Why do so many men do Ironman? Why do so many women do yoga?
If a woman wants “me” time, that’s assumed to be code for grocery shopping without the kids, going to a one-hour yoga class, or indulging at a spa.
Have you ever heard a man say, “I need some ‘me’ time”?
A woman should be toned, but not muscular; be fit, but not by taking time away from her family; eat well, but not the whole bowl; glow, but not sweat; be confident, but not want to win.
Yoga nicely fits this mold. It can be done in cute leggings and makeup. You will not pee yourself, you will not vomit on the side of the road, you will not sweat so much that your kit will be as wet as it was when you swam in it ten hours ago and your own salt dried in dusty swathes on your skin.
I love yoga and I love teaching it and I think it benefits every body—I’m just saying there’s a lot of women doing yoga and there’s a reason for that.
My mother did her first Ironman in 2002 at the age of 51. And she is still racing. The year before last she finished her fourth Kona at the age of 65 and this year we raced two 70.3s together.
When my mother raced Lake Placid in 2002, only 20.8 percent of the finishers were women. Last year, in 2018, 28.0 percent of the finishers were women. Why does women’s participation still lag behind the men’s?
Ironman Lake Placid Finishers by Gender
My mother grew up in California. She swam, as did her sister, and then in high school started backpacking. This was the 1950s and 1960s, before Title IX, before colleges were required to spend as much on women’s sports as they do on men’s. Eventually, my mother became one of the first female instructors for NOLS, for which she led an expedition up Denali in Alaska.
She says one of the reasons she was drawn to mountaineering was because there were almost no other opportunities for women to be athletic in a way that was equal to men (by which she means, not wearing a skirt or leotard).
There would be no third-generation feminism if it we couldn’t stand on the ox-strong backs of women like my mother.
Today, married women still do significantly more housework than men: for every hour of housework a married man puts in, his wife puts in 1.7 hours (according to Through the Labyrinth by Alice H. Eagly and Linda L. Carli). Women are admired for arranging dinners and birthday parties, taxiing the children between activities, and preparing food—and if she works, all this in addition. You never hear people remark about a man, “I just don’t know how he does it all!”
In addition, because women are still paid less than men and are more likely to drop out of the work force or work part-time in order to care for children or an elderly relative, husbands tend to have more authority over household finances than their wives. This can put women in the position of having to ask permission to spend money on themselves—and we all know triathlon is an extremely expensive sport. It’s more comfortable for a couple to negotiate a gym membership or yoga pants versus a triathlon bike in the thousands of dollars. When the man is making the money, it’s more difficult for both partners to consider how the wife wants to spend money for personal goals.
These statistical facts are also codified in our language and culture. Grown women at an Ironman (and in the workplace) are still being called “girls”. And the next time I hear a guy say, “He got chicked” when referring to being passed by a woman, I will scream. We don’t need a special verb for men when “got passed” works just fine.
Professional women triathletes are asked by the media, “Where are you’re children when you’re training?” As if she doesn’t know or as if it’s anyone’s business. They can get dumped by sponsors during pregnancy. And we are still, still trying to get an equal number of slots for women pros at the Ironman World Championships in Kona.
I have been ignored for thirty minutes in a bike shop before walking out—including while holding a bike (never at Northwest Tri & Bike, you guys are the sweetest!). Up until last year when Louis Garneau came out with a high-end bike shoe for women, I wore men’s shoes that were too wide: Most big cycling and triathlon companies, when making their “line for women”, seem to take the cheapest of their men’s line, throw a little pink on it, and call it a day.
My other sponsors I have similarly chosen because they are doing exceptional things for women:
Tri Sirena is one of (I would say only four) companies making exceptional performance wear for women triathletes and is woman-owned
blueseventy is the only wetsuit I’ve tried that accommodates breasts and they offer the same high-end wetsuit for women as they do for men
F2C Nutrition actively promotes women athletes and equally considers the nutritional requirements of both genders
I’ve written before about why my mother came into triathlon when she did: for fifteen years she felt like she put her family and her job, for which she was never recognized like her male colleagues, first. (She used to be a university professor and recounts how her department head allowed her to carry half a teaching load when my sister was born so she could nurse—though of course she had to carry double in the spring. And he thought he was being sooo generous.)
Then in her late 40s suddenly my mother snapped. I think she realized she had done almost nothing for herself since I was born, that she’d lost being the center of her own life—instead letting her life be written by the pressures of those around her. So she bought a bike, dumped all the cooking on my father, and devoted herself to Ironman.
My mother is a great and loving mom and I know she wouldn’t trade being a mom for anything: but also, that identity alone wasn’t enough. I understand that (now).
Into this mix has emerged the women’s only race. I think this is marvelous. Women, especially women for whom athletics is newly being incorporated into their lifestyle, feel more liberated to be themselves when they’re with other women. Whether or not it should be this way, the popularity of women’s-only events (especially for first-time racers) shows that it is this way.
I am also seeing more men coming to my yoga classes. Until I started teaching at CrossFit, I was unaware of how much yoga assumes female teachers and female students. In teacher training, we spent days learning how to teach headstand with various modifications—but almost no time at all on how to teach hip opening. Now that I teach classes of mostly men, I’ve learned that hip opening takes months for my students to learn, but I can have the entire class in headstand in about five minutes.
Yoga has a lot to offer men. With our country now being in its seventeenth year of continuous warfare, there’s a growing recognition that men are also dealing with trauma. In addition, while the flexibility benefits of yoga are often the end goal for women, men are motivated by how greater flexibility yields greater capacity for strength in the positions required for extreme weight-bearing, like overhead lifts or the aero position on a bike.
I do not see the gender imbalance going away anytime soon. But I do see the breadth of what’s acceptable for each gender gaining more latitude.
I’ve learned a lot through competing at the most elite level of endurance triathlon, both as a women and about women. I’ve also really tried to listen. And what I think is this:
Women need to be the heroes of their own stories. Women deserve to have a space and to have resources for themselves. It’s fine to do this for your team, it’s fine do this for cancer, but it’s also gotta be I’m doing this for me.
Men also need to be part of the solution, by stepping up with housework and family care, supporting equal pay and flex time in the workplace, and working with their partners to more generously weight the resources a woman wants for her own damn self.
“For women to achieve full access to leadership in society, men will have to step up and share more equally in family responsibilities.” - Eagly and Carli
And sports brands and companies need to market to and create product for women with as much care and investment as they do for men.
Most importantly, what I’ve learned is that the limits we set for ourselves are completely illusory, they are how we get in our own way. And my goodness, do we women know how to hold ourselves back.
Five years ago I swore I would never be a professional athlete—but what I was really saying was, “I don’t think I’m good enough to do that.” Then fast forward, last month I represented the USA at the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in South Africa. I have raced where I was throwing up continuously and I learned that I can refuse to give up. I have seen women who were once demure and accommodating of everyone else but themselves do more pull-ups in a minute than I’ve done in my life. I have watched fourth grade girls, whose parents can’t afford to buy them running shoes, train for three months and then finish their first 5K.
I am telling you, you are stronger, you are more courageous, you can achieve more, than you ever thought possible. So get out of your own way, shut up the voices that tell you you’re not good enough or you don’t deserve this or you should feel guilty for wanting what you want.
Find that thing that makes you passionate, that makes you come alive, and pursue it with everything you have. Because the world needs women who have come alive, who have filled up their own cups to overflowing such that we may all rise together.
Note: This blog post is not where I wanted to have a discussion about gender as a concept. I use a binary system here not because I think it’s correct, but because it’s what we have in sports today.
Lake Placid data analysis is mine, based on Athlinks and Ironman.com; Photo of Mom at Ultraman by John Wiens; Photo of me on Ironman red carpet by Paul Higgins.