“I’m right there. Struggling. Fighting.”
Silvia Ruegger points to the young woman on her laptop’s open screen. She is running in film footage shot more than thirty years ago, in the heat of a historic race unfolding: the first women’s Olympic marathon, contested in Los Angeles, August 5, 1984. The light in the footage is blunt and bright, harsh against the pavement. The young woman from Canada has a muscular determined stride, her face streaming with sweat as she fights to stay even with the leaders.
It is a September evening in 2014, and I am in a Starbucks in Burlington, Ontario, with Silvia Ruegger, her laptop open on the table between us. We are watching Silvia’s childhood dream unfold.
A group of patrons nearby pretends not to be eavesdropping.
“The race was intense,” Silvia says. “Fifty women representing 33 nations. We all got bussed down to Santa Monica, ’cause it was a one-way course. And we were all in a gym. Everybody stretching, warming up, in one place. It was an interesting environment because it was almost like a celebration, because, I think, people knew that this was going to change everything. ’Cause sometimes people have to see something to believe it. They cannot believe it unless they see it. Right?”
On-screen, Silvia is hanging with the lead pack, her right shoulder dipping, a rugged rhythm to her pace.
“You don’t look …” I hesitate. I don’t want to sound critical.
“I don’t have finesse!” Silvia laughs. “And, actually, I never do! I’m blue-collar. That’s my style all the time. I just never had the finesse. Just blue-collar. Fighting it out.”
We watch the runners come into a water station and grab sponges to wet their already soaked heads. It’s chaos. At an earlier station, about 10 miles in, Silvia hit another runner who had stopped suddenly: “I ran”—she claps her hands together—“right into her. I went down. It was a wake-up call.” Silvia knew that she needed to pick it up, get out in the clear. And so she is running with the leaders, a handful of women and Silvia the least experienced, the youngest, twenty-three years old.
The footage skips ahead, and the women ascend a slight incline on an emptied stretch of Los Angeles highway, an eerie scene that looks apocalyptic: concrete girders, smooth grey pavement, an empty hot sky overhead, and gripping human effort. A male commentator’s voice breaks in to tell viewers that the race’s leader, American Joan Benoit, has an almost insurmountable lead. As if they hear him, the women leading the small pack—Rosa Mota of Portugal, Grete Waitz of Norway, Ingrid Kristiansen also of Norway—take off as one in a desperate attempt to reel Benoit back in. The young woman representing Canada, running the second marathon of her life, is dropped from the pack.
She isn’t wearing a watch. “I was not running for time,” Silvia tells me. “What would time be? I was running for place.” Her race strategy, planned with her coach, Hugh Cameron, could not be simpler: to stay with the leaders. To run with the best of the best. She knows it is her only chance at a medal.
“And all of a sudden, I was in no-man’s land. I couldn’t—I couldn’t even respond. I was running at my max.
“The first thought that crossed my mind was, ‘You’re slowing down! You started too fast. You’re in over your head!’
“So I entered the most difficult part of the race for me… The sun was oppressive. Emotional battle, physical battle, mental battle… My body was screaming, ‘Quit! Quit! Quit!’”
It is difficult to imagine the woman who sits across from me ever quitting. With three decades separating her from that race, Silvia Ruegger, now in her early 50s and a national director of a Christian children’s charity, radiates an almost impossible energy, drive, focus. How many times has she told this story? Yet she does not flag. She punctuates her sentences with bursts of physical enthusiasm, clapping her hands. She is very slender, almost fragile-looking, her dark hair cut in angular fashion, with bangs framing her face, her expression animated and intense.
“I call it a ‘Tunnel of Darkness’,” says Silvia. “And I’ll never forget seeing the light.” We’ve gone from metaphorical tunnel to literal tunnel, as the runners enter the stadium on the laptop’s screen and make their way once around the track.
Here is the winner, Joan Benoit, crossing the line, only 400 metres ahead of world-record-holder, Grete Waitz of Norway. We watch Grete Waitz finish second, and Rosa Mota of Portugal third.
And then we watch young Silvia enter the packed-to-the-rafters cheering stadium to complete the final 400 metres of her race, about four minutes behind the winner.
“What are you feeling?”
The young Canadian crosses the finish line, slows to a walk. She’s placed 8th out of a field of 50 competitors, which remains the best showing by a Canadian in the women’s Olympic marathon, ever, and in a time of 2:29:09, fast enough to have won the men’s event at the Olympics during the first 40 years it was contested (the first men’s marathon of the modern Olympic Games was completed in just under three hours in 1896, in Rome).
On-screen, the footage ends.
I think about what Silvia told me before playing the video: “You don’t spend your life, and sacrifice, and give up those things just to be on the team. All of us go with the hope of being on that podium … to see your flag going up.” As remarkable as her accomplishment is, that young runner had never been going simply to be there. She had been going to win.
We’re quiet for a moment. Silvia shuts the laptop. The eavesdroppers retreat.
Here’s what I know: In a race several months after the Olympics, Silvia would set a Canadian marathon record that would stand until October, 2013. Could she have imagined that it would hold for so long? Silvia laughs with what sounds like astonishment: “I thought that I would reset the record. ’Cause I thought, when I ran 2:28, it was my third marathon, right? I had the Olympics, I had all my career, I was 23 years old, right?” Instead, only weeks after setting the Canadian record, Silvia would survive a near-fatal car-crash on a slippery winter road near Guelph, Ontario. Thrown from the vehicle. Severe concussion. Hematoma. Soft-tissue trauma. Two years of intense rehab. Yet she wouldn’t give up. She would spend the next twelve years trying and failing to make subsequent Olympic teams until her retirement in 1996. That was the last year, twenty years ago, that a Canadian woman ran in an Olympic marathon.
Today, in Rio, August 14, 2016, Lanni Marchant, who only two days earlier competed for Canada in the 10,000 metres, finished 24th and Krista DuChene, the oldest competitor on Canada’s athletics team at age 39, finished 35th. It might be easy to dismiss their accomplishment, in the absence of medals, if you don’t know the history. But their presence in today’s race underscores both how difficult it has been to get there, and how tenacious you must be to make it happen.
Every runner has a story. In Silvia’s, she is a teenager, running on a dark country concession near Newton, Ontario, before sun-up, in the depths of winter. Behind Silvia, her mom follows in the family’s station wagon, flooding Silvia’s path with light. As the sky shifts dimly to dawn, they approach a side road untouched by tire tracks, filled in from a recent snowfall, and Silvia waves to her mom: “I’m going down here. It hasn’t been ploughed. Meet me on the other side!”
Silvia’s mom, Ruth, rolls down her window. “Why are you putting yourself through this, Silvia? Is this really what you want to be doing?”
“Yeah, Mom,” says Silvia. “It’s gonna make me strong.” And the teenager in sneakers and mittens turns and bounds through the snowbanks.
Both Lanni and Krista have recorded marathon times faster than Silvia’s. They remain the only two Canadian women to do so.
As my interview with Silvia circles its end, I ask her: How has running changed you? And Silvia says, finally, coming around to the core of a thought amidst a gathering torrent of ideas: “I think in athletics, you go to the wall. And once you’ve done that, you can never go back. I’ve been ruined for—for the more. For the impossible. And I can never not live life that way.”
Note: I wrote several versions of this story in the months after Girl Runner was first published, pulling together months of research and interviews with Canadian women runners, some who competed before women were allowed to run long-distance events at the Olympics, including the marathon, and some who competed after. It’s a history that could have been bitterly told by those I interviewed, but never was. My only regret is that I failed to write the right story that would find its audience and celebrate these remarkable human beings. I’m choosing to publish this version here on my blog to celebrate the efforts of these women, and of everyone who has experienced the joy of running, no matter how fast. You have your story too.
Fifteen minute post on a Tuesday morning, when I’ve just woken my children who were still asleep at 10AM (even the 8-year-old). The cicadas are whining. The day promises to once again be very hot. Another soccer game tonight, out of town. There is a tent set up in our back yard (that same tent!), where children spent Sunday night on a sleepover birthday party adventure. My office has been cleaned and the desk rejigged to make room for drawing (see above). I’ve worked hard since I got home from the writing workshop, but I’ve also felt relaxed, almost mellow, almost almost laid-back. August is a melancholy month. If only it could last longer, a person wishes, as she puts off thinking about the month that follows August, and its scramble to create routine and get back to business. What’s the rush to get back to business? Couldn’t this be business? But a person can’t be in two places at the same time. This peacefulness comes from a different vibe, a different pace. It doesn’t mean we’re doing nothing. It means what we’re doing isn’t always what we have to be doing. Instead, we have more leeway — more time — to do what we please. So much depends on time.
Such as … the invention of a homemade drama camp, in which AppleApple led and directed a small group of neighbourhood kids in a low-key, vivid performance of Roald Dahl’s The Enormous Crocodile.
Such as … Albus, age 15, cooking suppers for an entire week, a project that included menu planning, grocery shopping, cooking, and at least a bit of cleanup. The finale was scalloped potatoes with ham.
Such as … a sleepover camping backyard birthday party.
Such as … everyone helping out with housecleaning chores, because everyone is around to help out.
Such as … watching much of a six-hour Olympic bicycle race on a lazy, otherwise uneventful Saturday.
Such as … emptying over 6,000 unread/unopened messages from my email inbox. I’m down to a very manageable 19 unread/unopened messages.
Such as … well, my fifteen minutes is up. My one-day-removed-from-being-the-birthday-girl child is here and hopeful that I will make her breakfast. And you know, I will make her breakfast even though she’s old enough to make her own, because this is the kind of small, easy gesture she appreciates. And I’ve got time.
How to sum up an experience like Omega, you ask, sitting in your office, once again, with a dog curled alertly at your feet? A child has just rushed in to tell you that she has gotten to 7 juggles (of the soccer ball, with her feet) in the “summer juggling camp” organized by your husband, to keep your children active and entertained, while you were away.
You were way for six days, but it could have been months. It could have been that you fell down into a different world, unrelated to your own, as vivid, as real, but somehow without connection to your own. You crossed a drawbridge that let itself down, into a small, contained universe which you inhabited almost like you’d become a child again.
You drew pictures. You wrote by hand. You went to class. You ate meals provided for you, and you compliantly accepted the food that appeared, eating something called “chickpea scramble” for breakfast every morning, almost obediently. You napped on pillows under a table with your fellow classmates. In the evening before bed, you went to tuck shop and bought a snack. You swam in a swampy seaweed infested lake. You laughed till you cried with your friend. You had a camp name. You were, in fact, a child at camp, again.
There were marvellously awful moments, such as when you struggled in full-on sun, sweat pouring off you, to erect an enormous, ridiculous tent, while the campers nearby reminisced about recently hiking the Appalachian Trail, popping up their compact tents in mere minutes. You almost cried, running in the heat to seek out duct tape—for the love of God, duct tape!—to repair your ridiculous and broken tent. And then you slept in luxury on a queen-size mattress, inflated with a motorized roaring machine that irritated those hardier neighbours who had recently hiked the Appalachian Trail.
There was the morning you rose at 4AM to attend a two and a half hour kundalini yoga class, that consisted largely of sitting cross-legged whilst chanting under the instruction of a tone-deaf guru.
There was the heat, the thunder storm, and the morning you had to take the rain-soaked tent down and pack up in the mud, only to be confronted by a breakfast of turmeric-soaked lentils immediately afterward.
It was blissful to spend hours every day writing and drawing. You didn’t know you could draw. You didn’t know you had characters inside of you, their faces waiting to be seen, their hidden emotions so certain on the page, present in a few quick lines you’d sketched there. After class, you would find your way back to the classroom to work—writing and drawing, drawing and writing. Determined as a child. Delighted as a child. You would want to thank this genius teacher, whose genius is her delight in the process, and her generosity. There was no waste in Lynda Barry’s class. Time was honoured. It was honoured with work, and it was honoured with rest, and it was honoured with delight in what you were all making, individually and together.
You went on this adventure, and you came home again.
Thank you, Lynda Barry.
My laptop was the best investment I’ve made, writing-wise. It comes with me to the pool, to the backyard, to the couch, to various soccer fields, to parking lots, and of course, to my pocket-sized car, aka the Chub-Chub.
I spent this past week driving my eldest daughter to a soccer camp about an hour away. That meant I had to stay for the day, which, trust me, was all part of my master plan. In this way, I carved out a writing week (or four days), mostly spent sitting in the back seat of the Chub-Chub. I napped there. I ate snacks there. I read stories there. And I wrote there. Next week, I’m off to a writing workshop in New York State, where I will be an anonymous participant: camping with a friend in our family’s enormous ten; eating vegetarian meals; doing yoga at dawn (if the mood strikes); and writing, of course.
On Sunday, I put that tent together all by myself. I was perhaps unreasonably proud of the accomplishment, as you can see from my body language, above. I’m not mechanically minded and this is the sort of endeavour I happily off-load onto to Kevin, but I did it with a little help from a YouTube video (an elderly couple lifting up a tent that vaguely resembled ours), and a lot of thinking, and some jumping and throwing (the tent is very tall and I am not, and getting the fly on is really a two-person job). It took over an hour, I will confess. In the end, I observed that seeing behind the scenes to the mechanics of production does not inspire confidence. I preferred not knowing that this airy structure over my head was made merely of thin rods and poles stuck through nylon sleeves. There is knowing, and there is knowing. There is knowing in a theoretical, yes, dear, way. And there is knowing in a visceral, I hammered those stakes myself way. And the thunderstorm that threatened the afternoon seemed much more threatening when I’d built the damn tent myself, and knew its materials intimately.
To be responsible is to be forced to confront vulnerability. That is my observation about growing up, generally. The older I get, the more fragile the structures around me seem. The more tenuous. The more invented, in a way. What I mean is that the security of everything I hold precious and dear, even my beliefs, is supported by a certain level of cognitive dissonance, but also by the suspension of disbelief. To dig in, to help build, to get my hands dirty, to make or unmake, is, for me, to witness the complexity and arbitrariness of experience, of life itself, against which there can be no absolute assurances of safety and security.
All of this from putting up a tent in our back yard.
And, also, from sitting with my laptop and thinking and thinking and thinking.
PS Yes, I have my voice back. It is weak and a bit raspy and rough, but it exists, and I am once again in the world, where it is so much easier to participate with working vocal chords.
There are so many common, every day interactions that just aren’t the same without a voice.
I can’t parent very effectively. “Mom whispered sternly at me,” Albus said on Monday, which cracked me up; but as of yesterday, I’m not even whispering. I’m clapping or stamping my feet to get children’s attention. I’m gesturing and writing notes or texts. But mostly I’m just letting things go by, because it takes so much energy to express the smallest idea. It means I’m not speaking my mind, often.
I can’t coach soccer very effectively. Earlier this week, I made it through a practice and a game using the three whs: whisper, whistle and whiteboard. The girls were great, respectful and helpful and understanding, even seeing the humour in our situation, but I can’t get all of the important messages across without a voice.
I can’t lead conversations around the table that draw everyone in, and bring us together as a family.
I can’t talk on the phone (not that I like talking on the phone, but it’s useful).
I can’t make small talk with strangers or kids or parents by the soccer field or people at check-out counters, or say thank you to a friendly swim instructor, or a person who is holding open a door. I can’t make that connection. I can’t start amusing little conversations, stand up for myself in complicated situations, or contribute to shooting the shit. I can’t make light because I can’t noise.
I can’t have long rambling chats with AppleApple as I drive her to soccer games.
I can’t talk to Kevin. We haven’t been able to have our tea-on-the-couch evening catch-up chats, or our dog-walk chats.
I can’t sing.
I can’t do anything social with friends. I’ve missed both runs with friends this week and will miss boot camp with friends tomorrow, all because I can’t talk, and I don’t want to strain my voice by whispering, and I know that if I go I will definitely whisper, because it’s really hard to be silent in situations that require at least a minimum of conventional social interaction.
It’s amazing how forced silence makes me feel as if my behaviour is rude, intransigent, unfriendly, unwelcoming. I’m not to blame for my silence, but my silence makes me feel that I must be to blame. I feel immense guilt for not being able to respond or reach out.
I have been without a voice since Sunday. Only five days, and already I feel more and more invisible, isolated, lonely, self-pitying, discouraged, and down. I am not myself without my voice. What am I learning? Compassion, I hope. Compassion for those in a new place, learning a new language, or silenced by circumstance. Speech is a gift. When speech returns, I’m going to remember how wonderful it is to CONNECT, to be UNDERSTOOD, to ACKNOWLEDGE, to THANK, to ENCOURAGE, to DRAW OUT, to QUESTION, to LEAD.
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My name is Carrie Snyder. I'm mother of four, writer of fiction and non-, dreamer, contemplative, mid-life runner, coach, forever curious. I'm interested in the intersection between art and spirituality. What if the purpose of life is to seek beauty? What if everyone could make art?