to put a label on it.

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  7. Yes I have a label for myself. Even though I've cycled between about 5500 to 8400 miles/year for the last 15 years, mostly commuting. My label is LAZY ! make that !!!

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  8. Roan, you're not lazy. Labels are lazy, because they're the easy way to describe a person and the many knots and twists that make us who we are. I don't do labels well for that reason. I just yam what I yam, and that's all there is to it.

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  9. Getsopked ... this is the kind of dialog I was hoping to spark. That's why I used my Guess jeans analogy (ah, the 90s.) Labels are meaningless, and yet we make them so important in our own minds and also in our interactions with others.

    That designer label jeans incident actually happened. I spent like $80, which was about 30 hours of babysitting and a whole lot of money in 1991, and never wore them again after those girls accused me of counterfeiting. Incidentally, by high school, I was exclusively shopping for my punk rock outfits at thrift stores and gleefully letting my freak flag fly.

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  10. How about the ad guy for Pearl Izumi line up in February for the Iditabike/run and see how they do?

    Put your money where your mouth is Pearl Izumi.

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  11. Jill--"freak flag"--I love it! Now that's a label to live by. I, too, was picked on in high school by the fashionistas. Labeling others made them feel better about themselves. Being on the receiving end of teasing was a big deal then, but not important now. It makes sense that ad writers target people in their gullible teens. With experience, education, and (especially) maturity, we learn that labels have little value.

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  12. Anonymous8:17 AM

    Funny post cause I've got a pi sponsored runner here in FC who's a real ass!

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  13. Durango Joe8:39 AM

    The only people who have to run (or ride) fast are professionals. They get paid to perform. The rest of us, even amatuer racers, are just doing it for whatever personal motivation. So don't sweat the labels. On another note, as one slow-twitch diesel to another, a diesel who learned to ride fast, the beauty of group road riding is that even diesels learn how to adapt and ride at a wide range of speeds, how to spin easy and put down power at the same time, how to recover at high speed/effort levels. You'd never morph into a sprinter, but you develop more leg speed and what the French call "suplesse" which would then trickle over to mt. bikes and running and other pursuits. I'm sure you've heard former US Olympic cycling coach Eddie B (and others) say a good cyclists works on her weaknesses, not just her strengths.

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  14. Had to comment on this one. Love your mule rider. I might have to steal it. I really like your idea about traversing real terrain – this makes good sense. And making it through life without running a marathon [or a century]. So many people ask me if I run marathons or if I’m training for one. Or they assume I’m fast because I run a lot. I guess there are just a lot of different approaches to being active with/in this world and it takes time to share our version of it – hence the years of blogging. Oh, and nice coyote pic!
    (a.k.a. Jonah)

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  15. That picture would have been perfect if you put a runner skirt on the mule :)

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  16. The main thing that irks me about this ad campaign is the general sentiment that the only valuable component in any physical activity is speed, and the only improvement we can make is to "go faster." That's fine if that's what you want, although I'm of the opinion that culture-driven speed obsessions lead to more injuries than if active people were willing to just listen to their bodies and follow a more natural path. The point I was illustrating with my mule drawing is that we can be very different types of athletes doing the same activity. Labels like Pearl Izumi's "Runner" campaign try to convince us we are all the same.

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  17. I was never a runner, always just a guy who ran....now I'd never consider myself a cyclist (those are the skinny, fast guys) I'm just a middle aged guy that maintains my sanity by being outside and riding my bike.

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  18. Durango Joe1:46 PM

    I don't think Nike's heard of LSD (Long Steady Distance).

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  19. Wow. Those ads are infuriating. The first activity I ever got into was mountain biking, and the first racing I did was cyclocross. I still would say I align myself more closely with mountain bikers, and I certainly don't go around calling myself a runner. Still, I have been running regularly for nearly two years now. In fact, I've run in many races, not because I think I'm fast, but because I enjoy goal setting and accomplishment. In a little less than three weeks, I'll be running my first marathon, and I won't be breaking any records. But one of the things I like about running is that it's not just for superhuman people with single digit body fat percentages anymore--anyone can do it, and you see all kinds of people at races. I may not be fast, but I am a perpetual finisher and constantly striving for improvement. There are many out there like me and I think we have just as much business running marathons as the fast people.

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  20. I am a weekend warrior! Who drinks too much! Yay!

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  21. Anonymous11:39 PM

    Nice blog topic, Jill! Thank you!

    In my early teens, I'd draw little blue squares on the heels of $3 Keds knockoffs, and painted "Esprit" in white letters on a huge cotton book bag because I couldn't afford the overpriced, snotty, preppy-kid crap. By the end of high school, I realized I'd never win a popularity contest, and then it didn't matter anymore. As an adult, I still don't care when some weekend warrior hulk on a $4000 roadbike sneers as they zip past, while I plod along on my commute in jeans and Keens (hey, that rhymes!).

    Those shoe ads are directed towards the elite 'winners' (a.k.a. those with the most money and better-than-thou reputation to maintain). I'd like to say I don't get offended, since I don't give a rip what people think, but there's something else that is still bothersome... don't know what it is?

    -Rachel

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  22. Danni your comment is awesome!

    Long time lurker/follower here... I drifted away from the world of triathlon because there were too many labels and boastings about speed and people more concerned with time than enjoying themselves.

    That being said I do call myself a runner, as similar to your biking that's where it all started. Running is my stress-relief, my therapy, where I go to get away or find inspiration As someone who has once run Boston, I suppose I had some speed at one point, but as I stubbornly "run-hike" up the steeps of the Wasatch training for my first 100, speed doesn't even enter my mind. I think you just go and you just do, because you liberate yourself, whatever you do and with any hopes, you get some spectacular scenery, amazing physical and mental challenges, good company and good beer and food afterwards!

    I am now an outdoor enthusiast who is just happy playing outside and after reading your blog wants to train to ski Susitna next year and get a fatback! And as a lurker, I think whether you're a runner or biker, or mule, or jogger, or a hiker, or whatever else you may call yourself doesn't make a difference at the end of the day because you're strong, a wonderful writer and story teller who is badass and very inspirational!

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  23. I would never waste time worrying about a label for myself. Too busy trying to get outside and have fun, whether on skis, a bike, a kayak or on my own two feet. What's all this talk about labels? Why create a problem where there is none? If other people want to label me, that's their problem, not mine! Relax and enjoy the ride - or run (smile)

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  24. I recently saw a sign outside of a bike store that said, "Money cannot buy happiness, but it can buy a bike, and that's pretty darn close." That is the closest to the truth that I have heard in advertising. I also imagine that you could substitute running shoes for bike and it would be pretty much the same.

    I guess I would label myself as someone who likes to have fun, be it mashing the pedals or plodding the trails.

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  25. Anonymous11:45 AM

    Yeah, I agree with the consensus that the ads suck. Of course, I'm not fast, never have been fast, never will be fast, so I'm a bit biased. But it seems trebly silly - first, assuming that speed is the only value important to folks, and second, given the need to get more folks out and moving, anything that puts a damper on that is crappy. And for a lot of folks starting out, who might be insecure about themselves and their athletic abilities to begin with, this kind of message really stinks.

    And last, I have to wonder whether this ad campaign has hurt Pearl Izumi at all. I mean, now that I've seen it, I don't feel any desire to support them - evidently I'm not fast enough for them to want my business! (And I, too, love Nike's Just Do It campaign. There have been more than a few Nike running quotes that have been written on my refrigerator -literally, in water soluble pen! -- or stuck onto my front door for when I needed that one extra little push out the door! I don't wear their shoes anymore, but some of their clothes work for me.)

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  26. Never really thought about labeling myself...maybe "Lone Ranger" (I ride alone a LOT...not because I'm antisocial or anything, just don't have anybody handy who wants to do my rides when I want to do them).

    Or maybe "wuss-rider" would be a good label. Whatever. I just like to ride. I do it purely for fun. If I'm not having fun, what's the point? After 5 or 6 hours in the saddle, my fun-O-meter has pegged out and I'm really wanting to be done.

    I guess I'm just not like you at ALL Jill...can't imagine riding days on end (however I must tell you how much I enjoy reading about YOUR exploits!). I'd say you can label me pretty much anything but "late for dinner".

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  27. Like Durango Joe says, diesel. I even conjured up some top tube stickerz to clarify my identity.

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  28. Anonymous5:47 PM

    Lighten up folks...JHC

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  29. Anonymous10:33 AM

    I think the endurance sports are a large enough tent that they can welcome all types of participants. I don't necessarily object to the "theme" of the PI ads, but I think the execute that theme pretty poorly (especially for a company that is in theory trying to sell more shoes).

    I think everyone who participants in endurance events does so to scratch some personal itch, and if they keep doing them they are generally striving to to achieve some personal accomplishment or goal they had set - whether that is a finish time, to complete another epic distance, to raise money for a charity, to have fun in the event with friends, to see a new part of the world, etc. IMO these are all valid goals since they come from the participants heart.

    Yes there certainly are runners who compete to push themselves for speed, and if PI feels that there are enough of them to consitute a market then their ads make sense, as they are positioning themselves as the shoe for that niche; but I agree that doing so with the ad campain you cite seems uncessarily hurtful to those competing to meet a different personal challenge.

    Eric

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  30. I am a ... wanderer. I run on trails, but slowly, and I often stop to explore a side path or check out a view. On my bike, my goal is to find new paths to places--so I spend a lot of time on my road bike exploring dirt trails. I like to climb slowly and descend quickly. My idea of hell would be maintaining a constant, high speed out and back on some kind of flat-ish road (e.g. Canada) for 80 miles.

    I think Pearl is Full Of Shit. But they are a real poser brand, actually--in cycling, they haven't really managed to infiltrate the pro market and I don't think their gear is very high quality. And I didn't even know they made running stuff. This is another case of trying to become popular by creating a culture of exclusivity. Your Guess jeans analogy is not far off.

    (incidentally, my first pair of Guess jeans was purchased for $3 at a thrift store in 7th grade. I was ridiculously proud of them, and worried that someone might eventually guess their provenance. Fortunately I came to my senses a year or two later and stopped caring about labels.)

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  31. Not to be the lone voice crying int the woods, but I think there's quite an over-reaction here. I think the ad is aimed at a target audience. You say you saw it on the web, but it's obviously a print ad, so I would wonder if it's from a specific magazine aimed at racing. I don't think PI is trying to be offensive to people who run races for reasons other than a high place, or people for whom a high place is unattainable at the moment. I think they're just trying to capture the feeling of competition and pushing on physical limits for a specific cause and associate that with their shoes. I can see where it might be considered a pretty ham-fisted way of accomplishing that, but I don't think it's any different than those testosterone-laden Under Armour ads where the guys are yelling about protecting their house. It's just marketing.

    Labels exist only on superficial levels to create association for cataloging people and things. Look to the left of your blog page -- you're doing it yourself. You categorize the bloggers you read as "Rad Runners" or "Avdenture Cyclists". Do you believe these narrow categories capture all these people are? Of course not, but it creates a catalog for you -- an organization, so to speak. Pearl Izumi is trying somethign that's not actually that easy to do -- associate their product with race-performance when it has yet to claim any real podium results. How else could they do this than to foster some notion of serious-minded race-for-results dedication and then tie that to a picture of their product?

    I actually think it says more about the readers such as yourself that you would have a visceral reaction to this in the way you did. I would think that you would agree that you don't owe PI or anyone else an explanation for why you run and yet a part of you still doesn't want to allow yourself to be associated with a label of "runner" because you have a concern that ... what? You'd have to live up to somebody else's concept of what that is? By denying the label, you're accepting those assessments indirectly. You ARE a runner. You're also an adventure cyclist. The results you seek in any contest are self-defined and may or may not include a podium finish. And being labeled that way isn't a rehash of the grade school mean-girls bullshit you have tucked away in your psyche. It's just a single piece of a larger whole. If someone intriduced you to a third party as "a runner" and the reaction was soemthing that made you uncomfortable, you always have the option to expand on the reality yourself. But the label itself is just a neat and tody way of organizing yourself, your friends, and relationships and interests without carrying around your whole resume.

    (And, as a non-running- singlespeed-29er-riding-mid-distance-mid-pack-finishing endurance-mountainbiker who specializes in east-coast rocky courses in deplorably wet conditions, I think you should know that being a "runner" in my mind is an embraceable part of your freak flag and should be treated as such.)

    Great post!

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