Running is typically thought of as a solitary endeavour. Or, not thought of as a good idea at all. Until you move to London as a stranger in a foreign land, desperate for community, and you hear about this group called Women Running the World (WRW.) Anyone can join and there’s no membership fee but they have this audacious ask that you turn up with running shoes on at 8:15 in the morning, 2-3x/week, and RUN.
As women show up in the fall, they sort themselves into various pace groups and if their current pace is “i prefer walking, thank you very much” they join the beginners group. What you don’t know at first is that this welcoming group is also a well oiled machine. There are pace group leaders, beginners coaches, route masters and weekly emails longer than some US tax returns. And of course there is post run coffee.
Community forms first within the pace groups. On the runs, heavy breathing together make you forget to be any version but your real self struggling to get up a hill. On the couch at home with ice and rollers, the steady stream of WhatsApp group texts encourage, entertain, and expect you to be there tomorrow.
The promise is that if you do this running together, with some commitment, you will be ready to run a half marathon in the spring. The logic being: London, the city where there’s always a tube stop in case you need to bail. London, the city where Sporty Spice made a track suit look glam. London, where if you can run city streets, canals, parks, and boroughs for several months and live to tell the tale, you’ll be ready for any 13.1 mile obstacle course.
This weekend was the half marathon promise. It was in Milan. 119 women signed on. We all wore pink hats. As a group, we were hard to miss.
The presence of prize money, the requirement that each runner be registered as part of an official running club, and a less than generous cut off time were all signs that the Stramilano Half Marathon was perhaps targeting elite runners. Not exactly our profile. Race day confirmed these hunches. But even though we were the caboose in a fast race, with hotter temperatures than we had trained in, and water tables along the route running dry - we were a group of women determined to run our slogan: anytime, anyplace, any pace.
Some people had great races. Some had really hard races. Many had their very first ever race. But of course it’s both about the race and the weekend. Some already felt connected to the group before the weekend. For the rest still lingering on the fringes, the weekend brought them firmly into a sweaty group hug. It’s not just about running and it’s not just about women. It’s about creating an atmosphere for this kind of moment. We need each other. Yes we do.
Since we were in Milan, many of us were fortunate to get pre-booked tickets to see the famous Last Supper painting by Leonardo da Vinci on Saturday. The masterpiece known as “the painting that speaks” captures Jesus and his disciples at their last dinner together. Our Saturday carb loading eucharist was filled with bread and *moderate* amounts of wine and though we love each other, there was no corporate foot washing ahead of Sunday’s race.
BUT there was THIS at the end of Sunday’s race. A modern day example of love in action.
A sea of pink hats chanting “DARLAH DARLAH! DARLAH!” as the very last runner crossed the finish line. She was one of ours, seized up in pain from a flared sciatic nerve but still on her feet because she was being supported by a small cadre of coaches. The course was being cleared but given the volume of the cheering, you might have thought this was the main event. Witnessing that moment felt like an embodiment of Jesus’ words: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” mixed with a little Spice Girls philosophy: Don’t tell me you love me. Say you’ll be there.
We can and do accomplish things as individuals, but there is something that stirs deep within us when we behold courage propped up by togetherness.
The individual results and details of the race will eventually fade but there are 119 women and untold numbers of bystanders who will never forget the way the last woman crossed the line.