Silvia Ruegger running the homestretch of the women’s Olympic marathon in 1984. She competed for Canada in the first women’s marathon contested at the Olympics.
“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.
Krista Duchene raises her arms in celebration as she crosses the finish line of the women’s marathon in Rio, 2016.
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.
Today is a good day.
Every day is a good day.
That is not true, but every day could be a good day. Since I returned from France, I have endeavoured to hang onto the laid-back vibe that surfaced, slowly, and prevailed while I was there. It was so easy to be laid-back when my mind was emptied of its many duties and responsibilities, and I had only to focus on what mattered to me, and what I decided would matter to me.
Of course, that mind has once again been cluttered with necessities, but I am trying, trying, trying to maintain a focus on what matters. Does it matter that we will be a few minutes late because a child is disorganized (or because I am)? No. It does not matter. In France, I was amused to realize that it was no advantage to be early or even to be precisely on time, because no one was ever early or even precisely on time. Better to arrive a few minutes late without breaking a sweat. Now, that doesn’t quite work here in Canada, but at the same time, it isn’t a bad policy to follow: to not break a sweat. I don’t know if I can keep that laid-back feeling of … hey, this isn’t a real problem, this is a problem of vanishing effervescence which serves me not to trouble over. So many of the day-to-day problems are like this. If only I could let them go.
But how to let go the child yelling “hey, Mom!” from the other room as I clutch my train of thought while trying to respond politely, laidbackly.
Certain things seem easier, it is true. I’ve been reading and researching even if it looks (and even feels) like leisure. Just because I’m enjoying it doesn’t mean it’s not productive. Also, I’ve been much better at ignoring emails until a designated time, when I churn through the whole lot; or designating a particular half hour to a particular subject, like soccer messages (aargh!), or tax prep (double argh!). But you know. It all needs to get done.
I returned from France feeling content with my life. In France, I decided not to complain anymore about the things I’m asked to do, but to do these things with excitement and a sense of adventure. I decided to not worry so much about whether I did an awesome job, and simply content myself with doing my best and showing up. I get asked to do a lot of different things, some of which I’m not, frankly, all that good at, and probably never will be. So all I can do is try.
What I remembered, in France, is that a person is rewarded for her curiosity, her interest, her excitement, her willingness to leap in whole-heartedly. Really, those are simple ingredients. They require no talent. They require no skill. They require only a willingness to learn, to listen, to observe, to engage, to dig in, to do. I have those things! Sometimes I almost annoyingly have those things. I know that the light is going out of me when I lose those things. It takes so little to spark them again. I lose them when I’m exhausted, run down, distracted, overwhelmed.
You know, this can happen, in this life.
I wish the busyness of my every day life was renewing, but sometimes its effect is draining. Okay, so be it. I decided to have four kids, and I enjoy all of the richness and interest that come with raising them; of course there is a downside. There is always a downside. So how to make space within the chaos, how to prioritize, how to make space for my mind to wander, as it needs to, and to dream, and to come untethered from the schedule and the organizing and the mass of must-does.
I must go pick up children for violin lessons right about now.
Dare to dream, remember to dream, wander. Let the mind wander. Feed it on clean air, on walks outside, on friendship, and on work. Good work. Work that feels good to do.
A few things have happened around here and my reporting is not keeping pace.
The whole family went to Hamilton on Friday evening to cheer on the Canadian national women’s soccer team in a friendly against England, the last game they’ll play before the World Cup matches start next week. And Canada won! Fascinating to dissect the strategy on the field, and watch the play get more intense as the game went on (I sat beside my brother Christian, who had scored us the tickets, and it reminded me of watching baseball or hockey with him as kids, analyzing every play).
My kids will never quite appreciate (thankfully) the thrill that I got from attending a sports match in a packed stadium involving two women’s teams who were in no way being objectified: in their eyes, they were simply watching talented athletes battling it out. When I was a soccer-playing kid, there was no national women’s team that I knew of; if there was a team, I didn’t know the names of anyone on it; and women’s soccer teams did not compete internationally in the Olympics or World Cup. When CJ pored over the program the next day, asking for the pronunciation of names of his favourite players, whose numbers and positions he knew (Kadeisha Buchanan, for example), saying, “She was a really good defender,” honestly, my heart sang. He doesn’t know it, but by seeing those women as really good athletes, he’s seeing them as fully realized human beings of equal worth and value to male athletes; and he isn’t even doing a comparison between the sexes, he’s just cheering for his team.
On Saturday we had a little party for The Candy Conspiracy. It poured rain, so we were very glad to be indoors at the Waterloo Public Library. As a finale, I broke out a uke and played the Juicy Jelly Worm song. It’s a different crowd, that’s for sure, from the usual literary reading. It felt much more interactive, which I enjoyed.
Fooey with Sophie Schmidt*, who scored the winning goal. *cardboard cutout version
Fooey’s soccer team had another fun and winning game last night, coached by me and my friend Marnie; this coaching gig is turning out to be even more fun than I’d anticipated. It helps to have such an enthusiastic, friendly, coachable group of girls. I might get hooked on the job.
Lap three, 1500m. She’s the small one in blue trying to pass the taller one in yellow.
And today, I got to watch my girl runner tough it out in the 1500m and 800m distances at the regional track meet: she won the 1500m in a very competitive time, and came second in a hard-fought 800m, on rather tired legs. This means she will go on to compete again on Thursday in the regional final. It’s both a joy and privilege to get to watch her take her fierce self out into the fray and lay everything on the line. I honestly thought that watching her win that 1500m was the MOST EXCITING MOMENT in my whole life. Maybe I’m exaggerating. But in the moment, that’s how it felt. It was so surprising, so unexpected. I may have hugged a few strangers.
There are other exciting (and less exciting) moments that I could report upon here, but I’m out of time. Another evening is upon us, another early supper (chicken, rice, dipping sauce, maybe broccoli if I get back to the kitchen in time), many more soccer games, a bit of coaching, and lots of transportation of people hither and yon. Wish me … well, strength and calm.
I keep track of my book-reading life in a separate section of this blog (under Extras), but as this is the year of WRITE, I’d like to highlight the connection between writing and reading by sharing some of my book-related reflections here, too. Because really, it can’t be a year of WRITE if it’s not also a year of READ. (And if you ever want advice from me on how to be a writer, here’s the only decent answer I’ve got: PRACTICE your writing like you’d practice the piano; and READ all the time, everything you can get your hands on, especially but not exclusively in the styles and forms you admire.)
So. Reading life. Below are three books I’ve read recently. But first I want to tell you about the newspaper article I read this morning in the Globe & Mail, an interview with two young women, both 13, both in grade 8 (and therefore the same age as my eldest, who is a boy). It’s the most clear-eyed, clear-headed perspective on sex education that I’ve ever come across. I love these young women! (Their parents must be pretty awesome too.) I’d like to have my older kids read this interview and then discuss it with them. Here’s a brief excerpt: What do you wish boys would understand? “Boys need to understand that women aren’t sex objects or lesser people. … Girls aren’t this whole other world. Boys and girls actually aren’t that different and they should be treated like they aren’t that different. Otherwise nothing is going to change.”
What I’m reading …
〉 Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters
* Christmas gift from Kevin to me
I’ve become a Sarah Waters fan. This book seriously creeped me out, but I could not stop reading it. It’s set in Victorian England and it’s gritty and dirty and full of evil plots and human foulness, and lots of things I’m actually quite squeamish about, but I was completely taken in. Plot twists? By the dozen. Never saw ’em coming. Waters is phenomenally good at storytelling, and at capturing the intimate details of an historical time period. I’m taking mental notes as I read her. I wasn’t sure what the message at the core of the book was, exactly — it seemed emptier at its core than The Little Stranger — but I didn’t really care either. I just wanted to devour the book and piece everything together. When I have time, I will definitely be reading more of Sarah Waters. (Problem is, I couldn’t put the book down, and was up late on a few nights, turning pages….)
〉 Fair Play, by Tove Jansson, translated from the Finnish, with a foreword by Ali Smith
* bought on my Kobo
This book challenged me. I really wanted to love it, and found that I could only like it. It is a series of small stories about two characters, loosely (or perhaps not so loosely) based on Jansson and her partner, a woman who was an artist. I kept mixing up the main characters’ names; they didn’t seem that different from each other, and that was one of the problems I had with the book. The other problem was the structure of the stories, which at times seemed overly and overtly plotted, even while most ended with a severe abruptness that seemed indicative of an undeveloped thought. Yet, even while my writer brain critiqued the stories’ structure, I was nevertheless drawn into this slightly odd world being portrayed, of two artists and friends (the specifics of their relationship are never explained, but they do live together at times and often share a bed), who share their lives and their work with each other. I can’t imagine having such a close friendship with another artist, one who would criticize my work even while I’m making it; that’s a level of collaboration that I really can’t fathom. I can’t fathom knowing another woman quite this well, I suppose, too. It’s a bit strange, as I’m thinking about this now, that we totally normalize pairing up and sharing our lives and space with a sexual partner, but a platonic friendship with the same depth of understanding and time spent together seems strange (or it seems strange to me, anyway). The exception to the strangeness was that brief period in my life when I had roommates, and it seems connected specifically to youth, pre-marriage. There were so many things I liked about being that close to my friends — sharing food, social lives, plans, down-time, the daily small miseries and joys. I know there were downsides too, and irritations; Jansson depicts these well. This book made me long for closer friendships — closer than is possible in my current life, which revolves around raising kids.
〉 A Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, by Steven Pinker
* ordered on Amazon.ca as an impulse buy when purchasing photo albums for Christmas gifts
The opening chapters of the book are well-written and fascinating, and support my own style of writing, which he calls “classic prose.” I really loved seeing Pinker diagram and break down sentences to show why they work (or don’t), in terms of the basic structure. We can only hold a very limited amount of information in our short-term memories, so the order in which our brain receives new information matters in terms of the ease of making connections between parts. That’s why a poorly written sentence stops us up, makes us puzzle over the parts as we try to connect them in the sense the author has intended. And a well-written sentence simply skims by, clear and well-lit. In a sense, it explains to me why it’s easy to overlook excellent writing: because it’s easy to understand, a reader assumes it’s a) easy to write and/or b) simplistic. But in fact clear writing, or classic prose, a) takes great skill to write and can be used to b) effectively communicate complex ideas. Pinker gets bogged down in his final chapter, which put me to sleep night after night, in which he logically and rationally argues over points of grammar and usage. I found his arguments sensible, on the whole, until he started arguing for rather than against particular grammatical sticking points — then he sounded just like the grammar police he was railing against. Point being: grammar is not a science. Grammar is an agreed-upon set of rules that aid clear communication, and when not-agreed-upon, well, that’s where history and tradition butt up against popular usage. Unfortunately, I come away from the book without a clearer idea of how to teach students to punctuate their sentences “properly.” I simply could not wrap my head around Pinker’s “grammar trees,” in which he diagrammed sentences using different names to categorize the parts of the sentence than the names I’m familiar with. I don’t know if this is because I’m stupid about theory (which I am, in some ways), or whether grammar is just too complicated no matter how clear you try to make your explanation, especially when you’re getting down to the nitty-gritty bits. I couldn’t imagine trying to take Pinker’s trees to my students in an attempt to make common grammatical errors clearer to them.
Now, your turn. What are you reading?
PS A review of Girl Runner from the Daily Mail in the UK arrived in my inbox this morning. I’m too chicken to read it, but Kevin promises me it’s good. Apparently this is an accurate excerpt: “Original … moving … engrossing.” (Dunno what words came in between those, but I sure hope “not” wasn’t among them …)
With apologies for the lacklustre photography; I just don’t have time to use my Nikon on this busy morning. #therefore #cameraphone
It’s Monday in Canada. I’m looking out at a postcard snowscape that makes me want to
get out my cross country skis hibernate in front of the fire for the next six months. (Let honesty reign.) The snow and its seasonal existence should not surprise me. Yet every year it does. The car needs to be scraped, the children require mittens, snow pants, boots, hats (why are at least one or two of these items per child always missing / suddenly too small / wet or dirty / lost / apparently too geeky and uncool to be suffered, and why is this discovery always made mere moments before said children need to leave for school?), and also, to continue this long run-on sentence, the dogs hate going outside and must be sternly encouraged and dressed in little sweaters, which we find adorable but I’m pretty sure they find humiliating. In short, everything takes longer. Even that sentence. I’ve yet to adjust, having yet to admit that this is actually happening, that this white stuff actually might just stick around for awhile. Deny. This is just the first stage. Don’t worry. I’ll get to Accept, even Embrace, if I can just stick it out through Wallow, Growl, Deep Abiding Desire to Stay Indoors, and Christmas.
A few things to tell you about on this Monday in Canada.
1. For local friends, two events to highlight if you’re up for getting out:
〉 A feminist film festival is coming to the Princess this week, Nov. 18-20, featuring films on a variety of important and of-the-moment subjects, including murdered and missing aboriginal women in Canada. Website and ticket info here. Spread the word.
〉 After Hours at the Waterloo Public Library, this Friday, Nov. 21, 7PM, a fundraising event for the library with food & drink, and featuring inspirational speakers, including me. Come and watch me
try to be inspirational. Event and ticket info. More word-spreading, please.
2. Some nice news this morning from my Canadian publisher, House of Anansi. Girl Runner has been selected as a Best Book of the Year (#8) and a Best Canadian Book of the Year (#3) by Amazon.ca. (But if you can slog your way through the snow to your local indie bookstore, shop there instead.)
3. Question for you, people out there reading this blog: would you be interested in buying signed and personalized copies of Girl Runner for Christmas gifts? If there seems to be interest, I’m going to figure out a way to arrange for this to happen.
Mondays. They’re all about the paperwork and administration. This is today in a nutshell: make to-do lists, clear the desk, return the library books, go to the bank, renew both drivers’ licence and health card, soak the beans, and on and on. You know? So this post, I apologize, suffers from a similar tone.
Enjoy the white stuff, of the cold deceptively fluffy variety.
At the Wild Writers Festival this weekend, here in Waterloo, I took my daughter along to volunteer. At lunchtime, I gave her some money and she went across the street to the grocery store to buy herself something for lunch.
Something for lunch, as purchased by AppleApple: a 500 ml tub of lime-flavoured Greek yogurt; a plastic-wrapped English cucumber; a loaf of Italian-style bread.
She found me in the green room, chatting with a handful of writers/editors/publishers, sat down beside me at the table. “This must be your daughter,” was a refrain we heard all day. “What’s that?” said the editor. “It’s my lunch,” said my daughter.
And then, this-must-be-my-daughter proceeded to eat the cucumber, whole, in great munching bites. I didn’t see what happened to the bread. The yogurt she polished off directly too. I could not have been more proud.
The thing about blogging is that so much gets left out. I haven’t, so far, made this a particularly political space. It’s not terribly ideological either. That doesn’t mean I lack for political thoughts and opinions, simply that I haven’t felt this to be the place and space to raise them.
I’m struggling with this choice at present. There are zeitgeist moments when an issue seems to get ripped open and demand conversation. But the conversation is never ever simple, that’s why issues are buried and need an almost shocking violence to bring them to the surface; we don’t want to have these conversations. Why would we? They’re painful. They tear us apart. They challenge our safe ideas of who we are. In Canada, that issue is sexual harassment and violence against women, and underlying it, biases and beliefs so entrenched that we don’t even notice they’re there. It’s distressing and depressing to be talking about this again or still. I suspect that no one wants to talk about this less than women. I consider myself an equal. I consider our culture much-changed and for the better. But it hurts my head to try to make melodic the dissonant chords of experience.
Consider this. A woman on stage presenting her book: she looks like she doesn’t care, she gives off an aura of irritation, responds to questions with her own personal grievances, cuts others off, and appears to be drunk. Would this ever happen? I’ve never seen it. But I’ve seen a man on stage doing that. (Granted, it’s unlikely to win him fans, but he still feels like he can do it.)
Maybe that’s a bad example. I would never want to feel like I could do that.
What about this? A woman writer on stage making fun of the other writers on stage, all in good fun. This also almost never happens, but if you think about it, friendly mockery is frequently the patter between men on stage, and it is funny, it’s appealing, not negative. So why do women rarely do it? Could we get away it? I wonder. It’s not that women can’t be funny on stage. I’ve seen a lot of funny women on stage these past two months. But here’s the difference: women on stage make fun of themselves. (So do men sometimes; I’m not suggesting otherwise.) That’s funny too. It’s self-deprecating. But it’s not the same thing.
I think that’s the difference between the privilege of being taken at face value, of being given the benefit of the doubt, and not. Some of us women would like to be joking around in public with the men (and women), joining in the joke—really, that’s what it is. Some of us would like not always to be so damn self-deprecating in order to get laughs. We would like to be taken seriously without having to be so serious. I would like that very much, at least on occasion. I would like it to be an option. This is a small small observation, and you may think it unrelated to the issue at hand, and certainly it’s not serious in the way that sexual harassment and violence is serious. But I think it’s a small piece of the larger picture. It points to a difference in the parameters of public behaviour open to women who wish to be taken seriously, versus men.
Listen. I’m a polite Canadian woman. I fear offending. I’m not especially brave. (And may not be very funny, either.) I prefer to be liked. I can’t help worrying as I push publish on this post. But I’m going to push it anyway.
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