Two Questions

by Ilona Barash 18

During my phone interview to be an Athleta sponsored athlete this year, I was asked two questions that I wish I could answer again, more coherently. I’m perpetually a mess on the phone, and am much more comfortable one-on-one, in person. So I’d like to take advantage of my first blog post for Athleta to answer those two questions more completely.

Drum roll please… the questions were, “What made you decide to apply for the sponsorship this year specifically?” and “What is your typical day like?”

I think that although these questions on the surface appear simple and unrelated, they are actually intimately intertwined, and both get to the heart of what the role of being an active, fit person, plays in my life. To wit: I did not really think of myself as an athlete until about halfway through an amazing year (2011-12) I took with my husband devoting a year to climbing, after finishing my residency in Emergency Medicine. I grew up active, but not participating in official sports. I rode horses, hiked, and backpacked, but certainly never did anything specifically for exercise or fitness.

Ilona and her husband, Yoav, on the summit of Torre Norte del Paine, Chile.
Ilona and her husband, Yoav, on the summit of Torre Norte del Paine, Chile

My running started abruptly at age 16 when my dad and I decided that it would be fun to hire a guide and climb Mt Rainier, which dominates the sky in the Seattle area, and as someone who considered herself a mountain girl, was a must-do. I had already completed two years of college at the University of Washington at that point, and was otherwise healthy and energetic, but did not do any specific physical activity or aerobic training. The first day went fine, and approaching up to camp Muir where we would spend the night was also without problems. On summit day, however, I crashed. We were with a big group, and I simply couldn’t keep up. A few hours into it, the guides came over and talked to me and my dad, and we all agreed that I was going too slowly to continue safely. One guide went back to camp with me, while my dad continued with the rest of the group to the summit. After getting home and drying my tears of frustration, I started running the next day. I remember the elation of being able to run a mile without stopping soon thereafter, and then two, then three, then it became a morning habit before going to class, rain or shine, often in the dark. I was going to take that stupid failure and turn it on its head.

Since then, running has been a regular for me. I’m not naturally athletic or fast, and have to work my butt off to make any progress in speed. I am stubborn, however, allowing me to log long miles and many hours on the road, as running serves as my meditation and chance to be alone with my thoughts and no distractions. It also clears my head, allows me to focus for the rest of the day, and feel justified eating chocolate. I found through medical and graduate school that the times in which I couldn’t quite force myself out of bed soon enough to go for a run before a big exam or commitment, I invariably did worse on the test and was grumpy for the rest of the day. My husband knows that if I’m having one of those bad days, he needs to kick me out of the house for even a short 30 minute opportunity to “stretch my legs and move around a bit,” as we like to joke, and I come back refreshed with a new attitude.

Soon after I started running, I started climbing, and my climbing trajectory has been similar to running – that is, SLOW. It took me forever to gain a basic proficiency, as I was generally uncoordinated and weak, even though I loved it from the beginning. I stayed away from bouldering and sport climbing, which to me always seemed to require more raw strength and skill then I possessed, and gravitated towards traditional long alpine rock climbs which required more technical proficiency with fiddly gear, and the ability to sustain long suffer-fests in austere, gorgeous environments in the middle of nowhere. During my climbing year, after I stood on top of Torre Norte del Paine in Chile I think I finally realized for the first time that my accomplishments in athletics were real, significant, and fairly rare, and maybe I did stand a chance of measuring up to all those beautiful, strong, women I saw sponsored at Athleta. So I applied, and here I am, and I’m thrilled. I still don’t see myself as an athlete per se, but maybe that’s part of the game.

Ilona leading high up on the regular northwest face of Half Dome, Yosemite.
Ilona leading high up on the regular northwest face of Half Dome, Yosemite

As far as my daily life goes – it’s all over the place. I’m currently a Sports Medicine fellow, so there are days in which I get up and go for a run, spend the day in clinic and/or didactics, then go to the climbing gym. There are other days in which I’ll go for a long run, take a nap, then work all night in the Emergency Department before heading home around 8am for some more sleep. Occasionally, I’ll get a weekend off – in which case my husband and I say goodbye to our incredible cats and go climbing, in Joshua Tree, Red Rocks, or Yosemite. Regardless of the day, I’ll try to do a few things active – be it spend some time in the climbing gym, or go for a run. That way, whether I’m in clinic taking care of the high-school athlete with an eating disorder, the runner with knee pain, the basketball player with a concussion, the elderly gentleman who can’t move his shoulder, or in the Emergency Department taking care of the woman having a heart attack, the 21 year old who had a bit too much to drink on his birthday, the child with asthma attack, the family that was in a car accident, and the pregnant woman with abdominal pain, I can be sharp, attentive, compassionate, AND a good role model for my patients, colleagues, and staff, with a well-rounded, healthy lifestyle.

My basic plan (and I may deviate from this as times goes on) for my blog this year is to talk about some medical issues that female athletes face, using my personal experiences as a general guide. Do you have any specific issues you’d like to hear about or any questions you’d like to see addressed? If so, let me know in the comments below!

Ilona Barash is a physician, climber, and runner living in San Diego, California whose life has been a balancing act between athletics and academics. She climbed El Capitan in Yosemite and did first ascents of alpine climbs north of the Arctic Circle in Alaska while earning a PhD in muscle physiology… more »