I have to say I’m glad that January is over. While that first month on the calendar brings the promise, potential and opportunity of a new year ahead and a fresh start, it also tends to bring a LOT of talk, in a whole lot of unavoidable spheres, about fitness, weight and body image… essentially, a lot of talk about how we should be trying to be lighter — and therefore “better” — versions of ourselves. A lot of talk about body “transformations,” and diets, and whatever fitness or food craze might come next. A lot of talk implying that our self-worth is directly tied to the number we see when we stand on a scale.
Sorry, but that’s complete bullshit. And I’m tired of sitting back and watching it all unfold, and watching so many women and fellow female athletes be made to feel not-good-enough because society says they should look a certain way, maintain a specific weight or fit a designated mold. I’m tired of the quantification and classification of our bodies and the way that it seems to be so socially acceptable. So I choose not to accept it, and I encourage you to do the same.
While the New Year’s resolution hype always makes me feel especially and inescapably inundated by the weight loss and body image talk of January, this is a topic that comes up very regularly in my life as an elite athlete. Our bodies are the epicenter of what we do, so there’s just no getting around the reality that as a professional triathlete, essentially it is my job to fine-tune and prime my body for performance. Inevitably, there’s a lot of ‘body talk’ associated with that, and unfortunately a lot of comparison as well.
I’ve gotten more comments than I could count with respect to my body and how it relates to my performance, from all kinds of people. I’ve been told countless times that I “don’t look like a triathlete.” “You look more like a basketball player than a triathlete!” they’ve said. (But what does that even mean…?! Who says triathletes, basketball players, or any type of athlete should only look one certain way?!) People have told me they “can’t believe” or “just don’t understand how” I can run so fast. (Because apparently you can only run fast if you’re a certain size…?!). Recently, I heard from a friend of mine that after we’d been swimming together she was approached by another swimmer at the pool who said to her, “Wow, I’m surprised to see how big Kara is for being such a good athlete… That’s really cool.” And at Xterra World Championships last year, after one of the best performances of my life where I finished 13th and just a few minutes out of the top 10, one of my competitors (who I had dropped on the longest, steepest climb) said to me, “I’m shocked that you like the climbs because you are so much bigger.” The list goes on and on, and on…
And how does all of this make me feel? Honestly, it makes me feel not ashamed or embarrassed, but DAMN. PROUD. Why yes, I do love the climbs, because they challenge me to push harder than I think I can and I love rising to that challenge even when others back down. And yes, I did drop that competitor and several others on the many grueling, seemingly endless climbs of the World Championship course, despite being a “bigger” athlete (or maybe it was actually because of all the power that my “bigger” body was able to generate…?!). Yes, I have climbed the ranks through my sport and achieved success as a professional endurance athlete “despite” having the “wrong body type,” or not “looking the part.” And yes, that is really cool. Every single time someone says to me “I don’t know how you do that,” I actually smile real big inside. Because yep, I am doing this, and doing it well, in this body – in MY body, just as it is supposed to be.
Frankly, I really don’t think that numbers should even matter here, or ever, but to provide some perspective — and hopefully also some relatability, or perhaps even some inspiration — I typically weigh 155-160 pounds during the off-season, and between 150-155 during race season. In a peaking period when I am at my absolute fittest, I might just dip under 150. At any rate, I am not a particularly “light” person, especially in the context of professional triathlon, where I weigh significantly more than the majority of my competitors. I race against some athletes who are literally 2/3 my size. I will probably never be characterized as “svelte,” or especially “lean,” or many of the other words I’ve heard used in reference to professional endurance athletes. (And as an ideal that society seems to imply we should all be striving for, even though we’re all just not built the same way or anywhere close to it). But I am strong. I am powerful. I am fierce. I am healthy, and I am HAPPY. And this strong, powerful and healthy body is capable of some pretty incredible things!
This body has taken me up mountaintops far and wide to some of the most beautiful views you could ever imagine. It has taken me up and down some of the steepest, toughest pitches and most challenging, technical terrain on my bike, on my skis and on my feet. This “bigger” body can complete 70.3 miles of swim-bike-running in well under five hours. It can run a marathon in just over three, and I am confident it could eclipse the 3-hour barrier given the opportunity to focus on it. In this body I have earned the right to call myself a professional in both triathlon and mountain biking. In this body I’ve won races, stood on podiums, and also finished in the back of the pack – but this body has hung tough and given everything it has on even the worst of days. It has pushed on through major bonks, serious electrolyte depletion, injuries, crashes, broken bike parts, heat stroke, and more to reach finish lines that barely seemed attainable amid the obstacles. In this body I have become an overall amateur Ironman champion, and finished top-15 in the world on one of the toughest, hilliest Xterra courses in existence. And most importantly, in this body, I have been able to take in the world in a way that most could only imagine, through countless adventures and journeys powered completely by a strong, healthy body.
I am proud of and extremely grateful for my body, not for the way that it looks or doesn’t look or for some completely irrelevant number that it reflects on a scale, but for the places it has taken me, for all it has enabled me to achieve and experience, and most importantly for what it allows me to do day in and day out and the tremendous joy I have received as a result of that.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t sometimes think about what racing would be like if I were smaller and lighter, or if I said I haven’t sometimes felt disadvantaged by my size, particularly on uphill running where I am most acutely aware that I’m carrying more weight than my competitors. And I would certainly be lying if I said I haven’t been told numerous times, by former coaches, fellow competitors and even friends, that I would be faster if I weighed less; even that I will never really be the athlete I want to be unless I change my body. And I get it; it’s physics. But that’s not the way I want to get faster. So fuck physics. I don’t want to get faster by changing who I am; by depriving myself or trying to fight the natural body I’ve been gifted with. I want to get faster by being the best version of ME. I will never weigh 130 pounds, have perfectly toned abs or the seemingly coveted “thigh gap,” because that’s just not who I am, and it’s not who I’m meant to be. And that is totally okay, because I love the person I am today and the body that I inhabit, and I know that I can accomplish all I have set out to do in this body, just as it is now.
Do I still want to be a better athlete? Absolutely! After all, I have a long way to go to achieve my “big picture” goals. But I want to reach those goals by working hard, having fun, pushing myself and maximizing my own potential… not by trying to trade-out or alter the tool that I was born with, as some have told me I need to do. I want to get faster by embracing my body, celebrating its capabilities, optimizing my strengths and continuing to work toward improving my weaknesses. I want to get the most out of myself as I am, and find new ways to capitalize on my body’s own unique abilities and advantages. So in 2016 I resolve not to worry about the number on a scale or whether I’m carrying more weight up a hill than the next woman, but rather how I’m going to work to get up it that much faster. I will continue to honor my body and its needs by eating what I want, when I want, without restrictions and without inhibitions, but while staying mindful, mostly purposeful, balanced and intuitive. I will continue to fuel my body to adventure, explore, perform and be as strong as it can be. I will push it to reach new heights and surpass its perceived limits. But I will not ask my body to be something it is not.
I understand that just as everyone’s body is different, so too is their relationship with it, their goals, and what they want their bodies to achieve. If for you that means losing weight, gaining weight, or changing your composition or physique in some way, then by all means sister, get out there and achieve those goals, so long as it’s in a healthy way and is what will make you feel like the best and happiest version of yourself. But if you’re tired of the “transformation” resolutions and are looking for a different perspective this year, then I encourage you to join me in embracing YOUR body, maximizing and celebrating your own strengths, letting go of the “imperfections,” and making the most of the incredible body you already have. Go ahead… have that dessert (I know I certainly will), drink that glass of wine (yep!), flip the bird to the scale if you want to and to anyone who’s ever told you your body wasn’t good enough, and give yourself a big ol’ hug. Most importantly, I hope you will join me in acknowledging and appreciating all of the amazing things your body has enabled you to do, just as it is right now.