Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Runner Runner

"When I first started running, I was so embarrassed I'd walk when cars passed me. I'd pretend I was looking at the flowers!"
Joan Benoit Samuelson, Olympic marathoner

We are all in the same race, we who call ourselves runners claim, but the race that women had to run to get onto the track was longer and more arduous than mine ever was. That my own daughter has been able to enter and finish several Ironman triathlons, and that her childhood friend, Kate, is currently a world-class professional 1500-metre runner are direct results of the vision and fortitude of the early twentieth century female athletes, who ran toward a finish line that was so much farther away than it is today that it must have been almost out of sight.
Carrie Snyder’s fine book, Girl Runner (Anansi), tells the story of Aganetha Smart, a fictitious but very believable middle distance runner who competed in the 1928 Olympics. Aganetha’s career as an elite athlete (which is inspired by the real-life Canadian women--the Matchless Six-- who went to the Olympics that year) is described alongside her life as a farm girl, and both stories are bound together by that of the present-day 104-year-old Aganetha, who is spirited away from her nursing home by a mysterious young couple. Gradually we become aware that the young lady in the couple is also a runner, and the plot begins to turn, like a running trail leading into a new part of the forest.

Women were not always encouraged, or even allowed to run. The sport was considered unladylike,
An official tries to pull Kathrine Switzer off
the marathon course.
and women themselves were thought too frail to survive the physical travails of a running race. (This assessment would come as a surprise to any woman who has gone through childbirth.) Young female runners (who make up the majority of most half-marathon fields today) might not know that in 1967 an official tried to throw athlete Kathrine Switzer bodily off a marathon course, which at the time was open only to men. “Get the hell out of my race,” the official is supposed to have snarled at her. Five years later, women were officially “allowed” to run this race, which was, and is, the Boston Marathon.
And yet, through everything, women ran. They ran because something inside them demanded that they do; because they were good at it; because running was part of their shape and definition, even if it defied reason or custom.

When 104-year-old Aggie asks the young woman who has inexplicably taken her away from her home why she runs, the woman responds: “I don’t know….I think I would run even if I knew I would never win another race again. It’s weird. I can’t explain it. It’s like something I can’t turn off.”
The prosaic and earthy aspects of running always intermingle with the metaphysical. There is sweat, and mud, and having to pee behind a tree (if you can find one). Our bodies are constantly reminding us that they are there, working for us, no matter what lofty visions we may have started out with. There are few runners who can’t relate to the unattractive physical realities of the sport. Ms. Snyder (a distance runner herself) hardly makes the life of the elite athlete seem glamorous with descriptions such as:

“I am hiding in the change room…staring at my bared feet, blistered and red… Directly across from me is a toilet perched oddly on a high concrete pedestal…and beside that a cold-water shower spout over a drain in the floor…It is a dismal space and I’m a dismal mess of dismal emotions: I thought I was fast?
Ms. Snyder mixes details of the lives of her rural Ontario women with the ineffable need to run that has always driven athletes of both genders. She also describes, in a near-breathless cadence, the cathartic cleansing of running that many runners know. “I run strong. I run fine. I can feel my sadness running out behind me, like it’s being spilled on the ground…”

We run with our girl runner, our legs barely touching the ground, but we also muck out the stables and feed the chickens and bake Crumb Cakes with her. It is in running, though, that Aggie tries proactively to assemble the person she wants to be. Does she succeed? Looking back at her life, she seems to summarize everything with a Fitzgerald-like observation: “We are old. But we go on.” This phrase reminds me of the mantra I sometimes use in the closing miles of Ironman: “I’m alive. And I’m moving forward.” Sometimes, this is all we have.
The original "Matchless Six" Canadian Olympians in 1928
I quibble slightly with the story's depiction of my own gender. As with so many novels about women, the men are often drawn as simple backdrops or springboards to advance plot: the father, possibly heartbroken but stolid,  with his perpetual home improvement projects; the thoughtless boyfriend; the faceless corporate benefactor; the clumsy cinematographer. But Girl Runner is not a book about men, and who knows, maybe this is really how men seemed to women in the twentieth century, before the women were allowed inside them.

You do not have to be a girl or a runner to love this book. As a male runner, I was able to marvel at the path that Aganetha Smart followed, even while acknowledging my own distance from it. The story itself is compelling and timeless and the female characters are as sharply drawn as if they had been carved from the unyielding earth of the Ontario farmland. Carrie Snyder’s precise images and clear sentences carry the action forward, and her expert handling of the changes in setting make the shifts almost seamless. Like a racer in perfect form rounding the final curve and sprinting towards the tape, there is not a wasted action, an unfocussed thought, or a shallow breath in Girl Runner.

1 comment:

Rick Blechta said...

I honestly did not remember that moment from the Boston Marathon. Absolutely disgusting, but then women have always been told there are things that they must not do — always by men! The novel sounds very intriguing.