Two Questions

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!


February 01, 2013 at 4:26 pm

Eloquent, and I love your “second take” on the questions. I know well the feeling of stumbling through a phone conversation like that. But I’m sure you did much better than you thought. You’re here now, aren’t you?

In reference to female medical questions, I had one about ACL injuries. I snapped my ACL skiing about 10 years ago (and haven’t been on a pair of skis since, thank-you-very-much. Too afraid of damaging the other and having to go through 6 months of surgery and rehab again), but I’ve heard that women tend to have this injury more often than men. Is that true? And is there anything we can do to help prevent that?


February 01, 2013 at 7:48 pm

Haha! I got caught up on the same questions! My typical day question ended up discussing my excitement about cooking the huge butternut squash I had sitting in my kitchen. And the other one I know I got tangled up in myself, and the response from them was, “wow”. I thought to myself “wow is right, you dummy”. I guess we can all underestimate ourselves sometimes. :)) Loved your story. Mahalo for sharing! – K

Teri Larson Jones

February 02, 2013 at 5:44 am

When I hung up the phone after my interview I had a lot of the same feelings! Should’ve said….could’ve said… did I even make sense??? Thank you for sharing! I also love your idea for how you’ll use your blog this year. It’s brilliant! I wish I’d known you last year….I had tons of shoulder questions! ( ; I really look forward to following your blog this year!

Ashley C

February 02, 2013 at 8:18 am

How inspiring, thank you. I am also slow at running, but find when I dedicate the time and effort to it, the gains I see are awesome 🙂 Thanks for sharing.


February 02, 2013 at 8:54 am

Thanks All!
Elaine – I’ll definitely do a post on ACL’s, and maybe female knees in general. Women are at higher risk of ACL injury, and some other common knee problems. There are some things to do about it… great topic choice.

Teri – maybe I’ll try to do one on shoulders too. I know you had a bunch of issues, glad you’re doing better now.

I think everyone probably has some second thoughts after an interview – but its good to hear I’m not alone!


February 02, 2013 at 10:27 am

Great post! & I too would love for you to talk about knees :)!

Mary Kennedy Eastham

February 02, 2013 at 10:28 am

My question to you is how best to stay injury free as we age and still run.
I do sprints with my Golden Retrievers rather than the long runs of my
20’s and 30’s and I take a supplement that big wave surfer, a much battered
man (!) suggested taking called Join Solution Extra by Vital Health.
They suggest 2 pill twice a day. I usually only get around to taking two.
Anyway, would love your thoughts.

Congrats on getting this award. Looking forward to more posts!

Mary Kennedy Eastham, Author
The Shadow of a Dog I Can’t Forget &
Squinting Over Water – Stories


February 02, 2013 at 10:58 am

Such a great reminder that Athletes don’t need to have been on a sports team in school.

Peggy Pulliam

February 02, 2013 at 12:50 pm

Great post…I was chubby as teenager & wasn’t into team sports. However, I made sure my only daughter (now 22) played sports & anything she was interested in I got her coaching. She graduates May 10 fr UGA & AFROTC and is the first female to have been awarded a pilot spot in 5 years. Luckliy, she was an athlete and loved playing all sports. I found my niche about 25 years ago with walking & some jogging. I found my passion over a year ago on a yoga mat. Unfortunately, I had a freak fall on my shoulder during a workshop and developed bone spur. I continued to do yoga 6 to 8 times a week and Thus I will have rot. cuff surgery. I am trying to stay positive because I am retired fr phone company and want to do teach yoga part time. I hear the surgery & rehab long & to see article on shoulders, Namaste

Kathy Baum

February 03, 2013 at 8:27 am

Thanks for your post. I really like the idea of talking about female sports injuries, as injury research generally comes up very gender-neutral, and as we know female and male bodies are very different. I would like to hear about torn hip labrums and impingements, an issue I am currently battling and trying to determine if a surgical solution is the only way.


February 03, 2013 at 4:06 pm

OK –
Thanks for all the input –
Kathy – if you have true impingement and/or a torn hip labrum and have failed a trial of physical therapy, you’re best bet may well be surgery, with a surgeon who specializes in this difficult issue. Sometimes an injection of lidocaine into the joint can help determine whether surgery will be helpful or whether there is a different issue going on – you might want to talk to your surgeon or sports medicine doc about trying that if your struggling with your diagnosis.
Peggy – Good luck with the shoulder surgery! The good news is that these tend to go quite well, and if you stick with the rehab afterward you will likely do fine.
so we’ve got: Knees, Shoulders, Hips, general health as we age/supplements.
Any other specifics people would like to hear about? eating disorders? head injury/concussion? pregnancy? altitude medicine?


February 03, 2013 at 11:53 pm

I think piriformis issues are one of the most neglected topics for women athletes.

As a martial artist I see so many women needing to build more hip, groin and buttock strength, stability and flexibility before progressing to intermediate and advanced techniques. This is especially true for those of us who’ve given birth. Just about every one of us has developed problems with our piriformis- including sciatic nerve pain not related to disks, tightening of quads, and weakness.

A review of these issues and recommended strengthening and stretching strategies would be helpful to a huge range of female athletes. Also, it may be important to acknowledge that women who have experienced sexual abuse or trauma related to pregnancy may have an emotional component to consider. These emotional triggers, in my experience, can create a habit of tension or “guarding” that add an emotional layer to the work we need to do.

For me, yoga has been healing, and martial arts are empowering. But I really need to learn more and get better at caring for this lower core area. Thank you!


February 05, 2013 at 5:28 am

Kathy- I was 40 when I was diagnosed with osteoarthritis in my hip joints. It took 5 years -I went to every type of Doc. So an xray could help rule that in/out for you. In 2010 I had a hip replacement, and about 6 months later, started weight training. Now I consider myself an athlete!
I also would love to see more about knees. I have knock-knees, and a recent trip to my orthopedic surgeon showed my knee caps are riding way laterally. It’s painful. I’d love to hear more about strengthening knees, especially for over 40 women. Thanks for your post and I look forward to following you.


February 05, 2013 at 5:28 am

I also would love to see more about knees. I have knock-knees, and a recent trip to my orthopedic surgeon showed my knee caps are riding way laterally. It’s painful. I’d love to hear more about strengthening knees, especially for over 40 women. Thanks for your post and I look forward to following you.

Renee Ward

February 09, 2013 at 11:09 am

I really loved this post. It is honest and brings to the table many things women can connect with, right? Plus, it was beautifully written.


February 12, 2013 at 1:40 pm

Thanks for all the great comments and ideas!
Stay tuned for more … 🙂

McKaila Allcorn

March 27, 2013 at 10:10 am

Ilona –
I have an unrelated question. I too am an ED physician and am interested in getting into climbing. Do you feel like you struggle from fear due to all the accidents you see? I feel like this holds me back. And I know they are uncommon if you are practicing safely, but I can’t shake them to enjoy the sports (including skiing, snow-mobiling, rafting, etc.) How do you conquer it?



March 28, 2013 at 6:45 pm

Hi McKaila –
Great question! I guess I never really viewed climbing, skiing etc as all that more dangerous then my daily car commute. I am not super brave, in fact I’m frequently terrified while climbing, but maybe because I started climbing long before becoming a doctor, I don’t find the worst-case scenarios going through by head most of the time. Its more of a visceral fear when I get it.

I also strongly believe, and my experience as an ED doc confirms this, that bad things can happen to anyone, at any time, without any warning. If I spent my time worrying about this, I’d be paralyzed and never leave the house. Perhaps my comfort with evaluation, stabilization, and treatment of major injury or illness gives me a certain relaxed attitude towards potentially dangerous situations – in fact I probably bring less of a first aid kit then most people when I’m out in the wilderness, as most problems are either going to be so serious that it doesn’t matter what you have in your kit, or will be just fine with some duct tape and ingenuity until it can be cleaned up later.

I’m not sure if that answers your question – but I would encourage you to get out and try to enjoy yourself!

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