ome call it a midlife crisis, when the desire to change your life is so strong it compels you to step out of your comfort zone and forge a new path in a new direction. Cami Ostman’s inspiring story redefines that old paradigm with a positive spin. It’s not a crisis; it’s an adventure.
Cami is a licensed marriage and family therapist with publications in her field. She currently runs between twenty and forty miles each week as part of her own commitment to fitness and self-discovery. Her memoir, Second Wind: One Woman’s Midlife Quest to Run Seven Marathons on Seven Continents, has been featured in national and international publications. She completed her seventh continental marathon by running in Antarctica in March 2010. Cami lives in Bellingham, Washington with her husband, Bill, and her cat, one lizard, and two dogs.
Cami’s journey is a gentle reminder that no matter what goal you set for yourself, if you make a commitment to follow through and stay open to self-discovery along the way, you can create the authentic life of your dreams.
WOW: What was your life like before your midlife desire to make a change?
Cami: I was in graduate school immediately before my divorce. Before that, I’d felt for years that I was in the wrong life—sort of living someone else’s version of who I was supposed to be—but I didn’t know what to do about it. I was very committed to a strict religious perspective that didn’t give me much wiggle room. I guess I needed to hit a point of being totally overwhelmed before I could take a chance and jump out of that life.
WOW: When you decided to change your life from swimming in a pool of religious restrictions to swimming in an ocean with a horizon of possibilities, you said you wanted to lie on your back and float, allow life to offer you gifts, learn acceptance, and how to say yes instead of no. What point or motivating factor in your life/marriage prompted this complete 180?
Cami: I had been in a master’s degree program studying marriage and family therapy. The school I was attending was a religiously-affiliated institution, but our instructors were ideologically diverse and willing to challenge taken-for-granted ideas about God and “right” and “wrong.” They had asked us to really think about our paradigms, so I had been evaluating my beliefs and choices for a couple of years before I made my decision to leave my first marriage. And still, after I graduated, there was no clear path for me to get out of my life because divorce was never something I was willing to consider. I’d grown up in a divorced family and had judged my parents pretty harshly for not being able to figure out their marriage.
Then one day, the light bulb went on. Maybe I should say that the tidal wave I’d been holding back for more than a decade came crashing in. That’s a better metaphor, I think.
I remember the moment really clearly. I was standing in front of my bookshelf looking at all these books I’d poured over for years and years—always looking for an answer to the question of what I should be doing with my life. Suddenly, I realized that most of those Christian self-help books were only telling me who I should or shouldn’t be and that was absurd. It was absurd that other people should be telling me who God wanted me to be. The thought popped into my head, “I don’t want to be in this marriage and I don’t want to be who this marriage thinks I am.”
That evening, I got out my journal and started figuring out how to make a change.
WOW: After your divorce, your friend, Bill, suggested you take up running to “clear your mind and get in touch with your feelings.” What were your expectations going into the venture?
Cami: I had run before in my life, so I had a pretty clear expectation that I would feel physically tired, especially because of how low my general energy was at that time in my life. What I didn’t expect was how the focus on my body would give me relief from my emotional distress. This is still true for me, by the way. When my anxiety is high, it’s often difficult for me to feel motivated to get out and run. When I get up and do it anyway, my mind finds a new “path” too—out of the anxiousness I’ve been carrying.
“Strive for excellence (never perfection) and be kind to yourself when you don’t achieve it because there is always another chance.”
(Photo: Cami and Bill)
WOW: When you hit a plateau with your initial running training, you realized you were still rooted in a rigid concept of success and failure. How did you move past it and what suggestions can you offer to women who are experiencing similar feelings with their writing endeavors?
Cami: We have loads of “shoulds” piled on us, don’t we? And they aren’t all bad or oppressive, really. I mean, I like that most people feel they shouldn’t hurt other people or drive through red lights. As women, though, we have constant messages coming in about how we are supposed to look, talk, behave, think, exercise, eat... The list goes on.
In that first training plateau, I had a huge panic attack right there on the trail with Bill looking at me baffled and worried. I thought I was having a heart attack, actually, because the pain was so physical and real. I realize now that the panic was part of a grieving process. When you decide not to be what someone (or some set of values) asks you to be, you’ll have to grieve about that. Guess what, you’re not going to be perfect—not ever, not even mostly! You are just a person like everyone else who is pretending/trying to be perfect.
So the crazy thing about grieving this addiction to perfection and letting it go is that you will (very ironically) have more energy to do what you love.
I want to be clear here that I believe there is a huge difference between perfection and excellence. I’m a very slow runner, but I really try to give every race my whole heart—and not one iota more than that! Your whole heart spent on the things you love is enough. But here’s something else I learned: Sometimes less than your whole heart is enough, too. Sometimes you’re hurting or tired or angry or spending your energy on a sick child. In that case, spending only half your heart on an endeavor is plenty.
My encouragement to creative women is to put in the time at whatever level they are able. Strive for excellence (never perfection) and be kind to yourself when you don’t achieve it because there is always another chance.
WOW: As women, we are often prone to falling into the perfectionism trap: striving to be the perfect wife, perfect daughter, perfect writer... When you decided you didn’t want that for your life anymore, how did letting go of that expectation affect you?
Cami: I had to grieve. And when I say “grieve,” I mean that I spent over a year crying over my failure to be the right kind of wife to my ex-husband, the right kind of Christian, the right kind of employee at my job. Perfectionism was hard for me to let go of at first. It’s a very powerful force!
I was, and still am sometimes, a little confused about how good is good enough with regard to my running or writing or my relationships. Here’s how I handle that confusion: When I start to feel crappy about myself, I take that as a signal that I’m trying to live up to someone else’s standard. I have a little talk with myself (I do this in writing, by the way) and try to get in touch with that authentic, creative, self-caring part of me who loves me and wants me to be happy and accomplished at the same time. That authentic part is not critical. She’s smart. She knows that everything from nurturing relationships to writing a book is a process, usually a messy one at that. And she is not at all daunted by or frightened of that mess.
“When I start to feel crappy about myself, I take that as a signal that I’m trying to live up to someone else’s standard.”
(Photo: Cami in Rio)
WOW: By the time you finished your first marathon in Prague on your 7/7 quest, you had learned to accept your "Inner Wisdom" and "Inner Bitch" and let them run together. By the time you reached Australia, they were wrestling in your mind. How did you find a balance?
Cami: It’s a good question, and I have to be honest and admit they aren’t always balanced even now. I have figured out, however, that when one voice in my head is taking up a lot of time and space, the best thing I can do is listen. Time and listening seem to bring me back into balance eventually. When I try to ignore the Bitch, for example, she just gets louder and more obnoxious. If I let her have her say, she quiets down and lets me get back to business.
WOW: You found marathon running helped you learn how to live in the moment. As a therapist, what advice do you have for non-runners about ways to find that same grounding?
Cami: I’m doing a new workshop these days called “Catching Your Own Second Wind,” and the first step I teach is how to anchor yourself in kind and loving thoughts toward the self. You don’t have to run to learn to live in the moment. I happen to think running is a great way to practice it because if you run one mile in one direction you have to run the same mile back in order to be done. There’s no way to rush this process, no TV to turn on, no way to even comfortably talk on the phone to distract yourself from this present moment.
That said, the Buddhists have long taught how to focus on the breath, to feel the air come in and go out of your body. You don’t have to run to breathe. When I get anxious and am unable to get out for a run, I take a few deep breaths and say, “May I be at peace. May I be free from suffering. May I be healed. May my heart be full of joy.” It’s just a self-loving wish that makes me feel grounded. Anyone can try it.
WOW: At one point in your story, while preparing for the Panama race, your body image began to change. How did that process liberate you from your previous concept of yourself?
Cami: Oh my goodness! Like so many women I know, I have spent my life looking at my stomach in the mirror sideways and wishing it were flatter. Now, I’m not saying I never do that anymore, but I will say that this body does everything I need it to do, and I’m just not willing any longer to hate it for being womanly. Since that shift in perspective that you’re referring to (which happened before and then during the Panama race as my monthly flow gushed into the public eye), I refuse to let my bulges or jiggles bother me for more than a few minutes every day. So what if I overflow the top of my low-rise jeans! Do I lose points for that somehow? No. I wish every woman loved her body. We would be utterly unstoppable if we all loved our bodies!
WOW: Your memoir, Second Wind: One Woman’s Midlife Quest to Run Seven Marathons on Seven Continents, is such an inspiring story of self-discovery. On your trek around the world, what were some of the most inspiring things you saw?
Cami: I love this question. No one has asked it before. Here are some of my top inspirations from around the world:
- Whales off the coast of Australia
- Penguins on three continents
- Collins Glacier on King George Island, Antarctica
- The Cristo statue in Brazil
- The faces of Bill’s Brazilian exchange family when they were reunited with him for the first time after forty years of being separated
- Nelson Mandela’s jail cell on Robben Island, South Africa
- The sun coming up as I sat on top of Mount Fuji, Japan
We actually experienced so many moments of awe on our quest, there’s no way I could name them all. This world we live in is interesting beyond words, and I’m grateful to have seen so much of it. I look forward to seeing more in the years to come.
WOW: What (or who) inspired you to write Second Wind about your 7/7 midlife quest? Had you ever considered writing a book before this adventure?
Cami: I’ve been a writer all of my life. I’ve journaled to record and work through my feelings; I’ve written short fiction to tell stories that were rattling around in my head; I’ve contributed to professional publications; and I’ve written what seems like an infinite number of academic papers. Writing a book was always a dream of mine. Of course, I had no idea I’d be writing about running. I always imagined the first book I published would be a novel, but writing about the seven-continent journey came easy. I started writing the book in a memoir-writing class I was taking with novelist, Laura Kalpakian, and then I connected with Brooke Warner from Seal Press. Seven marathons on seven continents was a good structure, and I had an amazing support system at Seal Press.
Even though I’d have to say my original inspirations are all of the amazing books I’ve read in my lifetime, once I got started on my writing, I was mainly inspired by my extended support system. One piece of advice I give in my workshop is that you have to tell everyone what you’re doing so that they ask you about it constantly. Every day at Starbucks, the baristas and other regular customers asked me, “How’s the writing coming?” Or, “What chapter are you on?” There’s no way you’re going to stop writing if everyone is counting on you.
“You need two or three people who, even if they think what you’re doing is crazy, will support you and cheer you on.”
(Photo: Cami with glacier ice, Antarctica)
WOW: Every author has a unique publishing journey. What was your experience through the stages from writing to pitching to published?
Cami: As I said, I started writing in a community-based memoir class. The class held me accountable to produce pages, and they gave me feedback. Then I pitched the idea to Brooke from Seal Press at a writer’s conference in the Spring of 2008. She liked the idea but encouraged me to keep refining my themes and also to start blogging.
I loved blogging because it gave me the chance to hear immediate feedback from readers. I learned what people were interested in with regard to the journey I was on. Runners and non-runners were drawn to different aspects of the story, and I took note of this.
By the time I had three solid, well-edited chapters, Seal Press said they were interested in buying the book, but I had to put together my proposal first. I think it’s a little unusual to have interest before you have a proposal. I credit the writing conference where I met Brooke for this. And I’m a big fan of writer’s conferences for this reason. You may build a relationship with someone who becomes a big part of your support team.
Next, I decided I wanted to find an agent and go through the whole shopping-the-book process as if I didn’t have a publisher interested already because I really wanted to understand the industry better. My agent, Pamela Malpas, is a treasure. She has painstakingly explained every line of my contract, enlightened me on the different kinds of “rights” involved in selling a book, and cheered me on in every regard. Personally, I think having an agent in your corner is important. Writing is such a solitary experience that for me it’s been nice to have good company in the publishing process.
In the end, I decided I really did want to work with Seal and with Brooke. One day, while Pamela was sending the book out to publishers, I was out running, and I had the thought, “What if this is the only book I ever publish? I want to work with people I like and trust.” So we didn’t shop the book for very long because I made my decision early in the process.
I signed my contract just after I ran the Whidbey Island Marathon, I think. And then the work started.
WOW: What authors/books have been inspiring/helpful for you along your life-changing journey?
Cami: I love The Dance of the Dissident Daughter by Sue Monk Kidd. Also important to me is Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, and a terrific book called Legacy of the Heart by Wayne Muller. There are also, of course, a number of novels that have opened my eyes and heart.
They include (but certainly are not limited to) anything by Barbara Kingsolver, A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving, and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.
WOW: As an extension of your psychotherapy practice and your experiences on your 7/7 quest, you’ve developed workshops and retreats to help other women through major life transitions. What are some of the principles and practices you are passing on?
Cami: “Catching Your Own Second Wind” is my workshop, breaking down my journey so the steps (there are seven, naturally) are accessible to others as they transition from one place (role/version of themselves) to another. As I mentioned, my first step is to open yourself to creative possibilities through being grounded in love and kindness to the self. Some of the other steps include clarifying a vision for your life and personhood, dealing with roadblocks and problems along the way, fostering both support and accountability, and celebrating every small movement or victory. I walk people through a number of activities in a full-day workshop. I just completed the first one in December and it was a very positive, inspiring day.
Upcoming workshops will be listed on my therapy website: www.camiostman.net and on the book’s website: www.7marathons7continents.com.
“In order to take that crazy next step and do something extraordinary, you have to be able to visualize it first.”
WOW: Now that you’ve fulfilled such a monumental goal, have you added more to your “Bucket List”? What’s next for Cami Ostman? More marathons? Another book? Or a new adventure?
Cami: Yes. More marathons, of course. I’m working on running one in every U.S. state right now (five down and forty-five to go). That’s fun. But I’m also doing some more writing. I have a couple of novels in progress and also a children’s book idea I’ll begin working on this year.
WOW: What final words of wisdom can you share with our readers about taking their first step outside of their comfort zone and onto a path to self-discovery?
Cami: Well, I love that WOW readers have this community to rely on because I think community is key to doing something outside of your comfort zone. You need two or three people who, even if they think what you’re doing is crazy, will support you and cheer you on. So my best wisdom is that fostering your community is a great investment. Put your heart and soul into it.
Then, as you’re building your community, get really clear about the next step in your quest. Close your eyes and imagine you’re walking down a long hallway with a closed door at the end. Approach that door in your mind’s eye, take a deep breath and then open it. What do you see? What do you hear and smell? There are clues behind that door as to what the next step on your quest will be. Believe your imagination because it’s you! In order to take that crazy next step and do something extraordinary, you have to be able to visualize it first.
WOW: Thank you, Cami, for sharing your inspiring story. It proves that stepping out of one’s comfort zone and committing to a goal can lead to a wonderful new life.
For more information about Cami and to keep an eye out for her upcoming signings and workshops, visit www.camiostman.net and www.7marathons7continents.com.
Annette Fix is the author of The Break-Up Diet: A Memoir. She speaks at national writer's conferences and hosts online and in-person workshops: “Online Author and Book Promotion,” “How to Get the Right Agent for Your Manuscript,” and “Memoir 101: Drawing from Your Life to Create Your Story.”
Annette blogs about writing and book marketing at www.annettefix.com. She is the former senior editor of WOW! Women On Writing.
Enjoyed this interview? Check out some of Annette’s other interviews on WOW!:
Blog: From Start to Sold with Deb Ng
The Creative Life with Julia Cameron
The Happiness Project: 20 Questions with Gretchen Rubin
The Truth About Writing Memoir: 20 Questions with Judith Barrington
Secrets for Your Success: An Interview with Literary Agent Wendy Sherman
Time to Write: An Interview with Kelly L. Stone
skirt! Rules for the Workplace with Kelly Love Johnson
Storytelling in a Reader’s Theater with Wendy Kamenoff
The Voice of Comedy: 20 Questions with Lori Alan
Humor in the 10 Items or Less Lane: An Interview with Hillary Carlip
Book Groups Unite!: An Interview with Book Group Expo Founder Ann Kent
Give Children Their First Book: An Interview with Kyle Zimmer