Cate Barrett: Body Positive Olympic Hopeful
Cate Barrett is a runner, coach and young professional from Texas. She is currently training to qualify for the Olympic trials marathon, the top three finishers of which will compete in the Olympics. Her Instagram is @beingcate, where she shares her journey as a runner.
Caitlin Panarella: How did you get into running? Can you remember a moment when you went from thinking “I run” to “I’m a runner”?
Cate Barrett: I ran with my mom when I was little. I was homeschooled, so I didn’t have a formal team in high school. After high school, I ended up meeting a coach who helped me scale up my training and get a lot better- and that’s when I was finally competitive for the first time and realized I could run in college.
Getting into how I embraced the athlete identity, I had been a runner for a while, but I think it was in the middle of college. I was competing on our track team, and I’d have practice in the morning and in the afternoon sometimes. I just never got to get dressed outside of my athletic clothes because I had to rush off somewhere else. And I remember feeling annoyed about that, about not getting to feel like a normal college student. And then I said to myself, “That’s okay. You are an athlete beyond just team sports- this is you too.” So that’s when I took on that broader identity.
Caitlin: How do you see a gender bias in the sports world that women have to contend with?
Cate: The first thing I think of- I mean obviously there’s a lot that we could talk about- is the lack of female coaches in NCAA- at least in track. I think I know one team that has a head woman coach. But other than that I don’t see too many female coaches even in assistant roles. I’ve always run for male coaches, I’m still running with a male coach. It’s pretty lopsided- not that men can’t do a good job, but I don’t know why that hasn’t changed for us yet.
I don’t know how I would change the sport. From am opportunity standpoint, it would be good to see female coaches. I’ve always been interested in coaching, but from all of the coaches I’ve talked to, it’s really a grind of a schedule- your family life has to rotate around it, and you’re always traveling. That’s a job expectation whether you’re a man or a woman.
In terms of excitement, especially with running on the international level, things are incredibly exciting. The US women are doing fantastic right now- Courtney Frerichs and Shelby Houlihan just broke the American record in the steeple and the 5K in track, like one day after the other.
Wrapping back to female coaches, there are concerns in the sport that if you had more women in positions of power, more could change. One huge example is unrealistic standards of women’s bodies. I don’t know anyone who didn’t at least have some disordered thoughts. A lot of runners have the personality of wanting to do better and get faster, and it can be a performance enhancer to be lighter. It’s so dangerous and so rampant.
Caitlin: What keeps you running? What’s the draw?
Cate: I feel like I’m at a really good place right now with my training. I’m less serious about my performance now than I used to be, I’m not holding onto it as tightly as in college. It used to be all about performance and outcomes. I used to get so mad when people said you couldn’t make running your whole life.
Right now, community is really an important aspect, and that’s always been a part of it for me, but especially now being able to run now as an adult. I went to Baylor, that was my running community for five years- and you don’t really get to choose that, but as an adult there are a lot of training groups in Austin. A lot of my easy runs I can run with other people, like coworkers. I love to be able to do my own training as well as socialize with a bunch of fitness groups in Austin.
I like feeling in shape, I feel like I need to move on any given day just to be focused. Performance is still part of it as well- I just went to a race and it felt so great to put on a bib number and just go through that ritual.
Marathons are also what motivates me right now because it’s such a big undertaking. You’ve kind of only got one shot- you won’t do it again for months, maybe more. It’s almost this impossible task until you get to that day, and so what you have to do each day before that takes another small leap of faith that what you’re doing is worth it, because the outcome is unpredictable. Anything could happen.
Caitlin: You kind of answered my next question, but how have you found that running is an individual sport and/or a way to find community?
Cate: It’s great because I get to run with lots of different people. On some days I’ll run with one group, and other days with other people. Sometimes I run with my husband, other friends, coworkers. I feel more strong bonds with people I run with now; there’s more enjoyment in those relationships than I had when I was in college. When I was on that team, it was really tight-knit training with those same people every day. There could be a lot of tension training in that close-knit college environment.
I have more loose relationships with the people I train with now, and so it’s more individual in that sense, but since we have the freedom to pursue our own individual goals and have our own training time, we’re able to get along better.
I feel bad saying it, because what other time in your life are you ever going to be around twenty other women who are motivated college athletes? You would think that would be a really cool, transformative journey you could all take together, but I think it was a little too much. I think that’s why individualized goals are good for the sport.
Running is a great sport for any adult, so I feel really fortunate to be able to continue to do it. I think it’s great that it can be a little bit individualized, but you don’t have to do every run by yourself.
Caitlin: Fun question- what's your feminist fight song (for running or otherwise)?
Cate: I’ve been listening to anything by Sleigh Bells- it’s kind of grungey sounding, but other people have described it as pop. That was my pump-up before any races this spring. Also, the new Kesha album Rainbow, there’s this one song on there called “Woman,” and the chorus just goes, “I’m a motherfucking woman.”
Caitlin: It’s awesome that you promote body positivity on your platform. How did that discovery/evolution happen for you?
Cate: I feel like part of the problem is that you feel like you’re not supposed to talk about your body or complain about it. Once, I had just done a crazy training run and I took a picture afterward and looked at it and thought, “Oh I look bad.” And I feel like I’m not supposed to think that way, especially because I see even leaner runners saying the same thing and wonder how they can say that.
So I thought, okay, I am not the only person who feels this way, and I shouldn’t have to feel this way. It’s insane I feel this way after completing the hardest training run I’ve ever done.
In terms of the first time I heard about body positivity, there are a lot of fashion and lifestyle bloggers in Austin, and a lot of them wear plus-size clothing. And so reading their blogs and seeing them, I thought this is an unconventional standard of beauty, but these women are beautiful. And they look great in their clothes and makeup and everything, but what makes them look really good is how happy they are with themselves. And I thought if other women can be happy in their bodies, I can be happy with mine too. It was sort of a “if she can do it I can do it” moment.
It was amazing to me, seeing these women saying “I’m happy, I don’t want to change my body,” because I had accepted it as a given that everyone wants to change their body all the time. And so I was like, “Oh, it doesn’t actually have to be that way.”
There’s solidarity in running with female runners, because a lot of them would say in the past they always wanted to lose weight or that they felt bigger in comparison to their competition. Seeing these petite runners saying that, I thought, there’s no way that’s grounded in reality.
They’re skinny and they’re fast and they still have these thoughts about their bodies. So then I thought, the entire thing is bullshit. I had accepted that you’ll always want to change your body, but then that’s completely irrational. So that’s what fuelled me to talk about it, realizing that you can be completely healthy and still think this way.
There is a part of me that still thinks I have excess body fat, and if I didn’t I would be faster. And I hate that that’s true, because if it were any other woman I would say no, don’t worry. Just realizing that it was never going to be enough was really frustrating for me, and from there I’ve realized that it’s just not based in reality.
When other women have come out and said they feel that way about their bodies too, I feel like we can all come to a place of, “Hey I have these thoughts, I wish I didn’t have them, but this is part of a bigger problem.” You shouldn’t feel silenced. I feel like that’s an issue, that people feel like they can’t talk about it. I constantly feel like I’m saying the wrong thing, or maybe not using the right terms. But being silent about it doesn’t help. And so I think coming out and being open about it is really important.
Caitlin: We’ve all heard that running is as much a mental sport as it is physical. How do you feel maintaining your mental health are important to your physical running?
Cate: I’m a huge “maximize” person- I’m not good at saying no to cool opportunities and possibilities that come up. But on a macro scale, I work full time, I’m a part-time running coaching, I have my own running, I see friends and family, and that’s a lot already. But then on a day to day basis, if someone asks to hang out, I always want to say yes.
So for me, I have to watch it. Because even if I have the time to do everything I said I was going to do, I’ll come home and just want to lay on the couch all night. And I still have to make my lunch, and do the laundry, that sort of thing.
And so I have to remind myself not to say yes to everything that comes up. Because otherwise I’ll just burn out, and then I won’t be able to do any of the things I said I was going to do. My husband has more introvert tendencies than me, so he actually carves out time at home where he has nothing planned. This weekend, I told him we should recreate his weekends before he met me- waking up, running, going to brunch, and then laying in bed all day Saturday.
Also as an adult- you know, running used to take up more mental energy, but now it’s the best part of my day. I don’t have to put as much into mentally preparing for running; it’s more like the running recharges me in other areas.
Caitlin: Running as a sport lends itself to focusing on numbers- miles, splits, PRs, etc. How do you balance that aspect of having goals without letting it take over everything?
Cate: I think being focused on the marathon right now is really key for me enjoying what I’m doing. I did the 5K and the 1500 with a team in college. But I’m not as fast as I was in college- I still don’t know why I can’t, despite trying just as hard. And so moving up to a different distance is the only way to stay sane with that.
So now I think that if I can’t run a mile as fast as I did in college, that just has to be okay. As a runner, you’re always thinking you can achieve more- even if you PR you think you had more in the tank. Part of how I dealt with that, is that instead of telling myself I missed all these chances, I decided I’m going to write a revisionist history of my running in college. And it’s going to be that I ran so well, and to the best of my abilities, and that’s why it’s been so hard to follow up on that. And so moving up to training for a marathon is really helpful.
Also since it’s so hot in Austin, you can’t train at full speed or you’ll probably faint. So you train during the summer never really knowing where you’re at, and you just have to accept it. You can’t run a practice 26-mile run, so the whole thing is an enigma.
Caitlin: What is some advice you have for runners- and everyone- about finding healthy self-image and keeping themselves grounded?
Cate: The biggest thing for me is that I was afraid if I was slower I wouldn't enjoy it as much. But if it’s something you love, you’re going to find a way to keep doing it your whole life. It’s always going to be your sport, and nobody can take that away from you. I saw so many women quit running during college because all the fun got sucked out of it. Running can always be something you get back into and do for you, and it should be something you do for you; that’s the only way it’s going to last. It’s always going to be something beautiful, even if it wasn’t at your fastest time ever.
Author: Caitlin Panarella
Caitlin Panarella is a writer, reader and grammar enthusiast, and is currently studying English and Women and Gender Studies at Georgetown University. After watching Miss Representation in high school, she developed a passion for analyzing media and literature portrayals of gender. When she’s not planning out trips around the world, you can find her running her favorite routes all over D.C., sipping tea while reading a book, or (re)watching Stranger Things. She’s thrilled to be a part of the Make Muse team and support women telling their own stories!