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.
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.
Holidays. We’re screaming toward them at breakneck speed and despite there being no snow yet this December, Christmas is coming. Christmas will come. I’ve ordered a turkey.
Accomplishments in recent days include: remembering to order a turkey; not forgetting to go to CJ’s open house at school; not forgetting to pick up AppleApple from yoga; and sorting through our mail pile (overflowing the ample basket in which we toss everything), and my kitchen pile (papers that are too important to recycle, but not important enough to tend to or file immediately). I also created a brand new file folder into which I put random professional items that need attention…eventually). I’m calling this my “Friday morning to do” folder.
It’s Friday morning. I didn’t do any of what’s in there.
Just saying. But at least I got the damn piles sorted.
I also finished marking and submitted my grades. Bittersweet, but there it is. Done with teaching, for now.
I’ve already found a replacement for my teaching energies (unpaid, however; if it’s unpaid, I will excel at it). A week ago, I was given the head coach job of my daughter’s U11 rep soccer “development” team (they don’t call it a “C” or “B” team, but that’s what it is). It’s her first time playing rep soccer, and it’s my first time coaching on the rep side. And I’m going to need a special folder to keep that part of life organized. Or a time slot. How to partition off the various sections of my life, so I can stay focused on whatever I’m focused on? I’d like to complete a few things, in addition to rolling along in the usual way, immersed in all tasks that have no end.
More meditation? Problem with meditation right now is that I drift off; meditation becomes nap time. Not kidding.
I’ve also been helping, to a small degree, to find and prepare housing for the refugee family our neighbourhood association has sponsored. But this morning, I’m not at the new apartment with some of the others from our group, who are cleaning and sorting and sewing; this morning, I’m cleaning and sorting at home, and then I’m going to spend a few hours with friends before racing off to complete a rather daunting list that must be done before our first Christmas begins: around 3PM this afternoon, with the arrival of Kevin’s family.
Why am I blogging?
Because in all of this remembering to do things, and creating lists, and flurry of emails and information and errands and doing and hopping out of bed and going to bed too late, I haven’t been chronicling. Maybe that’s okay; I don’t need to press publish on every last thing that happens. But I do need to write. I need to write.
What are you working on now?
It’s a question I’m asked often. My vague answer — and it’s totally truthful — is that I’m too superstitious to say. I’ll tell you when something’s done, for real. There are too many lost and abandoned ideas and manuscripts along the path to publication; yes, even as a published author, yes, even now. I prefer to mourn these passings alone, and get on with the work. It’s part of the job. Believe in what you’re making while you’re making it, but never be precious about it when you’re finished: this attitude has served me well over the years. I’m not sentimental about the process. It does mean it looks like I’ve failed more than I’ve succeeded — all those dead manuscripts in my attic. Whenever I explain this process to a class of students, they collectively make the “poor you” sound: awww. It’s funny. I think they think I’m being confessional. Pity is the universal response to hearing about failure, but it’s a response that misses the point, which is that creativity is driven by trial and error. Listen up: This is how publishable books get written! Only rarely do we get it right the first time; virtually never; okay, actually never! The point is: do the work, don’t sweat the result, because you are doing the work, it’s a process of discovery, enjoy it, wrestle with your ideas, let go, reassess, press onward, learn learn learn, this is the thing.
But wait! This was supposed to be a post about new work!
I’m pleased to tell you that two new stories have entered the world, published in two Canadian literary magazines. I’ve got an essay in CNQ: Canadian Notes & Queries, about re-reading Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie; and I’ve got a story in Brick magazine called “Why Give Yourself Away?” The former is transparently non-fiction, an essay; but the latter is an oddity that I’m defining as fiction, perhaps for my own sanity. Read it and judge for yourself. (CNQ publishes a few essays from each issue online, but mine doesn’t happen to be one of them, and Brick doesn’t publish its stories online, so you’ll have to get your hands on print copies; the links above will lead you to sources for purchase.)
The first piece in this issue of Brick is an interview with a French artist, Sophie Calle, by Eleanor Wachtel. If you’re interested in what compels artists to create, it makes for compulsive reading; Calle sees the world in such a head-spinningly different way, and she’s gotten so much done just by doing it. Inspiring.