[Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from the soon-to-be-published book Daughters of Distance, written by Vanessa Runs about endurance running from a female perspective. The book will be available for purchase around the end of March. Be sure to read all the way through because we’re giving away a copy of the book!]
My epiphany came in the mountains of Colorado, right in the heart of the White River and San Isabel National Forests. I was halfway through a six-day stage race called TransRockies that would run us from Buena Vista, Colorado to Beaver Creek: 120 miles and 20,000 feet of elevation gain in six days. That week I climbed a vertical personal record, reaching altitudes of more than 12,500 feet. I felt amazing.
I was standing at the top of a long climb waiting for my husband Shacky to catch up when I realized: I was getting stronger (not weaker) as the days progressed. The elevation, the terrain, and the climbs were no longer obstacles that I had to overcome, but a jungle gym I was lucky to play through. I was no less an extension of the wilderness than a weathered Douglas fir or a soaring red-tailed hawk. The memories of my office cubicle were a past life, a pre-existence before my actual trail-birth that day.
Essentially, I took up ultrarunning as an excuse to be in the wilderness. Fewer people question your sanity when you say you’re “training” for hours on end instead of admitting what you’re actually doing: frolicking like a child ignoring her dinner call.
In nature, I feel more alive. Whether surrounded by friends or alone, I am most at peace with myself in the mountains. Although the same has historically been true for males, the wild woman archetype is a concept worth exploring.
Parallels between woman and nature are everywhere. Both are traditionally associated with purity, simplicity, beauty and grace. A female’s seasons and cycles can be linked to the earth’s own recurring seasons and lunar cycles. Both nature and women have the power to grow life.
In researching this chapter, I learned about eco-feminism. This concept supports a historical connection between women and nature, and compares the exploitation of women with that of the environment. Further connections are drawn between cycles like menstruation and the moon, childbirth and creation.
Eco-feminism has been criticized for being too mythical and not practical enough to be of help to women, or for ignoring the fact that nature consists of both masculine and feminine qualities. Others say it does nothing to improve women’s pay equity or power. Still, the wild woman is a concept that howls truth to me.
In her book, Women Who Run With Wolves, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola draws further parallels between women and nature. Both share:
- Keen sensing
- Playful spirits
- A heightened capacity for devotion
- Relational tendencies
- Inquiring spirits
- Great endurance and strength
- Territorial awareness
- Inventive ideas
Is it a coincidence that so many natural geographical features are personified as female? We feminize mountains, lakes, streams, rivers, trees and forests. Mother Nature herself is considered female, ruling with power and maternal care.
The linking of female deities to the outdoors is also pervasive between cultures and faiths. Kuhu, Sinivali, Anumati and Raka are lunar divinities symbolizing the waxing and waning of the lunar cycle. Persephone is associated with spring and vegetation. Vanadevis is the forest goddess and Usas is the mistress of dawn. The list goes on.
The goddess Artemis particularly intrigued me. Ruler of wilderness and wild animals, as well as protector of young girls, Artemis was herself chaste after asking her father Zeus to grant her the gift of eternal virginity at the age of three. Artemis was athletic and adventurous. She preferred solitude and concerned herself with environmental protection. However, that didn’t stop gods and men from taking notice of her. Artemis was known for her swift revenge on anyone who would try to dishonor her.
One story claims that Artemis killed Orion after he tried to rape her, turning him into the constellation he is today. It is said she didn’t need a man to complete her, but would enjoy a companion with whom she could share a “deep, intuitive connection with minimal chatter.”
The busier and more modern we become, the stronger our pull to the wilderness. In 1998, the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) started an outreach program called Women in the Outdoors, with the goal of helping women “learn more about interactive outdoor activities through hands-on education and expert-driven instruction.” The NWTF expected some interest, but nothing close to what it received. In the first year, 3,000 women signed on. By the second year, more than 10,000 women were lining up to get outside. The call of the wild is a hard one to ignore.
Even when the conversation topic has nothing to do with nature, we instinctively link womanhood to the earth. “Is femininity important to you?” I ask ultrarunner Sarah Johnson in an email. A short time later, I receive her reply: “That’s like asking if the sun is important to the earth.”
Nahoko Iwata is a shy Japanese ultrarunner who draws her inspiration directly from nature. “Sorry, I don’t have good answers,” she apologizes sheepishly when I question her about being a woman. Nahoko doesn’t debate about gender roles or expectations. Her femininity is a simple kind of grace, rooted directly to the earth. “I want to be beautiful and strong like butterflies and flowers in the wild nature,” she tells me.
Her simple answer humbles me and I can’t help but wonder: why all this debate about feminine versus masculine, girly versus tomboy? Why can’t we just be who we are and accept that there may not be a category for us? Or that maybe the real categories are not male or female, but rather ocean or mountain, soil or sand.
Dr. Clarissa Pinkola writes of La Loba (The She-Wolf), a woman deeply in tune with her innate, wild nature. La Loba is “circumspect, often hairy, always fat, and especially wishes to evade most company. She is both a crower and a cackler, generally having more animal sounds than human ones.”
La Loba lives among the rotten granite slopes in Tarahumara Indian territory and her job is to collect bones. Over mountains and along dry riverbeds she searches and searches, until she has pieced together a full wolf skeleton. She then sits by the fire and thinks about what song to sing. When she is certain she has the right song, she stands over the dry bones and raises her voice.
The bones begin to flesh out and grow fur. La Loba sings some more and the creature begins to breathe. Finally, she sings so deeply that the desert floor shakes and the wild animal leaps up and runs down the canyon.
As Clarissa tells it, “somewhere in its running, whether by the speed of its running or by splashing its way into a river, or by way of a ray of sunlight or moonlight hitting it right in the side, the wolf is suddenly transformed into a laughing woman who runs free toward the horizon.”
All women begin as a bundle of bones lost somewhere in the desert. A few of us—the lucky ones—will live to howl the songs of our souls from the depths of our wild, wild hearts.
What does any of this have to do with endurance? Here I will draw on the wise words of the late and legendary endurance runner Caballo Blanco (Micah True): “When you run on the earth and with the earth, you can run forever.”
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- Do you see feminine qualities in nature? Can you describe what you have observed?
- In contrast, does nature ever take on a masculine tone? If so, what are the circumstances in which you’ve seen this?
- For female readers, do you ever feel connected to nature via your femininity? How and when has that happened?
[Editor’s Note: The contest is now closed. Thanks for entering!]