It was my sister who taught me to run.
In eighth grade, Ruth’s P.E. class did a 1.5 mile run as a fitness test. Gym was usually an embarrassment for my sister. She wasn’t very flexible, hopeless with a ball and clumsy at gymnastics. But when they ran, Ruth beat the entire class.
Eyeing Ruth’s wide awkward frame suspiciously, the teacher barked, “You cheated girl. Go run the course again.”
She broke the school record.
To the teacher’s credit, she apologized profusely and called the high school coach. “I’ve got a girl-wonder for you here.”
The coach was thrilled with his new recruit and encouraging about her future but said, “We’re not in training right now. Go home. Build up your miles and come back in August.”
So Ruth turned around and enlisted me. Like my sister, my build was larger than that of my slender, petite peers. Battling my natural girth, I’d been an avid exerciser since 13; cycling, aerobics, walking, weights. But when she asked me to run I refused. “Running is punishment in gym class; it’s for old guys in sweats cruising the neighborhood. I’ll be happy to go on a walk with you.”
“Have you ever looked at an elephant’s legs?” she asked me. “They are thick, wide. Elephants legs are meant for walking.”
“But humans? Our legs are like gazelles; we are meant to run.”
And so we ran. And so I fell in love with my sister.
At 13 and 18 our age difference was an impassable gulf. I hadn’t asked her opinion on anything for years and had dismissed her as an annoying, spoiled little sister. But as we ran I learned that she was intelligent, thoughtful, funny and compassionate. We laughed at our family squabbles, we cried over losses, we forgave each other for past hurts.
Summer passed in a whirlwind of miles and local road races. She started training with the cross country team and I left for college. I shiver to think how close we came to missing our chance to know each other. But we didn’t miss it. We caught the chance just in time.
My sister and I lived in the same house only one summer after that. But on every visit every slight opportunity, we ran, we talked, we laughed. Every runner knows that conversations on the road quickly bypass the usual social masquerade. You learn a lot about people when your soles are slapping the pavement. Our standing joke for those early years was, “Be careful who you run with. You might fall in love.”
And I did fall in love. Running led me to Erik(a story for another day) and before my 25th birthday I was a mother of two. Ruth joined me for afternoon runs between classes at the U and we took turns pushing the double baby-jogger.
Soon she found a love of her own and built a life of her own. Between us, our intermittent runs in the last twenty years have carried us through two marriages, 10 children, 30 marathons, a dozen moves, several jobs, illnesses, injuries(walking is a good substitute) and some major family battles.
Last night at my cousin’s wedding dinner, drowning in small talk, we furtively made plans over the din of the noisy bar, “Tomorrow, 6:30, Millcreek.”
This morning we ran with the sunrise and solved every personal, social and political problem that had cropped up during her absence.
In our daily lives we plod and muddle through, but when we run, we are graceful and beautiful.
We are gazelles.