“I Contain Multitudes”: Microbiomes, Ecology, a Book Review, and Speculation

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Perfect with a negroni.

What is the measure of a good science writer?

Both my boyfriend and I – one of us a scientist, the other not – adore reading Ed Yong’s columns in The Atlantic. That might be a pretty good measure, and it is one that Yong passes with flying colors: both the experts in fields he writes about, as well as nearly everyone else, are happy when he puts words on the internet.

(His Valentines tweets are no exception. I’m trying not to get sidetracked, but it’s hard, and that link is worth clicking, I promise.)

Nevertheless, when Yong’s first book, I Contain Multitudes, was released, I wasn’t that thrilled.

It’s about the microbiome, and I just wasn’t that excited to read about the microbiome. It seemed very of-the-moment, very bandwagon-y. As an ecologist I was kind of sick of hearing about the microbiome, and of people asking me whether my study organism’s microbiome might explain X or Y thing I had found about it.

Like, I’m studying all these complicated non-microbial things about my organism’s ecology, and I’m supposed to somehow have all the skills, techniques, and equipment to also understand its microbiome? Please go away. That’s so too much to ask.

Anyway, this month I finally read the book, and boy was I wrong.

The book was great.

And the microbiome is fascinating.

It was a delightful read, and among the reasons is that Yong describes perfectly some fundamental things about being an ecologist. Take this passage, for example:

“Here is a strange but critical sentiment to introduce in a book about the benefits of living with microbes: there is no such thing as a ‘good microbe’ or a ‘bad microbe’. These terms belong in children’s stories. They are ill-suited for describing the messy, fractious, contextual relationships of the natural world…. All of this means that labels like mutualist, commensal, pathogen, or parasite don’t quite work as badges of fixed identity. These terms are more like states of being, like hungry or awake or alive…”

For any scientist who has found a result, then explored seemingly the same situation over again and got a completely different result, this passage will spark a laugh or sigh of recognition.

It can seem like everything in ecology is context-dependent. Sometimes we can demonstrate what context matters and how the mechanism operates; other times it’s just a nice way of saying, we have no idea what’s going on.

Anyway, through Yong’s typically-excellent storytelling and the way I could identify with the scientists he profiled – men and women, young and old, at universities and zoos and NGO’s and research institutes around the world – I became immersed in tales about microbes.

As Yong points out, microbes were everywhere when multicellular life evolved. So we multicellular beings evolved with them. They made our lives easier, in some ways; and we helped them get ahead. Sometimes the relationship is good for everyone, sometimes not. But with microbes all around us for millions upon millions of years, the relationship is inevitable.

And so we have incredible interactions.

Of course, there are all the microbes in our guts: the gut microbiome, which is discussed all the time, it seems. Ours are worse than they used to be, worse than hunter-gatherer societies, worse if we eat more highly-processed food. This influences our health in so many ways.

But there are also more seemingly-fantastical things.

Microbes that help squids glow, canceling out the shadow that predators might see from below against the night sky, and thus protecting them from death! That makes a brilliantly intelligent cephalopod which just happens to be bioluminescent.

Mice that have gut microbes that help them eat creosote without any ill effects! Cute little fairy tail creatures that can eat a poison pill and just keep on going.

Another charming example? Having a pet, and a dog in particular, is one of the best ways to have a healthy, robust, microbiome. The pet brings microbes into the house from its travels outdoors, and those microbes become your microbes. I’m tallying up all the possible justifications for why we should get a dog, and this is a great one to add to the list! We need a dog because, science.

(Also on the list is that a dog can help you decide author order on papers. I mean, there are other ways, but let’s get a dog.)

Some stories are discouraging, like how a microbes help mountain pine beetles process and disarm the chemical defenses of trees, and thus to kill vast swathes of forest in North America. I thought I knew a fair bit about pine beetle devastation, but this was new to me.

Others stories are hopeful, however.

One of my favorites was a story about researchers trying to combat dengue fever. They raise mosquitos with a bacteria living inside them which makes them resistant to the dengue virus. And now they are letting those mosquitoes loose: they started in Australia, and went door to door to convince neighborhood residents to foster the new mosquitoes, even though most people would say “no way” if you asked whether you could drop some extra mosquito larvae next to their house. Bzzzzzz.

Just by carrying a bacteria, mosquitoes as a vector of this particular disease might be a thing of the past, at least in some places.

Yong also highlighted the work of Dr. Jessica Green, who was a new-ish professor in my department at University of Oregon back when I worked as a technician there.

Green studies the microbiome of buildings. It’s fascinating stuff, and even more interesting when you get to hospitals: leaving the window open to let natural microbes in might help fight off the bad microbes that give so many hospitalized people infections.

Thanks to microbes, there are simple interventions that might make a big difference in people’s lives. Our modern way of living and germ-phobic worldview has broken many of the relationships we used to have, but we are learning more and more about which ones we should preserve or restore. And it’s leading us to create new ones, too.

Along the way, I also began to think about a lot of things not covered in the book.

(I Contain Multitudeswas published in 2016, so a lot of science has happened since then in this rapidly-advancing field.)

For example, how might the microbiome alter human performance? The first thing that popped to mind was sleep. I have pretty much always been terrible at sleeping. I have a hard time falling asleep at night, and sometimes my sleep is restless.

In many aspects of life, sleep is vitally important. I think back to my time as an athlete: rest is one of the most important aspects of training, but if you aren’t sleeping well, you’re missing some of it. I definitely was.

Since 2016, some science has come out suggesting that lack of sleep alters your gut microbiome, and that the relationship also goes the other way, that your microbiome affects the process leading to sleep. But it’s hard to parse this research and assess its quality. I need someone like Yong to do that for me, and condense the reliable findings down into something digestible (see what I did there?).

In fact, I wondered about how the microbiome might affect athletes more generally. People doing a lot of training would benefit from all sorts of specific adaptations, including to diet and metabolism. Do microbes help in that? Does having the wrong microbiome hold you back?

Here, too, there has been a bit of research. For example, Outside wrote up a piece where they had seven elite athletes get their gut microbiomes sequenced. They found plenty of deviation from the average American, but as you can read in the piece, what did that actually mean? Hard to say. There is still so much we don’t know about microbes and which ones do what.

Another recent paper found that rugby players had increased prevalence of microbes that with functions that increased muscle turnover. This approach, looking at “metabolic phenotyping” and metabolomics rather than only the composition of the kinds of microbes, might be more informative. However, because the athletes in the study ate different diets than the non-athletes, it’s hard to totally understand the implications of such differences.

Still, I’m interested in work like this. What would it say about endurance athletes?

Something to remember, though, is that even if we figured out that the human gut microbiome could be used to get better athletic performances or to maintain a better training load, it might be hard to act on that information.

In humans, there are still few silver bullets for the microbiome. Knowing that a microbe is good isn’t enough. In many cases, a microbe can be helpful or protective in one context but harmful in another (for instance if it reaches too-high abundance).

And it’s also hard to deliver a microbe into the gut and have it take hold.

One of the first stories I heard about the microbiome was about fecal transplants, which were used with great success to reset some people’s guts and solve major, seemingly-unsolvable health problems. It was on a podcast, although I now can’t remember which one. It was a wild story.

Yong writes about this, too. But he points out something researchers have learned in the years since the first fantastic results using fecal transplants to cure people of aggressive diseases.

The reason that fecal transplants work so well with some diseases is that the native gut flora has been pretty much wiped out by the combination of the disease and the antibiotics used to treat it in its initial stages.

“This pharmacological carpet-bombing clears many of the native bacteria from their guts,” Yong writes of patients with Clostridium difficileinfections who receive fecal transplants. “When a donor’s microbes arrive in this wasteland, they find few competitors, and certainly few that are as well adapted to the gut as they are. They can easily colonise… ‘you can’t just infuse microbes into people and expect a transplant to happen’, says [gastroenterologist Alexander] Khoruts.”

So even if we knew of a silver-bullet microbe that would help you metabolize or do something else to perform better, could we get it to colonize an athlete’s gut? Unclear.

In the end, if you want a healthier microbiome, a lot of it probably just comes down to eating a healthy, diverse diet, and having healthy habits. And that’s what athletes should be doing anyway.

I wonder if the best way to have your microbiome help your athletic career is just to do a bunch of things that you already know you should do. Eat well. Sleep. Hug the people you care about.

Here’s my final take about the measure of a science writer. A good writer can make you understand things you’re already familiar with in a whole new light.

An entire research group in my department studies the aphid-Buchnerasystem.

Aphids are small insects that like to live on, for example, pea and bean plants. Buchnera are bacteria that live inside the aphids; they got there over 200 million years ago, and each strain of aphid has its own strain of Buchnera. The bacteria produce amino acids that they don’t get from their main food source, phloem. And there’s another microbe, Hamiltonella defense, that protects the aphids against parasitoid wasps, which lay their eggs in an aphid and whose larvae gradually consume them from the inside out, turning them into “mummies”. (Yeah, it’s gross.) Different Hamiltonella strains have different protective abilities and costs.

I can’t tell you how many research talks I have listened to about aphids. Usually, it has just seemed complicated and confusing – even when my friends and close colleagues are explaining it.

But when I read Yong’s description of the study system in his book, all of a sudden, the whole thing made sense to me. First of all what was going on, and secondly why it was fascinating. I will look at my colleagues’ projects differently, and with a lot more interest.

If that isn’t the measure of science writing success, I’m not sure what is.

You can purchase I Contain Multitudes at Powell’s or your favorite independent bookseller.

Ladies get no respect.

Be careful what you wish for because you just might get it: we wished for snow, and then it snowed during the race which made things a lot slower and more grueling.... Also, pro tip, when it's obviously going to be a snowstorm, remember your glasses or visor!

Be careful what you wish for because you just might get it: the snow we so desperately needed came during the race, making things a lot slower and more grueling…. Also, pro tip, when it’s obviously going to be a snowstorm, remember your glasses or visor, dummy! It gets hard to see! (Photo: AlphaFoto)

This weekend my race was in Lenzerheide. All in all it was a good experience – we raced four loops around the Tour de Ski trails, with one extension and the steepest ‘A’ climb cut out.

That turned out to be a good thing, because the first rough part of the race is that it was in the middle of a snowstorm. I can’t complain too much because we have been wishing and begging for snow – the race was actually supposed to be a point-to-point but there wasn’t enough cover, hence the loops of the World Cup course – but it slowed things down considerably. Whereas the weekend before I had felt like I was flying, this weekend not so much. In the slow conditions I guarantee I would have been single-sticking up that ‘A’ climb by the fourth go-round. At least on the long grinding climb out of the stadium, which lasts for 2/3 of a kilometer, I felt like I was moving.

I struggled with the start, where skiers were packed shoulder-to-shoulder and then trying to skate all over each other’s skis, and immediately lost a lot of ground (though luckily no poles or baskets!). The few women were scattered throughout this pack and the others, having done these races before, seem to have figured out something about how to deal with the start that I have just totally missed. I caught and passed one woman after five kilometers and wanted to shout as I went by, “how did you manage that!?”

Overall it was a fun racing experience. Crossing the finish line and feeling like you have given it your all, no matter how fast or slow that ended up being, is such a great feeling. Going home feeling like you have really worked yourself over and earned your dinner is I guess what keeps us endurance junkies going.

Another week, another "I finally made it to the finish line". (Photo: AlphaFoto)

Another week, another “I finally made it to the finish line!” wave of relief. This week it was also “This means I get to put on warm, dry clothes now! Do I have to cool down?” (Photo: AlphaFoto)

After the race though, I had a bit of a sexist experience. I was hanging out with Jackson Bloch and Tyler DeAngelis, the gentlemen from 477 Kilometers who had come for the chance to race at a World Cup venue. We enjoyed some phenomenal cake at the post-race lunch and laughed our way through the awards ceremony which was, of course, conducted all in Swiss German.

The organizers called up the women’s podium: Sereina Boner had won by five minutes and, according to the timing, outsprinted the seventh-place man at the line. Go Sereina! Fellow Olympian Bettina Gruber was second, and Claudia Schmid third. The emcee did nice little interviews with each of them after handing out the awards.

Then it was time for the men’s prize ceremony. Remo Fischer had beaten Valerio Leccardi by a minute; as in the women’s race, both were Olympians. Leccardi outsprinted two others to earn second.

But… after calling up the third-place guy, the organizer just kept going. Where the women’s ceremony had featured the top three, the men’s featured the top eight.

What!? We looked at each other like, hmm, that definitely doesn’t seem right.

It’s true that many fewer women entered the race: 42 compared to 285. That is something I see every weekend and it always makes me sad.

And it’s true, full disclosure, that if they had called up eight women I would have been up there. But as I think you will see, this is definitely not why I’m mad.

Even if the women’s field is so much less deep, there is such an incredibly obvious value judgement going on when more men are recognized as prize-worthy than women.

Switzerland is a country which has already shown me all I need to know about its attitude towards women’s sports. There are many fewer female athletes at almost any co-ed sport event.

“Practising a sport in a voluntary club does not seem to be a very popular approach with women, particularly older women,” a 2011 report by the Council of Europe stated. “In Switzerland, many more men are members of clubs than women (30.6% compared to 18.9%)…. women account for only 36% of trainers and managers. This proportion decreases the higher up the sports hierarchy one goes, reaching 19% in elite sports. It is very likely that this situation has an impact on the development of women’s sport although we do not yet have any precise data on this link. On the one hand, the under-representation of women in sport’s managing bodies may mean that it is considered less necessary to implement policies designed specifically to increase women’s and girls’ involvement in sport (Koca & al., 2010). Secondly, the woman trainer represents a model with which many girls identify when they take up organised sports such as football, basketball or rugby. As a result, the over-representation of men among trainers may prevent girls from starting such activities.”

The women’s soccer team is called the Nati-Girls, which seems insulting to full-grown, elite, full-time athletes like Fabienne Humm who scored a hat-trick in just five minutes against Ecuador in this summer’s World Cup, setting a new record.

As in many places, professional athletes who are women get paid much less than their male counterparts. Their teams get less attention from the media and sponsors.

This lack of female participation or recognition extends outward from the playing field. As of 2011, although there were more and more female journalists in Switzerland, not a single newspaper had a woman running its sports section, for example.

This is not to say that there are no female athletes. Of course there are. Boner won the Ski Classics series three different years; Switzerland’s alpine skiers are phenomenal; the ice hockey team won bronze in Sochi and the curling team won 2015 World Championships; Nicola Spirig won triathlon gold in London 2012. That’s just to name a few, and there are obviously many more. These women are adored and admired by their fans.

But there’s no denying that women’s sports are generally underdeveloped and underemphasized in the country.

So when you go to a weekend race and twice as many men get recognized at the prize ceremony as women, what message does that send? Does it send a message that people are trying to fix the problem?

Not really.

That’s all.

Having said all that and complained, I have to say thank you to the men I ski with in these races - they are great. They step on my poles no more than they would step on a dude's poles, and they are nice. On the last time up the long hill I pushed really hard and passed a long train of guys. On the long downhill into the stadium, most of them went flying past me, their bank- and insurance-funded wax jobs being a bit speedier than my grand-student-salary-funded HF6. But when we crossed the line, one turned around and told me, 'wow, that was a good push' (loose translation of the Swiss German...). (Photo: AlphaFoto)

Having said all that and complained, I have to say thank you to the men I ski with in these races – they are great. They step on my poles no more than they would step on a dude’s poles, and they are nice. On the last time up the long hill I pushed really hard and passed a long train of guys. On the long downhill into the stadium, most of them went flying past me, their bank- and insurance-funded wax jobs being a bit speedier than my grand-student-salary-funded HF6. But when we crossed the line, one turned around and told me, ‘wow, that was a good push’ (loose translation of the Swiss German…). (Photo: AlphaFoto)

more sports commentary.

I spent a lot of the weekend working on a story about the International Olympic Committee bidding process that led to Beijing being awarded the 2022 Winter Olympics. I think it might be the best thing I’ve written! But I think that’s the exhaustion and euphoria speaking. (Update: I also published a different version at the Valley News, which greatly benefitted from some editorial help by Greg Fennell. Thanks Greg, I definitely need editing, and gives me a glimpse of how much better my stuff could be!)

You always feel that way after you deliver a big piece: unsure if it’s correct, terrified of small mistakes, but sure it’s awesome. That feeling fades. But right now I have the journalism hangover. I even wrote multiple drafts of this, which I am ashamed to admit I don’t usually do.

Please go read the piece, “IOC Membership and Regulations Combined to Reliably Hand Beijing 2022 Games,” here.

Here are some fun infographics I made to promote it.

Beijing infographic 2

Beijing vote infographic 1

female bodies in motion.

The New York Times recently ran an article about body image in female athletes. Its title: “Tennis’s Top Women Balance Body Image With Ambition“.

I hated it from the start. I know a lot of female athletes, and I can’t think of a discussion I have ever had with any of them about balancing body image with ambition. Do they have ambition? Yes. Do they have issues with body image? Sometimes. But never have I heard an elite athlete say that they were not doing x thing that would probably make them more competitive, because it would make them feel less attractive or less feminine. Ambition and insecurity can coexist. After all, humans are complex.

The article got a lot of hate immediately, mostly because it focused particularly on Serena Williams. Williams is the greatest female player currently on tour, and likely of all time. She’s also incredibly strong. Throughout her career, people have labeled her as a big scary black woman. I am not actually a huge Serena fan, but regardless of whether you are a fangirl or not, it’s plain to see that the racism she has faced is atrocious.

(And besides, she’s not that big. Look at a picture of her off the tennis court and see if you can even tell what all the fuss is about.)

I’m not going to talk about how race was featured in the most recent NYT article. Others have done that much more intelligently and eloquently than I possibly could. Here’s a few examples: Huffington Post; A Tribe Called News; The Daily Beast; I am sure there are other better essays, too.

At first, I couldn’t even articulate why the article disgusted me so much, but the general reason was that I thought it was extremely unfair and disrespectful of female athletes. An article about conforming to conventional standards of attractiveness would very seldom be written about male athletes.

After mulling it over, I’ve come up with some more concrete and specific reasons that I was so enraged by the author’s treatment of female athletes. Here’s a rundown.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All. First of all, the article implies that any female tennis player could have a body like Serena’s if she wanted to. That isn’t true… at least not without performance-enhancing drugs. Some of us put on weight and muscle more easily, while others do not.

This is not to say that Serena didn’t achieve her physique by a lot of hard work (although she’s quoted as saying that it is simply her body type, and she doesn’t lift weights). But for some people – men and women, not just white female tennis players! – a body like that would be difficult if not impossible to achieve naturally, without being a full-time job requiring major cuts to other training time, and might even result in injury. Not to mention, making drastic changes to one’s body requires parallel changes in technique/skill at the same time in order to be able to take advantage of added power.

Furthermore, it might not even be a good idea.

There is more than one way to be an excellent athlete, more than one body type you can have. I read and loved David Epstein’s book The Sports Gene, and in it he writes about how certain length ratios or body attributes are more or less required to be the best at certain sports. He’s not wrong.

And yet… take a look at this image, from the women’s 800 meter run at the 2012 London Olympics. None of these women have a lot of fat on their bodies. The are all lean, but with varying amounts of muscle.

I saw at least one person on twitter draw a parallel to my sport, cross-country skiing. One commenter said that in multiple sports women are now winning “with more strength” and showed a picture of Marit Bjørgen. Yep, she’s strong. But the second-best woman in the world, Therese Johaug, is tiny. Muscular, but much tinier. And some days, she kicks Marit’s ass. Here’s a picture of them running together; here’s a picture of them skiing together. Nobody’s saying that it’s impossible to be the best skier without having Bjørgen’s body, or that Johaug is a copout for not trying.

Like Williams, Bjørgen is not as big as she’s made out to be. Having met her in person, she’s still small – something that people lose track of when watching sports on television because the focus is always to fill the same, making tall and short people sometimes seem the same size. I bet she weighs less than I do.

Agnieszka Radwanska’s coach said in the NYT article that “It’s our decision to keep her as the smallest player in the top 10.” That may very well be because her play is adapted to being light. She’s one of the ten best tennis players in the world, right? Should we really be questioning her decisions about her body composition? It obviously works!

Correlation, Not Causation. I’m impressed that the author got as many top athletes to talk, on the record, about their insecurities with their bodies. I remember another article published in NYT, at the Sochi Olympics, about biathlon’s penalty loop. I thought it was a great article. It had a different author, but I imagine the strategy was the same: go to a lot of top athletes and ask them the same relatively short set of questions about a single topic. See what interesting responses you get.

I’m not surprised that female athletes have body image challenges. Every woman does. The standards we are held to by the media, advertising, and entertainment industries are ridiculous. It’s hard not to end up ashamed of some part(s) of your body.

But just because some of the women said this much, does not mean that the reason they are not bigger and bulkier is in fact because of those insecurities. For instance: Maria Sharapova, who was quoted as saying she doesn’t like the gym and doesn’t want to be bigger, also said that “for my sport, I just feel like it’s unnecessary.”

Sharapova is currently the second-ranked woman on the tennis tour. She has multiple Grand Slam victories. She talks about wanting to be slim and wishing she had less cellulite; she also talks about how it’s not necessary for her to gain more muscle for competition. Why focus only on the former? Why not also the latter?

In fact, the only person in the article quoted as directly linking weight/muscle with femininity is Radwanska’s coach, who said that he wants to keep Radwanska “a woman”. Ouch.

It wasn’t Radwanska herself who said it. No, Radwanska noted that gaining muscle might hurt her speed, and anyway that would be tough to do: “I also have the genes where I don’t know what I have to do to get bigger, because it’s just not going anywhere.”

So, did the players even make this connection between wanting to be feminine and being unable to beat Serena? Or did the author take quotes about body image, and tie them into a piece about how nobody is trying to be like Serena? I am genuinely curious what the reaction of the quoted athletes is to this piece, and whether they feel like they were misrepresented.

And, also, the newspaper didn’t treat these insecurities with very much respect. A German player, Andrea Petkovic, confided that she hates seeing photos of herself hitting two-handed backhands because she thinks her arms look so sinewy and grotesque. The NYT helpfully printed just such a photo below the quote.

(Petkovic was not quoted as saying anything about whether she is still trying to add muscle or not, and if not, why not. She only commented on her current body image and insecurities.)

The Steroid Era, And The Current Era. This is really a side note but… the article seems to frame Serena’s body as something new and crazy in women’s sports, that other women are just too scared to emulate. Newsflash: we have seen big, muscle-bound women before. It was called the steroid era. Does nobody remember the East Germans? The Soviets? Heck, the Americans? Then, stronger anti-doping policy and improved testing came along. Athletes slimmed down again to some extent.

But only to some extent. Currently many track and field athletes, of all races and ethnicities, are bulked up. In some cases (maybe in a lot of cases, depending on how cynical you are) this is because of doping. In some cases it’s because of hard work. Serena is not the only successful female athlete out there with a lot of muscle. She’s not an alien, she’s not a revelation (well, she’s a revelation on the tennis court though!). Why are we talking about this again?

Disrespect for Serena’s Other Strengths. This ties more into the racism issues that have been brought up around this article, but it’s worth noting that it’s not merely muscle that wins Williams titles. It’s her tennis game. She has had periods where she is less fit; typically she does not win as consistently then. Her fitness, skills, and, perhaps above all, her incredible mental strength, also power her to wins. A physically strong Serena without the mental edge doesn’t win.

Body is not the only thing that makes an athlete. Just because people like to ogle women’s bodies, let’s not forget that when we talk about female athletes. Women have to have the complete package to the same extent that male athletes do.

Lack of Dedication. Finally, and perhaps this is where I feel female athletes were most disrespected, by framing the issue in this way – that any female athlete could achieve Serena’s body type if she wanted, but most choose not to – it paints those “other” athletes as less dedicated or less hard-working. They are skipping gym time because they don’t want to be too muscle-bound, and the author implies that they are lazy. There’s an unflattering quote from Maria Sharapova saying that she hates lifting and it’s hard work.

But time in the gym is not the only kind of training there is. I can’t speak for every single athlete, of course, but I’m certain that most of the women quoted, and in fact most on the women’s tennis tour, train just as much and just as hard as Serena. They just might not do it in the gym. There are multiple ways to get good. Some might do more cardio work; others speed workouts or agility and footwork; still others might spend even more hours on court perfecting their skills.

Writing that they choose not to lift weights because they want to remain feminine is not only wrong for all of the reasons listed above, but makes women seem lazy instead of pointing out that rather than going to the spa in that extra time, they likely sink it into some other form of training.

Wrapping up… Back to the issue of why we are even talking about female athletes’ bodies. The NYT editorial staff backpedaled the article hard, with an opinion piece by the public editor, Margaret Sullivan, stating that she was concerned with the piece.

It contained this nugget:

“Well aware of the criticism, Mr. Stallman said he still found the topic worthwhile: ‘In covering sports, we can’t not write about women’s bodies.’ And, he said, male athletes come in for scrutiny, too, citing a front-page article just last week on Mets pitcher Bartolo Colon, focused on his 285-pound body, up about 100 pounds from 1997 when he joined the major leagues.”

Um…. two things here. Is it unfortunate that Colón (and speaking of being sensitive, there NYT, I added the accent back on his name for you) is being shamed for being a large man on the front page of a newspaper? Yes. If Colón is good at baseball, then his weight shouldn’t matter to his team. And outside of people who are paying him a salary to be an excellent athlete, it shouldn’t matter to the universe in general if Colón is a gaining weight.

But… weighing 285 pounds is a little different than being Serena Williams, who is an extremely cut, lean, muscular woman. Criticizing a baseball player for being fat when, actually, he is fat (there, I said it) is totally different than calling a lean, muscular athlete “too big”.

And furthermore, the Colon article is an outlier. Women’s bodies face far more scrutiny and discussion in the sports media than men’s bodies do. Citing one article about Bartolo Colón does not change that.

And secondly, oh really? We can’t not write about women’s bodies? Is that so?

I revisited the article that the NYT wrote about the Women’s World Cup final: the most-watched soccer game, men’s or women’s, ever in the United States, and likely one of the top 30 or so most-watched sporting events of the year. So, a big deal.

It did not contain a single description of the bodies of any of the U.S. or Japanese players. (It did contain a reference to the iconic Brandi Chastain photo from the 1999 World Cup).

Instead, it described what those bodies did. One body sliced a shot, ran onto a pass, and launched a shot. Another backpedaled and reached.

This is how we should talk about female athletes’ bodies.

Times They Are A-Changin’.

Notes: First of all: I’m sorry. I owe you a post about Oslo. It might come, someday. I’m so scared to post a crappy post about an amazing trip that I haven’t posted anything at all. I regret it. Second: Rather than make that mistake twice, here’s a hasty post about leaving Craftsbury. So at least you have something long and self-pitying to read while you wait. Third: And no, just because I’m quitting ski racing doesn’t mean that Make It Someday will disappear. Like everything else in my life, it will simply change.


I am not a crier. I would say that on average, I cry perhaps two or three times a year. I’m sure that in my 23 years of life here, there have been some years when I didn’t cry at all.

But so far in 2011, I have already cried twice. I’ve used up my quota of tears, and I’m at risk of regressing to the days when I was a small child throwing fits in the grocery store.

The first time was on January 25th. It’s not like I wrote down the date; I remember it because it was the Tuesday before the Craftsbury Marathon.

For a long, long time, I had been wondering if I would keep ski racing after this season. I’d discussed it with a few of my teammates and in every conversation, I had said that I thought I would know when the time came to leave. What I meant is that my results would bad enough or good enough to guide my decision. But so far, that time hadn’t come. My results so far had been far from strong, but I’d also had very few races where I felt good. I was sure that if I felt good, I could ski faster.

But I finally realized that I didn’t want this question to dominate my season. I had to choose one way or another and get it over with. So after thinking for two days, I decided: I wasn’t going to keep on.

(So to Anders, who said he was “mad at the people who fired me”: I guess you can be mad at me. I fired myself.)

In my season and a half with the GRP up to that point, I hadn’t had a single result that had jumped out and grabbed anyone’s attention, especially not my own. I was fitter, stronger, and a better technical skier than when I graduated from Dartmouth. I trained better: longer on distance days and faster on intensity days. I was more coordinated and I had developed fast-twitch muscles for the first time in my life. But when I got in races, for whatever reason, the promise shown in training didn’t pan out. It’s something that Pepa and I have never figured out – I just should have been racing much faster than I ever did.

If I hadn’t improved with the GRP in two years, I didn’t think a third year would do the trick. Plus, I felt guilty taking up the incredible resources that this team had to offer when someone else – someone who was developing and improving – potentially had to leave skiing because they couldn’t find support for their racing career.

I toyed with applying to a different program because I was confident that I hadn’t reached my potential as a racer. But in the end, I felt that my time was up. When I became part of the GRP, I felt like I held a winning lottery ticket in my hand. I didn’t want to become addicted to gambling, so to speak; I didn’t want to be one of those racers who hangs around forever, racing to mediocrity and always hoping for the mythical result that would justify their ever-lengthening commitment to skiing.

In some ways it was like a huge weight was lifted. I could race for the rest of the season just for racing’s sake, for the fun of it all, without worrying about how my results or my FIS points would set me up for next year. I could really enjoy skiing in a way that I hadn’t before, not since high school, before the days when I put pressure on myself.

But I cried, too. I love skiing, and I love racing. Even though I had made my decision and I knew it was time to move on, it was hard to give up something that I loved so much. That’s where the tears came from, a realization that simply loving racing wasn’t enough to let me stay.

I decided to make the next eight weeks the best weeks of my life as a skier. I planned out some races I was excited about. I wasn’t going to mess around, now that these were my last chances.

That very weekend – the weekend of the Craftsbury Marathon – I competed in a mini-tour in Orford, Quebec. While I certainly wasn’t winning or setting any records, they were the best races of my career with the GRP. I felt like I was skiing well. I was “in” each race, responding to what was happening around me, attacking, making things happen. I had a ton of fun. I immediately wondered if I had made the right decision. What if every race could be like this? Wouldn’t that make it worth staying?

But I think that part of the reason I skied well was that I wasn’t worrying about anything. I didn’t change my mind – instead the races reinforced my commitment to leaving the sport.

After races in Stowe, Vermont, and then in Gatineau, Canada – both of which were fun but unspectacular, results-wise – my season veered away from its planned course.

I headed to the Midwest, where the SuperTour races I was signed up for in Madison were canceled due to political protests. After an unexpected training weekend, I raced the American Birkebeiner, which was supposed to be something for fun – I’m not a strong marathon skier – but had suddenly become the focal point of the trip.

I also got the opportunity to travel to Oslo, Norway, to help FasterSkier cover World Championships, most-expenses-paid. With few races in New England in early March, it seemed like a no-brainer to go. And it turned out to be the best trip I’ve ever been on.

But I didn’t really train while I was there. I skied, but it was the opposite of training; practically all of my skiing was in that grey zone where you are going hard, but it’s not a quality workout.

Then I came back to the U.S. and got a cold. Too many late nights, too little eating, too much drinking, and that not-training all added up to poor health.

By the time the Spring Tour rolled around – the last races of my career – I was in a bad spot, athletically. In the last month, I had done one race, which was a marathon, one set of max intervals in late February, one aborted threshold workout in which I felt terrible, and a set of thirty-second intervals to wake up.

I was not in shape to go hard. And it showed in the first two races. Yikes.

I had had this idea that I would finish my career with a bang. I think, somehow, I had believed that all the karma from anything good I had ever done as a skier would come back to me, and I would go out in a blaze of glory; maybe I’d even win a race.

Obviously, this is not how things work. Especially when you haven’t been training.

The last race of the tour was the best, in a number of ways. I just went out and skied. I caught a few girls in the pursuit, I raced as hard as I could, and I basked in the sun. Then I continued to bask in the sun during the men’s race, and during the post-race barbecue, and during the second ski that I made myself go on through the fields on Sam’s Run, and as we sat around in the yard drinking beer, our last activity as a team before Matt and I left. By that night, I had a vicious sunburn.

It was the best way I could have ended my career as a “serious” racer – even better than if I had won. On a perfect spring day, I was reminded of the best things about the ski world: camaraderie, community, and fun.

And when I left the assembled chairs, crates, and logs where my teammates were sitting in the sun, still drinking beers to celebrate a season well-done, I was sad to go pack up my few remaining belongings.

I had thought that since I had decided to leave two months ago, I would have had time to sort out these feelings. I didn’t think it would hit me all of a sudden as I left my now-empty room and carried the last box out to my car. But it did hit me, and I started crying for the second time in 2011.

Craftsbury has been my home for two years. Not since high school have I lived in a single house for as long as I lived at Elinor’s. Nor have I lived with the same people for so long, or felt as much part of a single place. For all the ups and downs, the adventures and bonfires, the frustrations and disagreements, the good races and the bad, this had been my place, where I belonged.

Saying goodbye to a place that has affected you so much is impossible, even if you’re excited about what comes next.

I kept crying as I gave my teammates hugs, wished them luck, and promised that I’d see them again. After briefly putting myself together, I cried as I drove by the Common for a last time, and then shed my final tears – perhaps for the year – as I turned off of South Craftsbury Road, onto Route 14, and towards the future.