Two women pulled out their baby strollers on May 13, 2008. They were headed to take their usual walk in the Bangor Mall when they looked at sunny skies and decided to venture outside instead. On the sidewalks of Bangor, they quickened their pace to a jog, and that’s how it all began.
Christine Lally Kendall of Bangor and Amy Sidell of Hampden wanted to shape up after giving birth to their second children, and it wasn’t long before their friend Jennifer McGoldrick of Bangor, also a mom of two, joined them on their daily runs.
“None of us were ever really runners,” Christine said.
Nevertheless, they set their sights on running a race; not the usual 5K but a half-marathon.
“All the training for the first marathon, almost every run, we were pushing strollers,” Christine said.
Five months later, Christine, Amy and Jen ran the Maine Half Marathon and crossed the finish line hand in hand.
The next year, the three women completed the MDI (full) Marathon. And across the country, Emilie Manhart of Hampden, the newest addition to their running group, finished her first marathon, the San Francisco Marathon, within one minute of her running mates.
Susan Thibedeau of Bangor and Suzanne Carver of Hampden also joined the group, and by January 2010, the six women were calling themselves the “Sole Sisters” as they trained for the Vermont City Marathon.
“We have this profound mutual respect for each other,” Christine said. “We’re strong-willed, educated women who really love each other. I think I’m the happiest I’ve ever been and I attribute that to this running group.”
Thursday morning, Jen met Christine at her house in Bangor after dropping off their youngest children at preschool. They snacked on banana bread and coffee while waiting for Amy to arrive.
“She can’t find her,” said Jen, looking up from the text message on her cell phone.
Amy was searching the streets for Suzanne, who was completing her “long run” (14-20 miles) that morning because she couldn’t make the Sole Sisters’ usual long run that weekend. Amy wanted to find Suzanne and run with her for a while for support.
The Sole Sisters have run from Orono to Winterport, and along routes everywhere in between, keeping each other company through conversation, and sometimes having to pause as they double over with laughter.
“I think there’s a vulnerability when you run, especially not being someone who’s really athletic,” Christine said. “You have to rely on yourself to cover long distances. It’s almost like a suspended reality. We talk about everything.”
“I let a lot of barriers down when I run; I don’t have a filter.” said Amy, who had returned to Christine’s house, full of energy and ready to run with her two “sisters” before they all returned to preschool.
All six of the women have two children of the same age, 4 and 6, except Susan, whose children are 9 and 12. She gives the other women advice about what to look forward to.
They don’t have a group leader, but naturally take on roles such as planner, nurturer, energizer and wardrobe consultant depending on the day and what’s happening in their lives.
“I’m a lot healthier and in better shape than when we started three years ago. I totally rely on these five girls,” said Jen, smiling and tearing up. “Besides the running, we’re able to support each other in things — it’s just a huge deal.”
“Staying in shape, race day excitement, and finisher medals are really great,” wrote Emilie in a statement for this article. “But I have come to understand that I can lean on this group of women for anything.”
When Emilie’s mom was diagnosed with breast cancer this winter, the Sole Sisters staggered visits to Emilie in the waiting room while her mom was in surgery all day. They then prepared and delivered meals to her for the next two weeks. When Amy’s father died, they did the same for her. All she had to do was pick up the phone and she would have a hot dinner for her family or someone to pick her children up from school.
“Among them, I can be whatever I am in any given moment — elated, defeated, disheartened, proud, funny, frustrated or simply exhausted,” wrote Suzanne. “These women, their support, their love, their running footfalls beside me, have become an integral part of my every day.”
In the winter, they bundle up to run outside, preferring the fresh air to a stuffy gym. When a one of them has to run on a treadmill, she posts news of her monotonous workout on the private Sole Sister Facebook feed and they send her encouraging text messages.
“Most times at the end of long races I just want to walk, but something keeps me running,” wrote Susan in a statement for this article. “I never can figure out why I don’t just stop, but I believe that’s true for life also — you don’t always know what motivates you, what keeps you going, but something propels you forward anyway. What the group does best is adds some external propulsion.”
In their first races, they ran side by side. They now break away from each other, but instinctively help each other throughout the race. Even if they aren’t matching each other’s strides, Sole Sisters never run alone.
During the Vermont City Marathon, someone in the group was struggling, so Christine (who had her name on her jersey) turned around in the course and started running back to help. A man from the sidelines yelled, “Christine, you’re running the wrong way!”
Their children always ask them if they won the race. The group consistently finishes in the middle of the pack. Running time doesn’t matter to them as much as covering the distance, and they never compete against each other. They hope their attitude towards racing helps their children learn the value in personal victories.
Though they aren’t conventionally competitive, the women are fierce in their determination and loyalty. It took them a while to consider themselves “runners,” but to steal the words of Bart Yasso, chief running officer of Runner’s World, “I’ve never met a fake runner.” Moreover, Amy’s favorite flavor of Gu (energy gel) is mint chocolate; Suzanne refers to water as hydration; on occasion, Christine miscounts her change because she’s thinking in sets of 60, not 100; and they all know the exact distances, in miles, between their six houses.
This spring, they’re training for the Sugarloaf Marathon on May 15 and the VT City Marathon in Burlington on May 29. They encourage others to run with them, and have plans to become more accessible, one of which is to launch a Sole Sisters website.
These women have formed a bond they believe they couldn’t have found elsewhere. They regard the distance they cover with pride, but even more, they’re proud of how their extraordinary friendship and daily actions, together, add a dimension to their lives and fortify their health — body, heart and mind.