When you get an email from one of your oldest friends asking you to join her and the nine-year-old who calls you Auntie Rachel to come to Chicago for her first 5K, you can’t not go.
Earlier this fall Val sent me a message about a conversation she’d had with her daughter Ivy that morning. She told Ivy that she would do the Girls on the Run 5K with her and that since she’d been working on me to come for a visit around that time, and since I’m a big runner, maybe we could all do the run together.
In the email Val recounted the conversation. She said she told Ivy about the 100-mile race I’d done in India (Ivy: Did she win? Val: She won the marathon piece, but I’m not sure about the rest). Val told her about some of my other adventures, how I’ve run for hours in the middle of the night, through forests, over mountains and across rivers. (Ivy: How do they cross the water? Val: Walking or running, I expect.) Val said they talked about how tough I am—said that I do marathons “all the time” and that I’m fast (OK, so Val doesn’t always get everything right). Ivy wanted to know how fast I was. Could she beat me in a 10-step run? Val: I’m not sure about that. Auntie Rachel is fast in a marathon, but I’m not sure about 10 steps.
Ivy’s final thought: How cool is it to have a friend like that?
You can’t not go. So I went.
Val, having known me since we were 18-year-old college students who wore too much blue eye shadow and Fair Isle sweaters warned that this wasn’t a race. It was just a fun run, she said, understanding that I can make knitting or taking a shower into a competition involving speed.
Plus, she said, the few times she and Ivy had tried to run together, there had been a fair amount of whining, lots of walking, and maybe even stopping. I was prepared for our outing to take a while and perhaps veer into the realm of not so much fun. I knew there would be plenty of giggles to be had during the rest of the weekend.
When I asked Ivy if she’d ever run nonstop that far before, she said yes. They’d done a practice 5K the week before. She told me that they’d been coached not to walk. When I asked why not, she said, “Because it’s Girls on the Run, not Girls on the Walk.” Then she mugged, punctuated her quip with a sing-song, “Oh yeah,” and did that thing with her hands.
Ha ha, I said. Then I asked again. Why no walking?
Because, she said, it’s good to push yourself.
“Oh yeah,” I sang, and mimicked the hip-hop hands.
We didn’t make a plan, but given our personalities, Saturday morning turned out exactly how we might have expected. Val, Ivy and I started out together, and then Ivy zipped to the outside, running in the grass beside the paved path in order to pass the crowds of girls and their grownup running buddies. We stayed together for a while, but then Ivy and I dropped her mom like a—well, like a mother who is thrilled that her daughter has become a runner and has an auntie who travels across the country to run with her.
Ivy is a lanky, leggy girl with a coltish stride. I showed her how to run the tangents—following the shortest distance around curves and turns the way the course is measured. I told her that if she wanted to speed up to take smaller steps, to drive her elbows back and use her arms to propel herself forward. She listened, smiled, and ran without discernible effort. Our first mile, with Val, was 10:45. The next was 8:29, then 8:16. Each time we passed another girl we said, “Good job.”
There was no complaining, no signs of wanting to slow or stop. In the last half mile, I told Ivy that it should feel hard at this point. I told her that her mom had always finished her runs by sprinting to the end. (I didn’t say that I never went with her.) We kicked it up another notch.
By the time the finish was in sight, we’d passed every girl we saw and had sped up to just over 7-minute pace. After we crossed the line, a woman told Ivy she got second place. Except we knew they weren’t keeping track of places. They weren’t keeping track of the times either, but there was a clock at the finish. I pointed out that the clock had started before we’d reached the line, so if we wanted to be technical, our time was a bit faster and we’d run a bit farther than 5K. Runners, I said, can be picky about stuff like that.
For many of the girls on that November morning in Chicago getting to the start line was an achievement. It was a thrill to see so many people milling around, hanging out under the banners of their schools surrounded by moms, dads, teenagers, and far-flung aunties. Even on a cold and damp day by the windy lake, people were out there, celebrating being fit and healthy and able to go three miles without stopping.
Running is perhaps the most democratic of sports; it accommodates a sheaf of motivations and affords access to anyone who realizes that it’s not just ritualized torture or training for “real” sports. Ivy may be grow into someone who, like her mother, appreciates running as part of leading a healthy and active life, or she may turn into a version of her Auntie Rachel and thrive on competition. It will be, in some ways, her choice, and also be a function of her personality.
When I asked Ivy what she’d learned from Girls on the Run, she said it wasn’t really about running. It was about gratitude, about being nice and supportive, pushing yourself, and finding inspiration and joy in being active. Ivy liked passing the other girls, but didn’t want them to feel bad. She wasn’t at all tired from her run, didn’t brag about how well she did, but she wore her hat for the rest of the day.
How cool is it to have friends like that?