Category: Girl Runner
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.
On my last full day in France, I went for one last walk on the Voie Verte, with Kelly Riviere, my collaborator, who translated and today performed my museum piece. I promised her that, contrary to its reputation, Normandy had been beautifully sunny during my stay, and as we set out, this seemed to hold true. We saw ducklings in a stream, a father fishing with his small son, families on bicycles. It was only when we turned around that we noticed the lowering darkening sky, and no sooner had we said, “Oh dear it’s going to rain,” then it began to rain. The rain came in the form of hail, icy fragments that melted on contact and soaked us by the time we’d reached the village again. But as you can see from the photo above, we appear to have a similar sense of adventure.
A few hours later, we’d dried off and readied ourselves for the performance at the museum. As planned, at the start of the piece, I positioned a chair and sat in it, laptop open, as if preparing to write about the paintings before me — the first paintings discussed in the piece. I was quite close to the paintings, and I sat looking at them as the room behind me began to fill. And fill. And fill. I realized, without turning around, that the small gathering we had expected was not small at all. Kelly began. And the crowd followed her and stayed with her — with us — for the entire time, as we moved through the museum. This was quite remarkable given the limitations of the space, and the size of the paintings or etchings, many quite small, which meant people were standing and listening to Kelly describe and illuminate a painting they could not see.
It was a moving experience, and unlike any I’ve ever had or expect to have again. And that sums up this whole trip, I think. This whole wholly embracing and embraced trip into what seems to be another world. One in which I’ve been opened, again, to the beauty of possibility, and the possibility of beauty.
It’s funny, but throughout the trip I kept saying to myself, “I think I came to France to …” and filling in the blank with something different. I think I came to France to write. I think I came to France to be alone and listen to myself. I think I came to France to appreciate art (hello, Paris!). And now, I think I came to France to discover the magic of collaboration. But I think it must be for all of these reasons. I needed to be here for awhile, longer than seemed reasonable when I was chalking out those columns on the board at home. But here we are, in the last day of the last column, all still standing.
I’m excited to be going home. I can’t wait to see those beautiful faces again. But I think — no, I’m certain — that whatever comes next will be better because I’ve been here. And I hope to come back again soon.
**I am rating this post a PG13: it contains mature language that may offend some, and amuse others. You have been warned.**
When I am immersed in another language, even one that I cannot speak very well, I pick up the cadences and rhythms, the particularities of its grammatical construction, and almost immediately I sound like a foreigner when speaking in my native tongue. That might have been the problem at Saturday night’s reading, during the interview afterward when it may have appeared to the audience that I could speak and understand neither French nor English. Even as I write this, I am hearing these words flow out of me as if spoken in a French accent. A poorly imagined French accent. I apologize.
The woman who read from my book on Saturday night is an actress. She is very tall, slender, and I noticed her backstage immediately because she radiates an unselfconscious beauty, with a face that looks like it is carved, large dark eyes, an expressive mouth, her hair cut short and a bit messy as she ran her fingers through it. On stage, she read marvellously, kinetically, seeming to inhabit Aganetha, to bring her to life. Although my French can only be called deficient, I could understand the text because I know it so well and the translation must be very good. As she read the prologue, tears sprang to my eyes. I felt such pride, as if I were seeing and hearing a child of mine perform upon the stage, but it was something more, too, the gift of seeing what one has made from outside oneself. Perhaps because it was a translation, perhaps because it was being read by someone else—I could appreciate the book’s language, the imagery, the story, the appeal of the character in a new way, in fact in a way I have never before been able to appreciate it. I was moved at different moments during the reading by the story. I was moved by the ideas. But nothing was more moving than the initial surprise of seeing Aganetha come to life. I felt lit up. I felt it was a moment I would not forget.
The actress sitting at a small table on stage, lit from above, leaning in and out of the microphone, her voice changing as she became the characters, her free hand running through her hair. Before her, the text printed out on paper and scribbled all over (necessary cuts to bridge or shorten material). She read for 45 minutes, stopping several times to take a drink of water, once to check discreetly the slender watch on her wrist. At the end, the audience clapped and clapped and did not stop clapping. There was emotion in the room. It was magical. When I stood up to be acknowledged, I was confused, as if it were not of me. The interview on stage immediately afterward was, as I mentioned above, rather clumsy. I felt lost; but maybe I was just dumbstruck, in awe of the moment that had come before. All of my emotion was caught in the before, watching her, watching Aggie.
We drove back to Dieppe in a packed van, and I sat in the front seat beside Marie-Sophie, the actress, who told me about her time in Montreal last year putting on a play. It was late by this point, almost 11PM, and we were very hungry, very tired. The driver rolled down the windows because one of the women in the back was feeling sick. The headlights lit up a small portion of the narrow road and the grass beyond, and we plunged up and down, up and down until I began to feel sick too. Behind us, the women were discussing translation—two were actors who translate plays, and the other was my publisher. “It is not ‘sweet fuck,’” said one. “It is ‘sweet fuck-all.’” “Sweet fuck?” “Sweet fuck-all.” “Sweet fuck-all?” “You can say fucking this fucking that.” “But not sweet fuck? Sweet fuck?” “Sweet fuck-all.” “Ah. Sweet fuck-all.” They went on and on. I started to giggle, but I couldn’t share my laughter with Marie-Sophie or the driver, who were talking to each other past me, as neither seemed to understand what the women were saying. I couldn’t turn around, either, or I would have felt even sicker.
When we got out of the van after driving around the town of Dieppe—the driver was lost—and we were standing disoriented on the sidewalk near the restaurant, one of the women asked me, “How do you say it, ‘sweet fuck,’ or ‘sweet fuck-all’? What does it mean?” “I heard you talking,” I said, laughing. “It sounded like dialogue from a strange play.” “Can you say ‘sweet fuck?’” asked the actress named Kelly, with the Irish grandmother, who will be translating the work I’ve been commissioned to write while in Louviers; she will perform the translated work in Louviers’ museum next week. Kelly has a very sweet, innocent face, a bow-shaped mouth. “Not really,” I said. “What does it mean?” she asked. I said, “Sweet fuck just means … sweet fuck.” “Sweet fuck means sweet fuck,” repeated Dominique, the translator of the Scottish play that had been read earlier in the evening. “Yes,” I said, “like ‘nice lay.’ But we never say it. It’s not a saying.” “Nice lay,” repeated Dominique. “Then ‘sweet fuck-all,’ what does it mean? Does it mean ‘nothing’?” asked Kelly. She pronounced each word individually, so that the phrase did not sound in her mouth like it would sound in mine. Sweet Fuck All. I said, “Sweet fuck-all means ‘I don’t care,’ or ‘it doesn’t matter.’ ‘Nothing matters.’ Or ‘nothing,’ I guess, yes, it means ‘nothing.’”
“This is what I say to my students, when they are learning translation, I say, throw out everything you learned in school, forget it, you know nothing. They want to translate word for word and you cannot, because in language there is not translation, there is only interpretation. There are so many phrases particular to the culture,” said Dominique, as we crossed the street and walked toward the restaurant, where we would eat fish and rice in a cream sauce, a cheese wrapped in pastry, and I would choose the creme brûlée for dessert.
There is one more detail that I want to record, although it does not relate, only in the most peripheral sense. Earlier that evening, I saw a child’s sock, very small, toddler-sized, yellow with green detailing, stuffed with shit and left beside a park bench in the square near the theatre. I looked down and noted its existence as I walked past, I said to myself, that is a child’s sock stuffed with shit. I could imagine the mother or father having to wipe up the child who had shat himself or herself, and in desperation yanking the sock off the child’s foot and saying, there, we’ll leave it, we don’t need it, forget it, it’s a small loss; although all in French, of course.
Thursday evening, Toronto airport, 5PM
Yesterday afternoon when I was standing looking out at the ocean, watching an old man walk into the freezing blue water and begin to swim, while his son and grandsons watched him too, I overheard two men talking in English about the monument to Canadian soldiers that is here, somewhere, in Dieppe. Dressed in business suits, they were perplexed; they couldn’t find the war memorial. I couldn’t find it either. In World War Two, this beach, with its smooth round stones that would fit easily into the palm of the hand, held a scene of massacre. It is impossible to imagine. Yesterday afternoon I walked the promenade all the way to the end, where the ferry was preparing to leave for Brighton, in England; you can’t see England standing on the beach in Dieppe. It is a four hour crossing. The afternoon was sunny, almost warm, and people were going for a stroll, small children on scooters, many breeds of dogs being walked; a couple embraced in the middle of a vast green field that separates the promenade from the line of hotels overlooking the ocean. The vendors were closing up their shops: board shacks selling crepes or sandwiches, postcards, brightly coloured tourist paraphernalia. The groups of teenage boys made me the most homesick, for some reason I could not explain.
Friday evening, Dieppe, France, 5PM
For supper, I walked into the town proper and bought a sandwich and an apple pastry, which I ate back at my hotel, after asking the woman in the shop to direct me to it. I was quite turned around, and lost, but the hotel was in fact just around the corner. I fell asleep at 8:45PM, which at home would have been 2:45 in the afternoon; and I slept for twelve hours. This morning I ate a fresh buttery croissant for breakfast in the hotel lounge. I also had a tiny amount of coffee diluted with lots of warm milk, a boiled egg, applesauce. The festival’s director found me in the lounge, reading David Sedaris on my mini-Kobo, and sat with me briefly, effusive over a review of Girl Runner (Invisible sous la lumiere) that just came out in Le Figaro. “I am so proud!” she said.
Tonight is the first reading, in a small town about 30 kilometres from here, called Envermeu. I will be meeting my French publisher for lunch today, too. At a certain point, a book takes on a life of its own. I feel this has happened with Aganetha, that she is making her way in the world, almost without me. I am following her, now.
I need to get up the energy to go for a walk or a run along the ocean this morning. I need to but I also just want to sit in my hotel room and do nothing at all. I wanted to sleep and sleep and sleep last night, I felt so greedy for it; even twelve hours was not enough. Yet most nights at home I sleep no more than seven hours. I wonder whether I will spend this time in France sleeping, catching up on lost sleep, reviving. I wonder how I will spend this time.
I see the days as I mapped them out on our calendar at home: three columns, seven rectangles in each column, each filled with tiny print in white chalk, of activities over which I have no control, and in which I will not be participating, even though in my mind I am still there too. This morning, lying in bed with the curtains drawn against the sun, I saw the columns and knew that I was not there, and thought of the days as blanks for me to fill as I wished, here, not time to be endured, but time to be filled in ways different from the ways I fill my time at home.
How much could you write in those empty rectangles, I thought?
Today is slipping by. I am mapping writing adventures. I am arranging practice schedules and shirt orders for a soccer team. I am hungry. I haven’t eaten lunch. I haven’t left this office for hours. I’ve written nothing but emails, messages, reminders.
My Writing Adventure is completely full, with interest expressed in future Adventures, should I attempt this again.
I’ve been invited to France — to France! — this spring, to promote the translation of my novel there (details have not been confirmed, nor is this a sure thing, but the possibility exists). In the meantime, I have signed up for several mandatory soccer coaching courses. I have a public appearance this coming Tuesday at the Kitchener Public Library (“An evening with Carrie Snyder“), and other events booked elsewhere in February and March, April, May. We are planning a daunting family holiday. I want to go cross-country skiing with my daughter while there’s snow on the ground. My muscles ache from early morning workouts.
Yesterday, I read this article on my phone while waiting to pick up my daughter from a yoga class. It’s a light-hearted how-to article countering all of the inevitable new-year-new-me-resolution articles of this season: “How to be a moderately successful person.” And I sat in the car and wondered: Could I aspire to be this person? For serious? Something about the less-ness of it twanged a genuine longing in me.
I’m not complaining!! But wow. On some days, like today, like every day this week, I am overwhelmed by the ways in which I manage to fill up my life, the variety of activities and challenges I willingly, happily, excitedly sign myself up for. It occurs to me that I may be hiding from something — from the quiet and stillness of empty space and time. Am I hiding from the possibilities that exist in doing less, caring less, aspiring to less? Or am I, in fact, doing less by doing more, my attention too scattered to finish whatever book will be my next? Is all of this an elaborate distraction? It’s possible. But I love doing so much of it. I love being on the field with the kids. I love writing with other people, together. I love spending time with my kids in different contexts. I love the adventure of travel. I’ll admit freely that I fear inertia. I’ve been stuck before, I’ve been restless and lonely and bored.
Truly, I am not that, right now.
I’m looking forward to sharing my word of the year with you, as soon as I’ve had a chance to share it first with my WOTY friends. I think my new word relates to all of this, this swirl of activity and these swirling thoughts. Next post, maybe.
In France, Girl Runner is being published under a different title next spring (March, 2016, by Gallimard): “Invisible sous la lumière.” I love the poetry of it. And I just received the cover. Look at the focus and passion in this runner’s eyes.
It reminds me of a photo of Myrtle Cook, who won gold for Canada in 1928 in the 4 x 100 metre race. The photo, below, was sent to me by Myrtle’s son, Don McGowan. She’s clearly posing for a photographer and not at the start-line of a race. Nevertheless, I’m struck by the intensity of her expression, the challenging gaze tempered by an almost-smile. I asked Don what his mother had wrapped around her right wrist (it looks like a band or bracelet of some sort) and he didn’t know, but said his mother was very superstitious, and the band might have been related to that. Any guesses?
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