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There’s an old Zambian proverb, “When you run alone, you run fast. When you run together, you run far.” My sister Mary and I understand the meaning of this saying more than most. We’ve run hundreds of miles together over the past five years, and there’ve been many times — had we not been sisters — we could easily have left each other for carrion.
Let me explain. When you run like we do, train like we train, you’ve got a lot of skin in the game. Often, we have an 18-week training schedule for one race. Yes, we endure four-and-a-half months of near-constant running for one two-hour race — if we’re speedy (which we are not). While we work, mother, and wife, we also have to find 40 minutes most weekdays and 2 hours on the weekend to pound the pavement.
It’s a slog.
Individually, each of us must commit to diet and exercise, sleep and hydration, pain and suffering, for our united cause: glory. Whatever we do in our own time carries over into the time we spend together. On long training runs, we must match our stride, pace, and breathing, so we’re perfectly in sync.
In life, we couldn’t be more opposite. I’m abstract random. Mary’s concrete sequential. I’m a feeler. She’s a doer. I’m the youngest. She’s the oldest. I’m style-confused. She’s an Athleta model. None of this matters on the road. Every mile sees our woes and triumphs — kids, husbands, parents, work, life — it’s all the same.
We lay it down and offer it up.
In my life’s most triumphant moments, Mary has been by my side, not sprinting ahead of me to the finish line. When each of my children came screaming into the world, my big sister told me to “Push! Just keep breathing!” After all, she’s been telling me what to do and how to do it my whole life. Why should birthing babies be any different?
As we’ve rounded the corner of our fourth decade, we’re both still pushing, but some days there isn’t much left to push with. During a recent training run, my gas tank was near empty. The day before, I hadn’t slept much, eaten much or hydrated like I should’ve, and my lungs and legs weren’t having it.
Mary went into Lamaze coach mode. She kept telling me, “You’ve got it. You’re doing it! Keep breathing!” She slowed down, circled back, and never left me.
Even when I told her, “I don’t have it — go ahead,” she wouldn’t let me crawl off into a hole and die, or hop into my husband’s Prius when he delivered water.
Running has always been my thing. It’s the one area in life I can tell Mary what to do and how to do it, but that day, the sneaker was on the other foot. To tell you the truth, it really chapped my ass. How could I be so slow, and when did she get so fast?
Disappointed with myself, a few weeks past that disaster, our race day dawned misty and overcast — far from optimal conditions. This time, when we started out, Mary’s breath was off. Her legs looked heavy. It was going to be a hard run for her.
Time to “hee hee hoo.”
“You’ve got this! You can do it! You’re almost there, Mare. Just keep breathing!” I told her.
Around mile nine, in one of those “I’ve been running so long I can’t remember my name” moments of clarity, it came to me how neither of us realized the way we looked at life before was all wrong. It isn’t about me and her anymore. It isn’t how I’ve got it, and she doesn’t, or how she’s got it, and I don’t. It’s about us.
It’s about how we’ve got it, or we don’t.
“We’re doing it, Mary! We’ve got it. WE CAN DO IT!” I cheered us on.
As she looked up the last long hill she said, “I feel like death.”
“I know. I know you do, Mare, but you need to know something.” It was long past time I told her the truth. “There’s no way I can do this without you, sis.”
She met my eye, sized up the hill, and picked up her pace.
“Let’s do it then,” she said, and we ran far together.
This story was originally published in Bangor Metro’s August 2019 issue. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.