“I’m right there. Struggling. Fighting.”
Silvia Ruegger points to the young woman on her laptop’s open screen. She is running in film footage shot more than thirty years ago, in the heat of a historic race unfolding: the first women’s Olympic marathon, contested in Los Angeles, August 5, 1984. The light in the footage is blunt and bright, harsh against the pavement. The young woman from Canada has a muscular determined stride, her face streaming with sweat as she fights to stay even with the leaders.
It is a September evening in 2014, and I am in a Starbucks in Burlington, Ontario, with Silvia Ruegger, her laptop open on the table between us. We are watching Silvia’s childhood dream unfold.
A group of patrons nearby pretends not to be eavesdropping.
“The race was intense,” Silvia says. “Fifty women representing 33 nations. We all got bussed down to Santa Monica, ’cause it was a one-way course. And we were all in a gym. Everybody stretching, warming up, in one place. It was an interesting environment because it was almost like a celebration, because, I think, people knew that this was going to change everything. ’Cause sometimes people have to see something to believe it. They cannot believe it unless they see it. Right?”
On-screen, Silvia is hanging with the lead pack, her right shoulder dipping, a rugged rhythm to her pace.
“You don’t look …” I hesitate. I don’t want to sound critical.
“I don’t have finesse!” Silvia laughs. “And, actually, I never do! I’m blue-collar. That’s my style all the time. I just never had the finesse. Just blue-collar. Fighting it out.”
We watch the runners come into a water station and grab sponges to wet their already soaked heads. It’s chaos. At an earlier station, about 10 miles in, Silvia hit another runner who had stopped suddenly: “I ran”—she claps her hands together—“right into her. I went down. It was a wake-up call.” Silvia knew that she needed to pick it up, get out in the clear. And so she is running with the leaders, a handful of women and Silvia the least experienced, the youngest, twenty-three years old.
The footage skips ahead, and the women ascend a slight incline on an emptied stretch of Los Angeles highway, an eerie scene that looks apocalyptic: concrete girders, smooth grey pavement, an empty hot sky overhead, and gripping human effort. A male commentator’s voice breaks in to tell viewers that the race’s leader, American Joan Benoit, has an almost insurmountable lead. As if they hear him, the women leading the small pack—Rosa Mota of Portugal, Grete Waitz of Norway, Ingrid Kristiansen also of Norway—take off as one in a desperate attempt to reel Benoit back in. The young woman representing Canada, running the second marathon of her life, is dropped from the pack.
She isn’t wearing a watch. “I was not running for time,” Silvia tells me. “What would time be? I was running for place.” Her race strategy, planned with her coach, Hugh Cameron, could not be simpler: to stay with the leaders. To run with the best of the best. She knows it is her only chance at a medal.
“And all of a sudden, I was in no-man’s land. I couldn’t—I couldn’t even respond. I was running at my max.
“The first thought that crossed my mind was, ‘You’re slowing down! You started too fast. You’re in over your head!’
“So I entered the most difficult part of the race for me… The sun was oppressive. Emotional battle, physical battle, mental battle… My body was screaming, ‘Quit! Quit! Quit!’”
It is difficult to imagine the woman who sits across from me ever quitting. With three decades separating her from that race, Silvia Ruegger, now in her early 50s and a national director of a Christian children’s charity, radiates an almost impossible energy, drive, focus. How many times has she told this story? Yet she does not flag. She punctuates her sentences with bursts of physical enthusiasm, clapping her hands. She is very slender, almost fragile-looking, her dark hair cut in angular fashion, with bangs framing her face, her expression animated and intense.
“I call it a ‘Tunnel of Darkness’,” says Silvia. “And I’ll never forget seeing the light.” We’ve gone from metaphorical tunnel to literal tunnel, as the runners enter the stadium on the laptop’s screen and make their way once around the track.
Here is the winner, Joan Benoit, crossing the line, only 400 metres ahead of world-record-holder, Grete Waitz of Norway. We watch Grete Waitz finish second, and Rosa Mota of Portugal third.
And then we watch young Silvia enter the packed-to-the-rafters cheering stadium to complete the final 400 metres of her race, about four minutes behind the winner.
“What are you feeling?”
The young Canadian crosses the finish line, slows to a walk. She’s placed 8th out of a field of 50 competitors, which remains the best showing by a Canadian in the women’s Olympic marathon, ever, and in a time of 2:29:09, fast enough to have won the men’s event at the Olympics during the first 40 years it was contested (the first men’s marathon of the modern Olympic Games was completed in just under three hours in 1896, in Rome).
On-screen, the footage ends.
I think about what Silvia told me before playing the video: “You don’t spend your life, and sacrifice, and give up those things just to be on the team. All of us go with the hope of being on that podium … to see your flag going up.” As remarkable as her accomplishment is, that young runner had never been going simply to be there. She had been going to win.
We’re quiet for a moment. Silvia shuts the laptop. The eavesdroppers retreat.
Here’s what I know: In a race several months after the Olympics, Silvia would set a Canadian marathon record that would stand until October, 2013. Could she have imagined that it would hold for so long? Silvia laughs with what sounds like astonishment: “I thought that I would reset the record. ’Cause I thought, when I ran 2:28, it was my third marathon, right? I had the Olympics, I had all my career, I was 23 years old, right?” Instead, only weeks after setting the Canadian record, Silvia would survive a near-fatal car-crash on a slippery winter road near Guelph, Ontario. Thrown from the vehicle. Severe concussion. Hematoma. Soft-tissue trauma. Two years of intense rehab. Yet she wouldn’t give up. She would spend the next twelve years trying and failing to make subsequent Olympic teams until her retirement in 1996. That was the last year, twenty years ago, that a Canadian woman ran in an Olympic marathon.
Today, in Rio, August 14, 2016, Lanni Marchant, who only two days earlier competed for Canada in the 10,000 metres, finished 24th and Krista DuChene, the oldest competitor on Canada’s athletics team at age 39, finished 35th. It might be easy to dismiss their accomplishment, in the absence of medals, if you don’t know the history. But their presence in today’s race underscores both how difficult it has been to get there, and how tenacious you must be to make it happen.
Every runner has a story. In Silvia’s, she is a teenager, running on a dark country concession near Newton, Ontario, before sun-up, in the depths of winter. Behind Silvia, her mom follows in the family’s station wagon, flooding Silvia’s path with light. As the sky shifts dimly to dawn, they approach a side road untouched by tire tracks, filled in from a recent snowfall, and Silvia waves to her mom: “I’m going down here. It hasn’t been ploughed. Meet me on the other side!”
Silvia’s mom, Ruth, rolls down her window. “Why are you putting yourself through this, Silvia? Is this really what you want to be doing?”
“Yeah, Mom,” says Silvia. “It’s gonna make me strong.” And the teenager in sneakers and mittens turns and bounds through the snowbanks.
Both Lanni and Krista have recorded marathon times faster than Silvia’s. They remain the only two Canadian women to do so.
As my interview with Silvia circles its end, I ask her: How has running changed you? And Silvia says, finally, coming around to the core of a thought amidst a gathering torrent of ideas: “I think in athletics, you go to the wall. And once you’ve done that, you can never go back. I’ve been ruined for—for the more. For the impossible. And I can never not live life that way.”
Note: I wrote several versions of this story in the months after Girl Runner was first published, pulling together months of research and interviews with Canadian women runners, some who competed before women were allowed to run long-distance events at the Olympics, including the marathon, and some who competed after. It’s a history that could have been bitterly told by those I interviewed, but never was. My only regret is that I failed to write the right story that would find its audience and celebrate these remarkable human beings. I’m choosing to publish this version here on my blog to celebrate the efforts of these women, and of everyone who has experienced the joy of running, no matter how fast. You have your story too.