Preface: I typically don’t write anything naming names other than casual passing references, mostly out of respect for my subjects’ privacy. But, I’ve been on a roll writing personal things about people who are important to me, and I would be remiss if this never saw the light of day. I’ve mulled over this for some time. Over the years I’ve meant to write something, but I could never manage to get more than a few sentences down without feeling like I was going about things the wrong way, like this is something I shouldn’t write. But I think it’s important. And it’s important to tell the people you love that you love them. And it’s important for girls to know that they don’t just have celebrities to look up to; their heroes could be right in front of them.
It’s all here now, or at least, some of it. Some things cannot be conveyed with words, some stories are not done being written.
But one of my favorite, most influential writers of all time, Joan Didion, said it best:
“Writers are always selling somebody out.”
PS - I still feel weird about calling you Kathy.
We run swiftly and precisely, the dim glow of streetlights cutting through the dark of early morning, casting shadows of our form onto the sidewalks. In the blackness that engulfs us everything is silent for a moment, save for the synchronicity of our breathing and the soft touch of our sneakers against the road. Our feet have the route memorized. It is old and familiar and always the same. No matter how long I have been away from it, no matter the dramatic changes of young adulthood I am not immune to, I know I can count on it as a constant, as an anchor of certainty in my uncertain world.
True friendship is conveyed more in what is not said than what is. I was 18 years old when Kathy and I started running together, and by now, we’ve been able to fluxuate between chatting incessantly and utter silence, focusing on the road ahead. For every downhill slope filled with lively conversation, there is an uphill where the only exchange is a small, exhausted chuckle acknowledging the seemingly overwhelming incline.
Kathy is many years older than me, and with four children of her own, old enough to be my mother, and I love her like one. Our relationship is the extension of the classic teacher-pupil model. We had initially bonded when I was a 14 year old freshman in high school; somehow I took more to my geometry teacher, despite being only okay at math. By senior year, she was not only my calculus teacher, but a trusted friend and confidante. On the last day of school, I cried that I would miss her just as much as any of my close friends.
But it wasn’t until the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college that we started to run together. A bureaucratic error at Temple University, where I spent freshman year, delayed my fall transfer to NYU. I was stuck living at home, about to start the new school year with classes at the community college while desperately hoping that I would be accepted in the spring. I was bored, miserable, and distraught, and didn’t have anything else to do, so I upped my mileage; I ran and ran and ran all by my lonesome until I couldn’t run anymore. Eventually I worked up the courage to call her, ask her if I could run with her sometime. I was getting lonely. There was no pity in her voice when she said yes, surprisingly, only excitement.
Our first few runs together were intimidating. Kathy had been an all-star cross country athlete in high school, winning state championships and going to college on a scholarship for the sport, running marathons now well into her forties. Not that she would mention it; she was too humble. I had to Google her to find out. I was a middling, casual runner who quit cross country after two years, instead focusing on my solo efforts. As excited as I was for a partner, I was more terrified that I could never keep up, but she never ran ahead or gave any indication that I was too slow. Instead she told me to set the pace and lead, a message to go forward with confidence, even when I felt like the weakest link in the chain.
We both ran for the same, varied reasons. We ran for the superficial management of our figures; we ran for the release of stress. We ran for the satisfaction in simply being able to finish; we ran for personal bests. We ran to show off, to test our endurance against someone else — I can’t quit until she does. We ran to be alone with our racing thoughts. We ran for companionship and socialization. We ran because we had been doing so for so long, we didn’t know why we ran anymore, other than that imagining our lives without it seemed impossible.
I ended up moving to New York. Things worked out for me in that sense. And, eventually the pupil caught up to the teacher. I ran the New York City Marathon, won local 5K races, watched as my pace ticked lower and lower. Kathy began to joke that I was too fast for her, that I’d have to “run at old lady pace” with her, though that was far from true. We both nursed devastating injuries. Not long after I recovered from a stress fracture, she broke her arm. When I texted her a fearful message that I would never be the same runner again, she talked me off the ledge. I urged her not to push herself too much while she was recovering, assured her that we’d be healthy again in the spring.
Runners, or maybe just people in general, are most vulnerable in the honest hours of the pre-dawn morning. With no makeup on, no gorgeous clothes or blown out hair to hide behind, it’s just you. In those early hours, Kathy has seen me at both my best and my worst. She voiced her concern when I was literally running myself into the ground: exhausted, overworked, overstressed, and underweight. She celebrated my triumphs with enthusiasm: making the Dean’s List, getting an internship at Teen Vogue, graduating with honors and landing my first job.
But most importantly, she has continued to teach me, long after I last sat in her classroom. Tidbits of wisdom, like don’t rush to get married when you’re 23 (as if I had any prospects) — these are the years that are meant to be spent selfishly. She has taught me how to be a good person, how to pay it forward, how to care. Her stories about being the single mother of three young boys for several years, never self-pitying or bitter, have taught me how to be brave and self-sufficient. The fact that she has not a bad word to say about anyone has made me more gracious and kind.
When all is said and done, when I am very old and passing advice to my daughters, I will tell them what Kathy once told me. She will always be one of my biggest cheerleaders, but at the end of the day, my destiny is in my own hands. “You have to be your own advocate.”
I will, I promise.