Four years ago, on a bitingly cold January afternoon, I laced up a pair of paint-speckled sneakers and went for a run. Within minutes, I was bent double and gasping for air. Shivering and defeated, I shuffled home. How could anyone love this? I thought. Yet, the next day, I did it again. And the day after that. Soon, I was running every chance I could. I was hooked.
For some, the miles logged fill holes in our lives – in us – or mute the din of daily life. A sort of cure-all, at least while your feet are hitting pavement. Recently laid up with a rib injury, I went from running over 130 kilometers the previous month to running zero. Full stop. But the inability to run did not arrest my desire to. I put on my shoes and took them off. I put them on again, tried to run, and failed. I tried to not to think about running, the movement that had become both routine and religion, and failed again. It's this kind of need, that sweet (often bittersweet) internal pull, that I recognize in Aganetha (Aggie) Smart, novelist Carrie Snyder's out-of-time golden girl runner.
At the beginning of the story, we find Aggie near the end of hers. The 104-year-old is anonymously stationed in a nursing home, her feats long forgotten. Confined to a wheelchair, she is almost a lifetime away from her able-bodied glory days on the track behind the Rosebud Confectionary factory. She has outlived both her loved ones and the ability to run. Even still, she thinks about it. "It is far too late to stop, even if I run in my mind only, out of habit." She is alone until, one day, two strangers collect her and drive off, their destination and motivations kept from Aggie until the very end.
Girl Runner is a well-paced book that weaves together the past and present narratives of an uncompromising woman's life. We are sped through an accessible read that deftly touches on the difficult subjects of gender equality, abortion, and the obstacles women face in professional sports. Throughout the novel, Snyder, a distance runner herself, manages to capture the essence of the need to run, that marrow-deep desire. For Aggie, running comes early and naturally. It is as useful to her as a Swiss Army knife, and, for a time, brings her a fleeting fame. It is escape, joy, and recovery. Once, it was a tool: when she ran through country and town to fetch the doctor to look after at her ailing sister, Fannie, victim of the deadly Spanish flu.
A good portion of the novel focuses on Aggie's preparations for the women's 800-metre race at the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam – the first time women were permitted to compete in select track and field events. However, this is no dry, historical record. To every runner's life, there is just that: life. The book reaches beyond the rigours of competition to include not only Aggie's story, but the challenges of the day – an epidemic, the market crash that led to the Great Depression, and war. Throughout it all, and no matter what happens within Aggie's sphere or in the world, the girl runner from rural Ontario always finds her way by returning to the thing she knows best. While running may have provided her with purpose and direction, it was her family, mentors and friends – especially the women – who provided equilibrium and went the distance, who remained powerful influences even after they were long gone.
Snyder – who was inspired by Canada's "Matchless Six," six women sent to compete in the Amsterdam Olympics – has crafted an admirable tribute to women's distance running. Early parts of the story are set during a time when medical professionals believed distance running was detrimental to a woman's health. After the 1928 Olympics, women were banned from running distances further than 200 metres, and it wasn't until the 1960 Olympics that they were once again permitted to run 800 metres. The first Olympic women's marathon wasn't run until 1984, the same year the current Canadian women's marathon record holder was born.
At its core, Girl Runner manages to remind us of the challenges often set before women attempting to achieve something once thought to be dangerous or out of reach, or even quite simply attempting to achieve the life they desire. Snyder's Aganetha Smart lived to run and possibly ran to live until the memories of it, the feel of her footfalls on the track, were all she was left with. That and the knowledge that she'd lived long enough to watch others run down the path she'd forged so many years before.
Dani Couture is the author of the recently released poetry collection YAW and the novel Algoma.