I’ve been running a lot, and will continue to run a lot for as long as I can stave off injury and chronic pain, no matter the weather. Winter has descended early on Southern Ontario, and I’ll admit that it takes a little more gumption to layer up and run out into a stiff headwind over icy sidewalks. You have to really want to, for some reason beyond the running itself — and for me, that’s my mental health. Running clears my mind. Clears my anxieties. Makes me feel stronger, powerful.
But I do have to run early, it has to be the first thing I do upon waking, or I lose the gumption. I don’t mind running in the dark, oddly enough. My favourite path is reasonably well-lit, and I’ve come to love the quiet of the early morning, its solitude almost dream-like, the darkness a strange comfort, womb-like. There was little wind this morning, and I kept a steady pace, earbuds in, tuned to a podcast called Dolly Parton’s America, which at one point brought me to tears, as the host described the unexpected connections between Dolly Parton’s Tennessee mountain home, and his own father’s Lebanese mountain home. About how different musical instruments and rhythms, patterns and vocalizations find confluence across culture and time, come together, remind us of our common need for expression beyond words or even actions. So that happened on this morning’s run: I was crying.
And then, as I turned onto a busier stretch, I was yelling at the cars buzzing by, their noise and fumes drowning out the podcast.
Emotions: they’re all over the place. Where do they come from, where do they go?
When I got home, I replayed one section again, to drink in what Dolly Parton had said. I’m telling you: You have to listen to this podcast! I’m starting to believe that Dolly Parton is not only a brilliantly talented songwriter and musician, but also a wise, grounded human being, who is carrying a message for our moment that we’re having difficulty hearing. To paraphrase what the podcast’s host said: Dolly Parton is expressing an ethos, a spirituality, in which no one is cast out. No one is condemned from the community. She has her opinions, but she will also allow that you have yours; and she has a massive capacity to see the other, to understand complexity in human behaviour. (I wonder if this points to a difference between being an artist and being an activist; both are necessary and important to instigating and envisioning change, but the roles don’t necessarily overlap, because the strengths of an artist are different from the strengths of an activist. Their ways of framing experience often run counter to each other.)
I spent last week watching documentaries, having bought a pass to our local feminist film festival — founded by a friend nine years ago — which runs every November. I crammed in as many movies as I could: I saw a movie about the family of Colton Boushie, thrust into a public spotlight, speaking with clarity out of their pain; a movie about women incarcerated in New Brunswick, making art together, cast in and out of the system and trying to see their way clear; a movie about an Israeli family in which the father transitions to becoming a woman; a movie about an all-woman sailing team who sailed in a race around the world; a movie about Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and a movie about Toni Morrison. (What made it really special was that I saw each movie with a friend or with one of my two older kids.)
At the end of seeing all these movies, I said: How anyone makes it through this world whole is beyond me. And maybe we don’t. Maybe we don’t make it through this world whole. But there are moments of clarity, amidst the confusion. Moments when people are called by some force beyond themselves to take a stand. Moments when they call others in and hold them. Moments of forgiveness. Moments beyond pain and suffering. The victories might be small and temporary. But no matter.
If you pay attention to someone else’s story, you’ll see under the armour and bluster and noise to the complexity of need and of fear and of hope beneath. We all want a safe place to call home. We all want to feel safe, and loved, without condition. How can we be that for each other? It comes naturally to want to be that for my family and friends, but can I try, too, to be that for those with whom I have little connection and less understanding? Can I ask for the same in return?
1. I am eleven years old and the stadium is enormous. The track is long and hard and black and very hot. I am wearing beat-up runners, the laces dirty, and I am sure that I am amazing. The sky opens around me. I could throw up. The white lines are chalked in. After the gun goes off, we stay in our lanes until we reach a certain mark, and then we funnel in together. The stands hum with kids, teachers, some parents (not mine), and underneath the stands the light filters in stripes and the ground is wet with spilled drinks. When I run I am not afraid, only that I won’t win; I must win. Afterward, under the stands, a teacher congratulates me in a teasing way, and I am offended by his tone. Why should he act surprised? Did he not see my brilliance? The way I ran down the tall girl in grade seven, the way I opened up a lead with 300 metres to go? The way I could not, thereafter, be caught.
2. It is going to rain. I park my bike and lock it. The underside of the stands is a sticky zone of concrete splashed with soda and dripping popsicles, spilled popcorn, children in pinnies darting, and I am too late. Rushing up from underneath and out into the seats, I see her bright yellow shirt at the finish line. The race just over. I did not see her run! I can’t stop telling people, even though it disappoints them unnecessarily, how I missed the moment. The moment was there and is gone.
3. She is sturdy and wonderful and fleet and strong. She runs so hard she will throw up, crawling off to the edge of the track, afterward. She has run faster than the girls a year old, faster than every girl on the track, and with an ease and power that I am certain I could never match, nor never did match. When she stops running, two years from now, what will I do? She waits in full sunlight beside the stands while I take her picture, her eyes squinting. “Wait,” I say. “Let me take another!” But she is impatient. She doesn’t care about pictures. She is unpinned in time.
4. Last year, in grade six, I was the fastest girl in the school. I won two red ribbons racing the 800 metres (harder for me) and the 1500 metres (I could have run forever, it felt like). What has changed? The stadium is the same, the same spilled drinks under the stands, the same open sky as I step out from under the stands and into the heart of this place–grass field and oval track, little black stones, white chalk lines. I will lose the pace in the 800 metres; I won’t even attempt the 1500 metres; and in my new speciality, the hurdles, I will hit several. I won’t fall, but I won’t win. Everything is the same except for me. I shouldn’t have cut my long, long hair. I shouldn’t have gotten older. I don’t know myself at all. My capacity for suffering is diminished and I will never again win a red ribbon at a track meet.
5. There is no last track meet. There will always be more. The light will always slant through the stadium seating, the canteen will always serve popcorn and icy sugar drinks, the teachers will always tell you where to stand and remain surprised at who you are and what you can do; or surprisingly disinterested, just as irritating. There will always be safety pins to attach the coloured ribbons to your shirt, fluttering, proof of your achievements. You will always feel sick before your race. You will fight the feeling that you can’t bear to lose. You will have to live with it, live with the possibility of losing. You will sublimate your competitiveness, you will try to bury it. You will become a nice person. You will miss the uncomplicated, greedy, gritty child whose cells you have shed, entirely.
End of summer. I haven’t gone to boot camp all summer, and haven’t been getting up early to run, either, at least not regularly (vacation times have not coordinated well with my running friends). So I’ve been sleeping in more, or possibly staying up later, or a combination of both. I’ve also been walking with Kevin and the dogs before the kids are up, then heading off for a solo run through the park. This morning, it was cool and misty, and my skin was damp almost immediately. I recognize the 7AM park regulars now. The man with the big dog who says hello. The older couple who walk to the park together, and then the woman walks around the main loop while the man runs for a bit. The younger man with the huge white fluffy dog. The two young women wearing backpacks and Birkenstocks who, I’ve deduced, are counsellors at the soccer camp that runs out of the park. I see construction workers, and watch for changes at the LRT stop at the north end of the park. Some mornings there are great clouds of smoke and dust, and I have to dodge cement trucks, but this morning I must have been a bit early, because it was very quiet.
I run through the grass immediately after tracking around the construction site. This morning it was wet and my shoes got soaked, but I like how buoyant my stride feels on grass. It’s only about a 5.5 kilometre run. While running along a woodsy-path this morning, I said to myself, this isn’t that hard, really. It’s not that hard, but it’s also not exactly easy, to push myself to get up and go, legs ticking, lungs pumping.
I haven’t been running toward a goal. Or I have been, but it’s not a goal with an end that can be defined, or a finish line to be crossed. I’ve been running for my brain. If you google “exercise linked to brain function, news” you’ll find tons of recent articles on the effects of exercise and memory, exercise and aging, exercise and cognitive function. Interestingly, different types of exercise may have different positive effects on the brain: the kinds of activities and team drills that I run for my soccer team improve visual-spatial processing and attention, while aerobic exercise has been shown to improve memory.
Thirty minutes of daily moderate exercise is an easy goal to set. I’m keeping it simple. Dog walks count. Even jogging around the field with my soccer kids counts. If I gardened, that would count. This summer I’ve been easier on myself. I’ve lowered my expectations, or perhaps simply tried to home in on what matters most, and focus on that … and not worry about what I’m missing or lacking or not managing to do.
This easy-going summer. It’s coming to an end. I’m not really ready to let it go yet.
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.
I had a small panic attack on Sunday evening, while doing the chalkboard schedule, which details the next three weeks of our lives. It takes us to the end of school, summer holidays, Canada Day weekend, and there is SO MUCH HAPPENING between now and then. AppleApple led me through the mindfulness meditation she does before bed, and that was quite helpful, actually. Except I need to keep doing it every time I look at the calendar.
We’re into the month of lasts and celebrations. Last violin lesson, last piano lessons. Track meets and field trips. Graduations and exams. Parties, too. To complicate this particular week, I’m also driving to Toronto on Friday to speak on a panel at the Canadian Writers’ Summit on “the shadow side of success.”
I’m not complaining about the content of June; just the pace.
I’ve been walking the dogs most mornings. I take them on a fairly long, leisurely route, even if I might have other things that need doing. We pass by many beautiful gardens. I stop and smell the peonies. I really do. I was inspired by something I saw a few weeks ago, on one of my short but very happy early morning solo runs through the park. I saw a young woman, also out for a run, who had stopped by the creek and was simply standing, watching the water. She was in the moment.
And now she’s planted in my mind, where I see her standing and quietly watching the water. The moments are here, they are everywhere.
My moments so far today include biking through the park to the track with Kevin to watch our younger “girl runner” run in several races. Yesterday, I loved watching the same girl play at her first violin recital, still wearing soccer pants, after we’d raced from the field to the music studio. Every day I get to do so many things that I love doing, with people I love, admire, and enjoy.
This is it! This is life! There is too much hatred, too much grief, too much fear, too much to grieve and mourn and rage against in this world. The least and the most I can do is one and same: be open to what surrounds me, and know that this is enough.
There should be art for all occasions. Sometimes we want to laugh, sometimes we want to be entertained, sometimes we want to cry, sometimes we need to be challenged.
What I’ve enjoyed about this experience in France is being given something to do, an assignment, a commission. It gives me purpose and direction. In my usual writing life, I am the sole source of my purpose and direction. I have to propel myself toward something no one else can see and when the work is done I have to convince people to care. It takes a lot energy. The pleasure of this commission is that I’ve been asked to do something, and I’m doing it, to the best of my abilities. It’s up to the Festival to convince people to care about what I’m making, just as they invented the goal. It takes so much weight off.
My sense, as I’ve worked, is of being at play, in a playful and free state of mind, digging in, like a child with a wad of modelling clay having just been told: go ahead and get messy!
When I am busy and rushing around, I imagine that what I want is to be still, to do nothing. But here I am, today, with nothing pressing to do, well-rested, in a state of quiet and relaxation, and it is almost as if I’ve come to a stop and can’t begin again. The idea that we will get to do whatever we want in our state of needing-to-do-nothing ignores that it is a state that requires some force to exit. I think I sense this in my every day life, that it is easier to keep going than to stop and recalibrate. Now is my chance to recalibrate, now that I am at a stop, and it’s up to me to decide what that means.
Today, I went for a run on the trail by the river where I’ve been walking almost every day. What a good choice it was to run, as I knew it would be. The air was sweet, the wind was cool, it was sunny, I got a good sweat going, I made myself work on some stretches and let myself go easier on others. I heard songbirds, and saw the green popping out faintly on the trees, and my thoughts came calmly and clearly.
I thought about doing rather than thinking. How important it is to do. To do is to be. I’m proudest of myself and most satisfied with my life when I am active, involved, taking risks, in the public space, using my body, along with my mind. My idlest and least productive times have been when I’ve had “all the time in the world,” or “nothing but time.” During those seasons (winter, age 19; fall, age 23), I tried to write and produced nothing; more nothing than at any other time in my life. For example, as soon as I got a job, age 24, I started to write again. Another example: I started to write Hair Hat as soon as I’d given birth to my eldest, but not during the months of relative idleness before. That says to me something quite profound: that my being a writer is not dependent on having grand expanses of free time. It may even be dependent on the opposite, on being squeezed for time because life is so interesting and full, and I’m doing so much, and then in reverence and thanks can I come to a quiet space and write, in a way that feels crucial, important, necessary. If I could go around the planet working on commissions like this, I would; but this is unique, this is grace.
Something came to me while I was running — running past a ramshackle farmhouse with a red attic door and orange brick outbuildings, running past a field of bright yellow blooms, running under a row of fat-trunked trees with bird-shit splattered on the pavement below them — I thought, in order to write I must have something to say, and I’ll only have something to say if I have something to do.
I need to do.
If I want to be the writer that I want to be, I need to do more … but what? … than write.