The latest issue of Runner's World has a sweet article about two running pals, who've shared thousands of miles together. It reminded me of AJ, who shared my first marathon - and many, many miles - with me. She was my original person. She holds a special place somewhere in my hamstrings. And heart, of course. One day soon we shall reunite and run another marathon together, dangit.
Anyway, the article. You can click here to read the entire article. I just thought I'd share some snippets, for the mildly interested. If you have that person - a running person - you get it.
Clare lives in New Mexico, and I live in Maine. The good news is we talk a lot about running. There are days I will go out for a 40-minute run and then call up Clare to tell her, over the course of a 60-minute conversation, that I went running. This is how it works with us. I don't run without calling Clare afterward, and she doesn't run without calling me. Sometimes we call each other to report that we actually won't be running...
When I first met Clare, I didn't like her so much. Clare worked for a vitamin company and looked the part: She was a narrow-shouldered woman, 30ish, with a golden-girl tan and supermuscular legs. She wore an enormous pair of mirrored wraparound sunglasses. The first thing I remember thinking about Clare is that she looked like the Terminator, if only the Terminator had a perky little ponytail and a freckled nose.
A first run is not unlike a first date. Early one fall morning, I met Clare at a trailside parking lot, where she continued to intimidate me. She wore shiny technical fiber clothes. She stretched her Ironwoman quads and took long pulls on a bottle of energy drink that the vitamin company sent her for free. Next to her, in my cotton college T-shirt, with my plain-Jane water bottle and underdeveloped pasty white legs, I appeared purely amateur. And that was fine, I kept telling myself. Because I'm only doing this once.
We were, as they say, off and running. We ran up the mountain without a single thought toward slowing down. We ran across switchbacks and up a few steep pitches, with my dog racing alongside through the scrubby pine. Pace never entered the conversation, but I calculated that I was running just faster than I normally ran by myself. This was better, in other words, than being by myself.
Back down at the bottom, Clare gave me a big fat Californian hug. Releasing me, she said, "We should do a marathon."
"Nope, not me, no marathon," I said. I'd run exactly one marathon and I would not be running a second with any hardcore triathlete. "You frighten me," I said, just to make things clear.
The marathon went pretty well, thanks for asking. After leisurely chatting her way up and down that mountain in Santa Fe with me nearly every day for four months, Clare had lost some of her triathlete steel and I'd grown a smidge more fit. We were, it turned out, a good athletic match. We'd also taken to getting giant full-fat lattes after our runs, sometimes with pastries, sometimes with waffles. This helped my cause. My mediocrity, we might say, was prevailing over her superhumanity. In the midst of all the talking and all the eating, I had let Clare sign us up for a marathon in Utah.
Any friendship that is based on running is, in essence, about accrual-of time, of miles, of intimacy built over a lot of small steps forward. It sneaks up on you that way, I think. It can seem merely enjoyable until you need it for more.
I have learned so much from Clare over the years. I have learned a lot about vitamins and also that it is not so bad to talk to strangers or to spend money on fresh flowers and keep them for yourself. She is a look-on-the-bright-side kind of girl, a devotee of small indulgences, a believer that a gift should be exquisitely wrapped, that a houseguest should be served coffee in bed. She is a horse-loving ranch dweller who walks around caked in manure but not without her toes painted. She lights candles on the dinner table every night of the year.
But still: There is no such thing, really, as a downhill marathon. I learned this halfway up what amounted to a four-mile megahill beginning at mile seven of the Utah marathon. My mind was trying desperately to float away from my body. Next to me was Clare, doing the same agonized shuffle but saying in her chirrupy way, "This isn't so bad. Really, this is not so bad!" To get ourselves over the top, we started fantasizing about waving palm trees and beachy rum drinks, and right to the moment we flopped over the finish line, Clare was still talking about how not bad and not hard it all was.
I do love her for this.
Here now is the bitter part of my tale. Clare has a new running friend in Santa Fe. Her name is Laura. Laura is very fast, I'm told, and she runs races all the time without a whole lot of effort. Her son goes to school with Clare's daughter, and so it's all very cozy. I am trying to feel good about Laura. But Laura has helped Clare get faster, which is to say that she is suddenly out-way out-ahead of me. She calls me to tell me she just ran 12 miles. I call her and tell her I ran 3.6 miles, maybe 3.7.
"That's so great!" says Clare.
"Oh, come on."
I am silent, sullen.
"I need someone to run with," I say. "I need a Laura."
And, by the way, I did get myself a Laura, in the form of a friend who'd just moved back to Maine from Italy. Lily. Lily and I meet on a trail by the ocean regularly and crank out a bunch of miles without pausing one single second in our talking. It's fall again. The trees throw their leaves at our feet. Lily is my Laura. She makes me faster and stronger and happier about life. Or maybe Lily is my Clare, as much as Clare can never be replaced and I still call Clare every time I finish a run. But Clare was once my new Sue, who will always be my first old running pal. And maybe Laura is Clare's Sara. And Clare is Laura's somebody else. Maybe there's really only one thing to say about all of us women who run in tandem or in groups, who configure and reconfigure like kindred constellations moving across the sky. Maybe it's that we're all wrapped up in the same cosmic downhill-but-not-really marathon and more than anything, we just don't feel like doing it alone.